The Monogram Murders

9780062297211_p0_v5_s260x420If you are missing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Sophie Hannah’s reincarnation of the famous Belgian sleuth  in The Monogram Murders will not disappoint.  In an interview, Hannah, famous for police procedural crime thrillers, noted:

“Try as I might, Agatha Christie is unique. The actual writing style can’t be exactly the same, so instead of trying to replicate it exactly, the way I got around it was by inventing a new narrator… a Scotland Yard detective called Edward Catchpool. He’s a bit unsure of himself, and worries people are going to see through him all the time. He’s the sidekick who’s quite good but he’s nowhere near as good as Poirot. I think readers will like him and identify with him. I did.”

“Nobody has ever written as many enjoyable, fun-to-read crime novels as Agatha Christie. It’s all about the storytelling and the pleasure of the reader. She doesn’t want to be deep or highbrow. So many writers want you to know their world view. Christie doesn’t, she just wants you to enjoy her books. You can be exhausted, have flu, a hangover, you always want to read Agatha Christie.”

I was easily ensconced in the solving of these three murders – dead bodies discovered in different rooms of the same London hotel, each with a monogrammed cufflink placed in their mouths.  The murders take place in 1929, although the motive proceeds from events 16 years earlier. Poirot is in good form – and a comforting element –  as he slowly unravels each clue, commenting in French phrases.  The plot is as intricate and as puzzling as a Christie mystery, and Hannah manages to replicate the old-fashioned style and Poirot’s egotistical manner.  And yet, the story seems to go longer than I remember Christie doing, and the aha element seems a little lacking at the end. Christie always managed to tie up all the loose ends in a final chapter, succinctly and quickly, but Hannah’s resolution meanders until you are wondering if Poirot will ever explain.    Still a good detective story, The Monogram Murders may be more Hannah than Christie, with a visiting Poirot as a bonus.


On Writing – and Agatha

Writing is its own reward, but it sure is fun when someone else wants to read what you wrote.

Agatha Christie fearlessly wrote so much that “you can read a different title every month for seven years,” according to Christie expert, John Curran.  As Curran continues to study Agatha Christie for his doctoral thesis at Trinity College, his books uncover the author’s motivation and inspiration.

I am currently reading Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making, Curran’s follow-up to Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.  From the beginning, Christie’s enthusiasm and attitude are a tonic – for her fans and for writers…an excerpt from one of her notebooks…

“And goodness knows, there is no shortage of potential material; just look around this carriage…Ideas, 1931, Book, Poirot and a crime…”

This book is a keeper –  one I will retrieve from the shelf now and then as a reminder that inspiration is everywhere – observe, note, write.

Hallowe’en Party and The Boy of a Thousand Faces

Mystery and birthdays are the theme for two favorite Halloween treats – Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party and Brian Selznick’s The Boy of a Thousand Faces.

Who could have known a Halloween party could be so lethal?  Agatha Christie has Hercule Poirot investigating  a victim’s murder at the festivities in her mystery Hallowe’en Party.

Mrs. Oliver, the famous mystery writer attends a children’s Hallowe’en party at her friend’s house.  At first, the fun of games, prizes, food and a costumed witch who tells fortunes promises a good time. When Joyce’s mother comes to fetch her home, she is missing – then found dead in the galvanized tub of water used for the bobbing apples game.

Of course, Mrs. Oliver calls her old friend Hercule Poirot.  With the help of retired police Superintendent Spence who now lives in the area, Poirot carefully tracks the murderer -uncovering forgery, blackmail, a misplaced inheritance, and more murders along the way.  The victim had bragged about witnessing a murder, and that also becomes part of the investigation.

In true Agatha Christie style the complicated plot is reworked and all is explained in the end – just in case you got lost in all the possibilities and red herrings.  And if you are a fan of the Christie mysteries, you will recognize some old favorites in the line-up.

Brian Selznick offers his unique black and white drawings in a children’s book about Alonzo King, whose birthday is on Halloween in The Boy of a Thousand Faces.  Alonzo loves monsters and imagines himself in different disguises.  When “the Beast” comes to town, Alonzo solves the mystery.  Selznick offers a mild tale with his usual amazing pictures.

Happy Halloween!

The Billionaire’s Vinegar

Are you a wine connoisseur or do you have trouble distinguishing between red and white?  How much are you willing to pay for a good glass of the bubbly?  Benjamin Wallace solves the “mystery of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine” in his nonfiction tale of The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

Wallace’s research centers on an 18th century bottle of wine, allegedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, mysteriously discovered and auctioned by Christie’s.  Wallace chronicles the sale and resales, orchestrated by Hardy Rodenstock, the finder, and Broadbent, the seller.   The wine is authenticated in European laboratories, with an historical accounting of Thomas Jefferson’s collection, yet the Monticello curator disclaims the bottle’s authenticity.   When the wine is later denied its vintage by physicists with radioactive dating technology,  Bill Koch, owner of some of the few rare bottles and with all the resources a billionaire has to cure his  sour taste over being had, sued Rodenstock and Christie’s for selling counterfeit wine and uncovered the

“lab where he makes the bottles…you know {like} the movie Catch Me If You Can?…

No one seemed to be paying attention to the experts, however, even when the initials on the label are not the abbreviation Jefferson used – Th: J.     Rodenstock with his “audacity…as a good con man” smoothly dismissed any discrepancies and  kept the money flowing.

Wallace writes the information with the tone of an amazing adventure and fascinated amusement, subtly ridiculing those with money trying to be elitist.  He includes some funny incidents of corks slipping into bottles and disappearing, bottles breaking spontaneously, and tastings gone awry.  He also chronicles all the nuances of growing, storing, bottling, labeling, and selling wine – too much detail for me.

Even skipping the minutiae, supported by over 30 pages of references, I still enjoyed Wallace’s story, and appreciated his final comment: although Jefferson did collect wine “from the châteaux,” it was to drink, not to hoard or display.

In his later years, “Jefferson was drinking cheap table wine, and very happily so.”

I could relate to that.

Related Article:  The Jefferson Bottles from The New Yorker