Welcome to the first edition of my book review series, aptly titled “Mystery of the Month”. Apt because each month, I’ll read and review a mystery novel.
The first novel I’ll be reviewing for “Mystery of the Month” is Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah.
A PUZZLING PUZZLE
‘What is now clear to me, unfortunately it is also impossible.’ – Hercule Poirot
It’s October 1929 and esteemed detective Hercule Poirot is again paired with Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool (following Hannah’s first Poirot mystery, The Monogram Murders) when they are invited to ‘Lillieoak’ – the country estate of mystery writer Lady Athelinda Playford, in County Cork. They are not sure why they’ve been invited, but Poirot soon comes to suspect they are there to prevent a murder.
But whose murder?
Poirot thinks it could be Lady Playford after she announces at dinner there has been a change to her will in which she has disinherited her two children and inexplicably left everything to her terminally ill secretary, Joseph Scotcher.
Scotcher appears gracious and charming but he suffers from a kidney disease that means he has only weeks to live. Or minutes, as it so happens because later than evening, Scotcher is found brutally murdered in the parlour, his skull smashed into the oriental carpet. Quite a bit more gruesome than our usual Hercule Poirot fare.
Someone insists that she witnessed the crime and knows who the killer is. But can her recollection of events be trusted being that the person she named was seen moments later on the upstairs landing, wearing different clothes?
And how is it that Scotcher was heard begging for his life until the time he was bludgeoned, when the cause of death is later confirmed to be poisoning?
PLENTY OF SHADY SUSPECTS
‘People are peculiar little machines … considerably more peculiar than anything else in the world.’ – Lady Athelinda Playford
Closed Casket is teeming with loads of potential suspects. They all have fabulous names. Some of them have obvious motives to want Scotcher dead – but is that then too obvious?
I’ve mentioned the spirited and somewhat mischievous Lady Playford, who, if she could, would probably have left her estate to the fictional subject of her girl detective novels, Shrimp Seddon. (You could say Closed Casket is a mystery novel written by a mystery writer about a mystery writer who writes mysteries – it’s like Inception).
Then there’s Lady Playford’s newly disinherited daughter, the aloof and acerbic Claudia Playford whose wealthy fiancé, pathologist Randall Kimpton, seems to enjoy the sound of his own voice. Viscount Harry Playford is Claudia’s buffoonish brother, a taxidermist, and his wife is the neurotic Dorothy ‘Dorro’ Playford.
Scotcher’s endearing nurse and new fiancée, Sophie Bourlet and Lady Playford’s lawyer, Michael Gathercole, draw suspicion to themselves by going missing early in the piece.
Rounding out the list of suspects is Gathercole’s partner, Orville Rolfe, a browbeaten maid, a fractious cook and even a butler!
(I’m always very excited when there’s a possibility the butler might actually have done it).
A MYSTERY I COULD’VE SOLVED IF I’D JUST BEEN SMARTER
“When you know two things are true and those two things seem to go against each other, instead of telling yourself one must not be true, shouldn’t you ask yourself what third thing that you have not yet thought of would allow both true things to be true at the same time?” – Edward Catchpool
The traditional murder mystery formula is played to perfection in Closed Casket. The novel relies heavily on dialogue but it is written in an evocative and often humorous way. A favourite moment of mine was Poirot’s description of a monobrow as a moustache above the nose instead of below.
Although complicated, the mystery is solvable. Sophie Hannah has cleverly plotted out an intricate storyline that hinges on a “four word idea” that comes together like a ‘connect the dots’ puzzle by the time Poirot is ready for his grand denouement.
Early in the novel, there is a very obvious clue in plain sight that I didn’t notice. It’s mentioned at the end and I went back to check if it was there. It is.
The chapters all have titles, as Agatha Christie had done in some of her Poirot novels, and a few of these titles are subtle clues in themselves. There are also hints surrounding wordplay that might give some indication as to the murderer’s identity. Or you can just enjoy the story as it unfolds and leave it to Poirot and his little grey cells to explain one of the most inventive motives I’ve read in a long time.
Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah is published by HarperCollins.