by Sharon Tucker
“I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest.” Agatha Christie
The most pleasing element in reading Agatha Christie is spending time in her world. It’s an orderly place full of rather complacent, pleasant people suddenly faced with the inexplicable: murders are discovered, friends go missing, or incongruities mushroom in either their village or whatever closed community her detectives happen to be in or called to at the time. Her best loved characters, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, are essentially likable, despite one’s occasional flightiness and a touch of narcissism in the other.
Miss Marple does travel a good deal, rather surprising for a lady of her vintage, and her memory for the trivia of human foibles seen firsthand in St. Mary Mead is shockingly accurate. Her value as a detective has always been her sharp eye that recognizes similarities in character and behavior in each mystery witnessed that she has seen before in village life. Miss Marple has slowed down a trifle with age in At Bertram’s Hotel (1965, Dodd, Mead), but her eye and memory are as sharp as ever.
Poirot may be retired from the Belgian police force, but he has lost none of his method and expertise when it comes to detection. The London public is fortunate that he chose to advertise his services as a private inquiry agent, as are the police who benefit from his cleverness if they are amenable to his peculiarities. Sad Cypress (1940, Dodd, Mead) is less about Poirot’s habits and more about a romantic triangle that ends in murder with only one suspect. But as a matter of fact, those habits are back with a vengeance in the new Poirot written by Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders (William Morrow, 2014) where we meet Poirot in the midst of taking an unusual kind of vacation.
Vacation is also the theme as Miss Marple is in London at the revered Bertram’s, waxing nostalgic, reminiscing about her long-ago first visit to this marvelously old-fashioned institution in the Mayfair district when she was in her teens. It occurs to her to be disturbed that the hotel hasn’t ostensibly changed with time as she and all her friends have—it’s just not natural. The elderly ladies and gentlemen tend to gather in the hotel’s lobby to people-watch, and most interesting among the many guests lingering, checking in and checking out is the beautiful and notorious Bess Sedgwick whom one cannot help but admire a bit for her joie de vivre, as well as her colorful lifestyle. Neither can Miss Marple help comparing notes on this and other impressions with her fellow guests, finding they are all struck by the oddity of guests disappearing and reappearing days later either injured, dazed, or both. It’s also most strange that some of their old acquaintances turn out to be utter strangers upon closer examination. Then there’s the problem of the doorman’s murder. Here it is unusual and gratifying to see Miss Marple’s advice actually sought by an ace detective, Chief Inspector Davy, to untie the plot’s knots.
Faced with knots of a different sort, Hercule Poirot ventures away from London into the country (not his favorite venue) in Sad Cypress. The plot concerns an engaged couple summoned to the sickbed of a wealthy relative who soon dies under questionable circumstances. The cast includes a village temptress, a straying fiancé, an enamored local doctor, and a knowledgeable private nurse. After two murders, Hercule Poirot is called in to save the maligned heroine who is looking guiltier every day but whom Poirot thinks has too many cards artfully stacked against her. The novel is distinguished not only for its title, taken from Feste the clown’s melancholy song in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but also because Christie uses courtroom drama to reveal clues and the motives of her characters as part of the novel’s structure. Christie’s extensive knowledge of poisons from her war work as a pharmacy dispenser is much in evidence here as a key element.
Poison is central to the plot in Sophie Hanna’s first entry into the Christie canon, The Monogram Murders. We find Poirot on vacation away from his apartment, yet still keeping the building itself in sight in a nearby, well-run boarding house where he has made the acquaintance of a fellow lodger, Mr. Catchpool, an inexperienced young Scotland Yard detective. During his ‘vacance’ Poirot has found a small nearby restaurant, Pleasant’s, that makes the best coffee in London. Soon Poirot’s gallantry is stirred by a desperate young woman’s rushing into the restaurant from the cold to rattle out a disturbing tale of three pending murders, certain she too will be murdered, and it’s no more than she thinks she deserves. Uttering an especially cryptic remark she flees and soon is nowhere to be found. The murders do occur in a nearby hotel, and all three victims are poisoned as she predicted. The investigation that follows may be missing Arthur Hastings and Inspector Japp, but readers find a newly minted representative of the Yard in Edward Catchpool, who is far from dim and merely lacks experience. Hannah has caught Christie’s tone expertly, giving ample evidence that she actually ‘likes’ Hercule Poirot, unlike his creator—quite refreshing.
The first two of these three novels are not Christie’s best known, but they are deliciously satisfying. Kudos to Sophie Hannah for the treat of a new Poirot with another soon to follow. I particularly liked her contrasting a young detective learning the ropes in working with a past master. It gives the reader a new perspective on a character we love in a time we are familiar with and in a place we know so well. Hannah plays by Agatha Christie’s rules which include meticulous writing and a cunning plotting style urging a successor or a reader to take pains.
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