It’s not easy to replicate the skill or success of the late Agatha Christie. Her books, with their charming sleuths, twisty plots and imaginative assortment of criminals, have sold some 2 billion copies — a figure that may be outmatched only by the Bible and Shakespeare.
But 40 years after Christie’s death, Sophie Hannah (“Little Face,” “The Carrier”), authorized by the protective Christie estate, has stepped into the Queen of Mystery’s shoes, for the second time. Her first reboot, “Monogram Murders” (2014), was a three-corpse foray that resurrected Hercule Poirot, Christie’s beloved Belgian detective. Poirot appears again — if less prominently — in “Closed Casket,” along with Hannah’s creation, Poirot’s sidekick, Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool. Published to coincide with what would have been Christie’s 126th birthday, the book captures the essence of the originals without being a slavish imitation.
The setting is classic Christie. Lady Athelinda Playford, the elderly author of successful children’s books, has pleaded with Poirot and Catchpool to come to Lillieoak, her elegant Palladian manor in Ireland. Once the pair arrive, Playford gives a dinner party that culminates in a dramatic announcement: She has drastically changed her will, cutting off her children. An inevitable gruesome murder quickly ensues. And we’re off. In the days following, the people in the house party are interrogated by the two detectives. Each person is offered as a suspect as everyone tries to track down the perpetrator.
Narrated by Catchpool, the book moves along suspensefully if at times predictably. Catchpool is a dutiful observer, but Poirot is of course the more striking character, with his droll commentary and endearingly fussy personality. The book suffers from his relatively low profile here. When the dapper Poirot does make his appearance with his “egg shaped head,” “shiny shoes” and of course the immaculate mustache, he is true to the Poirot we know. With his slightly Frenchified English, he searches the house, opining: “That is more productive than looking for the needle in the hay,” As always, he is ahead of his companion in snapping up details ignored by everyone else.
The plot is carefully spun out. Clues emerge, but the case remains perplexing. At the heart of the puzzle is why Poirot and Catchpool have been invited to this dinner in the first place. Had Lady Playford anticipated — or possibly instigated — the murder? As Poirot and Catchpool suss out the evidence, Christie aficionados will delight in the familiar repartee and the intricate deduction of the solution.
But as endearing as it is, “Closed Casket” lacks the special charm of the originals and the liveliness of Hannah’s original. There isn’t enough quirky interplay between Poirot and his assistant, or more simply, enough Poirot. As the bow-tied detective gathers the suspects for his grand revelation in the drawing room at Lillieoak, readers will be wishing they had heard more from the self-proclaimed “great detective” and his “little grey cells.”
Brigitte Weeks is a former editor of Book World.
Morrow. 302 pp. $26.99