Book review: Following in the fingerprints of Agatha Christie: “The Monogram Murders” by Sophie Hannah

Should writers use other authors’ characters? The Monogram Murders, a Poirot mystery by Sophie Hannah, has incited furious reactions from Agatha Christie purists.

Listening to Sophie Hannah’s amusing talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival, I wondered how anyone could possibility be outraged by her ‘audacity’ in writing a new Hercule Poirot novel?

Hercule-Poirot-by-Rones

After all, The Monogram Murders is not mere fan fiction. The novel was commissioned by Christie’s family. Although they were originally against the idea of resurrecting Poirot, the purpose of the novel was to secure a new generation of readers for Christie’s mysteries. Surely any plan to get the next generation reading something longer than a tweet can’t be bad thing? It’s not as if Hannah is the first person to interpret Christie’s beloved Belgian detective. Repeats of the popular British series Agatha Christie’s Poirot are always being rescreened.

Before The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah had already established herself internationally as a bestselling crime writer, known for her intricate plots. Born in Manchester, England, Hannah encountered Agatha Christie at the age of twelve when her father returned from a second-hand bookshop with one of Christie’s novels. Three years later, Hannah had read everything Christie had written.

After reading The Monogram Murders myself, I can understand why the critics are giving Sophie Hannah such a hard time. Of course it’s not as good as an Agatha Christie novel, but then did anyone really expect it would be? I don’t believe there’s a single writer out there who can capture another author’s voice in its entirety. But Hannah gives it a pretty good shot. She tries to stay as true as possible to the original Poirot. Hannah’s Poirot has the same mannerisms as Christie’s but it does feel like he’s lacking something. I haven’t quite figured out what, but Hannah’s Poirot doesn’t seem quite as alive as Christie’s original detective.

Hannah has made the wise decision of not telling the whole story from Poirot’s viewpoint. She introduces her own protagonist, Edward Catchpole, an inept Scotland Yard detective. The problem is that Catchpole is not the most likeable of characters. His constant whining and pessimistic outlook was grating on me by the end of the novel.

In spite of this, I never felt like I wanted to close the book. From a plot perspective, The Monogram Murders kept me guessing until the end. Three guests are found murdered in separate hotel rooms. Each corpse has a monogrammed cufflink placed in its mouth. It’s certainly an intriguing scenario with all the twists and red herrings of an Agatha Christie novel.

Having said that, I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of the characters’ motivations and reactions. But then I could say the same about Christie’s characters. Her supporting characters, while expressing their horror at the murders which take place in their midst, never seem deeply affected. In Evil Under the Sun, the resort guests continue their holiday after one of their number is murdered. They even accompany Poirot on a picnic towards the end of the novel.

The final verdict? Sophie Hannah is not Agatha Christie, so as long as you don’t expect her to be, The Monogram Murders is a good read.

What would Agatha think? We’ll never know for sure. However, I know if people were still writing about my characters nearly forty years after my death, I’d be very flattered.

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The Monogram Murders was published in 2014 by Harper Collins. For more information visit the official Agatha Christie website.

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