Inspector Edward Catchpool has been summoned to the house of famous children’s novelist Lady Athelinda Playford’s home in Clonakilty, Cork. Also attending the gathering is the inimitable Hercule Poirot. But this is no ordinary gathering for Lady Athelinda has decided to change her will, disinheriting her two children and leaving her estate to someone who only has weeks to live. Poirot believes that he and Catchpool have been invited to prevent a murder. But why is Lady Athelinda determinded to provoke a possible killer? And when the murderer does strike can Poirot discover the motive behind Lady Playford’s actions regarding her will, and deduce who the killer is?
I’ll start out by saying that I haven’t read Sophie Hannah before, either her own creations or The Monogram Murders that first resurrected Poirot, so I went into the book with no expectations. Following in the footsteps of the doyenne of crime fiction is always going to be difficult, perhaps more so, when you are already a highly regarded crime writer yourself.
It has been many, many years since I have read an Agatha Christie novel. I have, of course, watched various incarnations of her famous Belgian detective and these have somewhat skewed what I know to be my deep love of the written originals. I did try, however, to ensure this didn’t taint my thoughts regarding this book.
I felt that Poirot didn’t appear as much as I would have perhaps liked. He seemed more distant and often didn’t appear in the story for chapters at a time. Catchpool features more heavily, understandable perhaps as he narrates the story. I was soon transported back to the 1920s. The scenes where Poirot featured were treats, just perhaps not as generous as I would have liked. He was partly the Poirot that remains in my imagination, considered, cryptic and clever. I would have simply hoped for him to feature a little more so that his character didn’t appear as fleeting and sometimes lacking in dimension as I found him. As for Catchpool, I thoroughly enjoyed his character. He had a realistic and lovely relationship with Poirot, being both maddened by him and intrigued. There seemed a genuine fondness for his Belgian friend, together with the exasperation and feeling of being in Poirot’s wake that seems an inevitable part of knowing the detective. As for the other guests and residents of the house, many of them are not particularly likeable, with many far from hiding their frustrating character traits and in fact revelling in them. Even the butler Haddon is a contradiction to the usual butler, who has reached the stage where he would rather say nothing to any question, than provide the wrong answer. Some of the time I thought that I was not enjoying this story, as Poirot disappeared again, or one of the characters was being confusedly annoying. But then I realised I was actually enjoying the story, despite the issues I had with it. It was engaging and entertaining and the motive and dénouement was very well played out.
Part of the fun for me with crime fiction is trying to work out who committed the crime so I had a jolly old time discounting suspects and giving random motives to others as I read. I finally figured out the perpetrator about midway through the book. I could therefore sit back and enjoy Poirot exercise those famous grey cells to deduce why the dastardly deed had been committed and by whom. There was the inevitable gathering of the suspects, the circling of the room giving possible reasons why each character could be the murderer, then discounting them before moving on. This is the part where Poirot comes into his own, explaining his methodology, discussing the minutia of the case before the big reveal.
I was curious to see how someone follows in the footsteps of one the crime writing greats and now my curiosity has been sated. This was an enjoyable read, and it was lovely to re-engage with Poirot, in a new reimagined setting. Agatha Christie’s estate would only allow the return of the Belgian detective by someone with the suitable skill and flair to retain that character that is beloved by many. I think their faith in Sophie Hannah has been repaid in that she retains the spirit of Christie. She has certainly reignited my love of Christie’s work and made me want to go back and read her novels again. As for Sophie Hannah’s novels, now I’ve read one, I’ll have to try more of her books featuring her own characters in the future.