My web friend Enrique F. Bird is a longtime aficionado of mystery and detective fiction and is extremely well-read in the field. He is also very perceptive regarding the genre, and I like and admire his taste in mystery fiction. Hence I was highly interested in his opinion of The Monogram Murders, a new Hercule Poirot novel written not by Agatha Christie but by Sophie Hannah, a highly respected writer of contemporary psychological mysteries, and endorsed by the Christie estate.
You might be tempted to take the description of Hannah given above as an endorsement, but for me it is not. To me, one of the dismal and indeed false elements common to contemporary mystery fiction is the excessive interest in psychology, because it nearly always undermines what I consider to be a matter of central importance in truly effective fiction of any type: the analysis and evaluation of individual character and motivations.
Putting too much emphasis on the psychological workings behind a person’s behavior tends to distract from our natural impulse to judge people’s character by their actions and judge their actions by their motives. This exercise of moral judgment is one of the virtues of the novel as an art form, in my view.
As a consequence, I was not at all optimistic that Hannah’s treatment of Poirot and recreation of the Christie universe, however well-intentioned on her part and however much skill was applied, would be to my liking. Thus also my great interest in what Enrique Bird would have to say about it.
With all that said, here is Mr. Bird’s review of The Monogram Murders, published here for the first time and with the author’s permission:
As a lifelong Agatha Christie fan and lover, I just had to read “The Monogram Murders” even though frowning at the very concept of its being written. I feared the worst but hoped for something better, if only for nostalgia’s sake.
Well, I finished reading it today and must confess one primary feeling about it: dismay.
1- Nowhere, at no point, do I hear AC’s voice, even for a short while.
2- It seems all too artificial from beginning to end: the atmosphere, plot, mystery, characters, even and especially Poirot.
3- The mystery is not Christie-like, nor like any other writer of the Golden Age. It tries to be complex and fails miserably, showing a writer who simply does not get the classic detective story. It has always struck me that AC and the other masters of the art actually succeed in complexity by keeping it simple. The author fails.
4- The narrator/official detective is mostly a complete, unrealistic fool. Did I correctly understand that he neglected to deal with the bodies in the hotel for a full night????
5- There is lots of dialogue, which I love in AC and Erle Stanley Gardner but never have I seen it as banal and lifeless as here.
6- The author manages a 50 page denouement to be boring and unclever and show both Poirot and Claypool as fools.
I am both very disappointed and sad.
—Enrique F. Bird
A final note: I found item three to be particularly astute. Both prose mystery and film and TV mystery writers of the past couple of decades have mastered the art of complication, making stories so complicated that the reader is more confused than mystified. In the best mysteries, and commonly during the Golden Age of pre-World War II detection fiction, writers tried to present a clear series of events which the reader is led to misunderstand completely. The brilliance, beauty, and joy of the solution arise from the reader’s realization that he or she knew everything there was to know about the matters at hand but did not see them correctly.
That is what makes real mystery fiction so fascinating and truly scientific at heart: it suggests that the truth is knowable but that we mere humans often simply fail to see it even when it is obvious. That is a lesson that we moderns, with our confidence in science but lack of discernment about the claims raised in its name, would do well to learn.
Simply complicating events, by contrast, suggests that the world is merely confusing and unpleasant. That is not an inspiring proposition, nor is it particularly true. As the old-time mystery writers had it, the truth is there if we will only see things right.