JULY 19, 2015
NEXT MONTH, 11 years after Stieg Larsson’s death, Swedish journalist and biographer David Lagercrantz will publish a new sequel to Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The Girl in the Spider’s Web (scheduled to be published by Knopf in the United States on September 1) will feature Larsson’s famous characters Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. For readers who followed their adventures in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, this is undoubtedly cause for excitement. Larsson’s father and brother declared in April that “by letting David Lagercrantz write his own Millennium novel we keep alive the characters and the universe Stieg Larsson created.” But not everyone shared their enthusiasm: Lagercrantz, best known for his ghostwritten autobiography of football star Zlatan Ibrahimović, may disappoint some readers of Larsson because, well, he is not Larsson. Larsson’s partner Eva Gabrielsson has already objected to the project: “They say heroes are supposed to live forever,” she told AFP news agency. “That’s a load of crap, this is about money. It’s about a publishing house that needs money, [and] a writer who doesn’t have anything to write so he copies someone else.”
News about The Girl in the Spider’s Web brought me back to a day last spring when AgathaChristie.com informed me of an upcoming addition to the Hercule Poirot canon. From beyond the grave, the queen of mystery had produced a new Poirot adventure entitled The Monogram Murders. For a reader like me, who had devoted the past year to reading the canon, this news had the sinister implication that my reading project might be literally endless. Poirot’s adventures will continue, I thought, however rapidly I read them. Part of me didn’t mind this, since it allowed me to continue following the exploits of one of my literary heroes. But were heroes really meant to live forever or was that, as Gabrielsson objected, a “load of crap”?
As I cracked open the new Poirot, I realized that the feeling of closure I had enjoyed with Christie’s 1975 novel Curtain was about to be taken away from me. It was as if, with his Lazarus-like rise from the dead, Poirot was asking his readers to reconsider his legacy. Fans will remember that one of the last things Poirot did before his painful, health-related death in Curtain was to commit cold-blooded murder. Only his dear friend Hastings and us, Christie’s readers, knew about this dirty little secret. Although I ended up forgiving Poirot for what he did (his victim was a lousy psychopath who dared insult his detective skills), there is no changing the fact that the intensely Catholic detective had died in sin.
The return of a famous literary hero after the death of his creator is interesting but by no means without precedent. Famous protagonists conceived by British writers — from Ian Fleming’s James Bond to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes — have recently made successful comebacks in books and in cinema. London-born author Anthony Horowitz is the contemporary king of this wave of writing; in 2011, he published The House of Silk, the only contemporary Sherlock Holmes book to be endorsed by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, and he is currently writing a new James Bond novel for the Ian Fleming estate. Thanks to writers like Horowitz, who can successfully imagine new adventures while collaborating with writers’ estates, those heroes are being endlessly rewritten, reconsidered, and re-appropriated for our age.
From the start, Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders was presented less as a book than an event. Readers who believed that Poirot had died 40 years ago — The New York Times famously reported on the sad news in a front page story — needed to be told that Poirot was in fact alive and well.
To announce the rebirth of Poirot, publisher HarperCollins organized a stylish launch at the Ritz Hotel, which served as a substitute for the book’s fictional Bloxham Hotel. Invited guests were instructed to pay attention to the actor with the funny moustache walking among them. Et voilà, he was none other than Monsieur Hercule Poirot. The fictional hotel manager Luca Lazzari was also present for the occasion. He delivered the shocking news that three murders were committed moments ago.
There was panic and disbelief among guests, all of which was, of course, meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Curiosity about the murderer’s identity, on the other hand, was much more sincere. Who could have executed this meticulously conceived evil plan? To get an answer, one had to read the book, provided to the guests alongside canapés and beverages. It was fun to pretend, for an hour, that we were Edwardians enjoying a lovely autumn evening at Piccadilly. It was fun to pretend that somebody actually had committed murder before the eyes of our modern Panopticon, the social media. It was fun to pretend that Poirot and his creator were both alive, functioning and excelling at what they do best: imagining the details of a perfectly executed murder.
The Monogram Murders’s opening chapter finds Poirot at Pleasant’s Coffee House in London, where the great drinker of tisane is found sipping a cup of coffee. Sophie Hannah is quite good at illuminating this coffee house. The contrast between its warm interior and the cold darkness of its surroundings instantly pulls us into her narrative. Reading the scene feels very much like looking at an Edward Hopper painting, where seemingly unimportant details are subtly revealed. This is important for a book where things like scones play a crucial role in solving the murder.
The retired detective, sitting by himself, is the image of serenity:
He placed his hand flat over the top of his coffee cup in the hope of preserving the warmth of his drink. This tiny crooked-walled establishment in St. Gregory’s Alley, in a part of London that was far from being the most salubrious, made the best coffee Poirot had tasted anywhere in the world. He would not usually drink a cup before his dinner as well as after it—indeed, such a prospect would horrify him in ordinary circumstances—but every Thursday, when he came to Pleasant’s at 7:30 P.M. precisely, he made an exception to his rule. By now, he regarded this weekly exception as a little tradition.
The detective’s little tradition is interrupted this Thursday, however, when a girl named Jennie opens the door of Pleasant’s Coffee House. She brings inside the cold weather as well as her grave personal problems. Jennie is a servant who believes that somebody, very soon, will murder her. Naturally, Poirot offers to help, but the girl surprisingly refuses, saying it’s too late. And then, sending a shiver down Poirot’s famous little gray cells, she adds, “Oh, please let no one open their mouths! This crime must never be solved.”
After Jennie’s departure from the café, Poirot starts analyzing the contents of their conversation. In Hannah’s hands, Poirot has become something of a grammarian. He is obsessed with Jennie’s mysterious sentence about mouths, which will prove to be one of the keys to solving the crime, alongside scones. It is also a part of the book’s central mystery about authorship. Whose “mouth” does this narrative belong to? Whose voice is speaking here to us in those pages? Christie’s or Hannah’s?
When three guests are found dead with cuff links meticulously placed in their mouths in the Bloxham Hotel that evening, Poirot smells a rat. With help from his Scotland Yard detective friend Edward Catchpool, Poirot starts investigating the case and immediately sees a connection between the mouths in Jennie’s sentence and those of the corpses.
Catchpool interprets Jennie’s sentence this way: “She feared she would be murdered, didn’t want her killer punished and was hoping no one would say anything to point the finger at him. She believes she is the one who deserves to be punished.” In his eyes, the only thing lurking in Jennie’s odd sentence is a grammatical error, and nothing more.
Poirot, however, begs to differ. Having talked to the girl, he knows that Jennie speaks in perfect English. He wonders, “Why did she not say, ‘Please let no one open his or her mouth?’” and comes up with this explanation: “The word ‘no one’ requires the singular, not the plural! […] Mademoiselle Jennie did not make the error of grammar. The meaning she intended was, ‘Please let no one open the mouths of the three murdered people — their mouths.’” Poirot can see that Jennie knew about the murders in the Bloxham, and that her fear of getting killed that evening was directly linked to that knowledge.
Poirot’s interest in grammar is charmingly anachronistic in an age where murders are solved by tanned CSI detectives who don’t know their Shakespeare. While they are all focused on the stray hair, or the semen-stained nightdress, Poirot analyzes language, rhetoric, and tone of voice. Henry James’s famous advise to a fellow novelist is true for the Belgian detective. Poirot has managed to be “one of those on whom nothing is lost.”
The Monogram Murders is a good Poirot novel but not a great one. Why does it fall short of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, and The A.B.C. Murders? I think the answer has to do with Hannah’s reverence toward Christie. She maintains the same basic structure as the rest of the Poirot canon. A strong sense of atmosphere, a carefully conceived plot, and a gallery of interesting characters are all there, as is a well-planned scene of denouement.
There is surely something subversive about writing a book using another’s name. Although Hannah’s name is printed on the cover, readers of The Monogram Murders will be continually aware of the presence of its “implied author.” They will wonder about whether Hannah’s prose manages to resemble Christie’s. The perfect symbol of this problem is the book’s cover, which features three names: Agatha Christie, its “implied” writer; Sophie Hannah, its actual writer; and Gillian Flynn, the writer who, with her generous blurb (“I was thrilled to see Hercule Poirot in such very, very good hands”), is rooting for this book about an Edwardian Gone Girl.
In The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth famously defined the implied author as a version of a writer constructed by the reader. “‘Persona,’ ‘mask,’ and ‘narrator’ are sometimes used, but they more commonly refer to the speaker in the work who is after all only one of the elements created by the implied author and who may be separated from him by large ironies,” he wrote. “‘Narrator’ is usually taken to mean the ‘I’ of the work, but the ‘I’ is seldom if ever identical with the implied image of the artist.”
Booth found it curious that we had “no terms either for this created ‘second self’ or our relationship with him.” He went on to call this figure the implied author and he also coined the term “career-author,” who is a figure constructed by the readers, and is a collection of all the implied authors of books that share the author’s name.
When, and if, other writers join Hannah in the future and expand the Poirot canon further, how will we be able to tell Christie’s hand from her successors? What makes a Poirot text “original” and another one an “imitation?” This is from Christie’s 1932 novel Peril at End House:
We were sitting on one of the terraces of the Majestic Hotel. It is the biggest hotel in St. Loo and stands in its own grounds on a headland overlooking the sea. The gardens of the hotel lay below us freely interspersed with palm trees. The sea was of a deep and lovely blue, the sky clear and the sun shining with all the single-hearted fervour an August sun should (but in England so often does not) have. There was a vigorous humming of bees, a pleasant sound—and altogether nothing could have been more ideal.
The following could easily have been from a scene in the same novel, had it not been from Hannah’s The Monogram Murders:
Poirot appeared in the drawing room, still wearing his hat and coat, and closed the door behind him. I expected a barrage of questions from him, but instead he said with an air of distraction, “It is late. I walk and walk around the streets, looking, and I achieve nothing except to make myself late.”
“Art is only a question of signature and date,” claimed the French artist Ben Vautier, in 1972. The most striking feature of the covers of Poirot books is the huge signatures of Agatha Christie. Mass paperback editions of her books have her signature imprinted on all their pages. In the age of iBooks, we get fewer of those signatures, making it easier to forget about the existence of a text’s author.
The pleasure of reading The Monogram Murders is derived mostly from trying to decide whether Hannah does a good Agatha Christie impression. That Hannah has managed to write a traditional Poirot novel is both the success and failure of this book, whose more radical achievement, I think, is to turn us, its postmodern readers, into detectives on the lookout for clues about its authorship.