Famous Detectives Revisited: Terri Barnes on New Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes Mysteries

by Terri Barnes (Air Force)

On a wintry afternoon, few companions can beat a hot cup of tea and good mystery. I’m a fan of many of the purveyors of period mysteries, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Ellis Peters, to G.K. Chesterton and Ngaio Marsh. I’ve exhausted the canons of many of my favorite authors, and I’m always looking for new sources of a good old-fashioned whodunit.

My mother introduced me to Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd when I was 13. Since then, I’ve read every mystery by the Queen of Crime, some of them twice. So when I heard that British author Sophie Hannah had also been an avid Christie reader since childhood, I couldn’t wait to read her book, The Monogram Murders. Hannah, a British writer known for psychological thrillers, was commissioned by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new mystery featuring Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famously eccentric Belgian detective. I love re-reading Christie mysteries, but I have many of the plots memorized, so I put The Monogram Murders on my Christmas wish-list and looked forward to indulging in a new Poirot after the holiday rush.

I was sadly disappointed by a poorly constructed portrayal of a Poirot I barely recognized. The period settings and characters are inauthentic. The plot’s complications far outweigh its cleverness. By the end of the book, I barely cared who died or whodunit. Hannah’s own creation is Edward Catchpool, a new sidekick for Poirot. He is overly credulous and apparently afraid of dead bodies, a poor combination for the Scotland Yard homicide detective he’s supposed to be. Hannah doesn’t succeed in making his quirks—or their origins—interesting or pertinent to the convoluted story. Unlike Capt. Arthur Hastings, Poirot’s original foil, Catchpool is a cold, unfriendly character and has no affinity for Poirot.

monogram_murders

Hannah’s version of Poirot is disconcerting. He occasionally speaks like Poirot, but doesn’t behave like him, and the result is a flat impostor. In The Monogram Murders, Poirot—that comfort-loving gastronome—rides a bus “to clear his head” and lives in a second-rate London boarding house to escape his own celebrity status. Poirot devotees know he would do none of those things. Agatha Christie’s Poirot hires expensive cars, stays in fine hotels, and enjoys gourmet meals. He often takes trains—first class carriages only—and sometimes planes. Never buses. He lives in a stylish Mayfair apartment, served by impeccable personal attendants.

Not known for his modesty, Poirot is unlikely to seek respite from his fame. If he did, however, he would simply have his faithful manservant Georges, or perfect secretary Miss Lemon to firmly turn visitors away. He might go away to the seaside. He would never hide out in an establishment run by a garrulous landlady who provides lamentable food and no daily tisane. At the outset of The Monogram Murders, I expected his inexplicable behavior to eventually play a part in the plot. By the end of the tortuous, disconnected journey, I was not surprised that it did not.

The most famous element of the best Christie mysteries, an intricate plot that unfolds logically and satisfyingly is completely absent here. I’ll spare you the details of the outlandish story and the mystery that was inexplicably solved with little reliance on clues, either obvious or elusive.

It’s true that later in her life, Dame Agatha did slip into some ridiculous plotting. With more than a hundred books published in her lifetime, she can be forgiven a few clinkers: The Postern Of Fate springs to mind. But Christie fans had every reason to expect that a highly touted new Poirot, commissioned by the Christie estate should aim solidly for Dame Agatha’s best work, not poorly parody her worst.

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Recoiling from this detective debacle and seeking balm for my mystery-loving soul, I stumbled upon a gem in Laurie R. King’s series featuring Sherlock Holmes.

King created the series and the unexpected and well crafted character of Mary Russell as a partner for Holmes in the mid-1990’s. King has written more than a dozen Holmes and Russell books. The most recent, Dreaming Spies, came out in February.

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I first discovered and read the ninth book in the series, The Language of Bees. As soon as I finished it, I began looking for more, found the genesis of the series and began reading the Holmes/Russell saga from the beginning.

The premise sounds unlikely: In his fifties Sherlock Holmes has left London, pressed into a safe retirement in the Sussex countryside by those who fear for his life, namely his brother Mycroft and Dr. John Watson. In his long career, apparently Holmes has made enough criminals angry to make the city too dangerous for him to remain.

Accompanied in his new location by long-time housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, Holmes has taken up beekeeping. Cloistered with his bees but deprived of his vocation, Holmes finds his life blank and purposeless. He is considering suicide when he meets a fifteen-year-old orphaned prodigy named Mary Russell. In Mary’s life and losses Holmes discovers a mystery to detect, and in her intellect, he finds a mind to challenge his own. Preternaturally observant, well read and determined to overcome the tragedy of her past, Mary becomes Holmes’ protégé and soon his partner in solving crime. As the series progresses and Mary becomes an adult, she becomes Holmes’ wife—as I said, an unlikely premise. Yet it works, mostly a credit to the skill of the author and the depth of her research. It’s also true that many young women married older men after WWI, because so many young European men were killed in the war.

King crafts her characters with devotion. She has an affinity for them, and encourages that affinity in her readers. She demonstrates a close familiarity with Britain of the ‘teens and early twenties, when the series is set, as well as with the Holmes canon. Holmes purists my find fault with her patronizing, though affectionate take on Dr. Watson, or with her Holmes’ complete disdain for Conan Doyle. In King’s series, Conan Doyle plays an offstage part as an erstwhile Holmes biographer. King uses these literary devices deftly enough to make her Holmes saga seem somehow more real than the original.

King creates a mature Holmes who is true to the best of his past incarnations without being defined by them. By the time he meets Mary he has put his drug use behind him. His partnership with her is strictly Holmesian, not the sentimental attraction of an older man for a lovely younger woman, but the affinity born of well-matched intellect and shared experience. Their working partnership is paramount, and anyone looking for a romantic—let alone steamy—Sherlock should look elsewhere.

The mysteries are complex, but mostly logical and compelling. The relationship of Russell and Holmes, as they call each other, is by turns companionable and challenging, as iron sometimes sharpens iron. King relieves the intensity of their investigative and scholarly abilities, which are considerable, with sly and witty banter. Holmes, seen through Mary’s wise but devoted eyes, is far more than the “elementary” caricature one often sees of this icon in detective fiction.

Having read six of the dozen or so books in the series, I found that King does sometimes delve deeply into various side issues. In A Letter of Mary it’s theology. In A Monstrous Regiment of Women, it’s mystical religion and women’s rights of the era. In The Language of Bees, it’s the intricacies of beekeeping, a recurrent theme in the series, reminiscent of an illumination in the margins of several of the books. I have no problem with long description that either advances the plot or fleshes out the setting, though some readers might find them distracting. These are mystery stories and characters very much of the time in which they are portrayed, and for the most part King’s literary departures help create that world.
While it may seem unfair to compare Hannah’s first attempt at Poirot with King’s long-running series, The Monogram Murders doesn’t measure up to King’s skill even in her first Holmes book, The Beekeepers Apprentice, for mastering the character and method of an iconic detective and portraying him accurately in his time and place. Having captured Holmes accurately from the beginning, King has earned the right to set him free on her own trajectory, with her own creation as his partner, and she does so most satisfactorily.

Hannah, Sophie. The Monogram Murders. William Morrow, 2014.

King, Laurie R. Dreaming Spies. Bantam, 2014.

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Buy The Monogram Murders and Dreaming Spies

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Terri-Barnes-210x292About the Reviewer:

Terri Barnes is the author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life and is the special projects editor at Elva Resa Publishing.

A well-respected columnist, Terri is the writer and creator of the weekly Stars and Stripes column Spouse Calls, which first appeared in 2007. Now published in print editions worldwide and online, Spouse Calls serves as a voice for military spouses and families, through personal stories, incisive interviews, news analysis, and interaction with readers. Terri has been a member of the Washington, DC, press corps and has contributed to several other books about military life. Her work has appeared in Air Force/Army/Navy Times, The Huffington Post, and Books Make a Difference, as well as newspapers, magazines, and base publications in many of her adopted hometowns around the world (of which she estimates there have been seventeen, so far, since the start of her family’s military journey). Currently, she’s stationed in the (snowy!) St. Louis area.

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