I will never lay claim that Agatha Christie, my favorite mystery author, is the best mystery author of all time, but she certainly is the most successful one. I offer three pieces of evidence, to wit:
Her sales numbers. Selling between two to four billion copies of her books has landed her in the Guinness Book of World Records where she shares the top spaced with William Shakespeare. The next highest-selling mystery writer on the list is Georges Simenon, with an estimated sale of only 500 to 700 million copies, poor shmuck!
Adaptations. No other mystery writer has had their work adapted so many times in so many ways. Films, plays, TV shows, Japanese comic books and cartoons, electronic games. Sherlock Holmes certainly comes close, but he has not had the power of Mathew Pritchard behind him as far as marketing goes. Even when writers and producers take her stories in the wrong direction in plot or tone –like putting Miss Marple in a Superintendent Battle mystery or changing the murderer in a standalone because the world needs more incest stories – the sheer force of Christie’s name gets ratings – and fills coffers – as surely as it angers her true fans.
The third piece of evidence is what I want to discuss today, and it has to do with the fact that Christie’s fame is so widespread that it constitutes a name brand. E.D. Hirsch placed Christie on his cultural literacy list, meaning that in his eyes knowledge of Christie is essential “to the ability to understand and participate fluently in a given culture.” I think that Hirsch’s list is pretty much hogwash, but Christie is such a cultural phenomenon all over the world that even people who have never read her have not only heard of her but have a sense of what to expect from her.
Nowhere is this brand more abused than in the books published with blurbs that state, “in the style of Agatha Christie.” I began the New Year by reading not one, but two, of them. Sophie Hannah’s Closed Casket , approved by the Christie estate, purports to be a continuation of the exploits of Hercule Poirot. And after the great success of The Monogram Murders, why shouldn’t she? (Bear with me, and I’ll tell you!)
The second book is The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. My mom read it and recommended it to me. Here’s the first paragraph of the inside cover description:
“In this tightly wound, enthralling story reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s works, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. The sky is clear, the waters calm, and the veneered, select guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea.”
The casual reader reads this and thinks, “Oh, that’s the famous crime writer that Grandma used to like. Well, I can’t be bothered by reading an actual Christie novel, they’re so old! But what’s good for Grandma . . . “ The long-time Christie fan is a trickier proposition. I will use myself as an example:
Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, which means that I had read all of my favorite author’s novels by the time I turned twenty-one. Now here I am forty years later – at thirty-nine – and I am desperately hungry for more Christie. I’ve re-read almost all of them more than once. I’ve collected the adaptations, even the bad French ones. If somebody dangles a novel with the bait, “Just like Agatha Christie,” there is a possibility that I could bite. The question then becomes: can I chew and swallow?
In The Woman in Cabin 10, Lo Blacklock, (short for Laura – now why is that?) has just been traumatized by both a break-in to her apartment and a possible break-up with her fine boyfriend Judah when she embarks on a three-hour tour . . . no, sorry, couldn’t resist! It’s a week-long trip to promote a new luxury cruise ship owned by Lord Richard Bullmer, a British businessman married to a wealthy yet reclusive Norwegian beauty. The guests consist of either Bullmer’s associates or travel journalists, eager to take Bullmer on as a client. Already on shaky ground, Lo’s stress is compounded when she forgets her mascara and borrows some from the punk-style girl in the cabin next door. After drinking more at dinner than I have put away in my entire lifetime, Lo crashes but wakes up to the sound of something falling into the sea. On the glass partition separating the verandas of cabins nine and ten is a smear of blood! Yet, when she calls security and they investigate, the blood is gone and so is the woman in Cabin 10!!! And of course, in true Cabin B13 fashion, (now there’s a great mystery!), there evidently never was a passenger fitting Lo’s description aboard ship nor was anyone expected to occupy Cabin 10. As she investigates, Lo receives threats, and her life is put in peril, but she must discover the truth! And discover it she does at the climax!
There are so many things wrong with this novel that I don’t know where to begin. Before I get to the main argument – what nerve do these people have associating this with Christie’s work? – let me point out a few problems.
The first is the protagonist herself. Lo tells us (first person narrative) that she is a seasoned travel journalist, although she wishes she could return to investigative journalism. Believe me, from the way she behaves, Lo is no journalist of any sort. In fact, she seems incapable of gathering the most innocuous pieces of information because she’s terrible with people. Frankly, I cannot understand why her boss allowed Lo to go on this assignment or why the other characters treat her like she is somebody important.
I thought maybe the publicists had gotten their signals crossed when early on, Lo is established to be an alcoholic. This put me in mind of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I mean, come on, the titles are almost the same, as is the jacket design. I assumed I was dealing with one of the millions of “unreliable narrator” thrillers that have saturated the market. Yet the blurb doesn’t say, “trying to capitalize on Gillian Flynn’s success” – it says “reminiscent of Agatha Christie!”
So let’s get right to it: if I open a book supposedly modeled after the Queen of Crime, I expect a few things: a closed circle of interesting characters, a murder victim, some good clues and twists, – and yes, an intrepid heroine-detective who unmasks the true killer in surprising fashion.
That doesn’t happen here at all. This is a modern “woman in jeopardy” novel in the vein of Mary Higgins Clark (what, is her name not big enough to stick in a blurb?) calling itself something else. We barely get to know half the people on the boat, and most of them are all but cleared of suspicion right away. Lo doesn’t sniff out information so much as she either stumbles into it or has it handed to her by the convenient ex-boyfriend who is also on the cruise. Several times in the story she says something to the effect of, “I now had all the clues before me; I just had to figure out what they meant!” Except there are no clues, there isn’t even a body, and most of the “suspects” aren’t even aware that something is going on for the entirety of the book.
Lo has the truth essentially handed to her way too early in the novel . . . unless Ware has it in her to create a truly clever twist! I’ll tell you who had the cleverness to do that – Agatha Christie did, that’s who! This staunch Christie fan came up with six different twists as ninety pages staggered by, hoping against hope that this book would turn out to be more than the sum of its parts. Alas, my efforts were of no avail: Lo literally stumbled toward a conclusion as banal as the “mystery” she had confronted. Along the way, she is in a near-permanent state of hangover. There’s a lot of vomiting. I don’t drink, but I will think twice before booking my first sea voyage.
Sophie Hannah is after something altogether different. She has stated that she is not trying to blatantly copy Dame Agatha’s style, but offers an homage to the Queen with a bit of Hannah’s own literary magic thrown in.
I ask you: what’s the point of that? Maybe Sherlock Holmes has enough malleability to be re-imagined as a modern-day gent or battling Martians or a closeted homosexual. Poirot is a different kettle of Belgian endive. One of Christie’s biggest complaints was that, by endowing him with a finite list of quirks and virtually no inner life, she had essentially written herself into a corner. Poirot barely even got older – until his final appearance when he was aged into decrepitude –and his character never varied from one book to the next. And that served his fans just fine, thank you very much, for what we wanted was the case – and for Poirot to solve it with his customary aplomb.
Short of someone to find a hidden cache of Christie manuscripts she lost while gardening and publishing them one at a time at Christmas for the rest of my days, I don’t want to read a “re-imagining” of the Belgian as “Young Hercule” or anything else. I’ll admit that I thought I would be willing to read an homage that gets it right. I have The Monogram Murders sitting on my shelf for my troubles. As a result, I decided to check Closed Casket out of the library. Frankly, the first two chapters left me so cold that I returned the book. Two months later, I decided to listen to the audiobook in my car, and I’m sad, but not surprised, to report that Hannah’s version of Christie-world hasn’t gotten any better the second time around.
Let’s start with the hook. Christie always had a hook. It could be ominous, like a letter sent to Poirot from a serial killer, or amusing, like the morning Poirot’s secretary makes her first mistake ever typing a letter! Whatever it was, it succeeds at hooking you in. A good mystery novel establishes questions that must be answered, but you have to suffer deliciously before the answer comes.
Sophie Hannah knows how to write a hook. In her novel Little Face, a woman comes home, goes to check on the baby, and insists that the little girl in the crib is not her child! That’s a great hook. But Hannah does not know how to write an Agatha Christie hook. In The Monogram Murders, three people are found in three different rooms of the same hotel, all dead, all with a cuff link lodged in their mouths. What the heck? Why would anyone do that? It’s not curious, it’s not ominous, it’s silly. And the truth, when we finally get to it, is not worth the effort.
One hopes Hannah will be on firmer ground with Closed Casket, which purports to be a true country home mystery. The hook? Lady Athelinda Playford, noted writer of children’s mysteries, invites her family down for the weekend to announce that she is disinheriting her children in favor of her devoted secretary, a man with only a few weeks left to live. Why, in heaven’s name, is she doing this or, to put it better, why is she doing it in this way? Does she want a murder to happen? The action veers toward lunacy, so it better have a decent explanation to warrant the interminable action that follows.
For reasons that I still find unclear after finishing the book, Poirot is invited down for the weekend along with Detective-Inspector Edward Catchpool, Hannah’s substitute for Hastings. Catchpool is a man with emotional problems, much more in keeping with the characters you find in the author’s psychological thrillers. He’s also fairly annoying, though less so here than in Monogram. They are on hand when murder eventually rears its ugly head, but there is no reason anyone would have had to expect what happens to happen, nor are Poirot or Catchpool availed upon in their professional capacities. They solve this crime on their own.
No doubt Casket intends to follow the conventions of a Golden Age mystery, but it does so unconvincingly. Conversations go on for far too long, and frankly they’re weird. Much is made of Athelinda’s book series, and I don’t understand why children would read them. Items get dropped in discussion with such awkward clumsiness that you know they must be clues. Most of the characters are very unpleasant people who are not anywhere near as clever or amusing as they make themselves out to be. One character is very obese, and so much unpleasantness is made of his appearance, including an extended sequence of flatulence, that I began to feel sorry for him and hoped he would gas the inhabitants.
Eventually, lengthy dialogue gives way to endless monologues as several characters are called upon to talk and talk and talk in order to reveal information that brings us out of the murk into the light. Here’s where listening to the book rather than reading it paid off: I know it goes on for far too long because the average audiobook of a Christie novel is five to six discs, and Closed Casket took up nine. Poirot gathers the suspects together in the library at the top of disc eight and doesn’t let up with his explications for the entire disc. The killer is then revealed . . . with one full disc left to go!! That means that the killer pontificates about the murder for another full disc, including a lot of talk about what is perhaps the dumbest motive for murder I’ve ever “read” in my history of reading mysteries. Worst of all, when somebody asks Poirot to explain what gave the killer away, Hannah reveals a really clumsy hand with clues that would never satisfy a true Christie fan. Being a fan of Dame Agatha – which I know Hannah is – does not imbue an author with the ability to write like her. I’m honestly not sure that this traditional sort of mystery is something Hannah can pull off convincingly.
Okay, I’ve raged against the light. I’ve given away too much. I’ve been mean. I apologize. But I’d like an apology for this cavalier treatment of Christie’s image and reputation. Perhaps since she has been gone for forty years, the powers that be assume that most of us won’t care how her brand gets shoved around.
But I do care. Very much.