The New York Times Review: on the return of Poirot

Nobody would dispute the fact that Hercule Poirot, the elegant Belgian detective, he of the patent-leather shoes and the waxed mustache, is dead. Agatha Christie brought him to an end in her appropriately named novel, “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case,” and The New York Times itself marked his death with a fictional obituary. But the demise of the hero, and of the author, no longer needs to be the end of the story. The literary executors of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, have held this view for some years, and there seems to be no end to the public’s enthusiasm for rewritten versions of a whole host of literary favorites.

The purists, of course, shake their heads in disapproval, arguing that fictional characters are the product of a particular imagination and should not be endlessly reimagined by later generations of authors. Others, while not objecting in principle, believe writers should concoct something new rather than reheat old dishes. That might seem a bit stuffy. If we like fictional characters, why should we not have more of them? Those of us who are fans of E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels are nothing but grateful that Tom Holt and Guy Fraser-Sampson have given us a stream of new reports from the world of those formidable ladies. More power to them. Fans of Babar will also surely applaud Laurent de Brunhoff for continuing where his father left off. Without the son’s sequels, there is so much we would never have known about Celesteville.

The Agatha Christie estate has been cautious about joining in this sort of literary resurrection. And with good reason. It has been estimated that some two billion of her books have already been sold throughout the world, and their continued popularity is astounding. Film and television adaptations abound, and her (non-Poirot) play “The Mousetrap” is now in its 62nd year on the West End stage.

And yet a writer’s popularity may not last forever. Even those who have enjoyed massive fame — W. Somerset Maugham, for example — can eventually become something of a minority taste. Even if Christie appears immune to this literary mortality, it might have been with one eye to encouraging a new readership that her estate agreed to allow a new Hercule Poirot novel. And now we have it, from the pen of Sophie Hannah, a British writer of psychological crime novels and an avowed admirer of the Queen of Crime.

Poirot first appeared in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” published in 1920, and was then featured in a series of novels and short stories. It is difficult to attribute his popularity to a single characteristic, but we need to remind ourselves that when Poirot first appeared, the crime novel did not have the psychological and social depth it was to acquire in the second half of the 20th century. To English-speaking readers of the 1920s and ’30s, he must have seemed something of an exotic. A Belgian, he had Continental ways, habits that would have seemed striking to the average British or American reader of the time. All that has changed, of course, and an exotic location or an unusual occupation or set of interests is more or less de rigueur for the protagonist of a modern mystery. Being Belgian would certainly not be enough to attract the attention of contemporary fans of the genre — even being Scandinavian, although admittedly helpful, is not quite enough. Nowadays, a detective has, in addition, to be an acupuncturist, a Buddhist or something similarly distinctive before any notice is taken. But Poirot was implanted early in the popular imagination, and he has been firmly fixed there ever since. A perfect hero for the classic detective story, he is well-­mannered and punctilious, with a marvelous ability to see through people. Aided by the actor David Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot, we can easily picture him, with his tidy mustache and his neat, rather elegant attire. If we had a murder in our own house, he is exactly the sort of detective we would wish to see in attendance.

So at last we come to the crucial question: Does Sophie Hannah’s Poirot live up to our expectations? Yes, he does, and markedly so. Set in London in the winter of 1929, “The Monogram Murders” is both faithful to the character and an entirely worthy addition to the canon. It follows something of the formula of a country house murder, complete with bodies in locked rooms, although the scene of the crime is actually an elegant hotel near Piccadilly Circus where three people (two women and a man) have been poisoned. Each corpse has been carefully positioned, “as a doctor might lay out his deceased patient,” and left with a monogrammed cuff link in its mouth. The case is presented to us by a young Scotland Yard detective, Edward Catchpool, who lives at the boardinghouse where Poirot has taken temporary lodging, intent on enjoying “one month at least of restful inactivity” to conserve the energy of his brain’s “little gray cells.” But, of course, the investigation proves irresistible. Especially, as Poirot notes, because “cuff links come in pairs,” suggesting that a fourth murder may yet occur.

The plot is as tricky as anything written by Agatha Christie. Nothing is obvious or predictable in this very difficult Sudoku of a novel. “The Monogram Murders” has a life and freshness of its own. Poirot is still Poirot. Poirot is back