After the success of The Monogram Murders, the first ‘new’ story to feature Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot since Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, crime writer Sophie Hannah is back with Closed Casket and she’s has given Poirot another murder to solve.
Hannah takes us to an isolated mansion in Ireland where the Lady Athelinda Playford, known as ‘Athie’, writes a series of Shrimp Sheldon books where a group of children solve mysteries, often under the noses of incompetent detectives. Athie invites, independently, Inspector Edward Catchpool and Hercule Poirot for what they both think to drawn on their detective skills for her latest work. In doing so she accidentally facilitates a reunion as they’ve not met since the events at the Bloxham Hotel. They are also both wrong about why they are there.
We see events unfold through Catchpool’s reportage narration. He mixes what he has witnessed with what he knows in hindsight. Catchpool makes for a slightly grumpy character but a good narrator with his detective ways and knowledge of Poirot. Hannah has him tell us the events in page-turning detail; he has a way of narrating that really does lead to that ‘just one more chapter’ feeling.
Cosy crime has certain qualities that make it work and almost effortlessly Hannah captures what makes these stories special: crimes you can, almost, work out yourself; a colourful cast of characters; and a detective you want to see at work. You get this and more in Closed Casket.
The murder when it comes is both surprising and expected given the events that lead up to it – but after the body is found, despite finger pointing and plenty of discussions with everyone in the house, the murderer seems allusive. This is because Hannah keeps throwing the scent in different directions through her delightful and conflicted cast of characters.
There is Athie, her two children and their respective partners, her secretary and his nurse, two lawyers and the household staff along with our two detectives. It’s quite an incendiary mix, and Hannah keeps finding ways to play them off against one and other. Even Catchpool seems to both get annoyed by and admires Poirot and his methods, which makes it even more an entertaining read. It’s not always successful. There is one plot twist in the form of a revelation that seems to come out wrong – but it’s the only noticeable bump in a fast-cornered road.
At one point a character says, ‘…without truth, we are doomed to live our days in darkness’ and this is a theme that runs heavily through Closet Casket. One character’s need to force the truth does mean they put a spotlight on the truth. But at what price?
There is a sadness here as well. A lot of it, in fact. The nature of cosy crime is in its setting, characters and plotting – not in the lighthearted nature of its subject matter. The motivations of several of the characters don’t come from a happy or stable place, but that’s what you need in a good drama/murder story.
Sophie Hannah tells enjoyable, twisty, excellently constructed crime set in the Golden Age. She can write me another Poirot any time she wants to.