'I saw my job as bringing new and exciting cases to him for him to solve rather than to change him.'
It is perhaps no surprise that when talking to one of the most successful contemporary crime novelists the talk is peppered with references to ‘DNA’, ‘fingerprints’ and ‘mystery’. Although what Sophie Hannah is describing in those terms isn’t the plot of her latest thriller, but the equally intriguing and challenging problem of taking on the mantle of the queen of Golden Age detective fiction, Agatha Christie herself.
“I knew my books would inevitably be slightly different as every writer’s writing style is different, it’s like a fingerprint, there’s no way I could ever reproduce Christie’s literary fingerprint, but I have her blueprint for the crime novel so firmly embedded in my literary DNA. I want to create Poirot novels that are similar enough to Christie’s that the people who love hers will enjoy mine as well.”
This is the second time Hannah has ventured into the realm of Christie’s famous Belgian detective and when we talk, it’s clear just how much she’s been revelling in finding a new mystery for him to solve. Hannah first took on the challenge in response to a request from the Christie family – a request she is keen to point out she could never have expected.
Her response was The Monogram Murders, an ingenious, head-scratcher of a plot with a deliciously tempting set-up: three corpses in rooms of a London hotel, each found with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths. The book finds Poirot without his usual sidekick Captain Hastings, pairing-up instead with Hannah’s new recruit to the Christie character bank, police detective Edward Catchpool. The novel is exactly what a Christie fan would expect, plenty of loose-ends and red-herrings but also plays to Hannah’s strengths in laying bear the psychological motivations of her characters and themes of love, grief, despair and passions held in check are abundant. Themes which, Hannah says are no different to navigate than in a contemporary thriller. “The kind of self-seeking, envious, scared, passionately-in-love aspects of human nature are just as relevant today. Christie wrote about the big, human emotional experiences: hate, love, jealousy, anger, fear – that’s what her books were about.”
Hannah’s second Poirot novel, Closed Casket, is, at first glance at least, a different animal. Whereas Monogram Murders had a frenetic energy, seeing Poirot and Catchpool criss-crossing London and following the clues yet further afield, Closed Casket is slower paced, more meditative. It takes place almost exclusively in a single country house where the characters are confined, letting all the bitterness, family discord and murderous intent gradually rise to the surface.
Sophie Hannah is clear that this change of pace is all part of the Christie model; “The main thing about Christie is that she did things differently every time.” But she’s equally clear that as a writer you have to play fair with the reader’s expectations.
“You need to define your suspects fairly early on – it wouldn’t be great if it could be any one of seventy people who could have done it, you need to have between perhaps three and eight people, you need your small circle of suspects. There’s always a section in an Agatha Christie book where the detective says something like, ‘we can pretty much rule out the servants.’ That’s her saying to the reader, here you go, this is who you can suspect and I try to do the same in that respect.
There’s no doubt for any reader encountering Hannah’s Poirot novels that a lot of joy has gone into their creation; they’re written with tremendous energy and Hannah is clear that some of that comes from the liberation of being able to turn from hidden author to conscious storyteller; what she calls the ‘let me tell you a story’ element. It’s a conceit entirely in-keeping with the tradition of Golden Age detective fiction.
“So, in a Poirot novel, it’s absolutely fine to be up-front about the fact that someone is telling someone else an exciting story. When people read detective fiction in the 1920’s they didn’t want to know about socio-economic conditions in down-town Scunthorpe, they didn’t care about whether it was realistic that Poirot would happen to get onto that railway carriage where everyone was planning to commit a murder; they just wanted to have a puzzle, to have fun, to have an ingenious plot. It made me realise that contemporary crime fiction almost forbids that.”
It certainly makes a change from Hannah’s contemporary thrillers and it’s clear she’s relishing a different challenge that offers her time away from the sombre mood of modern crime-writing
“It was great and quite liberating to be able to really indulge in the excitement of storytelling and not try and dampen it down with show-don’t-tell contemporary realism. In contemporary crime fiction – and I’d gone along with this without even realising it - writers go to great lengths to create the impression that nobody is telling a story; the reader just happens to be witnessing some events. Nobody is saying, ‘isn’t this exciting’; nobody is saying ‘isn’t this baffling’. At those moments in the plot the detective has to be depressed and draped over a pint of whisky rather than saying, ‘I am a genius and I will solve this’.
Hannah is also quick to dismiss the oft-quoted Christie comment that Poirot was a ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep’ and freely admits that she is “very fond of him.” She also suspects that Christie’s view has been misinterpreted.
“I don’t think she really detested him, I think she was saying that the way you would about someone you really love but occasionally get a bit sick of. You could not write such brilliant books about a character – who comes off the page to readers as lovingly created – if you hated that character. I just don’t believe you could.”
Hannah speaks about Poirot and his creator with all the evident admiration of a real fan and the expertise resulting from meticulous research; Hannah says that she even sees something of herself in Poirot’s obsessive love of order, “I’m a bit like that.”
“Before I was asked to write Poirot I was an obsessive Christie fan, so I was also thinking, what I, as a fan, would like. If I’d heard that another writer was writing an Agatha Christie; if it was announced that someone else was writing a Miss Marple novel, [Hannah herself has said she won’t be taking on the other of Christie’s famous detectives for fear that Poirot “might get jealous”] then I would be hugely excited and the first thing I would be thinking is, I hope it’s enough like a Miss Marple novel that it still feels like a Miss Marple novel and that’s what I wanted to do with Poirot.
Both of Hannah’s Christie novels are set within Poirot’s existing timeline and are very precisely located in 1929; at the beginning of the only four-year period where Poirot’s movements are unaccounted for. Fans will be reassured that carefully choosing to set both novels in the same year allows plenty of scope for more mysteries to come. Yet was she ever tempted to relocate Poirot, or even to set her novels in the later years of Christie’s own lifetime? Her answer is emphatic:
“I could in theory have had him anywhere between 1916 - which is when Christie invented him - and 1976 which is when he did his last case but really that period - 1929-1932 - was the only substantial period when he wasn’t busy doing other things and so that felt right. That’s the period that people associate with him. I certainly wasn’t tempted to have him in the present day. I think that people who read a series character like Poirot, what they love is Poirot as Christie created him. If I’m going to bring him to the modern day and give him an Instagram account what’s the point, he’s not going to be Poirot? There’s no point in bringing a character back only to change him beyond all recognition. I saw my job as bringing new and exciting cases to him for him to solve rather than to change him.”
Those cases have certainly been worthy of any in Christie’s own plots but Closed Casket in particular offers the reader something special: a motive and a plot which a reader has undoubtedly never encountered before. Hannah recalls the moment the idea came to her as career-defining.
“Having the idea [for Closed Casket] was one of the creative highlights of my whole writing life. Ideas like that are so rare. To have an idea that’s four words long, a motive that is quite that simple and yet no-one is going to guess it. I thought Agatha had had them all but part of the reason it works is that it’s so simple.”
Of course moulding that simple idea into a devilish and twisting plot is something else entirely and for Hannah the key seems to be in knowing exactly where and how to drop those tell-tale breadcrumbs for Poirot to find.
“You have to show how Poirot began to work it out. It’s all there but there has to be something that first puts Poirot on the scent. There are all these things that support the theory once he suspects but there has to be something that makes him suspect that anyone would suspect, then after that everything falls into place.”
It’s this element of the writing that Hannah evidently feels is integral to what makes Christie not only the bestselling author of all-time but also a writer who has unfairly been excluded from the literary cannon. Christie’s novels show the depth and breadth of her own extensive reading and understanding of literary conventions.
She was very conscious of literary form; she was incredibly intelligent and well-read and she approached the crime genre almost philosophically as though she was thinking, what can this form be made to contain that it hasn’t yet done? She often had a slightly meta, post-modern, surreal element to her novels which is hardly ever mentioned.”
Like Christie, Hannah is adamant that Poirot has to remain at some remove from the reader, that’s all part of his enigmatic charm.
“Poirot never narrates which is crucial. He’s a kind of legendary, superhero figure, he has to remain at a slight remove so we can continue to be impressed by him and feel that he’s the ‘other’. We don’t want to see the workings of his mind, we want him to tell us about them when he’s ready.”
Hannah’s novels are both narrated by Catchpool and in creating her own foil and interpreter for Poirot’s eccentric brand of detection, it is arguable Poirot is given a much more sympathetic, human and intelligent friend than any Christie gifted him.
“My idea was that Catchpool would get better and better the more he worked with Poirot. Why are sidekicks in detective fiction so permanently stuck in their stupidity? They hang out with these geniuses all day long and yet they never make any progress at all, so I liked the idea of creating one who did.”
Expertly enticing the reader into Poirot’s world, Hannah begins Closed Casket with the line; ‘Conceal and Reveal. How appropriate that those two words should rhyme. They sound like opposites and yet, as all good storytellers know, much can be revealed by the tiniest attempts at concealment, and new revelations often hide as much as they make plain.’ Are these two concepts, conceal and reveal - and judicious use of both - the key to inhabiting Christie’s writing?
“Absolutely. When I thought of that first paragraph, I thought, I really like this because it’s true; if you reveal something, it’s a good way of hiding something else and if you hide something, you might tell someone a lot by the manner in which you hide it. That’s what the art of detective fiction is all about.”