Meets novelist Sophie Hannah, the author bringing Agatha Christie’s beloved Belgian detective back to life
THERE’S a fabulous story about the 1978 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel Death on the Nile, directed by John Guillermin, the man behind blazing blockbuster The Towering Inferno, and scripted by Anthony Shaffer of Sleuth fame.
Christie, the billion-selling “Queen of Crime”, had been dead for just two years. Her only child, Rosalind Hicks, fierce protector of her mother’s literary legacy, was on the set when she first sighted actor Peter Ustinov in character as legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
“That’s not Poirot!” she exclaimed, to which the urbane Ustinov replied, “It is now, my dear.’’
Ustinov’s self-possessed rejoinder must have a tempting resonance for English poet and novelist Sophie Hannah, who is about to do something just a little bit mad: publish a new Poirot novel, four decades after that “quaint, dandified little man’’ with the hyperactive “little grey cells’’ and “finest moustache in England’’ exited the world in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.
Hannah’s novel, The Monogram Murders, has the blessing of the Christie estate but that will count for little if she fails to win over the devoted fans. She knows this because she is one of them. “I am absolutely a Poirot purist, and a Christie purist,’’ Hannah tells Review during an interview in central London.
“I hope I have all the neurosis and paranoia of even the most OCD-ish Poirot fan, plus a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of the Poirot books.’’
Then she adds, with a touch of that Ustinov bravado: “If anyone else was doing this book I would probably have been quite worried. I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it for any other writer — it was just a lucky coincidence that I was so shaped by reading Agatha.
“There are always going to be people who say if it’s not Christie writing Poirot then it doesn’t count, and I absolutely understand that point of view. But if I didn’t think I could do it to my satisfaction and to the hypothetical satisfaction of Agatha’s spirit, I would have said no.’’ DEATH is not the end in publishing, especially when popular characters are concerned. Sherlock Holmes was notoriously killed off and famously brought back to life as Arthur Conan Doyle bowed to the demands of a bereft public. Writers, too, can linger after their earthly demise if there are unpublished works to be spruced up for sale: we are promised no fewer than five new books by JD Salinger, which must have him churning in his grave. But one thing dead authors cannot do is write new books, an unprofitable fact publishers have sought to overcome in recent years with the “continuation novel”: that is, a living writer continuing the work of a dead one.
English novelist Sebastian Faulks, either a supreme optimist or a glutton for punishment, has had a crack at both Ian Fleming’s James Bond ( Devil May Care, 2008) and PG Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves ( Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, 2013). Jeffery Deaver and William Boyd have also penned 007 novels, while British novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz published an authorised and well-received Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, in 2011 and has a sequel, Moriarty, due next month.
But Christie? Well, she was always off limits. The story of how that changed starts, as many publishing stories do, at a lunch. Hannah’s agent was lunching with an editor from HarperCollins UK, which is publishing The Austen Project: six classic novels by Jane Austen reimagined in modern settings by well-known writers.
The project started with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility and next up is Curtis Sitten- field’s Pride and Prejudice. publishes Christie.
“My agent often comes out with bright ideas, unsolicited,’’ Hannah says. “So he just said, off the top of his head, ‘ Oh you know what you should do if you want to revive dead writers? You should get Sophie Hannah to write an Agatha Christie novel because she’s a huge fan.’ ’’
The editor was of the view the Christie family would be “dead against it’’ but agreed to run it up the flagpole. “It was like your mum going into school and suggesting you should be made head girl,’’ Hannah recalls. “A bit embarrassing … and I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
To everyone’s surprise the Christie family asked for a meeting. Hannah came prepared with a plot idea that had been in the back of her mind for years, one she couldn’t make work in the contemporary psychological thrillers that have made her name, beginning with the bestselling Little Face in 2006.
“I had a brilliant solution to a mystery but I’d never been able to find a mystery to attach it to,’’ she says. “The minute my agent said write a new Poirot novel, I thought that’s where it would work, it would work in a Poirot novel … because the motivation required is quite an old-fashioned motivation. It could happen now, but it’s far more plausible if it happened in 1929.’’
Setting The Monogram Murders in 1929 puts it early in the 33-novel Poirot timeline, between the sixth and seventh books, The Mystery of the Blue Train and Peril at End House. (Those two novels were split by the sole Poirot play, Black Coffee, which was “novelised” almost 60 years later by Australian writer Charles Osborne with the endorsement of the Christie family.)
“When I had this meeting with the Christie estate, Agatha’s family, I said I feel cheeky even being here,’’ Hannah says. “But I pitched my idea and they said, ‘Hmmm, yes, we like it, let us
Peter Ustinov as Poirot in the 1978 film