Agatha Christie Writes Again, Kinda

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Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

By 1930, Agatha Christie found her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot “insufferable,” and by 1960 she felt that he was a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.” (Gee, who thunk him up, Ms. Christie?) Yet the public loved him, and so she refused to kill him off, claiming it was her duty to give readers what they wanted and not what she thought they should want.

What she did do some time before her own death, however, was write Curtain in which the bombastic Belgian dies. And she stipulated that the volume was to be published after her own demise, a request honored in 1977. To some extent, Christie took the same route with the anything-but-bombastic Miss Jane Marple. She penned Sleeping Murder, also for publication once she’d shuffled off her author’s mortal coil. That one was pubbed in 1976. (The significant difference between the two books is that Miss Marple doesn’t die after solving her final murder mystery.)

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I think I’ve read all the Poirot and Marple mysteries—some of them twice, by design or accident. (The titles are often changed to ensnare the innocent, it seems. Murder on the Orient Express was later published as Murder on the Calais Coach and evidently on the up-and-up. Go figure.) I’ve also read the five mysteries involving Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and who remembers them?

And as a die-hard devoté, I accepted Christie’s decision to bump off M. Poirot and to put the coda on Miss Marple as well. I assumed she had them solve final cases in order that there be no more. I even seem to recall Christie saying as much in one way or another, although I can find no record of such a statement.

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Nevertheless, isn’t the ceasing of further cases strongly implied in her Curtain and Sleeping Murder scheme? How else could we interpret it—and, yes, I know we’ve had what seem like innumerable Sherlock Holmes follow-ups and James Bond follow-ups and Scarlett O’Hara follow-ups and you-name it follow-ups. But no follow-ups, in fiction, where the iconic figure has passed to the Great Bookshelf in the Sky?

Turns out there is another way to interpret Christie’s scheme. True, there can be no Poirot mystery set at any time after 1976, but what about before his bucket-kicking? Well, why the devil not? So here comes “The New Hercule Poirot Mystery—as the banner on the dust jacket banner for The Monogram Murders (William Morrow, $25.99, 302 pp.) heralds. It’s by respected mystery writer Sophie Hannah.

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The Monogram Murders by  Agatha Christis Sophie Hannah
The Monogram Murders by Agatha Christie Sophie Hannah

It arrives fully authorized by the Christie estate, whose decision makers are on record as saying they’re aiming to satisfy the continued cravings of longtime readers and to introduce new readers to their bestselling bequestress. Bestselling, ha! According to sales statistics, Christie, at over two billion books sold, is only outpaced in literary history by the Bible and Shakespeare.

Nowhere in the book’s promotional material does it mention that interest in reaping new revenues is behind authorizing an Agatha Christie mystery not written by Agatha Christie. Incidentally, the late writer’s name is billboarded on the book cover in gold relief and at least three times the size of Hannah’s.

Also nowhere in the press releases is there a suggestion that bringing new readers to Christie might just as easily be accomplished by issuing new editions from her canon. Maybe backed by a strong advertising campaign with a slogan like “What?! You’re not already an Agatha Christie fan?”

Rattled by the appearance of this non-Christie Christie, I contacted the William Morrow press person. With admirable efficiency at that end, I received a statement from David Brawn, HarperCollins estates publisher in the U.K.

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Explaining the rationale for the new whodunit, Brawn makes a few pertinent comments. “The estate’s position has long been that, with more than 80 crime novels and collections to her name, and strong repeat sales, it was unnecessary to create new stories, and the publishers have largely agreed with this,” he writes, adding, “I’m not sure whether there is any evidence to suggest that killing Poirot was specifically to prevent anyone else writing for him, simply that [Curtain] would be a great story to write.”

Hmmm. Mightn’t Brawn and associates have done some more intrepid sleuthing in order to ascertain definitively that there was or was not evidence that would clarify Christie’s intentions?

They didn’t, and so The Monogram Murders is a fait accompli—a livre accompli. And now it’s possible that you think you’re about to read an excoriation of Hannah or HarperCollins.

Not so. Hannah has put Poirot in the forefront of an extremely clever mystery that takes place in the ‘20s, when, of course, the beloved man began his exploits. Taking a break from the home where perspective clients know to find him, Poirot is in residence at a nearby guesthouse. There, Edward Claypool, a somewhat naïve Scotland Yard officer, also abides.

Both men are caught up in a caper when young and terrified Jennie arrives at a tearoom where Poirot is a regular. She claims that her life is in immediate danger, and she refers to deaths at a local hotel. What ensues runs to two women and a man, all from the same English village, turning up as corpses, each with a cufflink in his or her mouth bearing the initials PIJ. (Hence The Monogram Murders.)

Finding the situation confusing but not ultimately baffling, Poirot—with the unskilled Claypool questioning his every observation—goes on a chase that overturns long suppressed secrets of the three hotel victims and several of their associates.

No question that Hannah has produced a worthwhile read. The question is whether Christie would have written it this way. (Another question is: Does it matter?) My answer is that while Hannah does commendable work at resurrecting Poirot, I’m not entirely convinced it’s the Poirot that Christie lovers will completely recognize. Nor is it quite the style in which Christie, not known for exquisite prose, wrote.

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As I turned the pages, I had the sense I was in the presence of a Poirot impersonator—a very good one but not the real thing. He behaved in Poirot’s fastidious manner but more as a sly imposter.

The mystery Hannah plots may even be more convoluted than one that Christie would have perpetuated, but it’s the little things as well. As someone who delighted in Poirot’s quirks, I kept waiting for him to utter his usual “Tiens,” but he never does. I know I can’t dismiss Hannah’s Poirot for such an infraction, but still…

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One thing you should be able to bet on is that David Suchet will not be playing the mustachioed sleuth anytime soon. He’s made a point publicly of laying his Poirot to rest, even if William Morrow hasn’t.