Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review - "The Monogram Murders"

I think it would be an understatement to say that the announcement making it known that a new Hercule Poirot novel was in the works garnered mixed responses. Poirot, the creation of Agatha Christie, had never been written by anyone other than his creator the Queen of Crime and many saw this as the final nail in the coffin for the Christie Estate.

Nevertheless, I awaited the release of the novel, eventually entitled The Monogram Murders written by Sophie Hannah, with some anticipation. I was curious to see if this bold experiment could work. Hannah had said that she was fond of Christie's works, a trait which seems to be disappearing in modern mystery writers. With The Monogram Murders now completed, how did it fair? Let's take a closer look...

Hercule Poirot is seated alone in a London cafe when he's approached by a mysterious woman who claims that her life is in danger. Fearing she will die, she tells Poirot not to seek the killer, for justice will have been carried out by her death. Later that same evening, Poirot meets with his friend and associate Inspector Catchpool of Scotland Yard and learns that three murders were committed at the Bloxham Hotel, each victim found with a monogrammed cuff-link in his or her mouth. Sensing a connection, Poirot is determined to track down the mysterious woman and bring about a solution to the mysterious deaths before the killer has a chance to strike again...

In some ways I feel rather sympathetic for Sophie Hannah. Before her novel was even released many Christie enthusiasts had written the novel off, the notion of reading it a sacrament to the Queen of Crime's good name. As I noted above, I was curious to see how the book would turn out. It's not like a pastiche is a bad thing - some of the Sherlock Holmes pastiches I have come across in the past have been outright brilliant, so there's always the possibility of genuine quality. However, The Monogram Murders does miss the mark. From the outset, Hannah said that she was not going to try to emulate Christie's style, preferring to utilize her own. That is already one mark against the book; a pastiche is supposed to be an author's attempt at emulating something else. That's it's raison d'etre. By not even attempting to emulate Christie's writing, The Monogram Murders simply becomes a Sophie Hannah mystery with Hercule Poirot thrown into the mix.

I have never read any of Hannah's other novels so I cannot say how the book fares compared to her others- from all accounts, Hannah writes psychological thrillers, which isn't too prevalent in the novel. Using The Monogram Murders as a basis for an opinion concerning Hannah, I don't know if I'd pick up one of her novels with great haste. Hannah was obviously trying to write a plot by like Agatha Christie, but it fell flat in the process. While Christie managed to create a lengthy list of suspects, Hannah's novel features far too few, which means that the all-important shock factor come the surprise ending is not there. There is also far too little character development; as other reviewers have pointed out, the three most interesting characters in the novel are the victims and they are never alive to interact with any of the others. Agatha Christie's novels were always filled with character development, even in her stories where the suspect list was decidedly small (such as The ABC Murders or Five Little Pigs, surely two of Christie's finest works).

While the plot may not have resembled Christie, what of the hero, Hercule Poirot? Well...Poirot seemed out of character to say the least. There were of course obligatory references to Poirot's "little grey cells", his mustache and desire for neatness and symmetry in his surroundings, but aside from these attributes, the detective herein could have been anyone. What's more, Poirot lost his temper far too many times in the course of the novel and I couldn't help but feel that Hannah drew inspiration not from Christie's own novels but the 2010 Agatha Christie's Poirot adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. The less said about that the better.

Much criticism has been leveled unto the book's narrator Edward Catchpool. This entirely original character wasn't too grating in my mind and I found him to be a likable-enough hero. However, his repulsion and aversion to blood and death were awful character traits for a policeman to have! What's more, these stumbling blocks were never overcome for Catchpool so we leave him just as uneasy around corpses as he was in the start. This could have been an interesting juxtaposition if there was a character arc introduced in the course of the novel's plot, but there were times when this side to Catchpool was forgotten completely only to crop up again later.

Now, let me make one thing clear. There was great potential in The Monogram Murders. The plot was incredibly complex, the setting of a posh London hotel in the '20's and some of the characters had intriguing stories. This book could have been much better if it had left Agatha Christie alone and simply been another mystery novel set in the 1920's. But, because Agatha Christie's name takes up half the cover on the edition which now sits on my bookshelf, I must regard it as a continuation of the great authoress' work, and therefore I expect more. If The Monogram Murders is the fist in a series of new Poirot novels, I don't know if I will attempt others. If future theoretical installments leave me with the same feeling I did once I had finished this book then I'm more inclined to say no.

To sum up, The Monogram Murders had potential. There was an interesting plot and characters, but as a homage or continuation to Agatha Christie, the novel misses the mark and Hercule Poirot was not given the justice he deserved. I finished the book without the usual sense of fulfillment I usually get when finishing a novel, so I will have to give The Monogram Murders 2.5 stars out of 5. If you're interested in trying out The Monogram Murders like I was, then I recommend checking it out from your local library.

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