Sparkling Cyanide (1945) by Agatha Christie

SparklnigCyanide

It should be a literary crime to give rather ordinary mysteries such evocative titles as this, especially when there’s already a particularly intriguing blurb on the back to hook the reader in. I was decidedly underwhelmed by this book – unusually so for an Agatha Christie – and now I can’t decide whether it’s the fault of the book, the title or just the fact that I was pretty spaced out on Lemsip at the time of reading. Probably the latter. I’d already been in bed sick for two looong days by the time I reached for this; I was cranky, bored and lacking both the energy and the will to read anything too demanding on the old grey cells. Usually Christie is ideal at times like these but she didn’t really do the trick on this occasion. I suspect I’m being a trifle unfair.

Sparkling Cyanide reunites several acquaintances for a rather tense dinner party at the Hotel Luxembourg. Gathered together are staid businessman George Barton and his young ward Iris, George’s doting secretary, a mysterious American businessman, a devious politician and his dutiful but very posh trophy wife. They’re all there to mark the passing of George’s late wife Rosemary who very publicly committed suicide at this table in this restaurant in front of these very same guests a year previously. It’s a macabre excuse for a gathering and of course, of course one of the guests is poisoned during dinner in an almost exact recreation of Rosemary’s death. Of course.  

“I’d like to give these detective story writers a course of routine work. They’d soon learn how most things are untraceable and nobody ever notices anything anywhere!”

There’s no Poirot or Marple in this one and I missed them both. It’s down to George’s old friend Colonel Race to identify the killer and determine whether Rosemary may also have fallen foul of a sinister plot. He does a fair job, Colonel Race, but without the flair or humour I might have expected from his more regular counterparts. Overall this felt like a fairly formulaic mystery: the set up was quite laboured and there was less of the wit and double bluffing that Christie usually employs to liven up the more mundane stories. I did fall prey to one red herring for a time but in the end I’d more or less guessed the killer anyway and instead of feeling triumphant I was left with the flat, dissatisfied feeling I always get when I’ve been proven right. Ho hum.

In my headachey, fuzzy haze I took Christie’s failure to keep me sufficiently entertained too personally. I decided that if she couldn’t offer me something decent to read at this difficult time then I would just have to resort to something more reliably cheering. I reached for I Capture The Castle which appears to be my go-to book when I’m sick. I’m so predictable.

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His Bloody Project (2016) by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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I’ve probably mentioned a hundred times before that I’m a sucker for an unusual narrative style and particularly for stories told in letter or diary format. This book caught my eye last year, before it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, because of its subtitle: “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.” Hang on a second there, sunshine. Documents? Just my cup of tea. After that I fully intended to pick this up at the next opportunity but, as so often happens, promptly forgot about it as soon as something else came along. That’s just typical really. I spotted it again during some impromptu bookshop browsing a few weekends ago and then managed to read the whole thing before the weekend was over. That should tell you how daft I was to delay reading it for so long.

“One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone…”

In the preface to his novel Burnet describes this as a true story uncovered while he was researching his own family history in a Scottish archive. I don’t believe that’s actually true but it’s a clever layer to the fiction and adds a certain gravity to the tale he goes on to tell. The story he’s uncovered is that of seventeen year old Roddy Macrae who, we’re told, was charged with a horrific triple murder in a remote Highland crofting community in 1869. In this novel Burnet brings together all the original evidence relating to the trial that followed: the witness statements, post mortems, expert opinions, court transcripts and, most remarkably, Roddy’s own lengthy account of the events leading up to the crime. Roddy’s defence claims that he was suffering from a sort of temporary insanity at the time of the murders but would an insane man know he was insane? And if so, can you really trust anything he tells you?

This isn’t a straight forward crime/detective genre novel. Instead, as Burnet applies layer upon layer of information he leaves the reader to decide how far the evidence can be trusted and whether Roddy was really in his right mind at the time of the murders. I think the ‘documents’ format works really well in this respect as it means the reader can see the same man, and the same crime, from several different angles, each one with its own agendas and prejudices. Burnet’s restraint in handling all these different layers is evident here and it never feels disjointed or jarring. With hindsight I’m not sure that Roddy’s own account of the crime feels quite as historically authentic as some of the other reports but in some ways this works in the novel’s favour. It certainly creates a really atmospheric picture of this tiny, isolated community with its ancient customs, language, feuds and tensions.

It took me a while to realise that Burnet was deliberately leaving the ‘facts’ of the case open to interpretation by providing conflicting opinions and omitting certain details from Roddy’s memoir. One key piece of information mentioned briefly in a post-mortem report had me scratching my head for ages as it didn’t tally with Roddy’s own account, which I wanted to be truthful. It was at his point that I realised that there was clearly more to this tale than initially meets the eye and I spent much of my time from hereon waiting for a twist, a big reveal, that would suddenly make everything fall into place. However, I think by refusing to hold your hand or provide all the answers Burnet makes this a much more gripping, though unnerving, read. It’s the kind of book that will either leave you disappointed by the lack of answers or raking over the details in your head for days following. My response was much more like the latter.

Top Ten Tuesday: Some Agatha Christie favourites

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and Bookish. 

This week’s TTT is a Halloween freebie. I don’t read a great many spooky things – and it’s still early days with those Victorian ghost stories – so I plumped instead for a murderous theme rather than a supernatural one. I know Christie isn’t particularly fashionable these days but I love a good, old fashioned Golden Era murder mystery, much, much more than their grim modern equivalents. Here are some of my favourites:

1. The Hollow (1946). On the face of it, this is a fairly typical example of the Christie country house murder but the characterisation is particularly good and the suspects are surprisingly sympathetic. I didn’t really want any of them to be guilty. Full review here.

2. The ABC Murders (1936). Christie takes a pretty silly premise – beginning with the murder of Alice Ascher in Andover – and turns it into something weirdly compelling. Is there an alphabetically obsessed serial killer on the loose? Or is it all a cover for something a bit darker?

3. Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). The murder here takes place amongst a remote community of archaeologists working on an ancient site in the middle of the Iraqi desert. I particularly enjoy Christie’s non-English settings and I remember finding this one particularly atmospheric.

4. Death Comes as the End (1944). A murder mystery set in ancient Egypt was always going to catch my eye. Christie’s expertise shines through and although it never feels particularly authentic I love the idea. Full review here.

5. Five Little Pigs (1942). Poirot is asked to solve a sixteen year old case by the daughter of a woman wrongly hanged for murder. I was pretty happy that I’d caught the murderer with this one, and then absolutely enraged when I got it wrong.

6. Death on the Nile (1937). The murder of a honeymooning heiress on a cruise down the Nile sparks Poirot’s investigation here. There’s some good double and triple bluffing in this one and it’s all so much more complicated than it may first appear.

7. Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Poirot is trapped in a train carriage full of suspects when an infamous child killer is found dead in his compartment. It’s wonderfully tense and another one of those morally ambiguous cases where you don’t really know whether you want the detective to succeed.

8. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960).  A short story from late in Christie’s career, this one gets a mention because it was the very first of her works that I read. I was hooked.

9. Sleeping Murder (1976). It all rests on a fairly unbelievable coincidence; what are the chances of returning to the country of your birth and unwittingly buying the house in which your mother was murdered all those years before? But still, I like the creepiness of the first few chapters when Gwenda can’t quite work out why everything feels so familiar and so wrong at the same time.

10. A Pocket Full of Rye (1953). Christie takes her nursery rhyme references quite literally with this one; there is an actual pocket full of rye, some blackbirds baked in a pie and a ‘Queen ’ eating some bread and honey at the time of her death.

You’ll see that there are some notable omissions here, such as And Then There Were None, 4.50 From Paddington, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and so on. It isn’t that I don’t like them or rate them highly – just that I haven’t read them yet!

As always, recommendations are welcome 🙂

 

The Hollow (1946) by Agatha Christie

This book was ringing alarm bells in my memory from the start. It was only when I got to this scene…

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…that I remembered having watched the TV adaptation a few years ago. Bummer. I very nearly gave up right then – who wants to read a murder mystery when you already know who committed the dirty deed? – but I decided to continue and, with hindsight, it was absolutely the right decision. This isn’t a bad book at all.

At first glance, The Hollow is a pretty typical country house murder mystery; a group of friends gather at the home of a mutual acquaintance only for one of the party, the dazzling Doctor John Christow, to get bumped off near the swimming pool just before lunch. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? When famous detective Hercule Poirot stumbles on the murder scene moments after the shot rings out he’s immediately convinced that things are not all they appear. Is this a carefully staged scene arranged by the guests as part of the afternoon’s amusements? Or is there something more sinister at play here?

What I haven’t yet said, of course, is that by the time Poirot arrives on the scene the story has really been underway for quite some time already. It’s unusual for Christie to leave the arrival of the famous detective to such a late stage in the novel. I think I’d almost expect it of Miss Marple but for Poirot it seems quite out of character. Apparently – according to Wiki – Christie herself was irritated by Poirot’s tardiness and felt that his sudden appearance out of nowhere was jarring for the reader and spoiled the flow of the plot. I can’t say I agree but it did have the odd effect of making Poirot seem almost superfluous to his own story.

In spite of this, I have to say that I think this is one of the best Agatha Christie novels I’ve read in a little while. All the usual ingredients are here – the red herrings, the witty dialogue, the double bluff – but this time there seems to be an extra layer of character development and a more careful set up. The philandering Doctor Christow who, I suspect, would usually be condemned to only the briefest of introductions, is given a good few chapters of background story and there’s a reasonably thorough analysis of his relationships with some of the other characters. When they describe the late doctor as the most ‘alive’ man they ever knew, you can almost believe them.

The character development isn’t limited to just the victim and I was surprised to find that I really quite liked a few of the suspects. Usually Christie peppers her stories with some thoroughly nasty characters; people you can easily believe would be capable of committing the crime. But she doesn’t really do that here; on the whole they appear pretty harmless. I was particularly pleased with the victim’s mistress, the sculptress Henrietta Severnake, and the scatter-brained hostess, Lady Angkatell. They made me almost hope that there wouldn’t be a murderer after all, that whoever it was would somehow end up getting away with it.

It’s all very odd and not what I was expecting at all. But I enjoyed the twists and turns of this novel and wish there were more like it.

Whose Body? (1923) by Dorothy L. Sayers

“Bunter!”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Her Grace tells me that a respectable Battersea architect has discovered a dead man in his bath.” 

“Indeed, my lord? That’s very gratifying.” 

WhoseBodyBy happy chance this book, which has been on my mental TBR list for ages, came free at the library just as I was coming to the end of Daughter of Fortune last week. After DoF it was just what the doctor ordered: short, entertaining and containing no inane references at all to ridiculous love affairs in which young women know instinctively how to please a man in bed in spite of their youthful years and cloistered upbringings. Thank goodness for that.

This is the first in the Lord Wimsey series so I was half expecting some sort of backstory or introduction to the aristocratic detective. But no, we jump right on in with the news that the body of an unknown man – wearing nothing but a pair of gold pince nez – has inexplicably been discovered in the bathtub of a total stranger. Of course on hearing this Lord Peter is determined to visit the scene, where he hears that on the same night as the body mysteriously appeared a wealthy banker vanished from his home a short distance away. Could the body in the bath belong to the missing financier? Is it just an unlikely coincidence? Or is an unknown hand trying to put the investigators off the scent?

Thankfully Lord Peter is pretty adept at handling these sorts of situations and he does so with the charm and finesse that I’ve come to expect. I’m not too worried about the absence of a backstory, especially as we’re instead treated to such brief, throwaway gems as this:

“His long amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.”

Of course, I had no idea what the man was talking about half the time but I’ve come to quite like that about Lord Peter.

Whose Body? is clearly the work of an inexperienced novelist and I don’t think it’ll become a fast favourite. The plot is interesting enough but it’s fairly easy to solve the crime and the motive, I thought, wasn’t very clear at all. Occasionally Sayers rambles on at length, proving points that could just as easily be made in a few paragraphs and then, to twist the knife, it’s all wrapped up neatly with a confession letter at the end. Oh for shame, Dorothy! I expected better. But, in the end, we can forgive a novice writer who was still finding her feet and I think it’s a fair foundation for the rest of the series.

Weirdly enough, my lasting memories of this book will probably not involve Lord Peter but will relate entirely to Reuben Levy, the missing banker. There are a couple of snide remarks at his expense and, on one notable occasion, Lord Peter’s mother goes on at length about how there’s really absolutely definitely nothing wrong with Jews, even if they do have some funny ideas etc etc. I think it was probably well intentioned on Sayers part – perhaps to show that we’re all much too modern and open-minded to hold with anti-Semitism round here – but all the Duchess really goes on to do is repeat a load of ignorant and backward ideas. I’ve read more offensive comments in literature (these views were pretty common at the time after all) and I don’t believe Sayers intended it to be anything more than a joke at the Duchess’s expense, but I was a little bemused by it all the same.

I’m pleased to say, anyway, that Lord Peter expresses absolutely no opinion on the subject.

 

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Unpleasantness

“Books… are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with ’em, then we grow out of ’em and leave ’em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development.”

I didn’t plan on reading this but I finished Perfume last week and the copy of The Quickening Maze I’d ordered was taking ages to arrive at the library. This seemed like a nice way of filling the time while I waited. Of course, no sooner had I checked out The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and walked back to my office then my phone pinged with the notification that my requested library book had arrived and was now awaiting collection. Not to worry. I can’t say that being forced to read some Dorothy L. Sayers in the meantime is any sort of hardship.

This is only the second of Sayers’ books that I’ve read so I’m still a very new convert.  This one doesn’t begin as a murder mystery but as a discreet investigation into the death of Old General Fentiman, who passes away quietly in his armchair by the fire at his gentleman’s club, The Bellona. His lawyer calls in Lord Peter Wimsey, the suave aristocratic detective, to determine a precise time of death and thus avert a legal dispute over the General’s estate. The case is of particular importance to Lord Peter as one of the legatees is his friend George Fentiman, whose mental health and livelihood are both at stake if the time of death is decided unfavourably. It takes a few twists and turns, this story, but I think most readers will guess pretty early on that the old General didn’t die quite as peaceably as Sayers leads us to believe at the beginning.

You can tell that this is a little earlier in the series and in Sayers’ writing career: it’s not quite as polished as The Nine Tailors, the plot ambles along slowly at times and there’s not nearly enough Bunter in it. This last one is probably the worst crime of all. Her scene setting is pretty perfect though and I can never get enough of the dialogue, particularly any scene in which Wimsey uses the phrases “What rot!”, “Jolly good!” or (my personal favourite) “Bung ho!”. He brings such humour to everything, without spoiling the sombre mood.

“Take him away!” said Fentiman, “Take him away. He’s been dead two days! So are you! So am I! We’re all dead and we never noticed it!” 

I love the fact that Sayers’ characters are not merely plot devices, as Christie’s can be sometimes. Few of the characters in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club are black and white, nor are they as wicked as you might suspect at the beginning. George Fentiman is the first to spring to mind here. I imagine it would’ve been quite easy for Sayers to portray George quite simply as a comic figure, a misogynistic brute and a layabout, but instead she treats the emotive subject of his shell shock and poverty with real feeling. Lord Peter’s sympathy with George, and his reluctance to involve himself in the case at all, is quite touching.

I guessed the culprit before the end (just as I did last time) but I didn’t really mind. More shocking, I thought, wasn’t the unmasking of the villain but the way in which Wimsey dealt with the situation.  These were very different times indeed.

Death Comes As The End (1945) by Agatha Christie

Death Comes as the End

I have a little pile of old Agatha Christie paperbacks that I turn to every now and again when I’m stuck for ideas or just want something quick and easy to read. I don’t tend to hang on to them afterwards, most get returned to the Oxfam shop when I’m done, but I’m tempted to keep this one, just because it’s a little bit weird. And that makes me like it.

Some of Christie’s standalone novels have ended up becoming fast favourites so I was all geared up to like this one from the start. As an added bonus, this one is set in the Middle East and has a bit of a historic bent, just like Murder in Mesopotamia which I have very tender memories of. As far as I’m aware Death Comes as the End is the only one with a non-contemporary setting and in fact I thought that made it sound pretty interesting in itself. Plus, it’s Agatha Christie and I am yet to ever find myself bored by one of her mysteries. It’s just never going to happen.

This strange little book is set in Egypt in 2000BC and centres on a bickering family who are thrown into turmoil when the patriarch takes a new wife. The beautiful Nofret makes herself unpopular from the start so when her body is discovered at the bottom of a cliff she’s not mourned by her step-children. Soon, however, the bodies are piling up and it’s clear that there’s a murderer in their midst. I’m always reassured when there’s a high death count as I sometimes think that Christie is at her best when she’s extreme, when everyone dies or everyone is guilty.

In some respects this is probably quite an ordinary mystery. You could play these events out in an English country house in the 1920s and you’d just need to remove some references to pyramids, hieroglyphs and gods for it all to make perfect sense. But it’s well constructed, as you would expect: the plot is tight, there’s an interesting cast of wicked and unlikeable suspects, some clever misdirection and a nice little reveal at the end. I never quite shook off the expectation that Poirot would waddle in to solve the murder but in the end the mystery was solved by the very character I had pegged as the murderer….. Ha.

If I had to find something to criticise about this one I’d say that the Egyptianness sometimes felt a little forced, a bit like she’d shoehorned in some stuff about pyramids and the Nile to make it feel more authentic. I enjoyed this book too much to dwell on it very much though.

To finish, here’s a photo from the inside cover of my copy of this book:

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I hope Rose had a nice time wherever she went (Egypt maybe?).

The Shape Of Water (2003) by Andrea Camilleri

SHapeOfWaterWork has been a bit grim lately so, to cheer me up, P booked us a weekend away in Oxford. I’d never been before but we had a great time exploring all those ancient streets, colleges and museums. We crammed a lot in that day, including a stop for lunch at a veggie pub called The Gardener’s Arms where I had a really good chilli cheese hot dog. I don’t really like hot dogs. That’s how good this one was.

Our table was next to a little book shelf and while we waited for our food we spent a little time browsing. Inevitably I ended up taking two books home with me and the barman would only let me give him £3 for them, which was very kind as they were both in good nick. One of the books was The Haunted House, a collection of Victorian ghost stories from the likes of Dickens, Gaskell, Collins et al. Apparently I don’t have enough classic ghost stories.

The other was this book, an Inspector Montalbano mystery by Andrea Camilleri, chosen purely because I love the TV show which you can sometimes find on BBC 4 late at night. In case you’ve not seen it, most of the show is taken up with the insanely long opening credits but there’s also some beautiful Sicilian scenery, several  people shouting at each other in Italian, some petty crime and lots of really gratuitous shots of seafood being prepared and eaten. I mean, really, it’s mainly about a man who eats seafood and solves the occasional murder on the side. Usually after his afternoon nap. I love it.

In this book Salvo Montalbano investigates the death of a local politician whose body is discovered in a car on a notorious beach used by local prostitutes. He suspects it’s got something to do with political rivalry in the dead guy’s party but he’s also got to deal with a missing diamond necklace, a mafia shoot out and an old man who thinks his wife is having an affair with the octogenarian postman. To make things worse several beautiful women want to sleep with him but he’s too preoccupied with eating seafood, napping and solving crimes to pay them any attention.

“As they ate they spoke of eating, as always happens in Italy. Zito, after reminiscing about the heavenly shrimp he had enjoyed ten years earlier at Fiacca, criticised these for being a little over done and regretted that they lacked a hint of parsley…”

I wasn’t overly gripped by the mystery but I think this is probably down to the very casual, laid back style in which it’s written. Part of me loves all that local colour; the food, the sunsets, the beautiful women, the humour. The scene setting is actually really well done and Camilleri is great at providing really effortless place descriptions that don’t feel tired or forced. But the other half of me gets frustrated and wants to feel a bit more engaged with the story and the characters. I guess it’s a book you read for the setting and the atmosphere, rather than for the mystery.

I hate to say it but I think I might prefer the TV show. Actually, let’s be truthful, I don’t hate to say it. I get a weird, perverted kick out of preferring the adaptation to the book. I’m like that. But I’m glad I read it, if only because I’ve been meaning to read one of these books ever since I discovered the show. At least now I can cross it off my ever growing TBR list.

Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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“My intellect is a little way upon the wrong side of that boundary line between sanity and insanity….”

After my dismal failure with The Sot Weed Factor I threw myself into Lady Audley’s Secret thinking a bit of fluffy Victorian melodrama would be a welcome change of scenery. It was. With just a few short chapters to go this morning I found myself speed reading on the train to work, desperately trying to cram in as much as possible before my stop. Annoyingly I reached the final big reveal, an intense deathbed confession, just as my train pulled into the station. If it hadn’t been such a wet day I might have continued reading while I walked to the office but instead I had to put the book away and spend the next four hours at my desk mulling over this dramatic twist until lunch time. This is one of the worst things about reading on public transport. You are completely at the mercy of the bus route or the train timetable.

LadyAudley2Describing Lady Audley’s Secret as a bit of fluffy melodrama is really pretty unfair. It makes it sound kind of trivial when really it’s cleverly written and very entertaining. To begin with it follows two separate plot strands. Firstly there’s rich widower Sir Michael Audley and his unlikely romance with a much younger and much poorer governess. At the same time as this new Lady Audley is being installed in Sir Michael’s grand home, his nephew Robert meets an old friend named George Talboys who has just returned to England from the gold hunts in Australia. George is on his way home to reunite with the wife he hasn’t seen in three years when he reads the devastating news of her sudden death in the newspaper. He abruptly disappears a short while later and Robert becomes convinced that something terrible has happened to his friend and that his uncle’s pretty new wife knows something about it.

I think I’m probably just a bit of a sucker for all that Victorian sensationalism. Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of arson/murder/bigamy/insanity/blackmail every now and then? It’s all so gripping that you can look past the fact that the plot really hinges on an improbable coincidence and that actually there isn’t any real mystery. We all know from the beginning what Robert suspects, even though he’s too afraid to give voice to those suspicions.

Some of Braddon’s characters are described with real warmth, detail and humour. This is one of my favourite character portraits:

“He was like his own square-built, northern fronted, shelterless house. There were no shady nooks in his character into which one could creep for shelter from his hard daylight. He was all daylight. He looked at everything in the same broad glare of intellectual sunlight and could see no softening shadows that might alter the sharp outlines of cruel facts, subduing them to beauty.”

Her female characters are particularly compelling and you can tell that she’s taken particular care to make them feel real. There’s no swooning, no delicate weeping into lace handkerchiefs, no infants clutched tenderly to bosoms. What a relief.

Lady Audley is full of fire and passion and I liked her very much, even though I know I probably wasn’t supposed to. I like the idea of all this emotion being hidden behind a ‘doll-like’ and ‘childish’ face. She never feels particularly dangerous (in fact, there were several occasions when I felt quite sorry for her) and I was a little let down by the way she was eventually dealt with, both by Braddon and by Robert Audley. It was all just too convenient, too quick and easy. I’d have been happier if she’d been motivated by simple greed or ambition instead of being some kind of unnatural, unwomanly villainness. Really I’d have found it easier to believe in Robert’s madness.

Towards the end it all unravels pretty quickly but I didn’t really mind that. It’s not great literature perhaps – I preferred The Woman in White which is similar in many ways – but it’s still an entertaining read.

The Monogram Murders (2014) by Sophie Hannah

MonogramI was a bit dubious about reading this, I have to admit it.  Hercule Poirot is without doubt my favourite fictional detective so I was pretty scathing about the idea that another author would even attempt to write a Poirot mystery. But my colleague (who’s also a big Agatha Christie fan) had already read this and she swore it wasn’t half bad. And since I value her opinion on all things bookish (this is the same colleague who kicked off The Forsyte Saga craze that swept our office a few years ago) I decided I’d have to give it a go after all. We agreed on a swap; her copy of The Monogram Murders in exchange for my tatty ex-library copy of The Moving Finger . I got the better deal obviously.  The Monogram Murders, although flawed, is actually a more entertaining read (sorry Agatha).

The mystery all centres around three dead bodies which are discovered carefully laid out in separate rooms of the Bloxham Hotel in London, each with a monogrammed cufflink placed inside the mouth. It’s 1929 and the famous detective Hercule Poirot is in temporary retirement but he joins forces with Inspector Catchpool of Scotland Yard to investigate. Poirot is convinced the murders are related to his encounter with a mysterious woman in a coffee shop on the same night of the murders, a woman who swore that she was in danger for her life but begged that her murderers not be apprehended. Catchpool isn’t convinced.

Oh Catchpool. How the heck did he make it through detective school?  Poirot has had to put up with some sidekick dunces in his time but Catchpool really takes the biscuit. I got a bit fed up with his little flashbacks, his whinging, his failure to see the obvious right before his eyes… not to mention the fact that he’s so afraid of looking at the bodies in the hotel that he abandons the crime scene and goes home. Surely that’s not what detectives are supposed to do? Scotland Yard’s finest? Yeah right.

If we leave the inept Catchpool aside, this book is actually very readable and I think Hannah does a great job of reimagining the little Belgian detective. Hercule Poirot is such a well-known figure, famous for his characteristic little foibles and unique turns of phrase, that recreating him was always going to be difficult. But Hannah clearly did her research and I think she convincingly brings him back to life. To me her character always felt like Poirot, mainly because she’d taken a lot of care to include all those little traits that he’s known for. I thought the neatness was perhaps a little over exaggerated, and the dialogue of other characters didn’t always feel authentic, but on the whole everything was there that I expected to be there. Except the casual 1920s bigotry of course. I’m not sure Christie could have included a central character like Signor Luca Lazzari without using him as an excuse to have a pop at the Italians.

Maybe I’m just too harsh on Christie sometimes.

The real problem with this novel isn’t with Poirot but with the mystery, which I’m not sure is worthy of Christie. It’s a clever idea but I don’t think Hannah weaves it altogether with the same skill. The hints aren’t subtle enough, the red herrings are too few and far between and the real clues just a little too obvious. With an original Agatha Christie novel the killer almost always ends up being someone you’ve not even considered or, if it is someone obvious, she throws in a clever twist that you didn’t see coming instead. In contrast, I can’t say that I was ever surprised by The Monogram Murders. I almost always felt like I knew which way the story was heading. It was clever, but just not quite clever enough.

I’m very glad I read this though, just because it’s nice to see someone new have a stab (sorry) at such a familiar character. For all its faults it did really have me gripped for a good few days.

Apologies if this review is not up to my usual standards (whatever they may be). I’ve been in bed with a nasty, shivery cold for the past few days and concentrating on writing this has been the most exertion I’ve had in a while. I’ve spent all my weekend curled up in bed watching rugby, property makeover shows and old episodes of The Adam & Joe Show on 4 OD. I’m now going to make myself a Lemsip and return to my room. Night all.