Following the global success of The Monogram Murders, international bestselling crime writer Sophie Hannah was commissioned by Agatha Christie Limited to write a second, fully-authorised Poirot novel. The new book, Closed Casket, marks the centenary of the creation of Christie’s world-famous detective Hercule Poirot, introduced in her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Lore Watterson caught up with Sophie Hannah during her recent visit to Johannesburg.
Lore Watterson: You are a successful crime writer in your own right. Have you always been an Agatha Christie fan or what made you take on Hercule Poirot, the elegant Belgian detective, he of the patent-leather shoes and the waxed moustache?
Sophie Hannah: My agent had the idea, so without asking me or even telling me, he was in a meeting with Harper Collins (he knew they were Agatha Christie’s publishers) and he suggested, ‘you know what you should do, you should get my author Sophie Hannah to write a continuation.’ He was the one who set the whole train in motion. The differences in our writing are mainly on the surface. My other crime novels are contemporary, not set in the 1920s. They are psychological thrillers rather than classic detective novels and the tone is darker. In many ways, writing the Poirots has made me realise that I was already writing very Agatha Christie-ish books in terms of the story structure, the stories I was telling, my approach to storytelling was very Christie-ish anyway. She, for example, starts her books with a really weird, surreal, outlandish type of mystery – so not just ‘here’s a dead body’ – but something much weirder than that. And I do too. I was doing that in my psychological thrillers, I was always trying to start with a mystery that was really extra puzzling. In terms of the way I built up the layers of clues and red herrings and twists, all of that was very Christie-ish. So, I think that even when I was writing books which on the surface were very different from Agatha Christie, they still have that strong Christie influence. And in a way, being asked to write the Poirots was like being invited to come out of the closet and write overtly Agatha Christie-ish novels, whereas before I’d try to disguise the Christie-ish-ness in a more modern contemporary format.
LW: The purists, of course, shake their heads in disapproval, arguing that fictional characters are the product of a particular imagination and should not be endlessly reimagined by later generations of authors.
SH: I should point out that, of those purists who thought this is sacrilege and should never happen, there are some who still think that. There are some people who just think that nobody should ever continue the character of another writer and those people will probably never change their minds. I’m an Agatha Christie purist and that’s why I would never have, for example, added details to Poirot’s character or life story that she hadn’t put in. It was very important to me that the Poirot in my book should be very much Agatha Christie’s Poirot. But in a funny way, I’m such an Agatha Christie purist that I don’t see my books as ruining that purity. She is still the great Agatha Christie. Her books will always be her books, and that is a category that does not and will never contain my books, which I find are a different thing. I’m not trying to sneak into the Christie canon, I don’t think anyone can ever do that. What I’m trying to do is almost like fan fiction; I love Agatha Christie, I love Poirot. When it was suggested to me that I should do this, I just thought that it would be such fun and creatively so exciting and so, what I say to people is don’t think of me as trying to be Agatha Christie, don’t think of me as trying to write Agatha Christie novels because I’m absolutely not. Think of me as someone who writes Agatha Christie fan fiction, or new Poirot novels that are in a different but related category. And actually, a lot of die-hard, purist Christie fans, that’s exactly what they do think, they know I’m not Agatha Christie, they know that Agatha Christie is still their favourite writer and her books are the books they love. At the same time, they are delighted to be able to read more, and different kinds of mysteries starring Poirot because they love him as a character and I think once a character becomes so iconic, they do become a separate thing from their creator, so Poirot is a thing, Poirot exists now in the collective imagination. What I’m doing is writing new Poirot novels, not trying to write Agatha Christie novels, which sounds like the same thing but it’s not.
LW: And when one reads your book, it doesn’t seem to be. How do you make sure that you get all the details of the 1920s right?
SH: I’m not a historian, my knowledge of history is extremely sparse, but I’ve read many 1920s English detective novels, so that is where I’d say I get the ability to write in that 1920s style and then regularly, as I’m writing the books, I have to check things. You know that one of the characters has fatal kidney disease, so I had to find out whether kidney transplants were available. And in fact, the reason I made it kidney disease rather than any other is because I happen to have a friend who’s one of the UK’s leading kidney medicine specialists. If you were a celebrity in the UK and your kidney was in trouble, this is the guy you’d go to. He’s the one, for example, who told me that in those days instead of calling it fatal kidney disease it was called Bright’s Disease and he said, ‘I’m sorry there were no kidney transplants at all until something like 1958,’ and I thought, ‘damn, well couldn’t there have been one very clever doctor who was just trying out?’ And he said, ‘nope, you’re not putting a kidney transplant in.’ So I had to work around that. And for the Monogram Murders, because there was a glass of sherry that’s very important to the plot, I wanted it to be Harvey’s Bristol Cream because that’s my favourite sherry and I needed to find out if it existed in 1920, so I do lots of googling.
LW: How does Agatha Christie Limited work?
SH: The chairman is Agatha’s great-grandson, James Pritchard, so he has a personal and family interest in looking after her legacy. They’re basically a business that has the aim of making sure that as many people get to read Agatha’s books, making sure that the various film and TV adaptations are all as good as they can be so they oversee all Christie-related projects because they own the intellectual property, and they are the people who authorise or don’t authorise. It’s interesting, one of the reasons the Christie family wanted to have books written was not only so they could have new books but also because they want to remind people of how brilliant Agatha Christie was and that’s what’s really worked. All around the world, sales of Agatha’s books are picking up again because people are reading mine and going: ‘oh yeah, Poirot, I’ll buy a few more.’