review: the monogram murders

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah (2014)

Did you know that Sophie Hannah is writing new books featuring Hercule Poirot? I didn’t either until I stumbled upon one of the books on the kindle daily deal site one day. My initial reaction was this is awesome. Then the skeptic in me reared her head and said slow your roll. With the help of the Library Extension app I’ve downloaded to my browser, I confirmed that the book is available through my local library. I downloaded the ebook version and spent a couple of hours each night after work reading. If you’re on a budget and either haven’t ever read one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels or simply want a low risk way of discovering how well Sophie Hannah brings the Great Detective back to life, borrowing a copy of The Monogram Murders is the way to go. I wouldn’t say I loved this book, and I didn’t have the puzzle completely figured out by the end, but it was an enjoyable read for winding down after work and I wanted to keep reading until the big reveal of whodunnit.

How about a spoiler-free preview of the story (because here’s another book with horrible back cover copy that gives no insight into the murder mystery you’re being invited to read)? The story opens with a woman bursting into a small coffee house where Hercule Poirot is enjoying the best cup of coffee he’s ever had and waiting for his dinner to arrive. The woman, whose name he learns is Jennie, is frantic and frightened. She’s afraid she’s about to be murdered, and when Poirot offers to help her, she tells him that no one—not even Hercule Poirot—can save her, and that when she is dead justice will finally be done. She runs away before Poirot can ask more questions. When he returns to the rooms he is renting, he meets with Detective Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who is also living in the same boarding house as Poirot. Catchpool has just returned from the Bloxham Hotel, where three people have been murdered. What follows is the story of how Poirot uses his little grey cells to unravel an intricate mystery and assist Catchpool in solving the case. Like any good Poirot novel, the story is filled with red herrings and no end of suspicious characters. Sophie Hannah does an excellent job of giving us the same Poirot we have come to know and love, including his French phrases, inability to understand the ways of the English, and keeping with Poirot’s trademark move of bringing all the characters into the same room near the end of the novel so that he can (somewhat) theatrically present the case and reveal the solution to the mystery. While my one complaint about the book is that I don’t remember Poirot being so tedious in the original Christie novels, I have to say The Monogram Murders feels very much like what I have come to expect from the Great Belgian Detective.

Speaking of the Great Detective character type. If you had asked me before I read The Monogram Murders, I would have said that in terms of my level of enjoyment and engagement, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the Poirot mysteries were mostly on the same level. Both were born from the Great Detective character type, though it’s true that the Poirot mysteries were very much intended to differ from the Holmes adventures in that the former were intended to be puzzles—games if you will—that the reader could solve if they only read closely enough. The Poirot novels provide the reader with all the clues he or she needs to come to the same conclusion as Poirot; whereas with the Holmes adventures, readers could not possibly hope to match their wits against Sherlock’s because they were never given all of the clues and facts. Both Sherlock and Poirot are characterized as having superior intellect than the police investigating the case, but each man (as well as each man narrating the story) goes about solving the case in different ways. After reading The Monogram Murders my opinion has changed, and I realize I definitely prefer the Holmes stories over the Poirot mysteries. By comparison, the Poirot mysteries seem dry and lacking in emotion. There is very little character development to speak of in The Monogram Murders, though Sophie Hannah does make an attempt to fashion Catchpool into something more than a two-dimensional character going through the motions of a murder investigation. The attempt, though, is relatively unsuccessful. If all you want from your mystery novel is a puzzle to solve, then The Monogram Murders will satisfy your expectations. But…

…if you’re looking to become invested in the characters or want some sort of character study in addition to the murder mystery, you’ll be disappointed with The Monogram Murders. For most of the novel, Detective Catchpool performs the role of first-person narrator. It seems unfair to compare Catchpool to John Watson, and yet I can’t stop myself from doing exactly that. Nor can I help thinking that one of the many reasons I enjoy the Sherlock adventures is because I love watching the camaraderie and friendship between Sherlock and Watson. Though Sherlock and Poirot both seem to be impervious to emotion, my take is that Sherlock could not be the man he is without Watson or the friendship to the two men share, and there is a part of him that knows it. With Poirot on the other hand, I feel like anyone could have been narrating this story and it would have the same (lack of) emotional impact. It could have been Catchpool or Hastings (who, to be honest, was the narrator I was expecting) or any other detective from Scotland Yard. That the narrator could be interchangeable and have no significant effect on the story itself is telling, because in no way could any other narrator fill the place of John Watson. I think I wanted to be more invested in Catchpool and Poirot. I wasn’t, and so while I have to give Sophie Hannah credit for delivering an intricate, well-plotted, and satisfying murder mystery, The Monogram Murders didn’t land on my list of favorite reads for the year.

Consequently, I’m not rushing out to read the next book in Sophie Hannah’s new series of Poirot novels. It, too, is available from my local library (yes, I did check to see if it was available to borrow) and perhaps the next time I’m in one of those reading dead zones where I have no idea what I want to read but I want to read something, I’ll check out Closed Casket from my library. Until then, there are just so many other books to be discovered!

Have you read The Monogram Murders? What did you think?

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