Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Sophie Hannah, Hercule Poirot, and following in Agatha Christie's Footsteps

News that Sophie Hannah is to write a brand new novel featuring Agatha Christie's legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot has attracted a great deal of attention today. And this is no surprise, for 120 years after her birth, Christie remains a writer popular the world over, her books held in affectionate regard by people of every class,culture and creed. So what are we to make of the prospect of a new Poirot story?

The first thing to say is that, if you accept that reviving Poirot is a good idea, then in my opinion, Sophie Hannah is an excellent choice. She has been quoted speaking admiringly of Christie, and I can testify that this is not in any way a recent or cynical conversion prompted by the temptation of a high profile contract. The very first time I met Sophie was some years ago, shortly after the publication of her highly successful debut, Little Face. We were both taking part in a literary event at the Brindley in Runcorn, and someone asked panel members who our favourite crime writers were. I opted for one deceased writer, and one contemporary novelist - Christie and Ruth Rendell. And Sophie said that I'd taken the words out of her mouth, as they were also her favourites.

So I am confident that Sophie Hannah will bring to the task a genuine love of and respect for Christie's story-telling, as well as a great deal of craft. Sophie, like Christie, started out as a poet, though I think it's fair to say that her poetry is more successful than Christie's. Her crime novels are elaborately plotted,and this respect for plot is vital in anyone trying to emulate Christie.

But it won't be easy. I enjoy writing Sherlockian pastiches, but part of the appeal is the rich and evocative nature of Conan Doyle's prose and Watson's narrative voice. With Christie, the style is much plainer. And that can be a trap in itself. Charles Osborne, a man steeped in Christie's work, wrote novelisations of some of her plays a few years ago, but I'm afraid that even though he had all the raw material from Christie, ther results seemed to me to be curiously flat and lifeless - in a way that Christie's best books emphatically are not, whatever her detractors say.

How does a talented writer restrain the impulse to indulge in a few nice but unChristie-like literary flourishes? Should she do so? Well, my personal feeling is that, with a project like this, it's prudent not to deviate too far from the original style and approach. Because if you do, what is the point?

Some may also ask, what is the point of the new book(s) in any case? Of course, it's all about commercialism, and "refreshing the brand". It's been done with the Anthony Horowitz take on Sherlock, and with Sebastian Faulks and others writing James Bond. Whilst some purists may shudder, I don't. I think it's worth remembering that crime fiction is a genre where commerciality and entertainment have always been important and for my part, I'm very much looking forward to seeing how Sophie Hannah rises to this new challenge. And more than that, I find the prospect of a high quality new Poirot novel really rather exciting.


The Passing Tramp said...

I wonder what Christie herself would think of this? Didn't she make her views known?

Christie's replacemnt had better be a good plotter indeed. People will come to a new Poirot novel with very high expectations for the plot, or at least they should. People may read Sherlock Holmes or Peter Wimsey pastiches for the atmosphere, but for Poirot they will be reading, surely to a great extent, for plot.

The Passing Tramp said...

Haven't read Hannah, by the way (will have to), but her books are described as psychological crime fiction. Certainly the style seems closer to Rendell (and perhaps Christie's Endless Night) at first glance.

I'm kind of surprised they didn't go with Marple pastiches first (I'm sure that's coming). There at least one could put a lot of emphasis on cozy village ways. Or, when the Tommy and Tuppence pastiches come, on the banter of the couple.

Sappho said...

Whenever I come back to Christie after a period of years reading mostly contemporary mysteries, I'm always struck by her economy of style and also her humor. I don't envy Sophie Hannah the task of emulating her, but I look forward to reading the result!

Really I'm posting because I want to thank you for your ongoing Forgotten Book posts, which I appreciate so much. Thank you for the good plot hints that don't give anything away!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Curt. I think you will be impressed with Sophie Hannah's way with plot. Her books are very elaborate. Sometimes you need to suspend disbelief, but that's the nature of the genre.

Martin Edwards said...

Sappho, good to hear from you and thanks for the compliment, which I appreciate. Rest assured, more interesting Forgotten Books are on their way.

Anonymous said...

It's a high bar, for sure, but I think it's great if someone can recapture the drama and logic of vintage Poirot. Maybe you can chime in and offer to do a follow up!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Zack. Very nice idea, thanks, though I'm not sure I'm famous enough to warrant such a commission!