Books of 2016: The Monogram Murders

Thank god that it was in Bangalore airport that I was stuck, courtesy my flight getting delayed. Had this happened in Bombay, I’d have just been twiddling my thumbs and tweeting nonsense because I wasn’t carrying a book for my one-day trip and the airport bookstore has shut down. There should be a law against airports not having bookstores.

Fortunately, Bangalore’s Kempegowda International Airport, still has a little bookshop and the selection isn’t amazing, but neither is it terrible. I picked up Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders, which Hannah’s attempt at reviving Hercule Poirot and continuing Agatha Christie’s legacy.

So The Monogram Murders is basically fan fiction, but written by a professional author who’s been commissioned to do it. It’s the second one I’ve read in the past few months (the first was The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which was David Lagercrantz’s attempt at picking up the threads of the Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist’s story where Stieg Larsson left them) and both have been unexpectedly satisfying.

You’ve got the weight of the world’s expectations on your shoulders when you write existing characters who are legendary and beloved. Hannah had to conjure up the utterly lovable Hercule Poirot, she also had to mirror the clever simplicity of Agatha Christie’s plots. It’s not as though the original Poirot mysteries were watertight. They often had loose ends, but Christie had a way of presenting uncovering them that always rang true. Even when everything didn’t tie up or fit neatly into the puzzle she presented, it still seemed credible. I think this came from how well-observed Christie’s characters were. They behaved in a way that feels genuine even when you read them now.

The mystery that Hannah sets up is deliciously complicated: three apparently unrelated guests in a fancy hotel have been poisoned. Each of them have a cufflink with the initials “PJI” inserted in their mouths. Just before this triple murder is reported to Scotland Yard, Poirot, who is on a break, chances upon a woman who tells him someone is out to kill her. The little grey cells have their work cut out for them as suspicious hotel clerks, uneaten scones, exotic poisons, false testimonies, village gossip and other complications abound.

Ultimately, when Poirot’s great reveal takes place, I found the explanations a little laboured. It’s not that the details don’t add up. They absolutely do, but the scenario doesn’t feel quite as lucid and organic as Christie’s plots.

That said, her Poirot is unmistakably a chip off the old block and to keep him company, Hannah gives us two new characters: a young Scotland Yard officer named Edward Catchpool, who is effectively Hastings’s replacement but a lot funnier; and a tea-loving waitress in a coffee shop named Fee Spring. They’re both fantastic and I’m hoping against hope that Catchpool and Fee have their own set of adventures because they’d make a great team. Hell, even Poirot admires Fee’s powers of perception. Fee could very easily be a new Miss Marple who solves crimes while glugging her tea and disapprovingly serving coffee to customers.

Is The Monogram Murders shoulder to shoulder with the best of Poirot? Not really, but it’s fan fiction of the highest quality. It’s the kind of book you don’t stop reading because you’re having just too much fun in the world its laid out. Plus, I now want to read more of Sophie Hannah’s own crime fiction.

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