Followers of Hercule Poirot have had a long wait. Curtain appeared from the pen of the Queen of Crime back in 1975. Since then we’ve had to wait for new actors to play him – Peter Ustinov or Ian Holm, for example – or for the amazing David Suchet to work his way through the oeuvre.
Now (or since last year, when it was published by HarperCollins) we have a new novel, The Monogram Murders. This is a most entertaining pastiche by Sophie Hannah. The dustjacket carries an approving statement from its chairman, Agatha Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard, chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd.
For me it was a great read. An intriguing plot, with a splendidly complex solution. There are echoes of At Bertram’s Hotel meets St Mary Mead. (I know those are both Miss Marple, but it’s the venues that do the echoing …)
The narrator is Edward Catchpool, a 32-year-old Scotland Yard detective who is temporarily sharing lodgings with Poirot. He appears to be in awe of the great man and lets him have more or less complete control of the investigation. Poirot seems to have decided to train him.
The story starts in Pleasant’s Coffee House, a café somewhere away from central London which Poirot frequents because it serves uniquely good coffee. He is much taken with a young customer called Jennie who seems in fear of her life and who utters cryptic sentences, such as “It’s too late. I am already dead, you see, or I shall be soon”, and “Let no-one open their mouths!”
The scene shifts to the Bloxham Hotel, one of London’s finest. At the same time as Poirot is meeting Jennie three bodies are found: all poisoned, all laid out neatly, and all with cufflinks in their mouths bearing the monogram PJI. They are in rooms 121, 238 and 317. They are Harriet Sippel, Ida Gransbury and Richard Negus, and they have all been seen alive at 7-15 pm when they were served tea together in room 238. A mysterious note is then left at reception, saying ‘May they never rest in peace. 121. 238. 317.’ This prompts the discovery of their bodies at 8-15 pm.
We also visit Great Holling, a village very much à la Christie, where you can almost smell the malice and the distrust. Catchpool goes there but the only person who will talk to him at all reasonably is Margaret Ernst, the widow of a former vicar, who is friendly with the doctor, Dr Ambrose Flowerday. We learn of a tragedy of years past.
To say more would give too much away. Suffice it to say that the traditional scene at the end where Poirot explains all, in the Bloxham Hotel’s dining room, has its surprises.
If I have one criticism it is that in the first half of the novel Poirot himself seems somehow static, and he did not come over to me as having quite the colour of the original. But that detracted little from my enjoyment of this meticulously plotted whodunit.
Well done Sophie Hannah.