‘Clonakilty, God help us,’ my Irish mother would say automatically when we drove into the town, in pious remembrance of those who had died there during the famine. Clonakilty acquires another corpse in Closed Casket, Sophie Hannah’s second novel to feature Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, which is set mainly in a country house nearby.
The continuing success of the Christie brand is one of the marvels of the modern entertainment industry. Estimates of her global book sales start at two billion. Only last August, the BBC announced that it had commissioned seven new Christie adaptations over the next four years. So it’s scarcely surprising that Agatha Christie Ltd and her publisher should want to exploit the potential of the lucrative market for continuations and sequels.
The year is 1929. Poirot and his respectful young friend Inspector Catchpool are invited to stay at the home of Athelinda, the dowager Viscountess Playford, who has grown rich beyond the dreams of avarice by writing a series of detective stories for children.
Hours before they arrive in County Cork, Athie (as she is known) changes her will and leaves everything to her secretary, Joseph Scotcher, who is expected to die at any moment from Bright’s Disease. Athie’s children — Harry, the present viscount, and his sister Claudia — are understandably peeved. The household is completed by a brace of lawyers; a tightlipped butler; a maudlin housemaid; an outspoken cook; Claudia’s fabulously wealthy pathologist fiancé; the viscount’s ungracious wife; and Scotcher’s nurse (who naturally is in
love with her dying patient, as is the maudlin maid).
At dinner, Athie announces to the party that she’s disinheriting her children in favour of her dying secretary. It’s almost as if she is trying to provoke a murder. Sure enough, somebody beats out Scotcher’s brains with a club that very evening, though even that turns out to be not all it seems.
The Gardaí — in the shape of a grumpy inspector and gormless sergeant — arrive to investigate the death. Meanwhile, Poirot and Catchpool mount a rival investigation. It proceeds decorously in and around the house, largely through conversations, some broken off just before a promised revelation, others overheard and tantalisingly unfinished. There is also an improbable connection to one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays.
Catchpool enters his role as stooge with a dedication that borders on insanity. ‘I would have given one of my own pink kidneys to know what [Poirot’s] thoughts were.’ Poirot himself behaves in a suitably enigmatic fashion throughout. ‘Everything you say, I have thought of already,’ he remarks to Catchpool; and the inspector reassures himself:
‘I think he meant it as a compliment.’
Hannah’s first Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, tried too hard to do too much. Closed Casket is a marked improvement — better constructed and more crisply written. Neither the motive for Scotcher’s murder nor the way the case is solved is remotely believable. But they are characterised by a skewed logic that compels admiration if not belief.
The novel favours ingenuity over plausibility. Still, it has an intellectual coherence that Christie herself would probably have enjoyed — I certainly did — as well as the advantage of not taking itself too seriously.