The Bookseller: Sophie Hannah profile
Agatha Christie is the world’s bestselling novelist, famously outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. Over her 56-year writing career, which began in 1920, she penned 80 crime novels, 33 of them starring perhaps her greatest creation; a portly Belgian detective with a meticulously waxed moustache and an unshakable belief in the ability of his “little grey cells”.
It’s a brave author who takes on Christie’s mantle but Sophie Hannah, a bestselling crime author in her own right, has risen to the challenge. The Monogram Murders (HarperCollins, September) is the first Hercule Poirot mystery to be written by a different author, with the full backing of Christie’s family.
I met Hannah in a bar in Covent Garden—a very apt setting, she points out, given Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery and the fact we are around the corner from “The Mousetrap”, the play which is currently in the extraordinary 62nd year of its record-breaking run.
It soon becomes clear Hannah is a massive fan of Christie. She read her first Christie aged 12 (The Body in the Library) and by the age of 14 she had devoured them all, relying on her father to pick them up at second-hand book fairs.
But the considerable leap from being a fan to actually writing the new Poirot began with a conversation between Hannah’s agent Peter Straus and an editor at HarperCollins.
Discussing the trend for continuation novels, Straus “off the top of his head” suggested his author would be perfect if there were to be a new Agatha Christie novel. Historically the Christie family had always been against the idea of anyone writing new books but, by a happy coincidence, they were starting to think the time might be right.
The decision was clinched by Hannah’s idea for the plot—a “high-concept mystery and solution” that she came up with a few years earlier, but had been unable to lever into to her own contemporary psychological crime series. “I thought, ‘I can really imagine Poirot, standing there with the suspects, delivering this very high-concept solution’. It’s perfect for Poirot in a way that wasn’t quite perfect for Simon Waterhouse, my regular detective.”
Mathew Prichard, chairman of Agatha Christie Limited and Christie’s grandson, was impressed: “Sophie’s idea for a plot line was so compelling and her passion for my grandmother’s work so strong, that we felt that the time was right for a new Christie to be written.”
Hannah was originally supposed to supply a 10–20 page synopsis of the plot for approval by various people (at Agatha Christie Limited and HarperCollins), but it was a 100-page plan by the time she had finished—essentially the whole novel in note form. Although she counts seven people as being involved in the approval and then the editing process—which sounds a bit of a nightmare—she says: “We all agreed about the vision. There was never any, ‘Am I allowed to do this? No.’ There was none of that because we all agreed that we wanted Poirot to be absolutely Agatha Christie’s Poirot. There was going to be no messing about with Poirot as Agatha Christie created him.”
In preparation for writing The Monogram Murders , she re-read all of the Poirot novels again. “It was less weird that you might think, writing someone else’s character because I just know Poirot so well. So in a way there’s no reason why I should find him harder to write about than a character I’ve invented. For me it was easy, I know him so I know what he’s likely to say in a range of situations. It was such a joy to do.”
The Monogram Murders is set mostly in London in 1929 (chosen specifically because there were no Poirot novels between 1928 and 1932, so the detective is “unaccounted for”). It opens in a coffee house, where a terrified young woman confides to Poirot that she is in terrible danger; somebody is trying to kill her. But once she is dead, she insists, justice will have been done, and she begs Poirot not to find and punish her killer. Later that night, Poirot learns three guests at a fashionable London hotel have been murdered, and he starts to wonder if there might be a connection between those deaths and the young woman in the coffee house . . .
“It was really important to me, when I was putting together my plot, that no one should be able to guess what was going on before Poirot reveals the solution,” says Hannah, explaining that Christie was hugely influential in her own development as a crime writer. “Agatha got into to my literary DNA so early that I feel I’m of the same school of crime writing, although our novels are very different.” She cites the apparently impossible opening mystery pioneered by Christie (“she would very rarely start with just a dead body”) and her fiendishly clever plots (“her top priority is the story and keeping people guessing”).
Taking on such a beloved literary character is always a risk and Hannah has already had to field disapproval from some Christie fans. “People who say, ‘oh it’s a cynical money-making ploy’ presumably wouldn’t say that about commercial fiction writers who write a book every year . . . storytelling has been monetised for a long time, and that doesn’t only apply to continuation novels.
“This has been creatively the most exciting and the most energising project I’ve worked on for a quite a long time. The reason that it doesn’t worry me if people say ‘down with this sort of thing’ is that I know that my motives couldn’t be better. I’ve loved doing it.”
In any case, she reckons that “I’m so insignificant compared to [Christie and Poirot]; I don’t feel I have the power to do any harm. Even if I wrote the worst book ever everyone would just say ‘oh that silly writer’, and Poirot and Agatha would remain famous and brilliant. So there’s no downside for Agatha. I was willing to take the risk because the only person I was risking was me.”
Despite the work involved in the devilish plotting, she found one aspect of writing The Monogram Murders easier than her own crime series: “Golden Age crime novels just tell the story,” she says. “Contemporary crime novels go to great lengths to create the illusion that the reader is somehow just witnessing the events but no one is telling them a story. If you can just tell a story, without pretending you’re not telling a story, it makes it so much easier to write a book.
“The hardest thing was just making sure that everything—everything about the writing and the story and the other characters—was good enough for Poirot. I wouldn’t have wanted to write a book with Poirot in it that I didn’t feel was good enough. He deserves the best.”
Formats £18.23 EB/£18.99 HB
ISBN 9780007547418/ 32
Rights US (HarperCollins) plus Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam
Editor David Brawn, HarperCollins
Agent Peter Straus, Rogers, Coleridge & White
1971 Born in Manchester
1993 Graduated from Manchester University with a BA in Combined Studies in English Literature, American Literature and Spanish
1995 The Hero and The Girl Next Door (Carcanet), Hannah’s first poetry collection, is published
2006 Little Face (Hodder), first psychological crime novel to feature Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer
2013 The Carrier, eight in the Waterhouse/Zailer series, wins Crime Thriller of the Year at the National Book Awards