Closed Casket : Sophie Hannah, Agatha Christie

I’ll start off by admitting that I am an ardent Agatha Christie fan. She has written some of my favourite murder mystery books, and I feel like I’m coming home when I read one of her stories. This book…well it didn’t feel like coming home.

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It’s easy to tell that this wasn’t written by Dame Agatha herself, but it is a close approximation to her writing style, and it’s got a good pace and a nice flow. The character of Poirot isn’t quite right in my opinion, he’s not as concieted and confident (or arrogant as Hastings might say!) and he isn’t as involved as he is in a Christie novel.

The character of Catchpool is a bit odd, I feel that even though he’s the narrator I didn’t get to know him very well. His personality is slightly rounded in his kindness in going to the aid of a crying soul, and his confusion in his dealings with the cook and Poirot, but he felt like an unfinished character, Sophie Hannah gave me some sense of who Catchpool is but for me, he wasn’t fully realised.

I did enjoy the placement of the mystery in town near me, Clonakilty, at the beginning of the Irish Free State, but very little was mentioned of the ongoing civil war (which was quite a big thing around Cork in general). Maybe I’m simply nitpicking as I have an interest in Irish history and love to have historically accurate settings in books.

The setting of the big house and the limited cast of characters is a tried and true Christie device and it works yet again for this mystery. The owner of the house Lady Playford is well depicted and her novels sound like a lot of fun! (On a side note, if Sophie Hannah wanted to write the actual Shrimp Seddon mysteries I would be more than happy to read them!)

I liked the characters of Dorro and Kimpton as they felt the most realistic to me, they both had some backstory, and were presented as flawed but believable humans, they felt significantly more fleshed out than the two dimensional son Harry and the devoted Sophie for instance.

The plot ends up being quite convoluted and a bit stretched in places, but it’s an enjoyable romp all the same. I don’t want to give any of the story away other than the ending was a bit disappointing to me, and the “experiment” that was carried out was -to me- a cheap way of creating a mystery.

Over all I’d give this a rating of 2/5, it was good but far from great. It’s worth reading to be reminded of the joy of an Agatha Christie mystery. As a stand alone book, Closed Casket is fairly good general murder mystery story, but it’s not a wonderful addition to the Christie collection.

I definitely wouldn’t want it to be someones first Poirot, for that I’d recommend The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Murder on the Orient Express, Five Little Pigs or The ABC Murders. Those are some of my favourite Christies and would make excellent Christmas gifts for the uninitiated!

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His Bloody Project : Graeme Macrae Burnet

This work reminds me of John B Keane’s masterpiece The Field, a rural community deftly recreated; the mistrust of outsiders, the rivalry with neighbouring towns and communities and an innate sense of us vs them. The story centres around a brutal, repulsive set of murders in a small farming village, carried out by Roderick Macrae.

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The first half of the book is a “memoir” from the accused himself, and the second half is “transcripts of the trial” and “national news coverage” of the sensational crime. I felt that this was an effective way to show Roderick to be either deliberately lying or unintentionally unreliable or misleading in various parts of his narrative, and made me question the validity of his version of events and the subsequent truthfulness of his plea at trial.

The story challenged me to examine what insanity is and if someone who is insane can recognise themselves as such. Is evil an inherent moral flaw, as the minister in the village believes? Is the loss of a positive and loving influence in ones life enough to send one into a spiralling path of depravity and madness? What is soundness of mind, is it something that can be accurately measured and pronounced before the world?

This is part historical fiction mentioning a real pioneer in the field of psychotherapy a Doctor James Tompson. With the inclusion of this character Graeme has brought into play the class differences which were thought to feature heavily in the creation of the “criminal class”. Such beliefs are now outdated and distasteful but are an accurate representation of the society in which this novel is set. There’s an obvious split and mistrust between the local crofters and spalpins and those in positions of power. Both view the other as almost a different species, and in my mind they almost mirror the divide in current day global politics with ‘rural conservatives’ and ‘urban liberals’, both looking at the other group as very “other”.

Burnet has also captured admirably the rather savage and cruel treatment of women in the 1800s, rape is just seen as an inevitable thing that happens, dying in childbirth is framed in terms of dying to atone for the families sins and pregnancy borne of wedlock brings intense shame upon a family. For me it really brings to life the dour, oppressive Presbyterian/religious atmosphere that permeated the rural communities of Britain and Ireland.

The writing flows well and is easy to engage with and absorb, but some of the characters are very two dimensional in my eyes. To name but one the defense attorney Sinclair (although there is a letter from him included in the second half) could have done with more beefing up and in my opinion an exploration of his very ‘modern’ beliefs would have been interesting. My favourite character was Kenny Smoke. He’s a villager and feminist of sorts; a fair man with an innate sense of right and wrong and he stands out as a subtly nuanced and believable character.

I’d give this a 3.5/5 rating, as I certainly enjoyed this and raced through the book, but it lacks a truly gripping protagonist. A lover of true crime and historical fiction could do worse than to wake up to a gift of this from Santa!