Closed Casket is one of the new Hercule Poirot novels – yes, Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth – and it is written by Sophie Hannah, well known for her Culver Valley crime series. Hannah has won awards and been a best-seller many times over, as well as being translated into numerous languages, so it’s not surprising she was commissioned to continue the legacy of the Queen of Crime.
I recently read a couple of old Christie novels I’d had knocking about the place – perfect for holiday reading – so was a bit dubious about whether anyone else could work the same sort of magic as Christie does. And while I enjoyed Closed Casket immensely, it isn’t really like Christie at all. Was I disappointed?
No, not really. Because it soon became obvious that recreating Poirot the way he was conceived all those years ago (the first book came out in the 1920s) would be a tricky thing to pull off nearly a hundred years later, without seeming just a little quaint, or contrived.
Closed Casket is the second in the series to feature the new Poirot side-kick and narrator, Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard. He is a kind of everyman character, invited to stay at the Irish mansion of Lady Athelinda Playford, an aging children’s author of some renown. Also at the house are Lady Playford’s son and daughter with their respective spouses, as well as two lawyers, because LP is rewriting her will.
Poirot and Catchpool are there because Lady Playford has decided to disinherit her children in favour of her beloved personal secretary, who has a terminal illness. Lady Playford fears her new will may drive someone to murder – when you meet her family, you can understand why. But it’s the secretary who cops it, not Lady Playford. What’s more, he seems to have been dead before he supposedly died. Curiouser and curiouser.
Hannah follows the Christie formula in some ways – the impossible murder; the suspects who all seem to have alibis (reminiscent of Murder in Mesopotamia, for example); the trusting, at times foolish but likeable narrator (fortunately not quite as dim as Hastings), the whimsical lady of the manor (compare Lady Angkatell in The Hollow), the scene at the end where Poirot gathers the suspects and reveals the murderer. There are plenty of secrets for Poirot to uncover and the surprise ending is one only someone like Poirot could work out.
But in other respects, the book is quite different. It’s longer for a start, with lengthy sections of dialogue where characters debate and argue and score points against each other. Poirot takes a back seat to a lot of this, leaving Catchpool to get the houseguests talking. It’s altogether less dramatic and more intellectual, with a lot down to the psychology of the characters, but then Poirot was always big on psychology.
The overall tone of the book is different, darker maybe, although, there’s humour too. It’s a meatier read and I will definitely read more in the series. However, when you’re in the mood for Agatha Christie, you might as well read Agatha Christie. Still, like other Poirot stories, I can imagine Closed Casket would translate to the screen really well, with its quirky characterisation, atmospheric setting and potential for drama. Three out of five from me.