SO­PHIE HAN­NAH’S MUR­DER ON JUMEIRAH BEACH

Step­ping into the (gum)shoes of Agatha Christie is a hard act to fol­low, but the chal­lenge has been em­braced by So­phie Han­nah. The for­mer poet tells James Kidd about the im­por­tance of plot, struc­ture, the el­e­ment of sur­prise and the dark­ness be­neath

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - James Kidd is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who lives in Lon­don.

‘Peo­ple have said, ‘You are such a good writer; why would you waste that on crime nov­els?’ It doesn’t of­fend me. If you think that, then you are an id­iot. You don’t see the po­ten­tial of this genre to be amaz­ing. A good crime novel is a good novel.”

Sur­prise is So­phie Han­nah’s cre­ative stock-in­trade, whether she is crafting a son­net or a so­phis­ti­cated, twist­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal who­dun­nit. Best­sellers like Lit­tle Face, A Room Swept White or most re­cently, The Nar­row Bed, com­bine police pro­ce­du­rals, morally-com­plex char­ac­ters and tan­ta­lis­ing premises that beg­gar be­lief, or at least seem to. In con­ver­sa­tion, 46 year-old Han­nah is in­tel­li­gent, witty and to the point.

“One of the main skills you need as a writer is sur­pris­ing and un­pre­dictable plot­ting. There is noth­ing worse in a book of any kind where you can see ex­actly the way things are go­ing and then are proved right. What is bril­liant, and the best writ­ers do this, is to be read­ing and think­ing, ‘This is so ex­cit­ing, I have no idea what is go­ing to hap­pen next.’”

This rel­ish for nar­ra­tive sleight-of-hand made Han­nah an ob­vi­ous can­di­date to res­ur­rect Her­cule Poirot, which she did with the bless­ing of Agatha Christie’s estate in 2014 with The Mono­gram Mur­ders.

Fill­ing the shoes of the world’s most pop­u­lar crime writer might seem a long way from her be­gin­nings as a poet, but Han­nah her­self makes no such distinc­tion. “Both po­etry and crime fic­tion have a mas­sive pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with struc­ture. In a poem, ev­ery word has to be in the right re­la­tion to ev­ery other word. In a crime novel, if you are go­ing to have a big rev­e­la­tion in chap­ter 30, you have to plant the in­for­ma­tion in chap­ters three and 11.”

Han­nah pos­sesses im­pres­sive lit­er­ary pedi­gree. Her mother, Adèle Geras, has writ­ten up to 100 books, rang­ing from chil­dren’s fic­tion to more adult fare. Han­nah’s fa­ther, Nor­man, was a univer­sity lec­turer spe­cial­is­ing in po­lit­i­cal the­ory. When we first met at her home in Cam­bridge in 2010, Han­nah told me hers was a happy child­hood, al­beit tinged with graver ac­cents.

“I am ac­tu­ally in­cred­i­bly con­tented, happy and jolly. I tend to be very op­ti­mistic. But, and I have no idea why this is, I have a re­ally strong in­ter­est in and em­pa­thy with all kinds of warped and de­struc­tive modes of think­ing. Those things co­ex­ist. I def­i­nitely have an aware­ness of dark­ness ever-present be­neath sur­face con­tent­ment. I think there’s a re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two.”

Sim­i­lar un­der­ly­ing ten­sions would even­tu­ally emerge in Han­nah’s fic­tion, the “crimes” of­ten grow­ing out of the most ev­ery­day sit­u­a­tions: des­per­ate moth­ers; past loves; even house-hunters brows­ing real estate web­sites. Ask where this adu­la­tion of a who­dun­nit comes from, and Han­nah’s an­swer is rapid: Enid Bly­ton’s Se­cret Seven se­ries, which she dis­cov­ered aged six.

“That’s when I got hooked on mys­tery. They were so much bet­ter than ev­ery other story be­cause they’ve got mys­tery. It makes you want to read so much more be­cause you want to find out. I re­mem­ber think­ing, why don’t all writ­ers put mys­ter­ies in their books? I’ve never re­ally changed my mind since.”

Han­nah found her bear­ings as a writer with chil­dren’s books, but more se­ri­ously with acute light verse about love, long­ing and loss. Early col­lec­tions like 1993’s The Hero and the Girl Next Door or Leav­ing and Leav­ing You (1999) con­tained few mur­ders, but dis­played her gift for play­ing with a reader’s ex­pec­ta­tions. The ironic con­clu­sion of this finely-crafted stanza from Symp­toms (1995) de­liv­ers a twist in the tail, as pointed as her crime nov­els:

Although you have given me a rag­ing tem­per,

In­som­nia, a ris­ing sense of panic,

A hope­less chal­lenge, bouts of in­tro­spec­tion,

Raw, bit­ten nails, a voice that’s strangely manic,

A self­ish streak, a fear of iso­la­tion,

A silly smile, lips that are chapped and sore,

A run­ning joke, a risk, an in­spi­ra­tion –

Life now is bet­ter than it was be­fore.

Han­nah’s first pub­lished novel was Lit­tle Face, although she does ad­mit to three pre­vi­ous at­tempts in­clud­ing an “em­bar­rass­ing pri­vate eye story”. Lit­tle Face es­tab­lished a blue­print for sub­se­quent fiendish set-ups. New mother Al­ice leaves her baby daugh­ter alone for the first time. Re­turn­ing to her hus­band and Mrs Dan­vers-like mother-in-law, she be­comes con­vinced her child has been re­placed with an­other.

Gothic as this sounds, Han­nah says her in­spi­ra­tion was, like most of her work, deeply per­sonal: in this case, the birth her own first daugh­ter, Phoebe. Ex­hausted af­ter five days of labour, she “hob­bled onto the ward to try and find [Phoebe]. I nearly picked up the wrong baby. A mid­wife di­rected me to the wrong cot. I looked at these two ba­bies and thought, What is the dif­fer­ence? That’s what gave me the idea. I thought, I am this per­son’s clos­est rel­a­tive and I am not en­tirely sure what she looks like.”

As well as min­ing her own ex­pe­ri­ences, Han­nah is in­tent on breath­ing new life into lit­er­ary clichés. “One thing I like to do is to take a sta­ple of the genre – ba­bies be­ing mixed up in the hospi­tal – and turn it into some­thing un­usual. I am al­ways adding to and im­prov­ing upon re­al­ity be­cause some­times re­al­ity seems a bit lack­lus­tre. My imag­i­na­tion takes off in a weird di­rec­tion.”

The most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple of Han­nah re­vi­tal­is­ing old forms is her adop­tion of Agatha Christie’s Her­cule Poirot. “It’s not my ver­sion of Christie,” she cor­rects smartly. “It’s me writ­ing new Poirot nov­els. I am try­ing to cre­ate new cases for Poirot to solve. Poirot is ab­so­lutely Agatha Christie’s Poirot.” Given her life­long fa­nati­cism (Christie suc­ceeded Enid Bly­ton in her for­ma­tive af­fec­tions), I ask if Han­nah had any reser­va­tions about tak­ing the plunge. “It was daunt­ing and chal­leng­ing. It was a huge honour. I was so in­flu­enced by Christie – she’s my favourite crime writer. How could I re­sist the chance to write a mys­tery wor­thy of the great Poirot?”

Nor was she de­terred by the prospect of Christie afi­ciona­dos nit­pick­ing their way through her Poirot 2.0. “There are al­ways go­ing to be some peo­ple who get scared when some­thing is done slightly dif­fer­ently? There may be slightly more space given to psy­cho­log­i­cal me­an­der­ings, but I would ex­pect it to be slightly dif­fer­ent.”

Has Han­nah learnt about her own work in com­par­i­son to the great Agatha? As she sug­gests her­self, her own writ­ing is rou­tinely praised for its baroque ex­po­si­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion, whereas Christie’s bril­liant puz­zles rely less on char­ac­ter than el­e­gance of struc­ture. Han­nah is hav­ing none of it.

“Peo­ple who think that Christie’s char­ac­ters don’t have psy­cho­log­i­cal depth sim­ply haven’t read her care­fully or se­ri­ously enough. That’s a clas­sic mis­ap­pre­hen­sion. Her char­ac­ters do have depth, but be­cause of her stylis­tic pre­sen­ta­tion it doesn’t get a lot of air time. It’s ab­so­lutely there, but summed up very suc­cinctly in one or two bril­liant lines. And then the plot oc­cu­pies cen­tre stage.” The suc­cess of The Mono­gram Mur­ders and 2016’s Closed Cas­ket has en­sured that Han­nah is busier than ever. “Ev­ery time I’ve a new book to write, I think, How am I ac­tu­ally go­ing to get this done, given that my diary al­ways has 12 things that doesn’t ac­tu­ally in­clude any writ­ing?”

One strug­gles to feel too sorry for her when those 12 things in­clude fly­ing to Dubai last week­end to lead a crime-writ­ing work­shop. Hav­ing first ap­peared at the Emirates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture two years ago (“That was great. Ab­so­lutely loved it”), Han­nah looked for­ward to her re­turn. “I want to be as help­ful and in­for­ma­tive to the stu­dents as I can. I want to teach them things I didn’t know when I started and that would have been help­ful.”

Is there one bit of ad­vice she can im­part off the top of her head? “Con­cen­trate on telling an orig­i­nal, un­usual and un­pre­dictable story.”

The Mono­gram Mur­ders So­phie Han­nah Wil­liam Mor­row, Dh56

Closed Cas­ket So­phie Han­nah Wil­liam Mor­row, Dh32

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