RE­VIV­ING POIROT

Meets nov­el­ist Sophie Han­nah, the au­thor bring­ing Agatha Christie’s beloved Bel­gian de­tec­tive back to life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

HarperCollins also

Peter Usti­nov as Poirot in the 1978 film

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