‘I’m a dead woman, or I shall be soon…’
Hercule Poirot’s quiet supper in a London coffeehouse is interrupted when a young woman confides to him that she is about to be murdered. She is terrified – but begs Poirot not to find and punish her killer. Once she is dead, she insists, justice will have been done.
Later that night, Poirot learns that three guests at a fashionable London Hotel have been murdered, and a cufflink has been placed in each one’s mouth. Could there be a connection with the frightened woman? While Poirot struggles to put together the bizarre pieces of the puzzle, the murderer prepares another hotel bedroom for a fourth victim…
As some of you might know, I’m a rabid Sherlock Holmes fan, and Hercule Poirot comes at a close second. So when I was presented with the opportunity to read this novel, I jumped at the chance.
I have to say that for a Poirot novel, it’s…let’s say somewhat unusual. For one thing, the narrator is mainly Edward Catchpool, a youngish, seemingly half-incompetent detective, regaling us with a first person, past tense narrative, through which we’re conveyed all manners of odd facts about him, such as his dislike for dead bodies (quite strange for a detective, I’d say, but ok, we can roll with strange, right?), his total mistrust of his own investigative skills and abilities (we’re going from strange to really weird here, if you ask me), a sort of half-crush on Poirot, doubled by the fear that the man is going to be “too Poirot” at times. Not the smoothest of rides, I’ll say.
Before Catchpool makes his entrance, Poirot comes in in a third person, past tense narrative, and I dare say that first chapter was quite possibly the most enjoyable, though the actual meat of the story hadn’t been laid out yet.
Now, as you may expect, as a Christie fan, I’m of the opinion her writing style was the best option for the Poirot stories. I’ll also say her subtle humor, Poirot’s subtle humor, and her clever style made all her works highly enjoyable reads. I found none of that here, and humor is very important for me. Not only does Catchpool have zero humor, good or bad, but the way Poirot is portrayed goes from the very observant, intelligent, refined and funny gentleman to something of an uptight, and at times rude man. Now, Poirot is a character, we all know him, he’s maybe pretentious, but not rude, not coming off as arrogant since the qualities he attributes himself are proven true through the story, each time. I felt like the superficial traits of Poirot were present, but the heart of him wasn’t there. It was like a sketch of him somehow, a vague contour emphasizing those things so Poirot that you knew it was him that had been represented there, but you couldn’t feel his presence. Am I making sense?
I felt the Poirot this novel portrayed didn’t do the real Poirot justice, and Catchpool was nowhere near interesting enough to make up for the lack of the real Poirot charm missing.
The actual mystery was somewhat convoluted, and solving it wasn’t a step by step investigation of clues and analysis of information, it felt more like a sort of series of revelations that Poirot arrived at while Catchpool was bumbling about and finding out things that he didn’t seem to comprehend in the context of the case. I will point out that the Poirot mysteries I’ve read, and I’m not claiming to have read them all, were stories that actually made sense once solved but also during the unsolved phase, even if the circumstances were borderline hard to believe. But while you read the story, you believe, step by step, so then when the grand reveal happens, it feels realistic. That didn’t happen here, the rhythm of mystery solving felt off somehow. And it would have, since we didn’t get to see Poirot’s thought process, he simply seems to do these leaps of logic from out of nowhere. It kind of ruins the whole effect of the Poirot case-solving process, which was so elegant and exciting.
And the grand reveal…I mean… Poirot does have the habit of running a bit long with his stories at the end there, but here it felt dragged out unnecessarily and without putting things in perspective in a satisfying way, possibly because of the dragged out nature of the explanations.
I think part of the issue here is that you’d expect a Hercule Poirot story to keep the mystery writing tropes and structure of Agatha Christie’s times, right? Sophie Hannah’s mystery writing is nowhere near old-school, it’s as current as it gets: more into the zone of serial murders, motive more convoluted and psychological rather than money or crimes of passion, clues mixed in with a lot of action to keep the adrenaline pumping. I think the main reason this didn’t feel like a proper Poirot mystery is the fact that the author is one of our times, good at writing by the conventions of current mystery / suspense / thriller. I think it’s tough to morph into a person of other times, unless that’s your fiber, you know what I mean? And if it’s your fiber, then you’d be writing that kind of mystery to begin with, not the current kind.
I will say that taking on the task of writing a Poirot novel is a very gutsy thing, and no matter how good a writer you are, you’re being compared to a mystery sweetheart and legend. Let’s be honest here, those reading this novel would mostly be Agatha Christie fans, like I am. Will anyone else’s storytelling, writing style and use of Poirot do for us? Quite possibly not.
The only chance a new author would have doing that is doing things in such a different way, that we’d be unable to compare the work to Agatha Christie, but I don’t see how that might happen using one of her trademark characters. And if you take a version of Poirot out of the Christie context, storytelling and writing style, then what’s left? Bits of something that was very good in its original form.
So I will say that while the read wasn’t bad, I had terribly high expectations, which it quite possibly couldn’t have met anyway. It wasn’t wow, it wasn’t what I hoped it might be, it didn’t give me more of the good thing I love, but some of a new, and not that exciting thing. Then again maybe the transition will happen with a few more novels, maybe I’ll get accustomed to Sophie Hannah’s style and vision and grow to love it…will it ever be anywhere near Agatha Christie’s for me? Impossible.
In the end, if you’re a big-time fan of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot, I can’t say you’ll find what you’re looking for in this novel. If you’re into historical mystery though, it might actually work out a lot better for you. Not comparing the characters to Christie’s and the writing to Christie’s and so on might make this a more enjoyable read. So maybe I’m recommending it to readers who haven’t actually tried much of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories, because maybe they’ll give this novel a better shot than us Christie fans might.