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Meet Sophie Hannah, the British crime writer

Meet Sophie Hannah, the British crime writer who has written three new Hercule Poirot novels with the blessings of the Agatha Christie family.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Nov 04, 2018, 06.31 AM IST
“I hate the thought that I went around pestering the Christie family!” says Hannah, during a discussion at the recent Bangalore Literature Festival.
That’s one mystery solved, without unduly exerting those “little grey cells”, as the much-loved fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot is wont to advise in Agatha Christie’s 36 novels featuring the famous Belgian with his equally famous moustache.

The puzzle was fairly simple: did the family of the best-selling novelist of all time choose crime writer and poet Sophie Hannah to reprise Poirot? Or, did Hannah decide to write a Poirot murder mystery out of the blue and convince the Christie family to let her take a stab at it?

“I hate the thought that I went around pestering the Christie family!” says Hannah, during a discussion at the recent Bangalore Literature Festival. Nor did the family reach out to her, possibly because they might not have heard of her before, she says with candour. It was her literary agent who, espying a shelf of Agatha Christies at the publisher HarperCollins, proposed that Hannah write a novel with one of Christie’s detectives.

The suggestion was promptly and firmly squashed by a HarperCollins editor. But serendipitously, a couple of days later, Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard told a meeting of publishers that the family had finally decided that they would like to see at least one new Agatha Christie novel. HarperCollins knew they had just the person, waiting in the wings. Enter Sophie Hannah.


The 47-year-old has written three Poirot novels so far, beginning with The Monogram Murders in 2014, which went on to become a bestseller. A fourth Poirot is in the works and scheduled to be published in 2020. This is apart from her 10-book Culver Valley series of psychological crime thrillers featuring detective couple Simon Waterhouse and Charlie (Charlotte) Zailer, two short story collections and five anthologies of poetry.

Crime & Again
Marrying a bestselling author with a bestselling fictional character is a tried-and-tested publishing formula but it’s one that has met with varying degrees of success. For instance, fans did not take too kindly to Sebastian Faulks’ attempt to “pay homage” to literary giant PG Wodehouse with his 2013 novel, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. But that has not stopped the Wodehouse estate from giving its blessings to Ben Schott, whose new novel featuring the irrepressible Bertie Wooster and his ever-correct valet, Jeeves, is being released this month.

Poirot’s literary lineage is no less intimidating. After all, the former officer of the Belgian police, with an egg-shaped head, is the only fictional character to have earned an obituary in The New York Times. And Christie’s title of “Queen of Crime” holds true even today, 42 years after her death. Her books have reportedly sold over 4 billion copies. With such a legacy behind her, did Hannah ever feel weighed down by expectation when she set out to write a Poirot book?

“Obviously, there is going to be a lot of expectation when there is a new Poirot that is not by Agatha Christie. I chose not to see it as a burden but as an exciting, creative challenge. So I was happy to take it on,” says Hannah. With her flyaway hair that she occasionally attempts to tame, the bespectacled writer reminds one of Ariadne Oliver, the fictional crime writer in Poirot books, which Christie is supposed to have modelled on herself. Unlike Oliver, Hannah is sharp and witty, not vague; nor does she sport outlandish headgear. Instead, she is dressed in comfortable black trousers, a loose, colourful shirt and flipflops — in short, as one might on a holiday in the tropics.

Hannah’s first Poirot, Monogram Murders, works well as a murder mystery with a dramatic triple murder in a London hotel that has you itching to know whodunit. Instead of Poirot’s loyal comrade-in-arms Captain Hastings, she introduces a new sidekick, Edward Catchpool. The author also makes her voice quite distinct from the contemporary tone she uses in her Culver Valley books. Yet, it does not quite have the feel of a classic Agatha Christie that one keeps re-reading, regardless of whether you know the murderer’s identity.


Hannah emphasises that the intention was never to write a new Agatha Christie. “I was always clear I’d be writing a new Hercule Poirot novel, not a new Christie,” she says. She has not received any hate mail, she says, nor is she affected by the occasional criticism that her Poirot books are not the same as the original. “It’s not trying to be the same, it’s trying to be different but good,” she says. “The overwhelming majority of Christie fans have loved them.”

The Christie family and she had agreed early on that she would be writing traditional Poirot novels where he solves “a baffling murder mystery”, and the two parties have so far agreed on everything in her novels. “I suspect if I came up with a plan involving Poirot whizzing around on a skateboard or drawing graffiti on the sides of buildings, the family might say ‘Hmmm that’s not what we had in mind’,” she says, with a straight face.

A voracious reader as a child, Hannah was introduced to Christie’s books when she was 12 and she wrote her first mystery novel when she was all of 16. That early attempt was rebuffed by publishers but they nevertheless told her she wrote well. Before she returned to crime fiction, she switched to writing poetry, some of which is now taught in schools and colleges in the UK. When she was pregnant with her first child at 31, she thought of a plot involving a woman who insisted her baby had been swapped. “And that became my first published crime novel, Little Face.” Crime, she says, is the most enjoyable genre which has the most to offer. “I’m always surprised when I meet someone who doesn’t enjoy crime fiction.”

These days, she has become a messiah for Christie, a role that makes her feel as if she is working for something bigger and greater than herself. Her next, though, is a self-help book How to Hold a Grudge. “Most self-help books say ‘think positive, only positive’. But we need to process the fact that we have negative feelings,” says Hannah.

After her next Poirot, it will be up to the Christie family to decide whether they would like to see more. Even if they give the go-ahead, Hannah says she will not write a novel featuring the other famous Christie detective, the deceptively sweet Miss Marple. “If I started writing Miss Marple novels as well, my claim that I’m not trying to be Agatha Christie would be considerably weakened.” Instead, someone else could have a go. And, possibly, hire Hannah’s agent to serendipitously propose the idea to the right people at the right time.
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