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.