CLOSED CASKET BY SOPHIE HANNAH
Among that exclusive club of authors reinterpreting literary detectives, perhaps Sophie Hannah has the toughest challenge in attempting Agatha Christie’s geometrically precise plots. In her second Poirot novel commissioned by the Christie estate, she’s pulled it off in some style.
The set-up is classic Christie: a country house gathering in County Cork in 1929, during which celebrated author Lady Athelinda Playford spoils dinner with a baffling announcement about her will. The beneficiary is to be her secretary, although he has a fatal illness and would presumably never inherit.
Lady Playford, a writer used to orchestrating surprise plot developments, lives for her characters – to the consternation of her sharp-tongued daughter Claudia. Shrimp Seddon is the fictional author’s child sleuth, who frequently shows up the police, much like Hercule Poirot himself. Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard – our narrator – is still smarting over the events of the previous novel, The Monogram Murders.
Hannah has established an appealing chemistry between Catchpool (her creation) and Poirot, so that their sudden reunion in the second chapter makes you want to applaud her for not keeping us waiting. Having assumed he was invited to Lillieoak mansion simply because he is “famous and acclaimed”, the immodest Belgian detective becomes excited by the unexpected arrival of Catchpool. Poirot realises they are both there to prevent a murder.
Fortunately for the reader, that murder still takes place – and it’s a scene more bloodsoaked than in a Christie novel. For all her fidelity to Poirot’s creator, Hannah’s not afraid to bring a modern sensibility, which even extends to a fart gag. Closed Casket also delves into the psychology of obsession and has a self-aware touch in the authorial insights of Lady Athelinda. When a character gives away spoilers to one of her novels, he’s clearly a wrong ’un.
Poirot, as intuitive and finicky as ever, comes easily to Hannah, while Catchpool is a rounded, resourceful character rather than a bumbling detective. The pair alight on the connection several guests have to death, including a taxidermist and a pathologist given to quoting Shakespeare’s King John. Language is key to the solution of this ingenious novel, which takes you into darker territory than you might expect for a 1920s-set detective story.
Closed Casket is a gleaming gem of a murder mystery. Like the best Agatha Christies, it’s a whodunit so perfectly executed you’ll want to read it again.
“Poirot is as intuitive and finicky as ever; Catchpool is rounded and resourceful”