Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders (2014) and the Perils of Pastiche

Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah's much-anticipated Hercule Poirot mystery, The Monogram Murders, is out and reviews are coming in fast and (sometimes) furious.

First there are the book blurbs from crime writers--Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Charles Todd, Laura Lippman--and Agatha Christie's grandson Mathew Prichard, praising Hannah and her novel to the skies.

In the New York Times cozy mystery and children's book author Alexander McCall Smith assures us that Hannah's plot in The Monogram Murders "is as tricky as anything written by Agatha Christie."

In the Independent, reviewer Andrew Wilson, evidently gifted with clairvoyance, declares that Hannah "has written a novel that not only would have delighted the Queen of Crime, but her rather more highbrow sister in suspense Patrica Highsmith too." What is one to make of that, I wonder?

In the Washington Post reviewer Carol Memmott confidently pronounces that "Christie herself, some might say, could do no better....I'd challenge any Christie-phile to find differences between her distinctive writing style and and Hannah's mirroring of it."

On the other hand, in the Express crime writer Simon Brett, President of the Detection Club, laments that the novel suffers from a dull narrator and that the plot is lacking in "one brilliant central idea" as well as basic credibility.  It's "not up to the rigorous plotting standards of the Queen of Crime," he concludes (beware a spoiler in the next-to-last paragraph).

Christie's latest biographer, Laura Thompson, is similarly unenthusiastic: "For all its approximation to an Agatha Christie, the book actually bears very little resemblance to one."

Carol Memmott might lose her challenge, judging by reviews on Amazon.com (where the book currently averages 2.8 out of five stars) and Amazon.co.uk (where the book currently averages 2.6 out of 5 stars), which currently are leaning towards the disappointed and even distressed.

A few who did not find Sophie Hannah comparable to Christie:

Look closely and you actually
will find Sophie Hannah's name on
the cover of the American edition
Under an Amazon.co.uk review pungently headlined "codswallop" F. M. Stockdale writes scathingly:

This would be a dull, repetitive, unendurable book even if it was unconnected to the Poirot oeuvre.  As it is, it simply absurd. The first chapter is quite fun, but thereafter the story descends into a farrago of unconvincing nonsense.

At Amazon.com, JMB believes that

Sophie Hannah, on the other hand, has written a ham-fisted pastiche of a Poirot mystery that dwells unnecessarily on useless and obscure clues, far too many red herrings and a convoluted plot line that stretches credibility.  Her Poirot is charmless and flat, the Japp/Hastings substitute so bland and characterless to be completely superfluous and forgettable.

On the other hand, the reviewer the Great Reads, who posted the first review of the novel on both websites back on September 9, lauds "bestselling author Sophie Hannah's fine writing and the compelling plot line" in The Monogram Murders and avows that "Princess" Hannah has fashioned "an absorbing story true to the legacy of its original writer," the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.

What do you think?  Are you going to read The Monogram Murders, or have you read it already?

For my part I got the book on Kindle and am halfway through it now.  I will be posting my thoughts on Sophie Hannah's narrative and plotting choices in a few days.

21 comments:

  1. I won't be reading it. I dislike this sort of thing. If she wants to write an Agatha-Christie-like novel she should go ahead, but she should at least create original characters for it. As Rex Stout once said (which is ironic as it turned out), an author should "roll his own."

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    1. Sometimes, though, if you roll someone else's it can be quite lucrative!

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    2. I'm undecided about whether to read it or not. Probably wait to buy it second hand so if it is as awful as some people say I won't have wasted too much money. Some pastiches or new novels of old characters can be quite good, so I don't think I am totally against them as a rule, it just depends on the quality. Jill Paton Walsh's Wimsey novels I think are a really good example of this type of novel being done well and I really enjoy them, without thinking that Sayer's characters are being diminished in anyway.

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  2. I saw this at the shop today, but didn't buy it. The Sayers continuation novels are quite fun, but Sayers was about more than the plotting. It's enjoyable to see the characters again, and see how they change and mature. I love Christie, but the stories are basically about creating new characters and situations and then dropping Poirot into them. One of the things that makes Christie popular years after her death is her extraordinary skill in plotting and misdirection. I don't know if Hannah is Christie's equal in plotting, but if she isn't then this is a Sophie Hanna novel with a character called Poirot in it. It's like the Jeffrey Deaver continuation novel for James Bond. Bond is so updated and revised and 21st century that he is no longer James Bond, so what exactly is the point?

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    1. Afraid Sophie Hannah is not Christie's equal in plotting and she's far from Christie in being able to untangle a complex plot with clarity.

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  3. I won't be buying it (or any that follow). I'm not going to contribute to another continuation of a beloved character. Unlike ggary above, I don't agree that the Wimsey novels are "quite fun"--the latest, The Late Scholar, is a lot closer to Sayers than any of the others--but it's taken her four books to get as far as she's gotten. Another four books and she just might make it. Maybe.

    Until I read several (and I can't say yet how many several will be), raving (and I do mean down-right spectacular) reviews from fellow readers and bloggers that I know and respect, I won't be touching it. And when I do, it will be borrowed from the library.

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    1. I understand what ggary means about the Christie books being plot-intensive and that meaning that Hannah needs to be very good at plotting. But I also think there are questions about getting the right narrative approach as well. Hannah has come up with this idea of Inspector Catchpool as a narrator and I have to say this device isn't really working that well for me. I'm not finding her Poirot so much a problem as I am this Catchpool.

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  4. Replies
    1. Patti, you get right to the point, don't you!

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  5. I had a slight hope when I first heard that they were doing this that they'd do what seems like the obvious idea to me and make prequels. He had a whole career in the Belgian police before we even meet him. You could have an interesting change of period (he's now a young contemporary of Sherlock Holmes) and place; and you could amuse the fans by showing the origins of the various character traits that we know from the Christie books.

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    1. Nigel, that would be a fun idea for a television series (i.e., like Endeavor, but not so gloomy). And, like you say, a genuinely new tack,

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  6. I agree with Nigel! Fantastic idea. I probably won't read it. I'll wait and see what you say about and then IF I do get it at the library. No one can replace these wonderful past icons. Love theses classics for what they are and go write your stuff!

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  7. I don't plan to read it. Basically I think it is a bad idea, but I have not read all the Agatha Christie novels yet anyway, so I would do that first. And I have to many other books to read. But I will read your review... and I look forward to it.

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    1. Tracy, yes, happily there are many, many good and genuine Golden Age mysteries out there still to enjoy.

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  8. Many differing opinions ensure successful sales always

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    1. Hi, Pietro, and, yes, the book will certainly sell well, no matter what naysayers may naysay!

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  9. I enjoyed listening to Sophie Hannah talk about her work and the genre as a whole at Bouchercon a few years ago, but I think her books are terrible Rendell imitations. She simply cannot plot. And she's dull. Don't really want to try this one to see if she enters new territory. I'll wait to see what you think of it all, Curt. You are can be very persuasive and I think you are just as fair as I am in weighing in on the good and the bad of any book. You never really write a rant if a book fails to live up to the hype. You may actually get me to change my mind.

    BTW, I hate the title. I know it's supposed to evoke the Golden Age's style of formulaic titles (actually it resembles Van Dine more than Christie), but to me it sounds like a lame serial killer novel.

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    1. Well, John, you'll see from the review I have now posted that I was quite disappointed with it. I'm sorry about this, because Hannah as you know is a modern mystery writer who appreciates the older masters (Christie and Rendell too, as you point out). But she values complexity too much over clarity and a sprightly narrative. Monogram Murders was, sadly, dull.

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  10. John: If she really wanted to sound like Christie she would have named it after either a Shakespeare quote or a nursery rhyme.

    Bev: The Wimsey book is not as good as Sayers, but I still enjoyed it. Jill Patton Walsh at least knows the characters well enough to convince me. With a Christie pastiche I would need the writer to be able to plot like Christie, whilst someone pastiching Sayers would only need to be able to convince me that these are the same people that I read about before.

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    1. I can understand that view. And concerning Hannah, she seems convinced she understands the principles of Christie's plotting, but I don't believe she quite does.

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