Partial Spoilers for The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah
In 2014, Agatha Christie’s estate granted Sophie Hannah permission to use Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot, in a new original novel. The Monogram Murders.
Hercule Poirot (the Belgian refugee detective originally created by Christie) hopes for a respite when he stays at a London hotel (even though he’s close to his home), but he is soon drawn into a new case when a young woman name Jennie arrives and makes a cryptic prediction of her own murder, followed by the even more cryptic statement “Let no one open their mouths.” Soon bodies turn up at a different hotel with monogrammed cufflinks – which have a connection to a long-ago tragedy – in their mouths.
Hannah has acknowledged that “Agatha Christie is unique,” and says she didn’t try to duplicate Christie’s actual style. To a reader familiar with the original Christies, in addition to the overall voice differing from Christie, Hannah’s Poirot doesn’t sound – or maybe I should say “feel” – like Christie’s Poirot. Hannah’s Poirot engages in behaviors that supposedly show many of the quirks for which Christie fans know him, but they feel like variations of those quirks, and feel off.
What the novel feels more like in “voice” and tone is the Agatha Christie’s Poirot television series that ran from the late 1980s through 2013, and whose lead, David Suchet, is widely considered (and I think deservedly so) THE Poirot.
The Monogram Murders’ Poirot is Suchet’s Poirot, with some of the “darkness” of the later years of the series.
Although Suchet professes a determination to be the Poirot that Christie wrote, he ascribes to Poirot social viewpoints – a dislike of the class system; support for women’s education and liberation; a disdain for “reserve”, stoicism, and propriety – about which Christie was at best inconsistent.. Hannah takes cues from Suchet in this respect.
Poirot of Monogram Murders openly and directly criticizes English propriety and conventions, tallying with Suchet’s interpretations, but the language he uses to do so would not, I believe, have been used by Christie’s Poirot. Suchet’s Poirot was more direct on such things, though I think he would not have said many of the things Hannah’s version says, either.
Hannah’s Poirot is sharp, verging on mean, towards the original character, Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who assists him and narrates the book. This again more closely resembles the later and “darker” episodes of the Suchet series – in which Poirot threw his share of tantrums against both those who broke the law and who failed to uphold it – than it resembles the books. It is when Hannah’s Poirot gives a denouement that the voice is closer to the books’ Poirot than at any other time during the novel.
Trying to picture the detective working the Monogram Murders case, I found myself picturing Suchet playing the part but out of his usual Poirot costume (which may have something to do with having purchased Suchet’s book Poirot and Me and looking through it even as I read Monogram Murders)?
Hannah’s plot feels more like a parody of Christie than a Christie plot.
Although Christie’s name is often associated with mystery genre clichés, in fact, she usually twisted or subverted them, whereas Hannah plays them straighter. The solution is more layered and complex than in Christie books and feels like fictional-stories-within-stories or shows where the mystery genre is being parodied. Christie’s most confusing physical clues often turn out to be red herrings planted by someone who knows how to confuse detectives. Hannah’s monogrammed cufflinks and the cryptic words of Jennie do in fact mean something to be deciphered. The Suchet series – again, in its later, darker years – did create layers of complexity not always found in the originals.
Hannah’s plot follows the series’ trend of having a murder happen in the vicinity of where Poirot is staying in an attempt to rest! This did happen in the books, but became almost a running gag in the series.
Hannah touches obliquely on LGBT themes
A few Christie novels offer whiffs of gay subtext– one pair of women who share a home in the Miss Marple novel A Murder is Announced are pretty widely assumed to be a couple. But several of the Poirot films made by Suchet in the later years of the series actually reveal that a same-sex affair is the indiscretion being concealed, or that a character’s suppressed homosexuality is the reason for his or her angsty half-love, half-hate for another character.
In this vein, Edward Catchpool of The Monogram Murders is hinted to be experiencing what we in the modern world call a sexuality struggle. The first hint comes when he says that he is NOT going to fall for any of various women he’s met. The implication becomes stronger when another character, Margaret Ernst, a vicar’s widow with knowledge of the tragedy under investigation, expresses support for love that is “against the rules,” and we discover, through hearing Catchpool’s thoughts, that the words have personal meaning for him, even though Mrs. Ernst is referring to an alleged adulterous affair.
Indeed, Mrs. Ernst’s plea for those in love to act on feelings regardless of all rules of society and even regardless of their marriage vows to other people (!) seems like a misguided allegory for a plea for gay rights. (I say “misguided” because the analogy drawn between faithful gays and adulterous straight people is unfortunate. Mrs. Ernst seems to assume that all marriages are imposed on the marrying parties by society and against their own will. While that was no doubt sometimes the case in the England of the early 1900s, it was more true for the upper classes, which none of these characters are.)
There is no suggestion, though, of attraction between Catchpool and Poirot, and in fact, considerably less warmth and friendship exists there than between Poirot and the sidekick Christie gave him, Captain Hastings. (I don’t romantically “ship” or “slash” Poirot and Hastings either. I know many fans do, probably because Christie did, to some extent, base the Poirot-Hastings detective partnership on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and because Christie’s Poirot never had actual love affairs. He seems attracted to the “Countess” Vera Rossakoff, who claims to be a Russian noblewoman displaced by the Russian revolution, but who lives on the fringes of the law. The ITV series is more definite about Poirot’s interest in this dubious countess being romantic; he actually courts her in a chaste and genteel way. In fairness to the slashers, though, Hastings seems deeply saddened about this courtship, and deeply worried it will bring an end to his and Poirot’s association.)
Set in 1928, The Monogram Murders does not disturb Christie’s canon by bringing Poirot back into existence after he would have been dead, nor does it change anything from any existing Poirot story. There is no claim amounting to “The book X that Hastings published was a lie; here’s what really happened” as is often done with Sherlock Holmes pastiches. We are asked to believe simply that this case happened in between those we already know about and it simply hasn’t been published until now. And actually, that would make sense – because Poirot didn’t in this case have the assistance of his usual friends who publish his cases.
I have been fortunate enough to be able to exchange emails with Eirik Dragsund, of the Investigating Poirot blog, and he agreed with many of my above observations concerning Monogram’s subtle departures from the original Christies. I recommend that Poirot readers and series watchers check out this blog – but be advised that many posts do contain spoilers for the episodes they discuss.
Ironically, I once was told that a story I had published in a school magazine was “derivative” of Agatha Christie in style and tone – with a less-than-complimentary suggestion that I wasn’t terribly creative. While people on the Autism Spectrum are famous for their inability to “pick up on” nuances in the environment, I have been known to absorb the style and tone of those I read or hear in chameleon-like fashion. But many things that contribute to Christie’s style – the country houses and other remote settings with unlikely collections of people under the same room; the genteel tones; the never-ending, formal social occasions; the understatement that comes with a stereotypical restraint; the British phrasings – can be duplicated. What really made Christie stand out as a mystery writing was her subtle placing of the most important clues where the reader would least expect to find them.
From Hannah’s perspective, the advantage of making no effort to be like Christie is that her book’s audience will extend beyond original-Christie fans like me – and indeed, may extend beyond viewers of the ITV series. On the flip side, if the Amazon reviews are anything to go by, those who expected a mystery a la Agatha Christie are reacting negatively.