Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot limps back to life—barely—in this fan fiction
Sophie Hannah’s new Hercule Poirot novel is clumsily plotted and disappointing in its resolution
In 2014, when the British writer Sophie Hannah took on the task of resurrecting the iconic fictional Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot nearly four decades after he last made his literary appearance, she made it abundantly clear that she would not be writing “as Agatha Christie, in her voice." Hannah reiterated this stand at Bangalore Literature Festival last year, pointing out that readers coming to her books with the hope of reading a Christie mystery would be making a mistake. Her fourth novel in the series, The Killings At Kingfisher Hill, which came out recently, justifies her insistent notes of caution.
In fact, in each of the Poirot books, Hannah’s proviso has served her well. It is impossible to match the elegantly plotted narratives by the queen of detective fiction—not least because of the economy with which she conjured up entire milieus and their vices with a few deft strokes. Hannah’s books, in contrast, are sprawling, often clumsily structured, with loose ends dangling. Although she pulls off a decent imitation of Poirot, the man in her hand tends to struggle too hard to get into the Christie mould. His usual verbal tic of breaking into French, exasperation with the English character, and references to the “little grey cells" can get somewhat tedious, as though boxes are being ticked dutifully to create a portrait as close to the historical Poirot as possible. But that's the least of the problems, really.
In The Killings At Kingfisher Hill, Poirot and his sidekick, Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard (who is Hannah’s narrator, in lieu of Christie’s Arthur Hastings), are summoned to an English country estate to investigate a murder. At first, they have to visit under false pretenses—feigning interest in a board game that the patriarch of the family is obsessed with—because the entire Devonport clan, barring one, doesn't want the crime to be probed into. But soon, the Poirot-Catchpool act is exposed by the daughter of the house, and the two men are forced to return in their professional capacities to investigate the murder of the oldest and estranged son of the immensely wealthy family.
To her credit, Hannah keeps the reader on tenterhooks, piling on twists and turns for the first 100-odd pages, though some of them seem improbable, if not absurd. The air of confusion is thickened by the fact that the alleged murderer confesses to the crime from the start, though at least two members of the aggrieved Devonports refuse to believe her testimony. Hannah builds on this suspense, adding a second confession to the plot, another murder, and a case of mistaken identity. To this reader, however, that last bit of the “mystery" was obvious from miles ahead. The resolution of the plot, too, is laboured, if not a bit anticlimactic.
Hannah’s depiction of the Devonport family, with their mutual hostility and closely guarded grudges, harks back to the aristocratic haughtiness of a certain era. She builds up the psychological profiles of some of her dramatis personae with sly touches. But it is with the character of Catchpool she makes her worst slips. Cut out of the same cloth as Hastings, Catchpool isn’t supposed to be too bright, but for a policeman with the Scotland Yard, he sounds astonishingly dim at times, failing to make connections that should be fairly obvious to any discerning reader paying the least bit of attention. And although Poirot keeps upbraiding him for not exercising his little grey cells hard enough, the failing, it often seems, is not so much due to the poor man's lassitude but to his creator's.
FIRST PUBLISHED31.08.2020 | 11:00 AM IST