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Mystery & True Crime • News, Features & Interviews

Sophie Hannah:

With Rare Christie Estate Approval,

She Created a New Poirot Best-Seller

Reprinted from Winter 2015 issue of Prose ‘n Cons™ Mystery Magazine

With more than two billion (yes, that’s a “b”) books sold worldwide, Agatha Christie is arguably the most famous - and successful - author in history.

  The daughter of a wealthy British mother and upper class American stockbroker, Christie rarely acknowledged her Yank roots and, in fact, many of her plots and settings are considered quintessentially English.

  Christie grew up in Ashfield, the family home in Torquay, Devon. She was home-schooled, a process no doubt facilitated by her passion for reading. Her father died when she was eleven. Both older siblings were already out on their own, but Agatha and her mother, Clara, remained in Ashfield - at least until Christie was sent to boarding school, then abroad. Agatha, barely into her twenties, returned home to find her mother’s health in decline. The pair traveled to Egypt, a much warmer climate than Devon, where it was hoped Clara’s health might be restored. Once back in England, the sights and sounds of that foreign land clung to Christie’s memory as she began writing.

  After several unsuccessful attempts at publication, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was released in 1920 and 1921 (US and UK respectively.) It introduced the world to a small, mustached Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot. In retrospect, many literary historians regard the book as the first entry into what would become the Golden Age of detective fiction. Like Christie’s other works, the plotline centers on an isolated group of suspects. Readers must carefully comb through the twists, turns and red herrings to guess - if indeed they can - the guilty party. For most, it is only when Poirot reveals his deductions to Hastings, friend and story narrator, that the resolution becomes clear.

  By Christie’s death, Poirot had appeared in 33 books and 54 short stories. He is to mystery fans what Christie is to fellow writers: a beloved, almost deified character. And so, it would take a brave author indeed to create a Poirot continuation novel.

   Enter Sophie Hannah.

  Continuation novels - books written by someone other than the original author, but using the same characters and premise - are not new. Ask any fan of James Bond. Other continuations have been built around Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, and P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. There had never been a Poirot continuation until Hannah’s 2014 The Monogram Murders.

  Obviously, there is an inherent risk in continuation novels. Should they fail, both the originator and the new novelist are tarnished. If successful, the characters are discovered by a whole new fan base. The Monogram Murders falls squarely in the latter category. It instantly climbed American best-seller lists, and international sales were equally gratifying. A great deal of the initial sales bonanza resulted from the book’s remarkable marketing campaign which included recreating the Monogram Hotel at the Ritz London. This “go big or go home” strategy might be a burden on the shoulders of other writers, but not Hannah.

  “This is definitely the most coverage a book of mine has ever had,” she admits. “But I feel as if I’m working for something much bigger and more important than myself which is very rewarding.”

  You aren’t approved by the notoriously choosey Christie estate unless they’re certain you can do the job well, and Hannah’s repertoire is an impressive one. Born in Manchester, England, she is both a published poet and childrens’ writer, and is a prolific author of psychological thrillers, two of which have been produced for television. Her mother, Adela Geras, also writes for children and young adults although Hannah says she’s not “the” reason for pursuing a literary career.

  “We do chat all the time about books and writing and we consult each other on plots and story ideas,” Hannah says.

  Even given Hannah’s talent, it takes a special writer to take up the mantle of Agatha Christie. And to write a Poirot book one must, of course, love Poirot. Hannah is a true fan of the Belgian and his “little gray cells.”

  “I think - perhaps predictably - that Poirot is the very best of the fictional detectives,” Hannah says. “He has that brilliant brain power that equals that of Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes but he is also in touch with his emotional side. He is warm, romantic, compassionate, loyal. And his flaws are so endearing: his love of good food and wine, his fondness for luxury. He’s a more rounded character, I think, than some of his equally clever rivals.”

  So why then has Poirot never attained the universal popularity of Sherlock Holmes…? Hannah takes issue with the premise of that question.

  “I’m not totally sure it’s fair to say that. Poirot is popular on screen the world over. But if it is true, it’s probably because Sherlock Holmes has been more widely adapted. It’s almost as if Sherlock is no longer just one character but a whole fleet of linked characters on our TV screens.”

  Hannah confesses that quite a few people asked her if she was daunted at the prospect of writing a Poirot story. In actuality, she considered it an exciting challenge; one that was, creatively, highly inspiring.

  The Monogram Murders is set in the 1920s. Poirot, while dining out, is interrupted by a woman who claims she will be murdered, but begs the detective not to investigate. Later that same evening, three guests of a swank London hotel are found dead, all three with a cufflink in their mouths.

  Hannah employed the internet to ensure she inserted no anachronistic material, but her primary sources of research for The Monogram Murders were Christie’s Golden Age novels. The hardest part of writing the book, Hannah admits, was planning out the story.

  “Getting the story architecture right in advance is a crucial and challenging stage in the process for me. I knew that had to be just right, so when I finished a really lengthy plan and felt happy with it, I knew that writing the book would be easier.”

  The Christie estate has left little doubt as to its opinion of Hannah’s work. Agatha Christie’s grandson and heir, Mathew Prichard, told Prose ‘n Cons: “Sophie’s idea for a plotline 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 book to be written. I’m so excited that her book has been so well-received by the media and that fans put it on the New York Times best-seller list.”

  Of course, Hannah is a writer of more than just Poirot continuation novels. Her own crime novels are puzzle-based and rely on some element of psychological analysis.

  “I always want the [overall] puzzle to be solvable only by solving the puzzle of each individual character. In other words, only by understanding how someone’s mind is likely to work can you reach the truth about what happened.”

  Hannah is proud and protective of her chosen genre of psychological thrillers. “I get frustrated when people use the term inaccurately. Sometimes it’s used to mean ‘not a police procedural’ but that’s not good enough. There must be something psychologically insightful about a psychological crime novel… not just ‘He did it for the money.’”

  While she is not the decision maker when it comes to possible film adaptations of The Monogram Murders or any of her other books, unlike some writers, Hannah is generally positive about the prospect.

  “I really enjoyed watching the TV adaptations [of my books]. I did significantly prefer the first (The Wrong Mother) to the second (The Dead Lie Down) because in the second one they changed the entire plot, so it didn’t really feel like my book. I think Sue Grafton’s decision never to allow adaptations is understandable, but I’m too much of an optimist. Even if there were 20 disappointing adaptations of my books, I would probably still think ‘But this next one might be great.’”

  When not writing (or doing book signings, or speaking at mystery conferences, or making one of her many other appearances) much of Hannah’s time is spent entertaining. She’s quite honest about her approach to these events. “I’d always rather not cook, so if I do have friends round, I often hand them takeaway menus on arrival.”

  What serves as the soundtrack to Hannah’s gatherings of family and friends? “I love American country music.” She particularly enjoys Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette and Waylon Jennings. “It’s my favorite kind of music.”

  Asked if there may be another Poirot book on the horizon, Hannah says, “I have no idea. It’s not up to me, it’s up to Agatha Christie’s family to decide if they want more books.” Either way, fans of Sophie Hannah can look forward to two 2015 releases. The Carrier, says Hannah, “is about a man who confesses to the murder of his wife, but claims he killed her for no reason - he didn’t have a motive.” Woman with A Secret is about a wife and mother whose secret virtual identity leads her inside a strange murder case.

  For a complete list of upcoming events and signings, visit SophieHannah.com and click on “forthcoming events.” PnC

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Image Courtesy of Sophie Hannah