“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Friday, November 14, 2014
The latest fictional detective to be resurrected is Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who featured in more than 30 novels. By some distance the most popular mystery author of all time, Christie’s final Poirot novel, Curtain, was published in 1975, although Christie – who died the following year – had written that book some three decades previously.
In Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders (HarperCollins), which is set in 1929, we first encounter Poirot, ‘the retired policeman from the Continent’, in ‘a most enjoyable state of hibernation’. When a terrified young woman called Jennie blunders into a London coffee shop and sits at Poirot’s table, however, his famous little grey cells are energised by Jennie’s bizarre story of her impending murder – and her assertion that nothing must be done to stop it, because only then will justice be done.
Enter Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, a police detective who stands in for Poirot’s regular sounding-board Arthur Hastings, to narrate the story of Poirot’s latest investigation. It centres on a triple killing at the Bloxham Hotel, in which two women and a man are discovered identically murdered in three separate rooms, each with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths. Naturally, the heinous crime is much more complicated than it at first appears, and only Poirot has the required acumen to disentangle the strands. Agatha Christie was justifiably celebrated for her intricate plots, and Sophie Hannah has done full justice to that reputation with a story that baffles to the final page.
Not that everyone is entirely pleased by the bewildering nature of the tale. ‘Next time you’d like me to grasp something at once,’ Catchpool reproves a preening Poirot, ‘open your mouth and tell me facts. Be straightforward about it. You’ll find it saves a lot of bother.’
Indeed, Sophie Hannah provides a double function in The Monogram Murders. The story is told in Agatha Christie’s style, but it also partly serves as a critique. Poirot is on holiday here, and has taken up residence in a house a whole three hundred yards from his home for the pleasure of looking back to enjoy the view. While the story is a full-blooded Poirot tale, a very English story of murder from the mystery novel’s Golden Age complete with quaint villages, vicarages and rare poisons, and – a clue! – afternoon tea taken at the wrong time, there are occasions, as above, when Hannah, via Catchpool, gently points out some of the flaws in Christie’s story-telling, particularly when it comes to Poirot’s infuriatingly obscure ‘method’, which as often as not delivered crucial clues to the reader about the identity of the murderer very late in the proceedings.
Christie is also criticised for being too mechanical in her plotting, which makes Sophie Hannah an intriguing choice to write a Poirot novel. Hannah’s own crime novels are largely concerned with the psychology of criminality – the village of Great Holling, where this story has its roots, can be found in the same Culver Valley that provides the setting for Hannah’s books – which adds a frisson to Poirot’s declaration that, ‘We must think not only of the physical facts but of the psychological.’ Ultimately, we discover, The Monogram Murders is a novel in which the mechanics of plot, and Poirot’s reputation as the canniest of detectives, are harnessed for the purpose of exploring that simplest and strangest of all human emotions, love.
Yet there is much more to The Monogram Murders, as Catchpool the crossword enthusiast discovers to his regret, than the solving of an emotionally charged puzzle. Hannah invests her tale with depth and breadth by investigating the grey areas between sin and crime, as her characters wrestle with Christian morality and the unforeseen consequences of a hypocritical interpretation of the spirit of Christian values (the ostensibly picturesque Great Holling is described as ‘a hell-pit of a village’). Further, the core event of the story offers a scenario that might, seen from different angles, be read as murder, execution or assisted suicide. To muddy the waters even more, Poirot asserts the conventional view that, ‘If a crime has been committed, one must ensure that the criminal is dealt with by the law in an appropriate fashion,’ only to be confounded at a later point by the declaration, ‘We were murderers, not according to the law but according to the truth.’
In a fascinating act of literary ventriloquism from Hannah, the only real bum note is struck by the portrayal of Catchpool, the quasi-Hastings who faithfully records Poirot’s every utterance. A Scotland Yard detective with a terror of dead bodies, who lacks confidence in his own ability and who undermines his investigation on a number of occasions, the unfortunate Catchpool may well be the most hapless detective ever to grace the pages of a mystery novel. ‘Perhaps,’ he suggests when Poirot makes another brilliant discovery, ‘I’m in the wrong job,’ and it’s very difficult indeed not to agree.
That said, there are occasions when it’s impossible not to agree with Catchpool, such as when Poirot assembles a host of characters in the Bloxham Hotel’s dining room for the traditional denouement. ‘I must say,’ Catchpool observes, ‘I did not and never would understand why he required such a sizeable audience. It was not a theatrical production. When I solved a crime … I simply presented my conclusions to my boss and then arrested the miscreant in question.’
Catchpool and Sophie Hannah make a valid point, but then Hercule Poirot, luxuriant moustaches and all, would be nothing without his sense of theatre. Poirot may well be an entirely implausible creation, but his adventures – and The Monogram Murders deserves to take its place among them – are no less enjoyable for all that. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Times.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
“Douglas,” says Connie, “who in their right mind would look forward to that?”
The truth of it is that, now their son is reared and on his way to university, Connie is thinking of leaving Douglas. With a typically old-fashioned ‘grand tour’ of Europe’s galleries and museums already planned, Douglas hopes that the family’s final holiday together will reignite old passions for love, art and life itself – but once they get on the road, things very quickly go from bad to worse.
Readers familiar with David Nicholls’ previous novels – Starter for Ten, The Understudy and One Day – will anticipate an acerbic take on romance and love, and they won’t be disappointed. “This is a love story, after all,” Douglas tells us early on. “Certainly love comes into it.” In fact, it’s three love stories, as Douglas strains to reconnect with Connie in a contemporary storyline while also recounting, in a parallel narrative, how they first met and fell for one another. Between the lines of these stories is lurks another tale, this one of largely unrequited love, as Douglas tells us of his failed attempt to be a proper father to Albie. This is, perhaps, due to his formative experience of a father-son relationship, when he grew up with a stern father, a GP, who ‘issued sympathy with the same reluctance that he prescribed antibiotics.’
Blending a poignant tone with brilliantly timed deadpan humour, Nicholls leads us on a merrily chaotic dance through Paris, Amsterdam, Venice and Madrid that echoes loudly to the anarchic irreverence of Tom Sharpe, especially when the Douglas is offering his philistine opinion on the arts (“Since the time of the Greeks, had anyone ever left a play saying, ‘I just wished it were longer!’”). His take on the travelogue is refreshing too: “Munich was a strange combination of grandly ceremonial and boisterously beery, like a drunken general …”. It’s a hugely enjoyable blend, not least because it quickly becomes obvious that Douglas’s constant stream of pithy one-liners and off-beat observations serve as a kind of manic distraction from the almost unbearable loss that set the tone for the beginning of Douglas and Connie’s marriage. “Connie and I also had a daughter, Jane,” Douglas tells us, “but she died soon after she was born.”
Us is a novel of the fine lines and tiny gaps that every family will recognise, those between intimacy and claustrophobia, between familiarity and contempt. Nicholls mines these rich seams and fault-lines for a novel that is by turns heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny. “Shouldn’t art be an escape, a laugh, a comfort, a thrill?” asks a plaintive Douglas as Connie drags him along to yet another depressing foreign movie. No, says Connie, and the reader is inclined to agree with her – Us is very much an escape, a laugh, a comfort and a thrill, but it is above all a thought-provoking meditation on how very fragile are the ties that bind. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Andrew Martin’s Night Train to Jamalpur (Faber & Faber, €11.50) is the ninth to feature Jim Stringer, an Edwardian-era detective working for the London and Southwest Railway. As the title suggests, this outing finds Stringer in India: the year is 1923, and Stringer is investigating the ‘considerable laxity’ – i.e., rampant corruption – in the East Indian Railway Company. Stringer, however, is far more interested in a series of murders committed by an unknown assassin who has been placing poisonous snakes in the First Class carriages of Indian trains. When Stringer travels to Jamalpur and narrowly avoids being killed himself in an apparently botched raid by bandits, he takes a personal interest in the case. The story emerges with all the languid grace of a snake being charmed from its basket as the details of Stringer’s covert investigation are neatly interwoven with a fascinating backdrop of nationalist agitation and Mahatma Ghandi’s campaign for Indian independence, which is gathering pace in the wake of what the English authorities blithely describe as ‘the Amritsar incident’.
Set in Paris in 1870, as Prussian forces encroach on the city, Bob Van Laerhoven’s Baudelaire’s Revenge (Pegasus Crime, €22.50) finds Commissioner Lefèvre and Inspector Bouveroux investigating a series of bizarre murders that appear to be committed by a killer nursing a grudge against critics of the poet Baudelaire, who died three years previously. While the main narrative of Flemish author Laerhoven’s English-language debut is a conventional one of policemen pursuing a serial killer, albeit one who considers murder ‘an amoral work of art’, the novel also functions as a superb historical tale of an embattled city, as Napoleon III’s France finds itself at war not only with Prussia but also subversive elements in Paris itself. There are also strong gothic horror overtones, courtesy of a manuscript left behind by the killer, in which Baudelaire’s themes of sex and death are writ large. The flamboyantly lurid tone is hugely entertaining, although its excesses are leavened by Laerhoven’s depictions of his competent, dogged investigators, hardened veterans of France’s military adventures in North Africa and men who, for the most part, ‘prefer discretion to good morals’.
This column was first published in the Irish Times.