Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night
By Sophie Hannah
HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-00-6299-163-8
360pp.

About a decade ago, the estate and heirs of Agatha Christie, the acclaimed ‘Queen of Crime’, approved the choice of mystery writer Sophie Hannah to continue Christie’s literary legacy by writing more novels featuring the great fictional detective Hercule Poirot.

Undaunted by a barrage of rather mean-spirited criticism, Hannah, the daughter of respected economist Norman Geras and renowned young-adult fiction writer Adele Geras, rose handsomely to the occasion. Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night is the fifth novel of the new series, and happily is an improvement on its predecessors, although those endeavours were entertaining enough.

The fastidious Belgian detective is admirably penned by the author, down to his famous moustaches and clever analytical skills. Hannah does away with the character of Hastings and replaces him with Inspector Edward Catchpool who, while just as loyal to Poirot, is a sharper tool in the shed than the preternaturally naïve Hastings.

A genuinely hilarious character in the book is the inspector’s mother Cynthia Catchpool, who alternates between being devious and imperious. Arriving at Poirot’s digs under a false name (since she knew her long-suffering son would not have had her granted an audience otherwise), Cynthia commands Poirot and Catchpool to accompany her to a Norfolk residence in order to prevent a murder from being committed.

Frellingsloe (aka ‘Frelly’), the Norfolk mansion by the sea, is home to Arnold Laurier (a pleasant gentleman suffering from a terminal illness), his wife, two sons, and their wives (who happen to be sisters). His daughters-in-law’s parents, the Surtees, have taken up the posts of cook and gardener voluntarily.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot detective series is being continued by a new author, who seems to have risen handsomely to the occasion in her fifth outing

According to Cynthia Catchpool, Arnold’s wife Vivienne is terrified that, once he gets admitted to St Walstan’s Hospital in their neighbourhood, he will suffer the same fate as Stanley Niven. Niven was a patient who was bludgeoned to death there in mysterious circumstances.

Poirot is intrigued, because Niven is described as being a man who (like Arnold Laurier) was invariably positive, optimistic and pleasant, and didn’t have a single enemy in the world.

When Catchpool and Poirot, accompanied by Cynthia, show up at Frelly, the milieu becomes one that is very familiar to Christie aficionados — that of the country-house murder setting. Hannah is true to the spirit of Christie in aptly delineating family dynamics and underlying tensions. Those who are aware that Sophie Hannah and her sister, the editor and publisher Jenny Geras, are married to two brothers, will be amused at the author’s fictional portrayal of Arnold Laurier’s heirs.

Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah

Hannah is to be commended for paying attention to details, ranging from Mrs Surtees’s terrible cooking to the manner in which Catchpool’s mother ropes him into decorating a large tree for Christmas (which is just round the corner).

The Norfolk police inspector, Gerald Mackle — who is stupider than any character I have come across in the entire original Christie canon, and hence truly entertaining — introduces Poirot to some key members of the medical staff at St Walstan’s. Due to an outrageous move by Mrs Catchpool, Poirot himself ends up at the hospital briefly; however, he forgives the erring matriarch, because his hospital stay proves invaluable towards him solving the mystery.

Alas, even the great detective is unable to prevent a second murder from being committed before he successfully concludes the case. The denouement might seem far-fetched to some, but it makes perfect sense in the light of issues such as mental illness. It is also a decided improvement on Hannah’s fourth Poirot novel, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, where the denouement comes across as plausible at a stretch but nonetheless bizarre.

Where Hannah most differs from Christie is on a stylistic point; the former is a less economical writer than the latter. However, since Christie herself originally catered to a 1930s and 1940s audience, she did not need to actively create a period piece. Hannah’s skill lies in her being able to recreate the atmosphere of 1930s upper-crust English society while writing in the 21st century; in this respect the author excels, rather like Poirot does when it comes to solving a case.

Barring an occasional, anomalous hiccup (such as when Hannah uses the term ‘genetics’; something that Agatha Christie herself would have avoided by favouring terms such as ‘stock’ or ‘blood’) the novel smoothly, almost seamlessly, situates itself in the early ‘Christieverse.’ Every aspect of it, ranging from buildings to characters, from customs to Biblical quotes and, indeed, the very climate of wintry Britain itself, comes across as authentic and enjoyable.

It is evident that Sophie Hannah has also paid considerable attention to getting the details of the mystery and its solution worked out in a satisfactory manner. To her credit, I did not easily guess the identity of the murderer, a point that underscores whether a crime novel is well-constructed.

I was also happy to note that Catchpool ended up being far more useful to Poirot than Hastings ever was; in this manner, I was reminded of the relationship between Christie’s Quin and Satterthwaite, who bounced ideas off each other until a mystery was solved.

Avid readers of Christie will chuckle at the way in which one of the characters is named Verity Hunt (Hannah’s Verity is different from the victim of Christie’s Nemesis, who is identically named, but the allusion is a nice and evocative touch, regardless).

In order to enjoy novels such as this one, it is important to ‘suspend a purist attitude’, if one may be permitted to misquote Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Not every mystery written by Christie was brilliant (By the Pricking of My Thumbs and Destination Unknown were rather disappointing) and not every Hercule Poirot novel by Hannah falls short of the mark.

This one, in my opinion, certainly doesn’t, both structurally as well as thematically. If Georgette Heyer is rightly regarded as the next best thing to Jane Austen, one may certainly extend that analogy and note that Sophie Hannah can now be hailed as a very satisfactory ‘Princess of Crime.’

The reviewer is associate professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration. She has authored a collection of short stories Timeless College Tales and a play The Political Chess King

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 9th, 2024

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