‘We shall not hunt together again, my friend. Our first hunt was here – and our last … They were good days, Yes, they have been good days…’ Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case
The internet, or certain quiet corners of it at least, has been awash with opinions since the news that the estate of Agatha Christie has given permission for an unknown author named Sophie Hannah to write a ‘missing’ Poirot novel. Naturally, everyone has an opinion: as, of course, does Five Minute Mysteries.
There’s a scene in one of the early Poirots, possibly The Big Four, where Hastings laments that he’s unlikely to ever deduce anything as well as Poirot will (Hastings being, throughout the series, the embodiment of Ronald Knox’s maxim that the intelligence of the sidekick should always be below that of the average reader. Knox specified ‘slightly’: Christie missed that memo). Poirot’s reply is worth remembering. In typical modest fashion, he replies that Hastings will never be anything more than a sub-quality Poirot, however hard he tries – and then he adds that that doesn’t matter. In a lovely life-affirming moment, he says that everyone has their own talents, and everyone should be the best they can be. Hastings can never be Poirot, but far better to be what he is, the supreme Hastings, in a manner that Poirot never can.
This seems appropriate.
A blogger cleverer than I once outlined how writing a new Douglas Adams novel would be a bad idea. His argument is the same as Christie’s: however good a writer may be, they will never be as good at being another writer as that writer was. This happens to be true…and yet we have acres of successful adaptions of Holmes. Detective fiction is one of the genres, like children’s fiction, where the ‘brand’ is greater than the works it’s based on. We all know Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein or Winnie the Pooh, but it doesn’t follow that we’ve all read them: we may even know when popular culture is wrong, that Sherlock Holmes doesn’t wear a deerstalker and Frankenstein isn’t the monster, still without having actually read them. The Morse brand now goes beyond 13 novels, even beyond 33 episodes. Lewis is the younger-than-Morse Geordie, not the stately 60ish Welshman in the novels, but the former is part of Morse-the-brand. Second to Holmes, the biggest brand in detective fiction is Poirot, followed closely by Marple. The Margaret Rutherford films bear almost no resemblance to the books, but they’re still recognizably part of the brand, just a different interpretation. So what’s the problem with a new Poirot book?
There are two things not right here, and only one of them is Hannah’s fault. The first is simple: the ‘brand’ of the Poirot books is not the character, while the second is a little more complicated. But let’s look at each of them in turn.
The appeal of Hitchhiker’s wasn’t the characters or the ideas, but Douglas Adam’s writing. The appeal of Agatha Christie isn’t Poirot-the-character, but what Poirot-the-brand represents: partly his world, but mostly the plots that Christie, and only Christie, could ever think up. However good Hannah’s twist is (and the word ‘twist’ is an ugly one, because it tends to imply revealing to the audience something they hadn’t yet seen. Christie revealed to the audience something they’d seen but hadn’t realised was important, and this difference is what sets her apart from every other writer of detective fiction) it won’t be as good as Christie’s. And it certainly can’t be as Christie-ish as Christie’s. And this is what makes Poirot different from Holmes, because Sherlock Holmes is a brand and Poirot isn’t. Bond and Holmes can change actor as many times as they want, and still stay recognisably the same character, provided one’s in a tux, the other in a deerstalker, one punching bad guys and the other sitting in an armchair deducing. The characters both heralded a completely new genre and it’s that that was popular. But when you think of Poirot, you think of David Suchet. And many other novelists wrote in the same style as Christie. The key point is that they weren’t as good.
“I know some people will say, ‘Once a writer’s dead, leave their characters alone.’ But so many famous dead writers are having this done – James Bond, Sherlock Holmes – it becomes a kind of weird omission if Agatha Christie doesn’t have that done for her. It almost feels it needs to be done. I think it is great that beloved characters from fiction don’t have to die.”
And there’s another aspect to this: when we think of successful continuations of writers’ work, we seldom think of direct attempts to mimic their work, which is what Hannah is trying to do. New interpretations, or even new adaptions, can be successful: by nature, they shine a new element on the story, add something new to the mythology, add another perspective that the writer at the time couldn’t. If a writer’s purpose is just to imitate the original in the same way…why?
We’re not told much about the process, or why a complete unknown was chosen to write it, as much credit as can be given to Matthew Prichard, Christie’s inheritor, for choosing a novelist on basis of plot not reputation. But if Hannah can write a good crime novel on her own, why not do that? It won’t be nearly as successful, if it’s successful or published at all, but surely this is about more than money? Why is ‘wouldn’t work in a modern setting’ a problem, when there’s enough of a market for nostalgia already, as writers such as James Anderson prove? Why? Why, why, why?
There are Sherlock Holmes books and Bond books specially for children, Sherlock Holmes books and Bond books given a female lead, Sherlock Holmes and Bond updated to modern times. These all do something new and radical with the concept: it’s why the completely bizarre and unlike-Miss-Marple Margaret Rutherford films were such a success. The same can even be said of the….creative Geraldine McEwan Marples. But the only thing that Ms. Hannah is offering us is a twist in a conventional plot. And that is unlikely to be good enough. To an extent, Barbara Reynolds managed it with Dorothy L Sayers – but then Barbara Reynolds was a scholar who could mimic Sayers’ style to the extent that she could merge her continuation of The Divine Comedy in with Dorothy’s original writing. And despite this, I still haven’t read anything by Reynolds because, fundamentally, if you want to sit down with a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery you sit down with one by Lady Dorothy.
In the grand scheme of things, the one good thing is that a detective novel based on plot, one that wouldn’t fit into the current market, is getting published. I’d very much like to read it. So go out and buy Ms Hannah’s offering by all means, but not because it’s got a likeness of David Suchet on the cover.