CLOSED CAS­KET BY SO­PHIE HAN­NAH

Crime Scene - - POST MORTEM - BY SO­PHIE HAN­NAH By AN­DRE PAINE

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”

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