Sandwiches—and Poison—at Teatime

Hercule Poirot is less familiar to Americans, and young people in particular, than his predecessor, Sherlock Holmes, but his creator is certainly not. Agatha Christie is the second-best-selling fiction author of all time, behind only her countryman Shakespeare. Everyone is at least passing familiar with “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” But you may not know that “Orient Express” was a Poirot mystery.

Hercule Poirot (pronounced “her-kewl pwah-roe”), the punctual little Belgian detective who solves British murders, first appeared in Christie’s 1920 novel “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” He survived by popular demand for five decades, before Christie retired him in 1975, but since then, he has been on the wane.

While Sherlock Holmes has been parodied and duplicated since the beginning of the last century, there have been nowhere near as many stage or film adaptations of the Belgian detective. This is because Holmes has been in the public domain for many years now, whereas Christie’s estate still holds the rights to Poirot and his adventures. Fortunately, they have just authorized Sophie Hannah, a best-selling novelist of mundane-Gothic crime, to pen “The Monogram Murders.” Hercule Poirot has been given a new lease on life.

Set in the winter of 1929, Hannah’s story plunges us right back into Poirot’s world. While on stay-cation to rest his “little grey cells,” Poirot is disturbed by an inconsolable woman who tells him that she is about to be killed, but begs him not to search for her murderer. Following this upsetting episode, three bodies are found in a fashionable hotel; three people poisoned behind locked doors, ceremonially laid out, and with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouth. The hunt is on, then. Poirot fears finding a fourth cufflink alongside his newest friend’s body—because cufflinks come in pairs, don’t they?

Told from the point of view of Detective Edward Catchpool, a Watson-esque sidekick, Hannah’s novel is an impressive resurrection of classic Poirot. All the mainstays of a murder mystery are there—overly talkative characters with shady facial hair, red herrings aplenty, a sleepy village where all is not as it seems—but with the Continental touch, all the ouis and nons and mon amis (and all of Poirot’s complaints about English stodginess).

There are outfits and catchphrases we expect to see from any recurring character: Sherlock’s deerstalker hat, Bond’s martini shaken, not stirred. The traditional portrait of Poirot is one of a small, portly fop sporting a top hat and handlebar moustache. A European dandy always worried about his clothes, yes, but also a strong proponent of rationalism, neuroscience and psychology, and above all, the marvelous “little grey cells.”

Unfortunately, Hannah may have overdone herself in replicating Christie.  Poirot’s constant condescension towards Catchpool, par for the course in detective fiction but especially heightened here, makes for a buddy-cop dynamic that annoys instead of amuses (Christie herself only persisted in writing the “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep” because of popular demand).

The plot is undoubtedly exquisitely constructed—every last detail is eventually accounted for, and Poirot can make meaning out of a character’s grammatical slips. There are some compelling aspects: the mystery woman’s fate, lovers set against a puritanical and harpy-like community, an overheard conversation with a corpse. But the last chapters, and the “dramatic” reveal in particular, are so pedantic in their execution as to be exasperating.

The story’s convolutions and Hannah’s tendency to recap every chapter makes for frustrating reading in one sitting, which is why “The Monogram Murders” is best enjoyed over a long period of time, perhaps on the beach.

It is also best enjoyed at night, when Hannah’s eerie murders and tormented characters come to life. What do we make of a murder in which the victim acquiesces, even believes it to be just retribution? Where do we turn if each clue leads only to dead ends? Well, Hercule Poirot may just be able to show you the way.

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