Sophie talks to The Guardian about Poirot
The poet and bestselling crime novelist talks to Alison Flood about taking on Agatha Christie’s Poirot
‘I love being thought of firmly as a crime writer.
I’m snobby about books that aren’t crime fiction’
This month, sitting in a London cafe, his famous moustache exquisite, his little grey cells as busy as ever, Hercule Poirot made his first authorised appearance in a novel since Agatha Christie published Curtain, 39 years ago. And poet turned bestselling crime novelist Sophie Hannah, signed up by the Christie estate to continue the Belgian detective’s legacy, pitches him straight into the middle of the action in The Monogram Murders.
A woman, Jennie, runs into Poirot’s cafe and tells him that she is “already dead … or I shall be soon”, that it is “what I deserve”; later that night, Catchpool, Poirot’s friend and a policeman at Scotland Yard, will return, horrified, from the scene of a triple murder. Cufflinks – monogrammed, naturellement – have been placed into the mouths of each of the victims; Poirot makes a link with the terrified Jennie, who had pleaded “Please let no one open their mouths!” And we’re away.
Hannah is one of a handful of authors who have been passed the authorial baton by literary estates – from Sebastian Faulks, who has taken on PG Wodehouse and Ian Fleming, to Anthony Horowitz, who revived Sherlock Holmes. Christie – and Poirot – is quite an ask, but Hannah pulls it off in style, her affection for, and deep knowledge of, Christie’s most famous creation shining through. She tells me she knew from the start that she didn’t want to write “as Agatha Christie, in her voice”, so the book is narrated by Catchpool, a Hastings-ish sort of a figure who is frequently, amusingly, needled by the great detective’s all-knowing wisdom. “He’s a character who knows Poirot very well, as I feel I do, so I felt I could write convincingly from his point of view, and then there would be no issue with trying to write like Christie, or copy her.”
Hannah describes the experience as “like eloping with someone you’ve been really keen on for ages” but then having to “go back to the day job”. These days, the day job is writing intelligent, popular psychological thrillers starring her likably dysfunctional detectives, Simon and Charlie. Hannah’s novels always start with an inexplicable scenario – a man confesses to the murder of a woman who’s still alive, or a mother swears her daughter has been swapped with another baby – something for which, she says, after rereading most of Christie’s novels in preparation for her Poirot, she thinks she needs to credit the late author.
“Agatha Christie never wrote books that just started with a dead body, and a ‘let’s find out who the murderer is’, which is kind of mysterious but not that mysterious,” Hannah says. “She always started with, ‘how can this thing be happening, isn’t it strange?’ And I realised that I’ve always been doing that … trying to think in an impossible scenario sort of way.
So I feel as though it’s kind of in my literary DNA.”
Christie, she adds, might be “the bestselling writer ever” but is also “underrated”. She continues: “So many people say, ‘Oh yes, Agatha Christie, she’s good at plot but her writing’s not that good, her characters are a bit thin.’ Certainly I didn’t find that to be true when I reread them. I found there was a huge amount of psychological perceptiveness and insight. The books are wise, witty and brilliantly written. She set the pattern in my mind for what crime novels should do.”
The idea at the heart of her Poirot novel, which is many tendrilled and twisty, was one she’d been thinking of for two or three years – that she’d tried, tentatively and unsuccessfully, to use in her Simon and Charlie novels. When she was approached about writing a Poirot book, it felt like the perfect fit. “It seemed much more like a golden age idea rather than modern detective,” she says.
Hannah has always wanted to write mysteries, ever since she discovered Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven as a six-year-old, and then, as a teenager, Christie’s structurally ingenious The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Murder on the Orient Express. Today, she’s still steeped in the genre, still reads huge amounts of crime, and is unruffled about how seriously – or not – it might be taken by the literary establishment.
“I know a lot of crime writers feel very underrated, like they’re not taken seriously and they want to be just thought of as writers rather than ghettoised as crime writers, but I love being thought of firmly as a crime writer. I’m snobby about books that aren’t crime fiction: if I start reading a literary novel and there’s no mystery emerging in the first few pages I’m like ‘Gah, this obviously isn’t a proper book, why would I want to carry on reading it?'”
Her own career, though, took a while to get started. After university, she “deliberately set out to get a really easy secretarial job” so she could focus on writing. She’d tried to get three crime novels published in her late teens, but was rejected, so decided to concentrate on poetry, which she’d also been writing since childhood, and which was getting noticed. “I thought to myself ‘Face facts, you can write poetry and do it well, you obviously can’t write crime fiction well,’ so I stopped trying.” Her first collection, The Hero and the Girl Next Door, was published when she was 25; the Poetry Review wrote:
“Shall I put it in capitals? SOPHIE HANNAH IS A GENIUS.”
With five collections to her name and a collected works out next summer, Hannah specialises in what Nicholas Lezard, in these pages, has called “spiky, memorable, catchy tunes”. Her work is studied at GCSE, A-level and at universities across the UK. “When a Poet Loves a Composer” gently mocks literary snobbery (“He’s highbrow in a big, big way / But when he sees that I’m / The one, he’ll think that it’s OK /For poetry to rhyme), “A Day Too Late” explores the hardships of dating (“You meet a man. You’re looking for a hero, / Which you pretend he is. A day too late / You realise his sex appeal is zero/ And you begin to dread the second date”).
She went on to land poetry fellowships at Cambridge and Oxford. Crime was out of the picture – until the birth of her daughter. Hannah had been in labour for five days before she gave birth. Exhausted, she says she glanced over to make sure there was indeed a baby, then fell asleep. When she woke up, the baby was no longer in her glass cot, so Hannah went to find her. A midwife was approaching with a blanket-wrapped baby; Hannah stretched out her arms. It wasn’t hers.
She tracked her own child down, but, she remembers, “my husband was due to come for visiting hours, and I just thought, sort of mischievously, I wonder what he’d say if I said this is the wrong baby, would he believe me? … I didn’t have any more than this but I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great as the opening for a psychological thriller to have a husband and a wife who could not agree about whether the baby in the house was theirs or not.’ And that was how it all started. Then it took me ages to find a good solution.”
Little Face, the resulting book, was totally unlike her previous novels. “I started down a very different tack, very dark. I was more mature, and I had suffered enough,” she says dryly, “to write realistic crime fiction, because I’d spent four days in labour.”
Published in 2006, it was a huge hit. Luckily, Hannah had a range of other impossible scenarios to find a solution for, and her career as a crime novelist took off. For a while now poetry has taken a back seat, although 2007’s collection, Pessimism for Beginners (“Keep believing the world’s out to get you. / Now and then you might not be proved right”), was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize.
The Monogram Murders is the second novel Hannah has published this year, following the thriller The Telling Error last year also saw her release two new works of fiction: the horror novella The Orphan Choir and The Carrier. Genuinely scary, The Orphan Choir is the story of a woman with noisy neighbours, who moves to an apparently idyllic country retreat – unsettlingly enough, modelled on Hannah’s Cotswolds home, where we meet. Hannah, her husband and their children spend holidays here; term time is in Cambridge, where Hannah is a Fellow Commoner of Lucy Cavendish College.
She doesn’t have an answer about whether another Poirot novel will follow, but she has no immediate plans to return to horror. “It’s not something I want to do too often. I guess because I don’t entirely believe in ghosts,” she says.
“So because I’m not convinced ghosts are real, and I am convinced, totally, that damaging, psychologically unhealthy people are real, I feel it’s more important to write about them.”
It turns out Hannah doesn’t write about disturbed individuals simply to scare us, but also – at least in part – to educate. Amber, the heroine in the seventh Simon and Charlie novel, Kind of Cruel, doesn’t realise she’s dealing with a narcissist until her therapist tells her to look it up. This also happened to Hannah. “And narcissism is just one thing, there are other things: enmeshment, co-dependency, emotional incest syndrome, borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder. If we knew what these things were, it would help us to be armed psychologically against people who might invade our mental space and damage us. We are psychologically illiterate; we just don’t have these concepts in our day to day lives.”
So, she says, “while obviously 75% of my energy when writing a crime novel is going into writing a really gripping story, my serious agenda is to write about the kind of things I think we should all be more aware of.
“I would feel frivolous if I took too much time off writing about serious relationships and human behaviour, to write about ghosts. There are lots of people whose lives are made a misery by other people. I never write about CIA conspiracies or the FBI or mafia or anything like that because I just don’t understand that world. But I think I do understand individual human harmfulness.”