I treated myself to this book in the summer, though sadly it sat in my ‘To Read’ pile much longer than anticipated because this term has been killing me! Finally though, I’ve made enough headway in my marking to allow me to read for pleasure again, rather than only for work.
I quite enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s Poirot debut, The Monogram Murders, in 2014, finding it a pleasant exception to the rule that detective pastiches are almost always awful (seriously, there are sooo many bad Sherlock Holmes pastiches out there, I’ve almost given up on finding a decent one). It was original enough to be gripping and faithful enough to Christie’s Poirot novels that it didn’t feel like a low quality rip-off. I was pretty confident therefore that I would enjoy this one too.
It didn’t disappoint. Everything that I enjoyed about her first book was present in this one too. All the hallmarks of a Christie classic murder mystery are there: the stately home setting, the dysfunctional aristocratic family, the obtuse police inspector, the idée fixe of a literary allusion – in this case Shakespeare’s King John – and, of course, Hercule Poirot himself. Also returning is Edward Catchpool, Hannah’s detective from the first novel who serves as a sort of hybrid of Inspector Japp and Captain Hastings.
The novel utilises one of the classic tropes of detective fiction: the alteration of a will and the ensuing numerous murder suspects this creates. Lady Playford, a very successful children’s writer, invites Poirot and Catchpool to her manor in Ireland for the weekend where she announces at the dinner table that she will be altering her will in favour of her terminally-ill secretary Joseph Scotcher, despite his pronouncement that he has only months to live and much to the dismay of her son Harry, daughter Claudia, their respective partners and her solicitor Michael Gathercole.
Poirot immediately suspects that he and Catchpool have been invited to prevent a murder. Ultimately though, Lady Playford’s goal is not successful and Joseph Scotcher is murdered that very night, leaving Poirot and Catchpool with an entire houseful of people with a motive and nothing more than a bewildering overheard conversation about a closed casket to start them on their quest for answers. However, it soon becomes clear that this about far more than just money.
The period vocabulary, the pacing and the plot are all wonderful. They very much fit with the atmosphere of Christies’s novels and serve as a faithful homage. The mystery itself – I’ll refrain from revealing who did it – was pleasingly complex enough that I struggled to identify the murder successfully before the dénouement. Hannah touches on concepts of obsession and psychology with modern wisdom yet makes it work believably in the period setting.
My one real complaint was that one particular character’s quoting of King John felt a little overdone at times, so that it occasionally felt like a parody of a Christie character, rather than a real one. However, this didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment and I think this book is perfectly entitled to share a shelf with all my others by the Queen of Crime herself.
Should Sophie Hannah be inclined to write another Poirot story, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it.
My rating: 3.5/5