The 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.