PARTNERS IN CRIME
As her new Poirot novel Closed Casket is published, author Sophie Hannah writes exclusively for Crime Scene (below) on creating a convincing sidekick for Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective. And star of the ITV series Hugh Fraser (opposite) shares his Cap
“Are you going to write another Poirot novel?” a man asked me recently at a party.
“Yes, I already have,” I told him. “It’s called Closed Casket. It’s published on 6 September this year.”
“No, I mean another one after that,” he said. “Because I’ve got an idea – why don’t you kill off Catchpool halfway through? That would be bold! And unexpected!”
Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard is the sidekick I invented for Poirot when I wrote my first Christie continuation novel, The Monogram Murders. Though I love Christie’s Hastings, I decided I couldn’t have him in my story. Hastings is the narrator – the voice and tone – of the novels in which he appears, and I didn’t want to risk trying to narrate in his voice. I don’t believe any writer should copy or imitate another’s style, and so my Hastings, had I attempted him, would inevitably have been quite different from Christie’s, which wouldn’t have made sense. Hastings needs to speak like Hastings, or not at all.
I got around the problem of who should both narrate my Poirot novels and be Poirot’s helper within them by inventing Edward Catchpool. Unlike most sidekicks in detective fiction, Catchpool is not entirely dense and lacking in conundrum-solving ability; he doesn’t only help Poirot by unwittingly saying something totally irrelevant that causes Poirot to make the vital connection that has eluded him so far. On the contrary, he’s a clever and promising detective, just not quite as brilliant as Poirot (but then who is?). In contrast to Poirot’s supreme confidence, Catchpool is endlessly unsure of himself and suffers from what we would now call Imposter Syndrome. Some readers of The Monogram Murders found Catchpool to be endearingly fallible and full of self doubt; others thought him uninspiring and indecisive. This disagreement pleased me no end and convinced me that he was the interesting character I wanted him to be.
I think of Poirot as occupying a sort of mentor role in relation to Catchpool. He sees potential in him and wants to improve him and turn him into a better detective. In Closed Casket, it’s clear that Catchpool has benefited from working with Poirot once. He is less neurotic and spineless, takes more initiative, and is generally more impressive. Poirot criticises him far less than he did in The Monogram Murders. If I write a third book with the same characters, Catchpool will develop still further. The conventions of traditional crime fiction seem to dictate that both the star detective and the less talented sidekick must be carved in stone as characters and never change. Personally, I think this is too much tradition, even for something labelled “traditional”. I firmly believe that Poirot should remain the same, exactly as Christie created him – timeless and legendary – but these aspects of him stand out more, I think, if his right-hand man is, like most of us ordinary people, changed and affected by his experiences and the world around him. So if I were to write a third Poirot novel, I certainly would not murder Catchpool. He still has so much to learn from his mustachioed mentor!
Closed Casket (Harpercollins) is out now.