A gift for mystery lovers: Hercule Poirot, on the case

HERCULE POIROT’S SILENT NIGHT.  By Sophie Hannah. William Morrow. 362 pages. $30.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

Yes, that’s right. Just in time for Christmas, there’s a new mystery out starring Agatha Christie’s inimitable Hercule Poirot, the eccentric, dandified little Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head, turned-up moustache and busy “little grey cells” that solve even the most difficult murder cases.

Of course, Dame Agatha Christie, has been dead for 37 years now. Like the four recent novels that preceded it, Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night is written by Sophie Hannah, the British poet and novelist who’s been authorized by Christie’s estate to write new stories starring Poirot. To do so takes a lot of nerve, given that Christie is the most widely published author of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, and Poirot is her most popular sleuth, followed by Miss Marple.

Hannah seems to be as up to the challenge as anyone could hope. Critics and fans have generally welcomed her new Poirot mysteries, including this one.

I read Christie’s books long ago after having been introduced to them by my father. Many of them I’ve read more than once. At first my inclination was to compare Hannah’s Poirot – the character, the mystery, the way he solves it – with what I remember about Christie’s approach.

But perhaps it’s a testament to how good a job Hannah has done that I soon became sufficiently wrapped up in the mystery and the interesting characters to keep reading just to see what happens. I forgot to think about whether Hannah’s Poirot is true to Christie’s creation.

Now that I’ve finished, I can say that she does quite a good job. The essentials of Poirot’s character are there, including his delicate stomach and assured superiority. There’s an element of humor about his eccentricities that makes the story even more entertaining. Would Christie have written some things differently? Probably so, but it doesn’t matter.

The story begins in mid-December 1931, as Poirot and Inspector Edward Catchpool, his friend and our narrator, are planning a restful, pleasant observance of the holiday in London. As they are debating whether to have turkey or duck for their feast, they are interrupted by Poirot’s valet, who says an unexpected woman has come to call. The woman turns out to be Catchpool’s very determined and single-minded mother.

Mrs. Catchpool insists that her son and, more important, Poirot must accompany her to Norfolk, where she is visiting with a friend, Vivienne Laurier, who lives in a mansion that’s threatening to tumble down a cliff into the sea. Poirot, she declares, must come to Norfolk and solve the case of a man who was murdered in September in an apparently closed hospital room nearby.

Her friend’s husband, Arnold Laurier, is terminally ill, expected to live only a few months, and he is about to move into that same hospital, on that same ward. His family had been there at the time of the murder, looking at the room they hoped would be his. Arnold, who admires what he knows about the great detective Poirot, is determined to solve the murder himself.

Vivienne is terrified, Mrs. Catchpool says, that Arnold, who loves to boast about his plans to {play Poirot,” might become the murderer’s next victim. The only solution, Mrs. Catchpool has decided, is for Poirot and her son to come to Norfolk, make Arnold (and herself) happy by celebrating Christmas with them, and solve the mystery so the murderer will no longer be a threat. He can make Arnold feel as if he’s helping the investigation, “like you do with Edward,” she says – with Edward listening.

After they arrive by train at the Norfolk mansion, Poirot and Catchpool are strongly motivated to solve the murder quickly so that they do not have to spend Christmas among the odd (and often at-odds) collection of people living there – not to mention the terrible food that is served.

But the mystery is not so simple, of course, and dangers lurk. Be prepared for twists, turns and a fitting challenge for those little grey cells.


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