The Mystery of Three Quarters
by Sophie Hannah
A new Poirot murder-mystery
The latest Hercule Poirot reboot by Sophie Hannah, The Mystery of Three Quarters, is an ingenious new outing for Agatha Christie’s famous detective.
Here we have the classic country-house mystery populated by characters whose lives we feel we actually have a window onto, even if we don’t particularly care for them. Because this is a whodunit the author has to put various clues in place, dotted throughout, but not so deeply buried that the reader can’t recall them when the denouement comes and all is revealed.
Sophie Hannah carries this all off with aplomb. She paints vivid pictures of situations that aren’t overly cluttered or confusing but succinct and easy to grasp. The story moves along at pace and never gets bogged-down.
The crime here is initially hard to pin down and the characters sufficiently ‘woolly’ in their plausibility and alibis to all be possible suspects. Even the murder, when it is finally revealed, isn’t quite so straight forward.
This is the author’s third new outing for Poirot coming after The Monogram Murders and The Closed Casket set in the later years of his career, featuring his valet George. The original stories from this period read more darkly than the early ones. Poirot was perhaps more lonely, more solitary, a little depressed. Not so here. He now has lively sidekicks in the form of Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard and the feisty Euphemia Spring, known as ‘Fee’, who runs the local coffee-shop.
The Inspector is a curious construct offering the necessary bridge with the Police system and a friend in the same first-person way Captain Hastings used to be. What’s more he appears to be Watson to Poirot’s Holmes, writing-up the cases for posterity. The coffee-shop is a place Poirot can’t help but return to, both for the quality of the coffee and the company he finds there.
Any criticism? Well nothing’s perfect. Nothing can actually be “Agatha Christie” except the Dame herself. Here the story is narrated partly in the first-person and partly the third. This I found a little odd at times, but over all it managed to work. There are a few scenes early on that I felt were too comedic, more Wodehouse than Christie, and I found them a little strange given the subject matter, but things soon got back on track.
This book and its convoluted plot is easy to recommend for all fans of the genre. The way it has been written is to make it somehow timeless. Yes, there are references to the year it is set in and capital punishment, but not many. The story could easily be set in any decade of the 20th century, even the 21st. That it is set between the wars is not always obvious.
A good, solid and satisfying mystery then, with characters that believe it or not, you feel will carry on their privileged existences outside of the book.
A recommended read for all fans new and old. You’ll find yourself smiling as you hear those famous Poirot phrases once more!
HarperCollins (23 Aug. 2018)
A Maigret Christmas – And Other Stories
A RePrint of George Simenon’s festive short stories
There are three short stories in this timely collection from Penguin Classics. The first is the eponymous:
A Maigret Christmas
A delightful and festive introduction to the Inspector Maigret character for those who may have heard of him or experienced the new television characterisation by Rowan Atkinson but never read any of George Simenon’s work.
Here we have a Parisian Christmas in the middle of the last century. A different time, with a different pace of life when the holiday was a much shorter affair and people celebrated in a simpler, less ostentatious way. Maigret and his wife are gearing up for a slow day of food and relaxation when neighbours bring around a mystery to solve. As the detective digs deeper into this unofficial case we learn much about the mutual respect and intimacy of this husband and wife team.
As with all good detective stories, this one is slow to unwind. Piece by piece the clues are unearthed and put together until the mystery is finally solved. The characters are sufficiently developed to make them interesting and not overburdened with obscure background that might just serve to confuse. There is a simpleness and freshness about Simenon’s writing – and the English translations presented here by Professor David Coward – that belies the clever plotting and detail. The reader is treated with uncommon respect by the author. He doesn’t try to confuse or confound or dig deep in to the human psyche; merely presents a mystery that needs explaining and entertains as he does so.
I’m not going to give the plot away but it works well. The reader doesn’t even know what crime, if any, has been committed at the beginning, just that a mysterious Father Christmas has turned-up in a small, grey flat on Christmas Eve with no sleigh or reindeer in tow. This single fact alone is all Maigret has to go on as he works his way to the surprisingly complex conclusion.
Penguin UK have released this collection in time for those long, cold nights over the Christmas holiday when a warm fire, a comfortable chair and a good book are the perfect way to spend dark evenings away from work, the weather and those High Street crowds. As an introduction to Inspector Maigret and his world, this is a very agreeable collection.
Penguin Classics 2nd Nov 2017
Kiss Kiss,Bang Bang
by Mike Ripley
Definitely required reading for anyone interested in the history of the UK Thriller genre. Written by one of the most respected authorities on the subject, Mike Ripley. A writer with a friendly, open and engaging style, himself no mean author.
After World War Two there was grey austerity in Britain, a country building a fledgling health service, an expanded education framework, supporting a change in manufacturing from military to civilian, rebuilding transport infrastructure, still crippled by rationing. Not glamourous, not wealthy. And along came escape in the form of thriller writers who took us away from the humdrum and dour, from the cold and wet and gloomy, the workaday and predictable, and catapulted us into a world of fast cars, fast women, the glitz of the casino, the heat of tropical sun and dangerous living.
Mike takes us on a journey, as the cover says, from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed. He tells us about the authors we know and a lot we don’t. About stories we wish we’d read and others we’re glad we didn’t. The appeal of the thriller is that what we the reader expects changes with every generation. Here is a catalogue of those that stuck to the line and those who strayed over it into new territory. There is detail you never thought you needed to know, detail you somehow can’t keep on reading without.
A riveting appraisal of a genre that continues to evolve and keep us turning the pages avidly.
Of course the book includes a section about Desmond Bagley and his great influence on the scene.
HarperCollins 18 May 2017