If I listed all the things that piss me off about The Mystery of Three Quarters it would run to a whole new (probably better) book.
Let’s start with the positive. The story itself hangs together, it was interesting and fun, and the book had really good tension, progression and pacing. This isn’t a DNF. I definitely wanted to know what happened.
Unfortunately, that’s where the positive ends for me. I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan. I grew up reading Poirot and Miss Marple, and I must have read every book four or five times. I love the characters, the flair, and the mysteries. And any Agatha Christie fan will tell you, The Mystery of Three Quarters bears only the vaguest resemblance to the real deal.
This is third Hercule Poirot book that Sophie Hannah has written, and they all have the same issues. I’m not going to bother listing them because, quite frankly, I don’t think you should read them. Why I keep reading them, I really don’t know… I get that no-one is saying this IS an Agatha Christie. But come on… Somewhere, Agatha Christie is turning in her grave.
The problem is, of course, that it’s virtually impossible for another writer to recreate the style and characters of another author. Even if I was to be generous and say this book was an homage, it still feels wrong. It found it impossible to enjoy the book fully, because the differences between the new and original are jarring.
Take Hercule Poirot. Arguably, the character around which this whole plot hangs. Get that wrong, the whole thing falls apart. And it wasn’t right. Poirot’s manner of speech, when it’s directly copied from the original is fine; however, when the dialogue is a Sophie Hannah original, it doesn’t even come close. It just doesn’t sound like Hercule Poirot. The drop in of bits of French, so very Christie, were wrong; it’s modern French, and it’s simplistic. Christie’s use of French was often idiosyncratic, it was the French learned and practised by the upper classes, and it was of its time. Just in general, a lot of the phrasing of language used by the characters is too modern.
And the amount of sentences which were grammatically incorrect… I don’t even have words for how much that annoys me. I have no problem with grammar being mis-applied or disregarded when it is for a point. But here… What would be the point? And can you imagine Agatha Christie writing something with obviously poorly structured sentences? I can’t. It hurt my brain a little bit…
I thought the characterisation in general was poor. There was very little character building or description. The reader gets no sense of who is who, what they look like, or what kind of a person they are. Christie often used classic character tropes, which saved her from having to re-explain or detail the characters’ qualities; we already have a pre-conception of what a bluff major who’s a bit of a bore looks like, or a young, pretty gold digger. If Sophie Hannah wasn’t going to do that, then we needed a bit more description and development.
I thought the characters were also quite over the top and unrealistic. They behaved in inexplicable ways, which was then used as part of the psychology of the mystery. I understand a man not liking his secretary, but would a successful, middle aged solicitor actually run away from her or lock himself in his room to avoid her? Does he have some sort of mental health condition? And I’m then supposed to believe he’s then in love with her? It was just odd…
I thought the logical progression for solving of the crime wasn’t well-handled. You receive anonymous letters accusing you of murder, you surely go and find out whether the person was actually murdered before embarking on a murder investigation? I mean, that would be step one for me. I thought there were a lot of gaps, and it all progressed very strangely. A Christie novel has a formula, and there is a pleasing symmetry and logic to the decision making. It frustrated me not to find that here.
The mystery in general, while fun and enjoyable, was very simplistic. There was a lot of repetition, a lot of stressing of points to draw them to the reader’s attention. And there was no real surprise. This felt like Agatha Christie, if someone had dumbed it down for the level of intelligence of tabloid readers.
My other peeve is a personal one. At one point, the character calls someone a murderer because they assisted women with abortions. This goes completely unchallenged, and is, if anything, used as a point against that character. Now, I perfectly understand that a lot of people feel that abortion is murder. I understand that, in the 1930s, when this book was set, most everyone would have felt that way. However, this is not the 1930s, and for most people it is not acceptable to push your personal beliefs, agenda and values down other people’s throats anymore. In my opinion, this is certainly not an acceptable thing to say in a mainstream, pulp novel. When you’re writing a novel set in a different time period, there is a fine balance between respecting the views and conventions of that period, and being appropriate for the time you actually live in. Agatha Christie said plenty of things in her books which today would be considered racist or offensive. Sophie Hannah hasn’t re-created those, so why would you throw in some offensive and outdated views on abortion?
The Mystery of Three Quarters was incredibly problematic for me. On the one hand, I think Sophie Hannah is a really good writer. The plot itself hangs together, and the book itself was a lot of fun – if you could set aside the fact it was supposed to be an Hercule Poirot. Because on the other… What on earth would possess someone to try and recreate someone else’s character? She was never going to be able to do it justice. I’m sorry to say, I really wouldn’t recommend this book.
Take my advice and give this book a miss! If you’re craving an historical or Golden Age mystery, and already have Agatha Christie in the bag, try one of these authors instead: