This week, my book group read The Monogram Murders, the “new” Hercule Poirot novel written by British crime writer Sophie Hannah, who was selected by the estate to continue Agatha Christie’s beloved series. Personally, I’ve always preferred Miss Marple to the self-satisfied Belgian sleuth (the author famously derided her own literary creation as “an egocentric creep”). So it’s doubtful I would ever have picked up The Monogram Murders had it not been chosen for my group.
I’m not surprised that Hannah was unable to channel Christie—there’s something deceptively simple about Dame Agatha’s elegant prose, and when paired with her ridiculously complex plot twists, it creates a combination that no one could ever truly replicate. Instead of just picking apart The Monogram Murders, I decided to revisit one of Poirot’s old cases.
What’s remarkable about Five Little Pigs (1941) is how minimalistic it seems in comparison to the much-longer Monogram Murders. Hannah’s Poirot is constantly going around spouting French and making extravagant assurances that his “little grey cells” will enable him to solve the case, whereas the Poirot of Pigs is offstage for long stretches of the brisk narrative. His client, Carla Lemarchant, was orphaned at a very young age—her father was murdered, and her mother, sentenced to life in prison for the crime, died a year later. Carla is engaged to be married and is afraid her husband will feel like she’s a ticking time bomb: “Supposing we were married and we’d quarreled—and I saw him look at me and—and wonder?” In addition, her mother left her a letter to be opened on her 21st birthday; in the letter, she assured Carla that she was innocent, and the daughter is convinced her mother was telling the truth.
Poirot takes on the 16-year-old case, which he investigates by visiting everyone who was present the day Carla’s father, the famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned. After interviewing each of the suspects, Poirot convinces them to write down their recollections of the events leading up to the murder, and about a quarter of the book consists of these narratives. Now, naturally it’s highly unlikely that anyone would be able to remember things that happened a decade and a half ago in such vivid detail (the precise order in which several people exited a room is a crucial clue), but if you can suspend your disbelief, it’s great fun to match wits with Poirot and see if you can figure out whodunit. Chances are extremely high that you’ll draw the wrong conclusion; if there appears to be a neon arrow of guilt pointing at one character, you’re right to be suspicious.
Five Little Pigs may have been written 75 years ago, but in many ways, it feels fresher than the “new” Poirot novel.