Reviewed by Ian Lipke
There seems little doubt that Sophie Hannah is the right person to continue Agatha Christie’s literary legacy. The current publication is not identical with Christie’s work, but the differences are so slight that they are hard to grasp, let alone define. Christie’s stories were intelligent and timeless. There is nothing ‘just plain dumb’ about Hannah’s work and its timelessness has yet to be demonstrated. (One qualification should be made about Christie – her characters and the plots of the Tommy and Tuppence series are serious miscalculations. They make difficult reading.)
To judge how well Hannah relates with Christie we need to begin with the original author. How does she find and develop her plots? Christie may be described, loosely, I admit, as a formulaic writer. She would plan out the mode of murder, the killer, and the purpose. Second, she would factor in the various suspects and their own intents. Third, she would concoct potential clues and diversionary tactics to pull readers in different directions. Hannah follows a similar path. There are the events associated with the trip to Kingfisher Hill via Cobham, the murder has already happened. By the time Poirot and Catchpool are settled into Kingfisher Hill, all of the cast are in play.
There is a fine description of Agatha Christie’s methodology on the internet under the heading ‘The Writing Style of Agatha Christie’ that I will now quote:
Agatha devised her mysteries with intricate deceptions to manipulate readers’ thoughts and feelings and to make it more difficult for readers to solve the main mystery. She often used the same story-development formula for many of her crime novels: the main character—a detective or private investigator—either discovers the murder or a past friend, somehow associated with the murder, contacts the main character for help. As the story unfolds, the main character questions every suspect, investigates the location of the crime, and carefully jots down each clue, allowing readers to scrutinize the clue and try to solve the mystery on their own. Just as readers build up clues and think they know who might have committed the murder, Agatha kills off one or a few main suspects, leaving readers shocked and confused that they were wrong about the murderer’s identity. Eventually the main character gathers all of the remaining suspects at one location and reprimands the culprit, revealing numerous unconnected secrets along the way, usually lasting 20-30 pages.
We do not know Hannah’s methodology but we do have access to the outcome. We begin with the assumption that Helen Acton, self-confessed murderer of Frank Davenport, is innocent, since Poirot is undertaking an uncomfortable journey to save her life. The famous detective questions people as suspects until he and his ‘look alike to Hastings’ are tossed out of Kingfisher Hill. The environment is strictly upper-class England as described by Christie in her own books. (Even the lower classes as represented by Alfred Bixby, the types the travellers find in the Cobham pub, and the servants at Kingfisher Hill reflect Christie). Hannah has the methodology. As further evidence, Hannah follows another Christie technique of beginning the story with an excruciating song-and-dance routine in the coach and on the trip through Cobham (which reflects the original author’s long descriptions of scenery setting). Hannah has another in setting up Poirot to show how smart he is when he pontificates and explicates his solution to the identity of the murderer.
And that brings me to Poirot and Catchpool. As my previous source material explains,
“Hastings gives us a very good description of Poirot when we first meet him in ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles.’ Hastings tells us he was – ‘an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.’ In half a dozen sentences, we get a clear picture not only of his physical appearance, but also an insight into his obsession with precision and order.” In another context Christie was overheard to complain about the day she took the decision to create the wretched man. Hannah’s character is as difficult to take as Christie’s. Such a character does not exist in real life but stems from the original author’s deliberate attempt to build a character from aspects of human behaviour she had observed and then compacted. Read Hannah’s Poirot and you’re, slightly uncomfortably, in the presence of Christie’s Poirot. It is a very clever interpretation on Hannah’s part.
Catchpool is a detective inspector; Hastings was a captain (Retired). Both senior ranks, both dumb as oxen – but made deliberately so. Their presence is to be representative of the English upper middle class who were never taught to think creatively. Following conservative, accepted discourse brought its own rewards.
Sophie Hannah’s work keeps the Christie spirit alive and her latest book is to be commended.
By Sophie Hannah
352 pp; $32.99