Hercule Poirot is alive and well in The Monogram Murders

hannah-monogram-murdersI was dubious when I heard modern crime writer Sophie Hannah was approved by the descendants of Agatha Christie to resurrect her detective Hercule Poirot, beloved by many.
So dubious I avoided it on its release in 2014. I read positive reviews, which mentioned Hannah’s chops as a crime writer, her love of all things Poirot and her faithful promise she  would cut no corners in dusting him off for a new case.
This was good enough for the family, but inexplicably still not good enough for me, so I just eyed it suspiciously in bookshops every time I passed it, stroking the cover creepily but still not quite trusting.
I love Poirot, OK?
Dipping my toe in, I assessed Hannah’s skills by reading her Kind of Cruel, which I found highly satisfactory, twisty and mucky like all good crime.
Finally took the plunge on The Monogram Murders and – ! – was not disappointed.
This has the wit and psychological insight Hannah clearly already commands, and that obviously made her an ideal choice for the project.
It’s also, more importantly, so spot-on rendition of Poirot that – and I feel disloyal, but – I just can’t tell the difference. I can actually hear David Suchet speaking the lines. The rhythm, the cadence, the humour; all perfect.
It’s uncanny, as though the Belgian detective, quirks, mannerisms, wardrobe and all, has stepped prissily from the yellowed pages of Agatha Christie into another woman’s book, where he is rendered in loving, lifelike detail and doesn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.
Strait-laced young detective Catchpool makes a good solid foil, just the kind Poirot needs to shine. The murders, too are very Christie. Three corpses are found laid out in three different rooms of the same hotel, each with a monogrammed cufflink in his or her mouth.
The plot is full of classic Christie tropes and features, though I will not say what they were for fear of spoilers, and is quite as convoluted and macabre as Christie at her nastiest.
Yet nothing feels contrived or formulaic. It does not feel exactly like Christie and yet I could not put my finger on any difference. You can feel the confidence and the the fun the author has had, and it is infectious. A joy to read.
I’ve caught up just in time – the family must have been happy, too, because her second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, is now on shelves. Hurrah!
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In which I tell you whether Lee Child’s 20th Reacher book has anything new to offer

More than happy to fork over airport prices for this baby.

More than happy to fork over airport prices for this baby.

Lee Child apparently writes one Reacher book per year and has done for the past 20 – he starts each September.

I love a good routine myself, so I like to read one Reacher book each year, starting around each September, when the new ones are released.

So I know what to expect from a Reacher book.

 

 

For those who don’t (inexcusable) – the books, like most crime series featuring a strong central protagonist or two, Reacher books are formulaic. Jack Reacher was born into a US military family and spent his childhood in temporary homes on military bases. Then he spent his adult working life as a military cop posted to more temporary bases. He has never known permanency or possessions.

A hulking bloke, a fighting machine born and trained for detective work, after his honourable discharge he can’t hack the thought of settled civilian life. So he treats the United States like another set of temporary bases, moving from town to town, hitching rides and catching buses in between, a perpetual traveller. He travels with only what he has in his pockets, buying cheap new clothes and junking them when they get dirty, living in motels, working casually from time to time – but never for long in the same spot. In each book, he hits a town with a dark secret, something fishy going on, and his unshakable sense of right and wrong (not necessarily matching the same compass points as anyone else’s sense of right and wrong) he gets embroiled in a mystery.

The books stand out not only for the supremely original and consistently drawn character but for solid, inventive plotting and – above all – minutely detailed fight scenes, detective work, military training and weapons knowledge.

These books require a little more suspension of disbelief each time (Reacher walks into trouble, something strange is going on in this town, it all starts in the local diner, he chooses not to walk away and there’s an eminently fuckable woman mixed up in it all) but the formula is all part of the fun, making these books like an annual birthday present when you know exactly what you’re getting but you never get any less excited.

The formula has won Lee Child fans across the globe. He is the crime writer that other crime writers read, one of the most famous working today.

To illustrate, when I’m walking home from the bus reading this I pass a lady checking her mailbox. We exchange smiles, then she pauses. “Ooo, my sister-in-law is reading that,” she says. Two days later I’m reading it on the bus and I’m the last passenger, so I’m waiting by the driver’s door to hop off. He looks at the book and says “ooo, I’ve read some of those. Is that a new one? Can I read the back?” And I wait for him to read the blurb, then we have a little conversation about how great Lee Child is. Just yesterday I saw a bloke in my office building carrying a Lee Child on the elevator. Pretty much whole family, regardless of age, gender or usual book taste, reads this series.

Party of five: Me, Lee Child, the Ministry, the dog and the pizza (not pictured. Got et.)

Party of five: me, Lee Child, Ministry, the dog and the pizza (not pictured. Got et.)

The 2014 release, Personal, got me so excited I begged off the usual Sunday night hangover movie and glued myself to it. Then I abandoned cooking dinner and ordered pizza so I didn’t have to stop reading, something that basically only ever otherwise happens in the Ministry’s wildest dreams. I thought while reading it that Child was at the top of his game. The humour was more pronounced than the faint dry humour usually present and it spoke of absolute confidence and a certain playfulness.

In 2015 I thought, can he do it again?

There are some differences in Make Me. The subject matter of this book is also darker than usual. The humour has not vanished, but it’s dialled right back down. It also gets into unfamiliar territory plot-wise, even for this most wide-ranging of series. There is a focus on technology, an entirely new direction for Child’s old-school protagonist. I’m amazed to tell you that Reacher encounters a woman who is not a tiny, willowy blonde. And we get a glimpse of vulnerability in Reacher we have never seen before, which adds unutterably to the suspense level. It all seems to add up to a new maturity and intensity for this series.

Best of all, it ends tantalisingly, with a question mark.

Do not, I repeat, do not watch the one movie made from this series so far (One Shot, starring Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher). It will ruin this series for you before you’ve even begun.

But there is no doubt Lee Child still has plenty up his sleeve. Do yourself a favour and check out this series.

 

Maleficent (2014)

6.5/10

As a die-hard Sleeping Beauty fan – it’s my favourite Disney movie – and a firm believer that it is the scariest Disney classic, needless to say I’ve been excited about Maleficent. Also a little nervous and possessive.

Proof of the old-school-ness of my love.

Proof of the old-school-ness of my love.

So I’m a little confused by my ambivalence after watching Maleficent, a tales that imagines another side of the story told about this truly nasty villain.

Maleficent: an honestly badass villain.

Maleficent: an honestly badass villain.

It’s one of the odder emotional arcs I’ve been through, watching a movie I’ve had a lot riding on –suspicious about how pretty it all seemed starting out, excited as Maleficent dropped her curse and got her evil on, then madly disappointed with how things went after that. Half an hour in I was sure I hated it. I thought, this is doing Wicked, but a pretty crap job of it, without any of Wicked’s subtlety or charm.

Then I worked out where they were heading with the storyline, and grudgingly managed to give it another chance.

It had some jarring bits of humour – cute, endearing, but nevertheless out of place with the gravity I craved. It had some clunky scripting, especially around the all-important curse scene.

There was some poor characterisation. King Stefan was laughable (Sharlto Copley, not given much to work with). The fairies were weird and  cringeworthy, though I did like the choice of Umbridge – Imelda Staunton will forever be Umbridge to me – as Merryweather, or Knotgrass, as they pointlessly changed it to. Aurora (Elle Fanning) was so insipid the Ministry and I wanted to slap her every time she gave that gormless smile.

Apart from all that, the look was down pat. The scenery was spectacular. And Angelina Jolie as Maleficent is jaw-dropping. Mesmerising, really, you just want to drink her in. She’s utterly believable and true to the original in every moment, while adding her own humanity to it, which is the whole point.  Plus, she looks great with horns.

This movie was all about the women, which was refreshing. It’s nice to have the handsome prince be the completely irrelevant, token character for a change.

There’s also a nice little twist, which I shan’t, obviously, spoil.

Overall, I’m happy enough, if I try to forget about what they did with my beloved Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.

Special mention goes to Lana Del Ray for her beautiful, creepy rendition of Once Upon a Dream played in the credits. Now THIS had the gravity I craved.