The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

UK_Monogram_Murders_jacketThe Bloxham Hotel, London. Three bodies are found in three separate rooms, laid out almost ceremonially. When the bodies are examined, a cufflink with the initials PJI is found inserted into each of their mouths.

Across town, in a coffee shop, a scared young woman confides in a stranger that she is scared that someone is going to kill her. She pleads that when she is dead, her killer is not to be looked for. And, “please let no one open their mouths”. And then she vanishes into the night. But her cry for the lack of investigation is going to fall on deaf ears. For a start, her confidante share his lodgings with Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard. And, more importantly, his name is Hercule Poirot. You may have heard of him…

Let’s address the very existence of his book first of all. Was there a demand for it? And was the demand for a new Poirot story or a new Agatha Christie story? If there was a demand at all, that is. Admittedly, the image of Poirot had a recent bump due to the final television adaptation (presuming this doesn’t get David Suchet back into the false moustache) but were people really asking for this?

A cynical person might point out the difficulty of launching one’s own detective series in the classic style. Robert Galbraith struggled with The Cuckoo’s Calling until his true identity was leaked to the press. Sophie Hannah has a number of books under her belt, but, let’s face it, this will probably sell many more copies due to Poirot, and that may well make the reader investigate her back catalogue. That’s what a cynical person might say…

But let’s take a look at the book itself.

It’s set in 1929, being told in the first person by Catchpool, a new sidekick for Poirot. There are times when the book feels just like it’s from the pen of Dame Agatha and times when it really doesn’t. For example, early on Poirot gets into an argument with Catchpool based solely on a grammatical point that the girl in the cafe made, prepared to make assumptions based on how he thinks a girl that he’s just met might talk. It all comes across as an extreme version of Poirot, rather than the actual character. He does soon settle down into the Poirot that we recognise so do stick with it if that is your issue with the book.

The mystery just doesn’t feel like an Agatha Christie plot though. There is the typical standard misconception at the heart of it, one which was pretty obvious, but the rest of the confusion comes mostly from people telling outright lies. It’s not a subtle way of hiding the truth. Also, the overall plot is ridiculously complicated and if this is an attempt to replicate Christie’s style, then it does fail in this aspect. Possibly the higher page count necessitates a more complicated plot, but it takes the Christie magic away from the story.

There are a couple of other niggles as well. Despite Catchpool being a narrator, he describes a number of chapters where he wasn’t present. Personally, I’d have thought that Poirot would be the last person to describe such events in detail. Also, one of the more interesting characters, a waitress in the coffee shop, doesn’t get much page time, and her arc in the story was rather unconvincing.

But, setting aside the channelling, or lack thereof, of Dame Agatha, this is a complex mystery. It could have done with more of a surprise – I think too much is revealed too early – but there’s a lot going on and it’s all fairly clued. Some of the reveals did have a sort of “is that all?” element to them though…

So overall? It’s perfectly OK, I suppose, but at the end of the day, this is stylistically different from the Agatha Christie Poirot novels, which, to me, removes the point of this book existing. Hannah hasn’t captured the simplicity of Christie’s plots – it would have worked better if it had featured an original character as the sleuth. But it wouldn’t sell as well, would it? Overall, recommended as a curiosity, but it’s hardly a must-read.

Advertisements

66 comments

  1. Thanks Steve – I had my doubts right from the start because, as you say, it seemed unnecessary – and it sounds like Hannah has actually done quite a poor job of even trying to replicate the style and spirit of the books without bringing anything new either – maybe they should ask Simon Brett to do the next one …

    Like

  2. This seems to be getting very tepid reviews all round. Maybe Sophie Hannah just doesn’t understand Christie’s style at all. But even if she can mimic it on a sentence level, the high pagecount seems like an important point. Christie’s mysteries are paced and structured in a very particular way, and I think there’s really an upper limit on how many words you can stretch to before you’re writing something very different. I’d say 60,000 max, 40-50k ideal. I seem to remember Christie herself saying she struggled to make her word counts, which explains why her second and third murders tend to be very silly.

    I wonder what the longest Christie novel is. Styles is quite long, I think, and possibly Vicarage, but even those are very sort by modern standards. I think the shift from 60,000 words standard to 100,000 is one of the worst things to happen to the crime genre.

    Like

    • Many thanks. I’m conflicted as to whether I wanted this to work or not – part of me wishes that Poirot was left alone. But did I want a Christie impression or an original spin? Not sure, but as this is an attempt at doing Christie, which misses the mark, I think it has to be a disappointment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It seems odd to write another Poirot. I’d have thought a Marple would be a better proposition. There’s fewer of those, and I think they can be a bit looser. So you could focus on the things people *think* are Christie’s style without having to come up with a Poirot-esque plot.

        Like

      • Also I think you’re on safer ground with Marple in terms of whether Christie herself would have approved. Sleeping Murder is just another Marple story, but Curtain is pretty definitive, continuity wise…!

        Like

  3. Out of curiosity I have bought the book. However, I have bought the kindle edition so that I can return it for a refund if disappointed !

    Like

  4. Steve, your review along with others I’ve read just confirms for me that this really isn’t something I want to waste my time on. So, thanks very much for your thoughts. There are so many authentic Golden Age mysteries waiting on my TBR stack, that I don’t think I want to read a wanna-be (or as it seems, an I-didn’t-even-try-to-make-it-one). The only positive reviews I’ve seen have been very short and/or gushing–but no helpful comments to make readers understand what is supposed to be so great. And…personally…I didn’t want Sophie Hannah to succeed–particularly after reading her smug interviews where she claims how well she knows Poirot and how to do Christie better than anyone. The fact that she doesn’t seem to have done so only confirms what should have been obvious to the holders of the Christie estate–Agatha Christie was a one of a kind.

    Like

  5. I am dissapointed… well, not really, as I didn’t expect too much. Rather, I am surprised that the AC Estate did not find someone capable of writing a simple pretenceless Christie pastiche. The Monogram Murders lacks simplicity, humour and sense of period (the constant use of first names instead of formal modes of address; the incredible condoning of a Vicar’s adultery…). The motive of the murders is utterly implausible. The motive of the novel itself is instead crystal clear… and also starts with a big M.

    Like

    • Actually, I found the apparent witch-hunt to be the over-the-top bit, not the condoning. But I’ve never lived in a turn of the century village. But you’re right, it’s odd that Hannah has fixed the setting to 1929 and then not really done anything with it.

      And yes, the motive is ridiculous if you stop and think about it. The whole plan is, really.

      As for the existence of the book itself, did Hannah approach the estate or vice versa? Anyone know?

      Like

    • The later vicar’s widow, Margaret Ernst, with her rather surprising (for her place and time) freethinking attitudes about religion seemed to be a stand-in for the author. Hard to see Agatha Christie endorsing those ideas though! Just another case where Hannah doesn’t get Christie, even though she insists in interviews she understands Christie instinctively. Afraid not, Sophie!

      Like

  6. I have finished the book.
    You say that you’ve managed to put off everyone else from reading it. However, in my opinion, you have been too lenient.
    It was really painful for me, an Agatha Christie fan, to read this book. I regard it as utter trash. Even the worst books of Agatha Christie are better than this.
    The plot is trash, the motives are trash, the logical(?) reasonings of Poirot are trash and even the writing style is trash with too heavy padding.
    Though it begins in an intriguing manner, it soon evolves into so much chaos and becomes so dull that I had to struggle to finish it. Most irritating was the lengthy, boring denouement by Poirot towards the end.
    There is no point in wasting money on this book. Hence I have returned my kindle edition for a refund.

    Like

    • I’m sorry, but I can’t support returning a book because you didn’t like it. If you bought it, and there’s nothing physically wrong with the item, then disliking the content of the book is no reason to be allowed a refund. I’ve seen several films at the cinema that basically stole two-plus hours of my life, but that was my fault for ignoring the reviews.

      Like

      • Well, Puzzle Doctor, the book is available for free (illegal) downloading at some torrent sites and thousands of people all over the world are downloading it.

        Like

      • It’s hardly the first time that we’ve disagreed about something, Santosh. I’m just stating my opinion on a comment that you’ve made on my blog that I disagree with. If that makes us enemies? Not sure even Sophie Hannah would use that as a motive…

        Like

      • I’m sorry, but I can’t support returning a book because you didn’t like it. If you bought it, and there’s nothing physically wrong with the item, then disliking the content of the book is no reason to be allowed a refund.

        Hear, hear!

        Like

      • The seller Amazon provides the facility of return of kindle books within 7 days, no question asked. If anyone has any problem with this refund policy, he may speak to the Amazon CEO. In fact, the CEO was in India yesterday and he stated clearly that they are focused on the customer. In fact, in an interview with the newspaper Times Of India, he used the term “customercentric” atleast 30 times.

        Like

    • I’ve had a refund when the typesetting made the book annoying to read – double line spacing between every (short) paragraph made me think there was a change of location all of the time. Now I check the sample first to avoid the hassle. Come to think of it, the Agatha Christie books are repeat offenders for this.

      Like

    • I got it on Kindle and wish I could get my money ($12) back! I imagine HarperCollins and Mathew Prichard could spare it. I would have waited to read this until I could have gotten a cheap copy, given the tenor of the reviews from people I trust, but I felt I needed to get it now to review on my blog. I agree with all the critical points in the Puzzle Doctor’s review, and then some. Santosh doesn’t mince words, but he’s about right.

      Like

    • Actually, Amazon allows return of kindle books within 7 days. Generally, they do not ask any question, but if someone does it regularly, they may suspect he is using it as a library !

      Like

  7. Puzzle Doctor says:

    “Not to mention the extremely weak misdirect when Hannah [sic; Ernst] is attacked. What exactly was the point of that?”

    Honestly, I think it was simply to show how terrible the village was. Hannah obviously loved this Ernst character, even to the extent of allowing her to steal the spotlight from Euphemia Fee (“Flyaway Hair”), the most genuinely Christie-esque character in the book, including, I’m afraid, Poirot.

    On misdirection, this book reminded me of one of Christie’s weaker efforts, Third Girl, where there are clues and a complicated plot, but not much effective misdirection and a lumbering, clumsy narrative. In both books, we kind of just “know” who the culprits are, from all the attention lavished on them by the author. I keep reading in in the HarperCollins publicity that there are copious red herrings in this book. Really? There are so few genuine suspects I don’t see how.

    Like

  8. Steve, this is a terrific review. I’m afraid that for the last year, I’ve been playing the role of the scientist in all those natural-disaster-movies, you know, the fellow who warns everyone that Mount Sunuvagun is about to explode and who is ignored and mocked for the first half hour-45 minutes before the volcano erupts. Well, it’s erupted now, and all I can say is “I told you so!!! See??? See???”

    Like

      • First of all, good review! Secondly, Christie’s estate, more or less, set this book up to be a failure. They never allowed pastiches to be published before, which means the standards for an Agatha Christie story has remained her own throughout the decades.

        So, of course, it’s going to be a huge letdown when it doesn’t measure up to the original. I think the estate would’ve been a lot smarter, if they had commissioned a new series of detective novels loosely tied to Christie’s original work. Like a series of stories featuring a certain Finnish private-detective, named Sven Hjerson, written as if by “Ariadne Oliver.”

        Like

  9. “…… what was presented as a false solution earlyish in the narrative was still mostly right including some of the perpetrators!”
    Isn’t this a SPOILER? Or you don’t care considering that this is such a lousy book?

    Like

  10. […] I’m sure there may be some irate Cadfael fans out there, but if there are, may I suggest investing in The Nightingale Gallery by Paul Doherty. It also features a crime-solving monk – sorry, friar – but there is a genuinely complex mystery and history with some true colour. As for this one, it’s convinced me to abandon Cadfael – this was recommended to me as one of the better titles in the series – to be honest, I’d rather read The Monogram Murders again! […]

    Like

  11. I had to struggle to finish it. The plot was over complicated with twists and turns, and I found that annoying. I am wondering if Hanna was trying to emulate “Murder on the Orient Express” premise. If so, she failed miserably. So glad I didn’t buy the book; I was tempted after watching the book trailers on the Christy website. If anyone is tempted to read it, I suggest your local library might have a copy.

    Like

    • Did anyone like this book? I’ve seen some general recommendations – it was one of The Observers crime books of the year! – but no one that I know who reads mysteries regularly has a good word to say about it. But if you do want a Christie-esque mystery come back in a couple of reviews time for the sort of thing that this book should have been…

      Like

  12. I did contact Sophie Hannah about this book and when I mentioned the tepid reviews the book received, she became positively abusive. I suppose the reviews really hurt her, but her behaviour made sure that I will never ever read one of her books.

    Like

  13. […] The Monogram Murders jarred me from the beginning because Hercule Poirot was dining at a coffee house upon introduction and being finicky about the cutlery. He is interrupted by a woman who comes in quite terrified and when Poirot reassures her stating that he is a detective, he is given the news that she is about to be murdered. Strangely she asks Poirot to refrain from finding out who committed the murderer, admitting justice will be served with her death. […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s