The Reincarnation of Hercule Poirot

CoverYes, it’s true. Hercule Poirot has received the kiss of life and is exercising his “little grey cells” in the well-heeled living rooms of British author Sophie Hannah’s latest murder mystery, Closed Casket.

I cut my reading teeth on Agatha Christie’s novels and devoured every word she wrote with a voracious appetite for the refined macabre. To this day there is nothing I like more than curling up with a cup of English Breakfast and watching Miss Marple on TV. I like Christie’s fiction because you can guarantee that despite the heinous nature of their crimes and the unashamed elitism of their lifestyles, the baddies will get their comeuppance and the haughty will be brought down a peg or two. All this, while looking fabulous in tweed and Brussels lace. When Closed Casket arrived, I leapt at the chance to reconnect with my old friend, Hercule.

In many ways I wasn’t disappointed. Sophie Hannah can plot along with the best of them. The British author and former fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, based Closed Casket on “a brilliant, simple-yet-unguessable four-word idea” which came to her as if by magic and felt “very Agatha-ish”. The novel is full of dark pasts, red herrings and so many twists and turns I was kept guessing right to the end. It’s a light, engaging read that motors along. Agatha Christie has been called the “Queen of the Who-Done-Its” and Hannah certainly lives up to her standards.

However, something about the characterisation missed the mark for me. An author distils the essence of their times into their dramatis personae. Like the Sirop de Cassis he sips, the original Hercule Poirot is a rich blend many would consider “noxious”. In 1916, when The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published, the English class system was alive and kicking and Europe was at war. People were bound by convention and were geographically and culturally insular. These were times of lamplight, inequality and suspicion. To Hastings and the characters who interacted with him, Hercule was foreign and disturbing. How times have changed.

Reading Closed Casket is less like stepping into the impoverished grandeur of war-torn England than leaping onto the LED lit set of Big Brother. The characters are all fabulous and uber-confident so there is a mismatch between their motivations and their actions.  Sadly, in this decade of globalisation and mass media, a Belgian detective just doesn’t seem that interesting and the reader is left with the uncomfortable dichotomy of Hercule Poirot meets the Kardashians.

Don’t get me wrong, Closed Casket is a good, fun read but I’d be tempted to learn from other contemporary authors who have recently resurrected famous detectives and not continue with a series. Authors John Banville, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver, William Boyd and Anthony Horowitz have brought us singular, at most dual, incarnations of Philip Marlowe, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes recently.

The release of Closed Casket marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of Hercule Poirot and was commissioned by the literary estate of Agatha Christie after the success of Hannah’s earlier work, The Monogram Murders. Sophie Hannah does nothing but honour the Grand Dame of Crime in her Poirot works but she’s a fine author in her own right. I believe she’s at her best in her Culver Valley Crime series which includes excellent titles such as Kind of Cruel and A Room Swept White. I’d love it if Sophie Hannah reconnected with DC Simon Waterhouse and let sleeping detectives lie.

Closed Casket: The brand new Hercule Poirot mystery
by Sophie Hannah
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008134105

Agatha Christie: a woman not to be messed with

It is the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie‘s birth. I have never been a huge fan, but I must be in the minority as her books both in print and eBook format continue to be popular.

Cover of A is for ArsenicMy interest was piqued however by the publication of a new book: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. More often than not death by poison was Christie’s murder of choice. She had developed an interest and knowledge of poisons by working in pharmacies in both World Wars, and the author Kathryn Harkup, a chemist herself, was impressed with Christie’s knowledge and ability to use the chemical properties of these poisons as clues to the discovery of the murderer.

Each chapter takes a different novel and investigates the poison that the murderer used. Harkup examines the way the poisons interact, how they could be detected and administered, and apparently this is as relevent now as it was at the time of writing the book – which could be a little bit worrying!

Cover of The Grand TourAnother interesting gem is The Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition. This is the account of a 10-month trip that Christie took with her husband around the world, visiting such exotic locations as South Africa, Australia, Canada, Hawaii and New Zealand! Christie kept up a detailed weekly correspondance to her mother of her travels, and her grandson has edited these along with her extensive photograph collection detailing her fascination with exotic plot locations that became a feature of her books.

Where do you sit on the Christie spectrum? Are you a fan or are you in the minority with me?


Playing murder

CoveAre you a fan of crime shows on TV? I enjoy the Weekend Murders on Prime, especially the Miss Marple series, and now that winter has really set in I’m happy to huddle down on a Saturday night and make the most of them.

As with any character you know from well from a book, it is not easy to translate Miss Marple to the screen. They have tried it all sorts of ways. Joan Hickson, all fluffy and pink and unassuming always fitted my idea of her very well.  I have therefore been surprised to find Julia McKenzie a great deal more credible with her straightforward and sensible version of the great detective. Margaret Rutherford’s forceful ship-in-full-sail version ( a la P J Wodehouse’s aunties) is fun too, but a long way from my imaginings. The only actress I find entirely unbelievable is Geraldine McEwan with her sharp, birdlike inquisitiveness and coy innuendo. Miss Marple is not sharp – well not in my mind anyway.

One Christie character who can be played by only one person is Poirot. Who could tolerate anyone else after David Suchet’s superb version? Even Peter Ustinov cannot hold a candle to him. He recently began filming for the last programmes in his complete series of Poirot, so if you’re an avid fan keep an eye on the catalogue.

If you’d like to vote on your favourite Christie character and find out what other people think try Hercule Poirot Central.

I notice from Weekend Murders we now have a new Inspector Barnaby in Midsomer Murders. I didn’t expect to like him as I have always had a soft spot for John Nettles. Like Morse, Midsomer Murders translated to the screen as a much classier act than the original books and John Nettles seemed integral to its sense of style. His replacement has surprised my by being just as engaging. Unfortunately the set solution involving a cunningly insane but apparently normal neighbour, seems to have been replaced with a weekly need to rescue the detective, otherwise I might become a fan.

Happily you don’t have to wait for your favourite sleuth to appear on Weekend Murders, as the library have many of these episodes on DVD.

Who are you favourite sleuths as played on the screen?

Watching the detectives … shoot, shoot, shoot

Should  Kurt Wallander have bristly jowls and the dejected air of an abandoned teddy bear? Mmmm..

Jowls can be lovely. And I like teddies too but I’m not convinced I want ‘my’ Kurt Wallander to look like Kenneth Branagh. While he perfectly portrays Swedish detective Wallander‘s dishevelment, vulnerability and isolation,  he just doesn’t look the part.

Branagh is the third actor to bring the morose Swede to the small screen. I’m still waiting to get my hands on Krister Henriksson‘s version of Wallander, but one blogger described  Rolf Lassgard’s Wallander as an “over-weight, petulant aging rock singer”. Nasty. But funny.

So which TV detectives work and which don’t?

R.D. Wingfield’s Jack Frost, played by David Jason, has been a solid success running to 15 seasons. For me, the loathsome spirit of Del Boy and Granville kills the magic.

Now on season 14 Midsomer Murders star John Nettles is Chief Inspector Barnaby.  Caroline Graham‘s original novels have been slightly obscured by the TV juggernaut but have all the essential elements and character traits of the screen version.

Lewis is an Inspector Morse spin-off featuring Kevin Whately, Morse’s long-suffering sergeant. Originally the upbeat family man in Morse, tragic circumstances have transformed Lewis into an isolated and often unhappy figure. Sound familiar? Morse has morphed but very successfully.

Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet have all had a pop at Agatha Christie’s Poirot. To my mind only David Suchet captures the essence of the iconic Belgian. Likewise there have been oodles of Miss Marples, I’m quite enjoying Julia McKenzie’s take on Miss Marp, tolerated Geraldine McEwen but rate Joan Hickson the best. And Margaret Rutherford, blah!

The list of crime novel adaptations for TV is endless, and there are always more in the pipeline. UK viewers have been recently been treated to Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne played by David Morrissey, Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks with Stephen Tompkinson and the darkly brooding Rufus Sewell is all set to play Michael Dibdin’s Roman detective Aurelio Zen.

I hope these TV detectives make it to far-flung New Zealand but while we wait, which onscreen characterisations do you perceptive peeps think work or not? And which book detectives should get the next TV make-over?

Celebrating Dame Agatha Christie

Good Lord, as Poirot’s chum Arthur Hastings is so very fond of saying, I clean forgot Agatha Christie week. Where are one’s little grey cells when one needs them, what what…

September 13-20th was a week-long celebration of Dame Aggie, her long and extraordinary prolific career; over forty events were scheduled both in London and on the self-styled “English Riviera”, her hometown of Torquay. The best-selling author of all time with two billion books worldwide and over 80 novels and short-story collections published (stick that in your pipe and smoke it Alexander McCall Smith) she is of course best known for her dandified Belgian detective Poirot and the shrewd, perpetually knitting Miss Marple.

Two new Poirot stories and 73 notebooks detailing un-used ideas and alternative story endings have recently been published by John Curran in Agatha Christie’s secret notebooks: Fifty years of mysery in the making. Not everyone agrees these books were exactly “secret” but they do apparently give new insights into the Christie writing process. Curran also acted as consultant to the National Trust  during the restoration of Greenway House, Dame Agatha’s holiday home in Devon, which opened for the first time to the public this year.

Christchurch City Libraries has just purchased several of the Poirot television series featuring the incomparable David Suchet as Poriot and trusty sidekicks Inspector Japp, Hastings and the almost, dare I say, librarian-ish Miss Lemon. The 1930s modernist decor and fashions are divine and a host of well-known British actors pace in out of the stylish sets smoking furiously while pleading their innocence.

Miss Marple tales are also available on DVD featuring both Geraldine McEwan and lovely, fluffy Joan Hickson as the eponymous heroine. The Geraldine McEwan versions play a little fast and loose with the original stories but are all jolly good fun.

However if this all sounds drearily old hat François Rivière’s comic strip adaptations of several Christie stories including Murder on the Orient Express, The Secret of Chimneys, The secret adversary, Murder on the links and Death on the Nile are an interesting take on the classic tales.

As part of the Guardian’s coverage of Agatha week they posed the question “How well do you know Agatha Christie?”
…the answer dear reader is extraordinarily well.. I got 11 out of 11..nah-nah-nah-nah!