Golden age detectives are the perfect characters to provide a continuation of a series. Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot – all have such well established character traits, and yet do not especially develop or change – that they can be taken by another writer and made fresh. Sophie Hannah is obviously familiar with Poirot and obviously loves him, as every reader does, despite his quirks.
Hannah also manages the feat of showing, not telling, Poirot’s cleverness and intelligence as he unravels a tricky case. Like the great queen of crime herself, Hannah’s unraveling is only tricky from a certain angle, from another (Poirot’s) it’s more straightforward. The telling is all in the angles. This is a feat of sheer storytelling power.
As the story opens, Poirot and his new Hastings, Inspector Catchpool (excellent name), are boarding a tour bus to an estate with a full group of fellow travelers. This perfect locked room scenario isn’t the actual space for the murder(s) to come, but it’s the set up for them. One of the passengers makes a hue and cry about sitting in a certain seat, insisting that if she remains there, she will be killed. Thus is effected the change – Poirot sits with the woman’s former companion, and the fearful woman sits with Catchpool.
Both reveal pieces of the puzzle to come. Poirot and Catchpool are headed to Kingfisher Hill at the request of one Richard Devonport, who has asked Poirot to prevent the execution of his fiancée, who is in prison for killing his brother. He’s asked that their mission not be revealed to the family, and Poirot and Catchpool are ostensibly visiting as fans of a game (sounding very much like Monopoly) created by the man’s father.
Along their bus journey, Poirot and Catchpool make a stop to follow up on one of the women but they do travel on to their original destination. There, we as readers meet the Devonport family – a family ruled by the tyranny of the cruel father. The mother, in the last stages of illness, seems like a ghost. Hannah then proceeds to complicate the plot and introduce several surprise turns at masterly points in the storytelling.
As the plot became more and more complex, I was with Catchpool: confused. He serves as Poirot’s factotum, gathering information and clues, which leads to the ending of the novel, properly staged as a gathering of suspects, including the condemned woman, temporarily released from prison for the occasion. As Poirot makes his final reveal, the pieces all slot into their proper order, making you wonder how they could have been missed.
Golden age novels were about the plot and little else, though masters of the genre like Christie, Marsh, Sayers and Allingham were expert in sketching and creating a character with very few lines of prose. Modern crime novels are about the aftermath, and here is where Hannah’s modern sensibility creeps in. She makes clear the repercussions for the family as well as the murderer, and she makes you feel real loss about the deaths that occur. It makes her continuation of Poirot both a lovely recreation of a Christie novel, and a novel that’s truly her own as well. Well done.