And then there was Poirot: Sophie Hannah on reincarnating Agatha Christieâ€™s sleuth
by Raisa Ostapenko on 24 February 2015
Sophie Hannah stood behind the lectern in the Wood-Legh room of Straithard House to deliver the fourth “Women of Achievement” lecture. That evening, the internationally bestselling writer of psychological crime fiction, poet, and “Fellow Commoner” of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge would indulge in what she liked to called “the sharing of gossip” regarding the origins of her literary triumph: The Monogram Murders – the first novel featuring Agatha Christie’s celebrated sleuth Hercule Poirot written by an author other than the dame of crime fiction herself.
“It would never have occurred to me in a million years to write a Poirot novel,” admitted Hannah, recounting the story of how her “quirky” agent nonchalantly suggested she write a Christie continuation novel in a meeting with Harper Collins without actually having spoken to her about it first. The motion won Hannah a meeting with the Christie estate, which had been toying with the idea of reincarnating one of Christie’s protagonists in order to get serious media attention for the late novelist’s works. Despite its initiative, however, the Christie family was reluctant to grant this honour to just any author. “Agatha always prioritised the good idea,” said Hannah, which is precisely what the family was seeking. For quite some time, it seemed that “this [project] was never going to happen.”
Fortunately, Hannah had had a plot idea that she could not seem to adapt for a modern age thriller. “The plot worked better in a Golden Age detective story,” she explained, the era of classic murder mysteries in which denouements were expected to be “imaginatively ingenious in the way that expands what is possible,” as is the case in Christie’s bestselling works And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express.
People’s mindsets are not independent of their historical period, explained Hannah. “Things like duty to one’s country, for example, would be quite plausible in a novel written in or about 1929 [...] But if you are writing about contemporary Britain and everyone was drafted to go and fight for their country in a war, everyone would be whinging and setting up occupy tents.” Based on Hannah’s observations, readers of contemporary crime fiction tend to prefer realism, that is stories that are “likely to happen” on their street or in their neighbourhood. In reality, however, it is sufficient for something to have happened once for it to become “plausible”, she said. And so, Hannah was given the opportunity to present her Golden Age plot to the Christie family, which decided that the story was exactly the sort that Christie would have written herself had she had the chance.
The Monogram Murders had become an issue of great controversy even before Hannah had begun writing it. “People actually think [continuation novels] are morally wrong,” she said. The prejudice involved therein comes from the fear that a familiar, beloved character will somehow be compromised. It was precisely for this reason that Hannah was categorically against “updating” Poirot to the 21st century and ensured that he would remain exactly the character conceived by Christie decades earlier.
“[In continuation novels], you have to get the exact right blend of the reassuring familiarity and the new and exciting.” This way, the book serves as comfort reading for existing fans, but is also original.
Hannah’s book turned out to be a success. Expected to be published in a total of 38 countries, the book reached top five in over 15 of the countries in which it has already been published. Described as “equal parts charming and ingenious, dark and quirky, and utterly engaging,” it gives readers the chance to return “to a favourite room of a long-lost home,” wrote Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. The Monogram Murders is expected to go on screen, though the project’s format has yet to be decided.
Quoting Christie’s grandson Matthew Pritchard, Hannah said that she “would not be at all surprised” if she wrote another continuation novel featuring one of Christie’s protagonists. Outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible, Christie wrote 33 novels, two plays, and over 50 short stories featuring Poirot over the course of her literary career, which began with the publication of her first book in 1920.
Raisa Ostapenko (2014) M Phil (Modern European History)
Photo credits: Anastasia Kozlovtseva
Filmography: Ryd Cook