Review: The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah – Criminal Element

The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah is an authorized installment of Dame Agatha Christie’s legendary Hercule Poirot series, where the world’s most beloved detective must solve a diabolically clever mystery set in the London of 1930.

For one reason or another, I’ve had to put off reading Sophie Hannah’s authorized continuation of Dame Agatha Christie’s work until this third novel featuring Hercule Poirot. While it was absolutely delightful to slip once more into the familiar milieu—I inhaled the original canon in a single year when I was a teenager—I admit to being a little thrown off by the introduction of some of the newer recurring characters. In particular, I spent a lot of time contrasting Ms. Hannah’s Inspector Edward Catchpool with Dame Christie’s Arthur Hastings, who have both served as Poirot’s, for lack of a better word, assistant. And while my heart will always belong to Hastings and his fondness for women with auburn hair, I did very much enjoy making the acquaintance of the Scotland Yard detective with the relentlessly matchmaking mother.

In fact, if you didn’t know any better, it would be very hard to tell which characters are entirely creations of Ms. Hannah’s and which are continuations. I was particularly enamored of Fee Spring, proprietor of Pleasant’s Coffee House, whose prickliness contrasts to good comedic effect with Poirot’s fastidiousness:

He straightened the cutlery on the table in front of him as he always did, and tried not to look at the teapot collection that filled the high shelves on the walls. He found the sight of them unbearable: all angled differently and apparently at random. There was no logic to it. To be someone who cared about teapots, enough to collect so many, and yet not to see the need to point all the spouts in the same direction … Poirot had long suspected Fee of creating a deliberately haphazard arrangement solely to cause him distress. He had once, when the teapots were lined up in a more conventional fashion, remarked that one was positioned incorrectly. Each time he had come to Pleasant’s since that day, there had been no pattern at all. Fee Spring did not respond well to criticism.

The Three Quarters of the title allude, in fact, to a Church Window cake that is a specialty of Fee’s. Separated into four distinctly colored quarters, a single slice serves to illustrate the conundrum at the heart of Poirot’s latest case. He has recently been accosted by four people accusing him, in various shades of stridency, of sending them libelous letters claiming their individual responsibility for the death of Barnabas Pandy. Two of them haven’t the slightest idea who their supposed victim was, but the other two are quite familiar with the nonagenarian who fell asleep in his bath and drowned. Poirot, ruffled at the impersonation, undertakes to discover the true identity of the writer and discovers a third connection between the recipients and the alleged victim. So why was the last person accused of the murder of someone whose path he’d never crossed?

The investigation takes everyone’s favorite Belgian detective through several fiendishly difficult puzzles that exercise—but ultimately prove no match for—his much-vaunted little grey cells. Ms. Hannah has crafted an elegant set of mysteries within a mystery, creating something that Dame Christie herself might be proud to call her own. Because it isn’t just the crime solving that sets apart Dame Christie’s novels and have made her the world’s bestselling author, it’s also the keen insight into human nature and, particularly, the British psyche. This is a tradition Ms. Hannah ably continues with passages such as these, where Poirot is talking to his valet, George (or as Poirot pronounces it, Georges):

“It is not a pleasant thing, to be accused of something one has not done. One ought to be able to brush the untruths aside, but somehow they take hold of the mind and cause a spectral form of guilt—like a ghost in the head, or in the conscience! Someone is certain that you have done this terrible thing, and so you start to feel as if you have, even though you know you have not. I begin to understand, Georges, why people confess to crimes of which they are innocent.”

George looked doubtful, as he frequently did. English discretion, Poirot had observed, had an outward appearance that suggested doubt. Many of the politest English men and women he had met over the years looked as if they had been ordered to disbelieve everything that was said to them.

It’s easy to see why the Agatha Christie estate chose Ms. Hannah for the daunting task of chronicling Poirot’s continuing adventures. In her capable hands, Hercule Poirot lives and investigates as creatively and astutely as he ever has. After enjoying The Mystery of Three Quarters, I really need to find time to read its two predecessors. In a departure from the rapid rate at which I consumed the original novels, I’m rather enjoying the opportunity to savor these new books and others that are hopefully forthcoming.