Review: Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah

The Belgian is back!

Hercule Poirot is one of the most memorable literary detectives of all time. Poet Sophie Hannah has taken on the character in her new Agatha Christie style Poirot series. Her new Poirot story, Closed Casket, sees the Belgian detective solve a bizarre and brutal murder in the house of children’s author Athelinda Playford. Taking on such an iconic character is never going to be easy.

And I’m not about to make it any easier. See what a die-hard Christie fan has to say about this Poirot revival.

Major spoilers under the cut!

So, quick summary of the murder.

Authour Athie Playford changes her will to disinherit her two children and their partners. She leaves everything to her secretary, Joseph Scotcher, a man dying of kidney failure. Everyone asks the same question – why leave everything to a man who will be dead in a matter of weeks? Arguments start between Athie and her family, with emotions ranging from the angry and confused daughter-in-law Doro to the completely nonchalant (future) son-in-law Randall Kimpton. Athie Playford leaves the room, deeply insulted, and the rest of the group soon dissemble. They are not brought back together until Scotcher’s nurse Sophie finds the twisted, beaten up body of Scotcher and screams the house down. She claims she saw Athie’s daughter Claudia beat Scotcher to death as he pleaded for his life. It is later found that Scotcher was poisoned with strychnine and was already dead when Sophie believes she heard him speak.

The murder itself is very simple; a fact that Poirot states himself.

Scorcher never had kidney failure – he was a compulsive liar. Scotcher was obsessed with Randall Kimpton and did everything he could to be him, including taking Kimpton’s girlfriend Iris. When Iris discovered Scotcher was lying about his kidney failure, Scotcher pushed her under a train. Randall Kimpton murdered Scotcher to force an autopsy and confirm whether or not he was lying about his kidneys, both as revenge and for his own peace of mind.

It is a twisted and unusual motive for murder. I have read a lot of crime novels and ‘murder for an autopsy’ is not a motive I’ve come across before, so I loved the originality of it. Having said that, this crime was not hard to solve. If Scotcher was dead already, there was another man in the room asking Claudia to stop – that’s pretty obvious. The butler and the cook of the house were only included to drop vital clues in front of the detectives and then disappear. Sophie conveniently misremembers finding Scotcher’s body, which kind of feels like a cheat in writing. Maybe we were supposed to assume that Sophie is unreliable at the start, but we weren’t presented with any reason not to trust her.

Think of it this way: Agatha Christie’s puzzles were complex and took a long time to solve, but she handed you all the pieces you needed to finish it. Sophie Hannah’s puzzle is easy but, to make it take the same amount of time to solve, she gives you one wrong piece and watches you try to jam it into the others before finally giving you the right piece and claiming it had been there all along.

I thought the reversal of Scotcher’s character – from Nicest Man on Earth to a lying and deceitful murderer – was built up beautifully and very well paced, but a lot of the other characters were less believable. Claudia and Randall Kimpton as the dynamic duo of death were over-the-top manic in their back and forth romance and Bonnie and Clyde style crime. The two were probably intended to be sociopaths in their lack of emotion at the crime, but it came off as trope-y.

So, onto Poirot himself. There’s a fine line between an eccentric and a weirdo, and I’m glad to say Sophie Hannah never crossed that line. As soon as Poirot spoke in Closed Casket I heard that accent that David Suchet made so popular, and I never lost it throughout the book. Her characterisation of Poirot was flawless. I will say, however, that there wasn’t that much Poirot to go wrong. We experience the story through Inspector Catchpool, a fair but slightly bland character who receives Poirot’s deductions via phone call after Poirot leaves the house to investigate in Oxford. The best Christie stories are the ones that take place in a confined environment. Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None  are excellent examples of this: the tension is higher when the characters are trapped. The pace slows down in Closed Casket when Poirot leaves but asks Catchpool to stay. I would have much rather followed Poirot.

It’s not the best crime thriller. The crime is far too obvious and the murderers are less psychopath, more pantomime. At the heart of this story is a dark, original and surprising motive to kill, but it’s washed out by obvious clues and melodrama.

2/5

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