Image result for "the mystery of three quarters"This review contains no substantial spoilers, beyond discussion of the basic set-up of the book’s plot and a few lines of dialogue taken out of context.

Oh, reader. Dear reader. I wish I could be more positive today. I really do.

When The Monogram Murders was published, reviving the Hercule Poirot series after four decades, I was ecstatic. Oh, sure, a cynic might argue that the Christie estate’s main motivation was to protect the character of Poirot from imminent copyright lapses, but even that couldn’t get in the way of a good story. And with well-regarded crime novelist Sophie Hannah at the helm, it seemed a savvy choice for the estate to choose someone with industry recognition to carry the story forward. I enjoyed Monogram with some reservations – an explanation for the murders that was breathtaking in its complexity but also seemed ill-suited to the Christie form; the narrative device of Catchpool’s first-person voice, keeping Poirot at something of a remove; a couple of silly one-dimensional characters around the edges – so I was disappointed when the sequel, Closed Casket, although still enjoyable, amplified all of those existing issues. The Mystery of Three Quarters, the third in the series, unfortunately cranks the sound system up to 11.

Hannah’s greatest strength (as a writer of Poirot mysteries anyway; I’m sure she has other strengths in her preferred genre of psychological thriller) is the set-up. Each of her mysteries has an intriguing hook that successfully captures the reader’s interest. At the commencement of Three Quarters – as per the book’s blurb – Poirot is confronted by an incensed woman, to whom he has written a letter accusing her of killing one Barnabas Pandy. Later that day, he is confronted by a man – a stranger to that woman – who is outraged for the same reason. It turns out numerous people in London have received accusatory letters from the Belgian. The trouble is: the great detective never sent any such letter. What is going on? How do these seemingly disparate people connect? Was Barnabas Pandy really murdered? And why would anyone involve Hercule Poirot?

The mystery is darned intriguing, but unfortunately that was where my positivity ended. Three Quarters turned out to be not only dull, but stunted. Like it was still in draft format. I’m sure a cynic out there might suggest that the book was being rushed along by Hannah, to fulfill the passing interest of the Christie estate while they lie on a four-poster bed throwing money in the air, thus allowing her to return to her actual passions. But I am not a cynic, so perhaps I will just hope this is an unfortunate occurrence.

Where to start? The trouble is that the dullness in this novel is in the writing itself. Catchpool (still secretly gay, still terribly uninteresting) returns as narrator, but this time he sits out several chapters entirely. The vague conceit is that Catchpool has researched what happened, and is now reconstructing it, but no attempt is made to create anything interesting out of this. There is no experiment in form, and nothing comes from Catchpool being sometimes a third-hand narrator. This is not Don Quixote. Instead, we are treated to chapters where Poirot – or occasionally another character entirely – investigates, written in a generic omniscient style that includes his thoughts and feelings.

On seeing the large print of my Harper Collins edition, I remarked jokingly to my partner that this was being written for people over eighty-five. After reading the novel, I began to suspect this book was targeted exclusively at those in aged care. It feels like there is a concern that Hannah’s complex plotting and superabundance of characters might be at odds with the mental faculties of the reader. The most peculiar recurring habit is lists. Without prompting, characters will say (names here just for example), “I was the only one home, aside from Tom, Mary, Jane, Albert, and Caroline”. Or, “He didn’t hate me, but he preferred to spend time with Elizabeth, Sarah, Lily, and Paul”. And then, interviewing another one of those characters will yield the same list. Poirot and Catchpool name every single suspect in list order about a dozen times, in what are otherwise normal conversations. By page 40, Poirot is recapping in his head the plot of those first 40 pages, which are then recapped again by Catchpool, and again whenever they meet someone new. I’m happy to do a bit of the thinking, if you’ll just leave me some, please! The dialogue – which perhaps will read as “period dialogue” to a certain kind of American – is woefully non-specific and often, again, feels like it has just been drafted. “We had a long and quite interesting chat”, says a teenage girl. “I was sad to lose my father”, says a 13-year-old, “That does not, however, invalidate my thoughts and observations on other matters”. There is no reason why children shouldn’t be eloquent (in a line spoken by that same 13-year-old, Hannah pre-emptively swipes at critics like myself for this very reason) but when any one of your characters could have spoken these lines, it suggests little attempt is being made to find character through dialogue.

The dullness seeps into the descriptions as much as the dialogue. “The journey to the bathroom in which Barnabas Pandy had died was a relatively long one”, Catchpool writes at one point, and we’re all utterly enthralled. Another character hears someone suspicious on the other side of a wall and “believed it might have been a man or a woman”. As opposed to a ring-tailed lemur, I suppose. (It’s also odd that we see Poirot visit the scene of the crime, and describe the house – through the narrative lens of Catchpool – only for Catchpool to also provide a description of the house on his later arrival. But maybe I’m being picky.)

Now, of course, Christie was no Tolstoy. I doubt anyone would argue that case. But it’s clear that Hannah is not seeking to imitate Christie; there is a darkness at the heart of Catchpool, the suspects, and even Poirot – as there was in the hateful and haunted village of Great Holling in Monogram (my favourite of Hannah’s locations thus far) – that has come entirely from this author. And given that, I don’t think it’s a fair excuse to say that Christie’s plotting and character work were sometimes hazy. That’s Christie’s problem; these books are new.

The trouble with all of these repetition and inanity is that so little time is spent on the actually important things. One character confesses to a murder – perhaps falsely – in a scene that appears out of nowhere and then fades away again. A young character receives startling news about someone they love, and then even more shocking news later in the book, and in both cases is denied anything approaching an emotional impact – but remains sitting in the same room without further description, so we’re left to imagine whether they’re slitting a wrist or just enjoying another cucumber sandwich. An unambiguous clue pointing to one of the suspects is found in the most unlikely of places, and then just added to the checklist, rather than causing any change in the status quo. What had bewildered me most about Closed Casket had been the lack of atmosphere. Despite being set on an Irish estate in an era of intense class and cultural upheaval, no-one felt remotely Irish, and the characters – forced to stay at the manor for several days while the crime was investigated – engaged in few interactions amongst themselves. No atmosphere, no ambience. Three Quarters also brings a bunch of characters together to stay at a country home overnight, and again we see precious little of comedic or dramatic value from this.

Hannah continues her trend (at this point, I have to assume it’s intentional) of including one blatantly ridiculous character. In Monogram, it was the hotel owner whose only traits were to be Italian and possessive of his hotel. In Casket, it was Orville Rolfe, a morbidly obese lawyer who didn’t seem to understand that he was fat. (“They don’t make chairs like they used to!”, he would bluster after a chair broke underneath him. “They don’t make meals as big as they used to!”, he would cry after ordering a third helping.) These traits weren’t worth condemnation on their own, but as they were the only characteristics assigned to these supporting characters… well, it became very tired very quickly. Three Quarters introduces us to a “comedic” secretary whose only trait is that she’s obsessed with appointments. Someone is invited in to your boss’ office for an impromptu meeting? Hold the meeting up by demanding that your boss hand over the appointment book so you can make a note of it right now! Your boss hasn’t come out of his office for a suspiciously long time? Start screaming because he’s two minutes late for an appointment! It’s hilarious, alright.

I rarely write negative reviews, as regular readers will know. I would prefer to analyse what has been presented and see what good can be found. But all of the above reservations can be comfortably situated inside the larger problem: this feels like murder by rote, or, more accurately, murder by video game. Everything – character, dialogue, clues, ambience – must be simplistic, like those surprisingly popular computer games where the player clicks around the room to “solve a murder” by finding items; a glorified Where’s Wally? Sure, Christie’s novels existed in an era when the “golden age” detective fiction was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle for the mind. Characters were dispensable, and no-one had to think to the logical conclusion: that it’s weird to have a happy ending when even the characters who are innocent were so clearly capable of being guilty. But the novels played by a set of rules. The clues had to play fair. For instance, if someone reports something the victim once told them, but gets it wrong, they can’t directly say that “this is what X told me”; the author has to leave some wiggle room for us to potentially, theoretically figure out that we’re hearing a misinterpretation. How you chose to cover up the con was part of the joy for the reader. Indeed, one of the rules was that the book had to be entertaining, not merely a slog to tick some clues off a checklist. And the characters were only lightly shaded in because everyone reading the books already knew people like that. It’s a bit like the novels of Anthony Powell, or the comedy of Fry & Laurie; we don’t need to know much about the characters, because we’re assumed to be au fait with the types of people they are, based on a few simple traits. If, instead, you’re playing with cardboard “period” characters, but giving them complicated circumstances and – often – quite dark backstories, you’re going to leave the reader with a painful sense of cognitive dissonance.

Oddly, I’m not slighting the mystery. It is clever – if, as with all of the Hannah Poirots thus far –  complicated. It is grounded in psychological motivation, and, as I mentioned, has a great hook. But a mystery without an enjoyable book around it is like a gorgeous French pastry served in a garbage dump. And it’s all because of that video game sentiment. Poirot and Catchpool take almost half the book to reach the scene of the crime; some suspects won’t even talk to the detectives; and a deal of importance is placed in a tangible clue that cannot be found, meaning that the pair spend much of the book deducing remotely. Without access to the elements of the crime, Poirot and Catchpool work on assumptions with holes big enough to drive a mobile home through. In this framework, people must be one-dimensional so that their actions can be predicted perfectly. (Even the circumstances of the death seem to require a – pardon the pun – Herculean feat of bravery and timing on the part of any alleged killer.) If everyone acts the way they always do, and if people are as plain as they appear to be, then only one person will be acting unusually, and that person will be the killer. The video game approach creates clues without any context, hence the characters mentioned earlier who reach emotional climaxes or make alarming decisions, only for the next chapter to forget them entirely. They’re all just pixels on a screen, anyway. (At one point, Poirot himself plays a prank that seems deeply cruel – but then, this book does have him calling one of the suspects “stupid” and setting up a party without bothering to even tell the owner of the house in which it is being held.)

(One last thing on that subject: without spoiling anything, I’m very confused by the event that occurs in a bathroom at the book’s climax. I would appeal for a fellow reader to help me make sense of it. The book seems to imply this event happens largely by chance, but that seems implausible. What do you think?)

I put down The Mystery of Three Quarters thoroughly disappointed, and not wanting to write a negative review. But, dear readers, I have been honest with you for many years now. It is my duty. Perhaps I am not even vilifying Sophie Hannah – I have not read her non-Poirot books, and I’m sure they are as wonderful as the fans say. What I am really vilifying is a broader capitalist urge to resurrect a detective, who has been comfortably sipping crème de menthe in the heavens for more than four decades, whom we can enjoy in dozens of novels and short stories (not to mention more adaptations than any reasonable person can handle), all to keep some copyright locked in. I don’t expect Hannah – or any future writer of Poirot – to be Agatha Christie; I doubt Hannah herself does. In fact, I don’t care whether we get Poirot in a cookie-cutter format, mimicking the Dame’s voice as close as possible, or whether we have a revisionist approach ala Sherlock. Whatever works. But it seems clear, from the lack of interest in period ambience to the constant narrative attempts to keep the Belgian at bay, that Hannah’s novels are Christie-esque only because that’s what the estate demands. She could just as easily whip these up in a modern setting, or any setting of her choice, with a queer cop, an arrogant detective, and a quirky cafe owner. Much like Dame Agatha herself removing Monsieur from some of her novels when adapting them for the stage, surprisingly little would be lost. Perhaps Hannah should create a new detective, and we can leave the man with his little grey cells – who, after all, was given an obituary by the New York Times in 1975 – in peace.

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