Watching a detective: Hercule Poirot returns, but does he survive the journey?

Sophie Hannah’s revival of the beloved character Poirot stays true in some ways to Agatha Christie's style but falls short in others.

David Suchet as Poirot in the classic ITV adaptation. Does the character survive a new outing? ITV / REX
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"HERCULE POIROT IS DEAD: FAMED BELGIAN DETECTIVE" ran the front-page of The New York Times on August 7, 1975. His death – mercifully, of natural causes – was recounted in Curtain and published a few months before the death of his creator, Dame Agatha Christie. Thirty-nine years later, her grandson has authorised a resurrection of the illustrious sleuth-flaneur in The Monogram Murders [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk].

The chosen author, Sophie Hannah, has sensibly taken us back to February 1929, nine years after Poirot's triumphant debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and three years after the audacious Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sensible, in that we have Poirot at his best without too much history; but daunting for Hannah in that it is also Christie at her finest. This was the dawn of the Golden Age of detective fiction, when Poirot had to shine against Dorothy L Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham's Albert Campion. The genre proved popular because, as The Times Literary Supplement suggested, it "provided nameable explicable corpses to mourn, after the senseless obliterations of the First World War … an insistence of evidence, reason and proof is democracy's response to the threat of totalitarianism".

Christie, especially, buttressed this by arranging her murders in what Raymond Chandler dismissed as “the laburnum-and-lodge-gate English country house” and where, even into the 1960s, no one but the servants seemed to work.

But to the big question: how does Sophie Hannah measure up? Christie’s great strength was her ability to make each page throw the hook for the next. She offered the easiest of reading and had the steadiest of hands, remaining faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s formula of omission and disguise – withholding the “whodunnit” to the very end. Hannah has honoured this tradition beautifully. As with the original, the all-important plot is propelled chiefly by dialogue.

She has also captured the wonderfully unidiomatic English that distinguished Poirot. One can almost hear David Suchet (whose quarter-century as the television embodiment of the Belgian made the legend his own): “You hit the head of the nail”; “another coincidence enormé”; “Even I, Hercule Poirot, do not yet know what matters and what is irrelevant.”

What provokes Poirot to make this rare concession is his foil – another nod to a noble tradition but not, alas, Arthur Hastings, the old Etonian through whose dull eyes the narratives of half his 50 stories and eight of his 33 books were filtered. In The Monogram Murders, the foil, and narrator, is the anxious, callow Scotland Yard detective, Edward Catchpool, who happens to be sharing the London lodging house where Poirot is taking the break he never gets. It was said of Hastings that he was already so woolly-headed that no one needed to pull the wool over his eyes. The decent Catchpool is only marginally less woolly. He has spent a month on a crossword and it is still incomplete. Poirot used to claim "I never pull the leg", but as with Hastings he could not resist assailing Catchpool for his "pin-cushion brain".

What is missing in this revival is an evocation of the tight, titled, turreted world that Agatha Christie made her own. No Enderby Hall or Hasse House; no Lyde Manor or Styles Court. Great Holling, the village of the victims, sounds promising, but Catchpool had to make do with King’s Head Inn when he visited, while Poirot did not get beyond a chilly hall in the ­vicarage.

The Monogram Murders opens in a coffee house and moves to the scene of the crimes, the apparently luxurious belle époque Bloxham Hotel. It is true that the Dame's description of decor was always spare but there is no sense of the splendid, privileged comfort of Miss Marples' beloved Bertram's Hotel. Apart from the incidental figure of Lord Wallace and his wife, the whole cast are commoners, a most uncommon to-do for the Queen of Crime.

And where's the glamour? One hopes for a glimpse of Poirot's favourite, Countess Rossakoff, or Ariadne Oliver, but we must be content with Lee Spring and Blanche Unsworth. There is no chance that "the butler did it" as there is not a butler in sight. Nor is there any sign of George, the solid, stolid valet who came to Poirot the year before – and was still with him at Curtain. For all we know, Sophie Hannah's Poirot could be sleuthing, not in the 20s, but in that dreariest of decades, the 1950s.

But yet, why should this accomplished young novelist have to appeal to the atmospherics and the inequity and snobbery of yesteryear? For Agatha Christie, the detective and the puzzle were the thing and in that Sophie Hannah has done justice to the champion deceiver.

Mark McGinness is a freelance writer and reviewer based in Dubai.

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