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It’s a Mystery: “Morality is like an industry, you use what you have”

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The Monogram Murders: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery
By Sophie Hannah
William Morrow, 2014

Night of the Jaguar9780062297211
By Joe Gannon
Minotaur, 2014

“It’s not the crisis, it’s the Christie, that is keeping people awake at night.” This line appeared in a newspaper ad for Murder Is Easy in 1939. By then in the school of detective fiction Agatha Christie is undisputed Head Girl. Remarkably, 38 years after her death in 1976, the appellation remains apt. After all, she continues to be outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible; her works have been translated into over one hundred languages. Her play, The Mousetrap, is now in its 62nd year on the West End stage. Film and television adaptations abound. And one of her renowned detectives has now been given a new lease on life.

Hercule Poirot, her inimitable Belgian sleuth, was introduced to the world in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). By the time we meet him, he has retired from the Belgian police force but shows no predisposition to remain in retirement when an interesting case appears. A diminutive five-feet-four inches, Poirot is endowed with an egg-shaped head and catlike eyes that grow greener when a solution is imminent. His pride and joy is the carefully waxed and meticulously twirled mustache that graces his upper lip. “The neatness of his attire was almost incredible,” we’re told. “I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.”

Poirot says that in interrogations, he always exaggerates his foreignness. The person being questioned then takes him less seriously and in consequence tells him more. It was Raymond Chandler in his timeless essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” who captured Christie’s language skills by describing Poirot as “that ingenious Belgian who talks in literal translation of schoolboy French.”

Relying on his sharp brain—his “little grey cells”—he insists on “order and method,” and emphasizes the pursuit of the psychological flaw. Poirot’s raison d’étre, as it were, is epitomized by these declarations:

I have a bourgeois attitude to murder: I disapprove of it…. A murderer is more conceited than any creature on this earth.

Poirot’s demise occurred during his last case, Curtain, penned by Christie in the forties but published in 1975. It marks the return of Captain Hastings, his Watson whom Christie banished in 1937 (Poirot Loses a Client). Hastings is dense, naïve, ingenuous and the perfect foil for Poirot. Curtain is also notable for its ultimate conclusion that, in order to bring about justice, a Great Detective may need to act outside the law. The New York Times marked Poirot’s death with an obituary—the first, as far as I know, for a fictional character.

Which brings me to The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah’s superb pastiche heralding Poirot’s return. It is February 1929. Hercule Poirot is staying in a residential hotel attempting a respite from his detective work:

I will enjoy one month of restful inactivity. My mind it grows too busy…At home one is too easily found. A friend or a stranger will come with a matter of great importance comme toujours—it is always of the greatest importance!—and the little grey cells will once more be busy and unable to conserve their energy.

He often dines nearby at Pleasant’s Coffee House:

This tiny crook-walled establishment…in a part of London that was far from being the most salubrious, made the best coffee Poirot had tasted anywhere in the world…. Other traditions of the coffee house he enjoyed rather less: positioning the cutlery, napkin and water glass correctly on his table, having arrived to find everything all askew…. Poirot made a point of imposing order…

One night his dinner is interrupted by a distraught woman who looks as if she had “come face to face with the devil.” Her name is Jenny and she believes she is in grave danger. But when Poirot offers the services of his hotel mate, Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool, she becomes hysterical:

Promise me this: if I’m found dead, you’ll tell your friend the policeman not to look for my killer…Oh, please let no one open their mouths! This crime must never be solved. Promise me you’ll tell your policeman friend that, and make him agree? If you care about justice, please do as I ask.

And before Poirot can react, she disappears into the night. Frustrated and more than a little worried, he returns to his interim digs to find Catchpool confronting a triple murder scene. Two women and a man have been found poisoned in the Bloxham hotel, an upscale establishment near Piccadilly Circus. Inserted into the mouth of each one is a solid gold monogrammed cufflink. Poirot, his deductive juices flowing, takes charge with a baffled Catchpool in tow.

Now we are in familiar Christie territory. Catchpool a la Hastings serves as clueless narrator. Like his predecessor, he is a hapless dolt whom Poirot relentlessly orders about. Hannah stops just short of making him a caricature (something, it must be said, that Christie was also guilty of). We are caught up in a farrago of suspects, false identities, long-buried memories, double bluffs, red herrings and dizzying deductions. The elusive Jenny surfaces, as does a dark secret from her past. Poirot is on top of his game as he strives to put together the pieces of this particularly evil puzzle. Finally, he is at his outrageously immodest best when, in time honored Poirot fashion, he stages the grand finale in the hotel dining room where All Is Revealed.

Your plan was ingenious, but not as ingenious as Hercule Poirot.

I venture to guess that even the most determined Golden Age whodunit fans will be caught off guard.

Sophie Hannah is the internationally bestselling author of eight psychological thrillers. A lifelong Christie fan, The Monogram Murders is her dream come true. Writing with the wholehearted support of the Christie estate, she does Dame Agatha proud. Soyez le bienvenue encore une fois Monsieur Poirot!

The mean streets of Managua, Nicaragua are about as far removed from Poirot’s London as you can get. This is police Captain Ajax Montoya’s turf in Joe Gannon’s Night of the Jaguar.

The year is 1986 and Montoya, once a hero of the Sandinista revolution, has been relegated to homicide investigations for any number of past transgressions, real or imaginary depending on your point of view. Six days sober at the start of the novel, nightofthejaguarMontoya misses drinking almost as much as his days as in the mountains as a guerilla comandante when “during the long days of insurrection…they mostly lived like mice in cat city.”

Now, on this steamy July night, Montoya and his new partner Lieutenant Gladys Darío are called in to investigate a murder. The victim turned up in a sewage ditch in one of Managua’s abundant lower-class barrios. He’s been robbed of all his belongings, but the shirt and jeans he was left in suggest prosperity. This is confirmed at the morgue by Marta Jiminez:

A compa from the old days. An ex-pat from Columbia, lithe and long haired in handsome middle age, she’d joined the Sandinistas fresh out of medical school in the mid ‘60s when their cause made tilting at windmills seem the sport of sages. She’d spent years making miracles in the mountains…. She was now the chief pathologist in Managua—meaning the only one in the whole country.

From his clothes and body fat Marta speculates the victim was a rancher or a farmer, but a landowner, not a laborer. It is the knife wounds that interest Ajax Montoya:

“How many wounds, Marta?” Ajax asked, but he’d already counted them. He was hoping he was wrong.

Marta waited before answering. “Three. Once in the neck and twice through the heart.”…

Ajax felt his heart beat faster in a familiar way; his thoughts spun like a chance wheel at a carnival. This is how the Contra executes people.

The involvement of the CIA-backed Contras tells Ajax that the death is as much a message as a murder. At this point, wild horses wouldn’t stop him from an investigation, although he encounters plenty of obstacles. There is his archenemy Vladimir Malhora, Commander of the Directorate General for State Security. “The J. Edgar Hoover of Nicaragua.” Secretly, Malhora liked that nickname best. “Fifty years in power!…no one had dared to mess with Hoover. That was power! Even if he was a fag.”

Ajax knows that Malhora is spying on him. Worse, signs point to Gladys Darío as the spy. Plus,
surely it is no coincidence that the murder occurs just before the arrival of a U.S. political delegation. Ajax dubs the Americans “busybodies without borders” who he knows in his gut will only add to his troubles. And they do in the most unexpected way.

Meanwhile, the body count showing the Contra signature escalates. Alone and in constant danger, Montoya must fight to stay sober and sane long enough to survive. With consummate skill the author navigates him through the morass of pervasive poisonous politics at the bottom of everything pulling no punches along the way.

Night of the Jaguar is as sleek and powerful as the predatory animal in its title. Joe Gannon writes like a dream. His lyrical prose belies the darkness that is the essence of this wholly impressive debut.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.