‘The Killings on Kingfisher Hill’ bv Sophie Hannah: the new Hercule Poirot mystery
It was one hundred years ago when Agatha Christie introduced the now legendary Belgian detective in her first crime novel,“The Mysterious Affair at Styles.”
‘Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible’. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, (1920)
There are 13 chapters with enticing titles: Poirot Investigates, Fresh Suspicions, The Night of the Tragedy, Poirot Explains.
This popular, iconic character went on to star in 33 novels, two plays and more than fifty short stories. “My Belgian invention was hanging around my neck, firmly attached there like the old man of the sea.” Agatha Christie, An Autobiography
Poirot’s final case, which brings him back full circle to Styles, was written during World War II as a gift for her daughter, but kept in a safe for over thirty years until “Curtain” was finally published in 1975.
The news of Poirot’s death in the novel was commemorated in an obituary in The New York Times, the only fictional character to have received such an honour.
The Hercule Poirot mysteries have been adapted with great success the cinema and television screen, portrayed by many actors from Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov to David Suchet and Kenneth Branagh, with their own personalised manner, mode ……and moustache.
It was therefore a most inspired decision of the Agatha Christie Estate to resurrect the Belgian detective and authorise Sophie Hannah to write a exciting new Continuation novel.
Sophie Hannah is a massive fan of Agatha Christie’s crime fiction, having first read “The Body in the Library” aged 12. She is an international best selling writer of psychological thrillers, winning numerous awards. Sophie created a Masters Degree course in crime writing at Cambridge University, where she is a fellow of Lucy Cavendish College.
“Agatha Christie is the greatest crime writer of all time and it is a huge, huge honour for me to be the person chosen to do this.” Sophie Hannah
Sophie presented a detailed 100-page outline for a Poirot-esque detective novel to the publishers and Christie estate, which was approved. ‘The Monogram Murders’ (2014) was the first of her four novels in this new series.
Celebrating 100 years since Poirot solved the mystery at Styles, he sets off once again to investigate a new case, “The Killings at Kingfisher Hill”.
“It is ten minutes before two on the afternoon of 22nd February, 1931. That was when the strangeness started,” begins the first person narration by Inspector Edward Catchpool who is accompanying Hercule Poirot to Little Key, a mansion on the Kingfisher Estate, Surrey.
Richard Devonport has summoned Poirot to prove the innocence of his fiancée, Helen who faces the death penalty for the murder of his brother, Frank. A clever ploy by Hannah to retain authenticity, is that the plotline of an allegedly innocent person being accused of murder was used by Christie several times: Ordeal by Innocence, Towards Zero, Mrs McGinty’s Dead, The ABC Murders, Five Little Pigs and also the play, Witness for the Prosecution.
Curiously, the rest of the Devonport family cannot know the real reason for the visit and they will pose as enthusiasts of a board game, Peepers, created by Richard’s father, Sidney, as a rival to Monopoly.
The journey by coach from London to Kingfisher Hill is not without incident: unfortunately, it takes almost 100 pages to describe a series of incidents, a damsel in distresss, lunch, a minor emergency and missing passengers before they arrive at the Devonport home. Yes, a couple of these characters will make a later appearance, but this is a convoluted start before cracking on with the heart of the mystery.
It’s the classic Country House setting where the murder took place on 6th December, 1930. “At twenty minutes to six, Frank Devonport fell to his death from the landing. He’d been pushed from the balcony. Fell and cracked his head open on the hard floor beneath.”
If it’s not Helen Acton as Richard believes, who is guilty of the crime? There were seven other people there at the time – Sidney, his wife Lilian, their daughter Daisy, her fiancé Oliver Prowd, two family friends, Godfrey and Verna Lavliolette, and the servant Winnifred.
Like Sherlock’s Watson, Hannah’s new creation, Inspector Catchpool is an assistant sleuth like a blend of the amiable Hastings and the solid but slow, Chief Inspector Japp. Poirot likes to challenge his friend, asking for a list of questions on the case, to test a methodical mind. “Precisely, Catchpool, you have hit on the head the nail!… it proceeds most satisfactorily, the training of your brain.”
The title of the novel is, of course, ‘Killings’ in the plural and so far, just one. But then the shocking discovery of a body of an unidentified woman, bludgeoned to death with a poker in the drawing room at the Devonport home. The Cluedo style setting is reminiscent of Christie’s classic, The Body in the Library, in which an unknown blonde girl is found at Gossington Hall, home of Colonel and Mrs. Arthur Bantry.
Certain members of the rather dysfunctional Devonport family are unreliable witnesses due to their eccentric behaviour. There is one marvellous character, Hester Semley, “a small bony, bespectacled woman with thick, coiled springs of white hair,” whose dagger-sharp intellect even throws Poirot on the back foot. A Miss Marple with feisty attitude!.
This is a twisting, turning maze of a plot like a complex jigsaw puzzle, where, it seems, half a dozen pieces are missing, until of course, Poirot uncovers the truth in the final flourish of a denouement.
You can expect the narrative structure, language, period style and social manner of an Agatha Christie novel, not least the impeccable personality, wit and wisdom of Hercule Poirot.
“I regard every word Agatha Christie ever wrote almost as a holy text, so I’m not going to be taking any liberties,” Sophie Hannah. “
Set in 1931, this is vintage detective fiction but not old fashioned. Crime, past and present, is a moral matter, understanding human nature, jealousy, deceit, the psychology of good and evil. The classic detective story is a world of theatricality and illusion.
So no wonder Christie’s murder mysteries adapt so well from page to stage and screen. David Suchet is legendary in the role of Hercule Poirot which he played in 70 episodes of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot series over twenty five years.
The highly acclaimed series adapted all of Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories featuring Poirot between 1989 and 2013 and continue to be repeated on a regular basis.
The enduring appeal for Hercule Poirot has no sign of slowing down. Following the masterly remake “Murder on the Orient Express” directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, his next Agatha Christie movie is “Death on the Nile,” to be released in 2021.
The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah – the new Hercule Poirot Mystery is published by Harper Collins.
The previous titles in the Continuation series of Poirot mysteries are “The Monogram Murders”, “Closed Casket” and “The Mystery of Three Quarters.”