onsdag 31 maj 2017

Hercule returns, but did he need to?

We're back to the theme of character-pinching. Sophie Hannah - an acclaimed crime writer in her own right - has to this date penned two new Hercule Poirot mysteries, with the approval of the Christie estate. I'm ashamed to admit I have no idea who the Christie estate are, but they needn't feel they've sold out: Hannah's crime stories are high-quality page turners and suitably whodunnity. I was left wondering, though, if the link to Agatha Christie and specifically Poirot was strictly necessary. One thing is clear: if these books - The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket - hadn't been marketed as Poirot mysteries, I probably wouldn't have read them. Hannah's other novels appear to belong to a scarier crime tradition - the psychological thriller - than Christie, and I would not have thought of looking for old-style whodunnits among her work.

Something of a psychological thriller feel does seep into these new Poirot novels, but not so much as to keep one awake at night. They're not quite classic Christie crimes, being more focused on making the crime or crimes themselves bewildering conundrums. In the first book, the detectives have to figure out how the murders could have been committed at all; in the second, the big poser is who would kill a dying man. I must admit I found the solution to the murders, with regard to motive especially, less satisfying than in Christie. Christie is often underestimated when it comes to characterisation: her characters have a believability which makes the reader swallow one surprising reveal after the other without feeling hoodwinked (there are exceptions: I do think the solution of Sparkling Cyanide was a cheat both psychologically and regarding how the murder was done). In Hannah's Poirot novels, the murder motives are a little strange and twisted. Christie's murderers have a moral blindness in common, and the motive is often something prosaic like downright greed, but the murders tend to make sense in their callous way: there's seldom anything weird about them. Though there are exceptions here as well. You can say that Hannah's mysteries have more in common with A Tragedy in Three Acts than, for instance, Five Little Pigs. However much or little they resemble Christie, they're certainly a good read.

What of Hercule, then? Hannah's treatment of the iconic Poirot is pleasingly subtle. The egg-shaped head, green eyes, little grey cells and French-isms are given an airing (yes, I know, Poirot is Belgian, but he speaks French) but take a back seat compared to his detective skills. As in Christie, when it comes to explaining the crime at the end, Poirot is suddenly capable of flawless English. His deductions are convincingly brilliant. But as his mannerisms don't play much of a part anyway, I was left wondering why these particular crimes had to be solved by this particular detective.

The question why Poirot is really needed is highlighted by the fact that the sidekick Hannah has invented for him - Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool - is both likeable and competent. Christie herself favoured the idea of a decicedly dense sidekick for her detective, based on her rather ungenerous interpretation of Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Hence poor Hastings, who is never allowed to be right about anything. I prefer Hannah's approach here. It's easier to identify with a character who isn't supposed to be a complete dunce, and as the narrator of the novels Catchpool becomes the reader's point of reference. He is a little Eeyoreish - the fact that he is firmly in the closet, which is why a well-intentioned attempt on Poirot's part to fix him up with a girl falls flat, doesn't exactly help in that regard. But the hang-dogginess suits him, and you trust his psychological insight and common sense (for the most part, anyway).

Why, then, couldn't Catchpool solve these crimes singlehandedly? Why bring Poirot into the story at all? I would say that if Poirot adds anything, it's that little extra dose of brilliance. Catchpool is intelligent, but a bit of a plodder, maybe because he doesn't have the self-confidence to trust his grey matter the way Poirot does. Then, as I've mentioned, the presence of Poirot labels the mysteries as the kind of crime novels a Christie fan will like, and that is admittedly helpful. I like Hannah's understated Poirot, and if she writes any more Poirot-Catchpool mysteries I will certainly read them. If, in time, she lets Catchpool solve a crime all by himself, I'll read that novel too.