It’s a Hercule Poirot book written by someone who wasn’t Agatha Christie but approved by her estate so it’s exactly what you expect it to be.
There are advantages and disadvantages to taking an iconic and beloved character and playing with it in a modern context because everyone’s got an opinion on their interpretation and there’s certain baggage that come with them that need to be included, whether you like it or not. For example if I say James Bond, you say “lonely sexist misogynistic spy with implausible luck” and if I say Sherlock Holmes, you say “detective with mild drug addiction and underlying homosexual subtext with John Watson”. So that means, if I say Poirot, you say “boastful Belgian with very fastidious behaviours”, and I think Poirot is written in a way that Agatha Christie would have approved. I kept imaging David Suchet speaking so I think that’s a clear sign of successful adaptation. However, this Poirot had a tendency to get lost in the plot; a good detective needs to not only carry the weight of the plot but to shape it (and this is one of the reasons why Agatha’s Poirot is so lasting).
Furthermore, although unspoken, there are also very set guidelines readers come to expect about the story itself, especially an Agatha Christie novel. I expect:
- The victims to be deplorable (tick);
- The murder to happen behind closed doors with some sort of hammy detail, preferably with some link to the past (tick);
- The setting to happen in a tiny quiet village where the locals are frustratingly unhelpful (tick);
- Poirot gathering everyone in a closed room to perform his famous dénouements (tick); and
- Once the dénouement is given, everything goes back to the way it was (tick).
So in a way, Sophie has utilised all of these elements.
However, unlike traditional Agatha Christie murder mysteries, the deaths come relatively early so we spend the majority of the novel trying to solve the crime backwards which is nothing wrong and it definitely helps to avoid that plagiarism feeling. But the crime is definitely more complex, and I think part of the joy of Poirot novels were that the crimes were engaging but simple and clear cut. It starts off quite traditionally, but it becomes increasingly convoluted and uncontained as we follow Churchpool from the London hotel where the victims are found, to the village where the victims originated and this is where the story starts to lose the Poirot appeal.
I am also aware of the purpose of Churchpool, which is to give a plausible reason for Poirot to give long explanations, but as a sidekick, he did feel especially useless. How can we a have police who’s afraid of corpses and doesn’t pursue leads due to promises and his own sense of moral duty, as opposed to being guided by his professional duty? But I was fond of the sly digs he had about Poirot that we would all think about Poirot if we were to actually meet him:
Nancy Ducane was an unusually beautiful woman with a peaches-and-cream complexion, lustrous dark hair and deep blue eyes with long lashes. She looked to be somewhere in the region of forty and was stylishly dressed in peacock blues and deep greens. For once in his life, Poirot was not the most elegantly attired person present.
But most importantly, the denouement needs to have an impact and give the ‘Of course!’ feeling which unfortunately, this story does not. The denouement feels dragged out, especially with an important confession happening about three-quarters of the way into the novel. It’s like the equivalent of an accidental arrest on TV, no one believes it because there’s another twenty minutes before the next show starts so you know there’s more coming.
What can I say? It’s a fun novel and it’s not so much paying homage to Hercule Poirot, more like a fanfiction written by a really loyal fan (I have not read anything by Sophie Hannah so I’m unsure if she’s placed her stamp on it). There’s no clever or modern twist but rather it’s just extending the Poirot legacy, which is still ok, I think it just shows how enduring Poirot and Agatha’s crime writing style is.