The death of one of the world’s most famous fictional detectives was so momentous an occasion that it made the front page of the New York Times: “Hercule Poirot Is Dead,” the headline read. It may have been the first and only time the obituary for a character in a novel was marked in such a way.
The dapper, spats-wearing sleuth with waxed “moustaches” and Homburg hat solved his final case and then died in Agatha Christie’s “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case,” published in 1975. (Christie trivia: She wrote “Curtain” in the 1940s and tucked it away until she was ready for the final book in the series to be published.) By then, the reigning Queen of Crime Fiction had written more than 100 books and plays, including dozens of novels and short stories featuring Poirot. She died a year after “Curtain” came out, and she remains one of the world’s most published authors.
Now, thanks to literary magic, the Belgian detective is on the case once more in Sophie Hannah’s “The Monogram Murders.” Whether you consider his return sacrilegious or stupendous, Poirot joins the growing number of iconic characters whose careers continue long after their creators have died. Jill Paton Walsh has resurrected Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in her novels based on the characters created by Dorothy L. Sayers; Jeffery Deaver and William Boyd are among the authors blessed by the Ian Fleming estate to keep James Bond’s adventures alive; and Ace Atkins has carried on Robert B. Parker’s popular Spenser series. In none of these stories, however, was the detective — as is the case for Poirot — given new adventures after dying in one of the original author’s books.
Elementary sleuthing reveals why the Christie estate chose Hannah. She’s a best-selling British novelist known for psychological thrillers including “Little Face” and “Kind of Cruel.” In a July interview with Publishers Weekly, she described herself as a “lifelong Agatha addict.” And from the very first page of “The Monogram Murders,” she elegantly evokes Christie’s style and breathes life back into one of the most fascinating detectives ever imagined. Christie herself, some might say, could do no better.
“The Monogram Murders” is set in 1929, and the sickly, aged Poirot depicted in Christie’s “Curtain” is a little younger and fit as a fiddle. The story begins in a coffee shop in London where Poirot offers assistance to an obviously distraught woman. But Jennie (we’ll learn who she is later in the story) says she’s beyond help. “It’s too late,” she tells Poirot. “I am already dead.” As she runs off into the night, she pleads that if she’s found murdered, no one should search for her killer.
But Jennie doesn’t know Poirot the way we do. Quicker than a twitch of his moustaches, the detective suspects a link between the mysterious Jennie and a series of bizarre murders at London’s Bloxham Hotel. Three bodies are found in three rooms, each victim with a monogrammed cuff link in his or her mouth.
“The Monogram Murders” is mainly told by Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard. His youth and blossoming detective skills make him a delightful and sometimes amusing contrast to the seasoned Poirot, who says to Catchpool, “The oxygen, it takes much time to make its way to the gray cells! Never mind; it will arrive eventually where it is most needed, in that pincushion of a brain of yours.” Step by complicated step, the pieces of this puzzling case fall into place. As Poirot and Catchpool gather clues about the hotel murders, Hannah, in textbook Christie style, throws in enough twists, turns, revelations and suspects to cook up a most satisfying red-herring stew.
The stew is richly seasoned with Christie’s iconic plot devices, including a rural village, a handsome vicar, vindictive parishioners, false identities and a body found in a locked room. Conspiracies and lies abound in Hannah’s colorful narrative and will keep readers guessing about the killer until the unexpected and most satisfying conclusion. I’d challenge any Christie-phile to find differences between her distinctive writing style and Hannah’s mirroring of it.
On a winter’s night in 1926, Christie ran away from her home in Berkshire after quarreling with her husband. Her disappearance caused a media frenzy and reportedly sparked a manhunt involving 1,000 police officers and 15,000 volunteers. She was found unharmed 10 days later in a Yorkshire hotel claiming amnesia. Her fans could breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Christie mysteries would continue for years to come.
Thanks to Hannah, Christie has been found again, this time in “The Monogram Murders.” Either Hannah is exercising her creative powers over the legend of Poirot, or Christie, a devotee of spiritualism, is channeling stories to Hannah from the grave. Either way, it’s great to have the illustrious Poirot back on the case.
Memmott is a freelance writer who lives in Northern Virginia. Sophie Hannah will be at Fall for the Book at George Mason University on Sept. 16.
THE MONOGRAM MURDERS
The New Hercule Poirot Mystery
By Sophie Hannah
302 pp. $25.99