The New Poirot: Stories, Names and Sophie Hannah

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‘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?

“Hannah said she’d had a crime plot twist idea for about two years but had not been able to make it work in a contemporary thriller – but it could work, she hoped, in a Poirot-esque detective novel.”

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.

Besides, if you want to sit down and read a Poirot novel, it’s not as if there aren’t enough of them already.

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16 comments on “The New Poirot: Stories, Names and Sophie Hannah

  1. redjim99 says:

    I think you are a bit harsh on Sophie Hannah, calling her unknown. She has written and published two books of poetry (of topic I know) and three thrillers I have read. I believe she has written many more. It will be interesting to see how she pulls this off. Good or bad remains to be seen.

    Jim

  2. Reblogged this on segunoluwatosin's Blog and commented:
    Interesting

  3. marymtf says:

    Hurray! Well said. I also find it annoying when producers of the Marple / Poirot series place those characters where they never originally were because they believe that the stupid audience wouldn’t appreciate an Agatha Christie story without them.
    The Margaret Mitchell estate allowed Alexandra Ripley (a historical romance novelist) to write a sequel to Gone with the Wind. It sold well, but I thought the novel was a total disappointment. To add to that, there was a character in it that I recognised as having begun life in an Edna Ferber novel. I guess it had run out of copyright.

  4. Hello!

    A very interesting and thoughtful article, but there are some factual inaccuracies in it which I hope you won’t mind if I attempt to shed some light on! I certainly do not intend to mimic Agatha Christie’s style, or write a pastiche or imitation of her work. I’m also not trying to replace her, and I don’t for a moment imagine I could ever be as good as her, since, as we know, she is the great Queen of Crime! What I’m trying to do is write the best possible novel that I can starring Poirot, and invent the most puzzling mystery that I can for him to solve.

    You ask a good question: why not simply write a novel set in the 1920s *not* featuring Poirot, if I have an idea that won’t work in a contemporary detective novel. In theory, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t do precisely this, and I might if I have a similar kind of idea in future. However, in this particular instance, this is what happened: I had an idea – not for a ‘twist’ but for a mystery-and-solution story (I used the word ‘twist’ loosely, as a kind of shorthand) – and I couldn’t get it to work as a psychological thriller of the kind I normally write. It didn’t occur to me that the problem was that the idea was not a contemporary one. Then, my agent rang me and suggested the possibility of me writing a new Poirot novel – and I had a ‘Eureka’ moment. I thought, ‘Oh, wow – this story would be perfect for that very purpose. It’s absolutely the kind of mystery Poirot would be able to solve and would like to solve.’ And from that moment, in my mind the idea seemed perfect for Poirot and, as a fan of his, and of Christie’s, I just really wanted him to solve it.

    I can see that you might worry that my intention to write a Poirot novel that is not sufficiently innovative and different in form or style from Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels might mean that there’s an absence of newness or creative energy, but I can promise you that this is absolutely not the case. I have what I think is a brilliant story idea – it isn’t conventional, I don’t think, in the way that none of Agatha Christie’s stories were conventional in a narrative sense. They were all very daring in terms of the possibilities of story, and I hope mine will be too!

    My novel might be ‘unlikely to be good enough’ if ‘good enough’ means as good as Christie, but I hope it will be good enough to entertain lots of fans of detective fiction. Anyone who doesn’t want to read it doesn’t have to, and anyone who does is welcome to. I have certainly found it enormously inspiring already to be doing this, and will do the very best I can to write as good a novel as possible.

    • Firstly, and a little belatedly (!), thanks for coming btl to reply; when I wrote the article I didn’t expect anything of the sort – did not, in fact, expect this post to get as many views as it did – and am now slightly embarrassed by some of the factual inaccuracies in the article. Thanks due to you, and other commentators, for pointing them out; I hang my head in shame, and please forgive a blogging amateur.

      I still feel that however talented the author or however inspired the plot, not much good will be served by another Poirot novel. The appeal of Christie has always been just the mind of Agatha Christie, and she and her detectives simply aren’t brands like Bond or Holmes, and I’m not convinced that there’s anything new to bring to the table by resurrecting them. However, when the novel comes out in September (I’m guessing it’s well underway now) I very much look forward to reading and reviewing, and I’m glad to hear that Poirot is in good hands. Take good care of him 🙂

  5. Oh, that news makes me so nervous! totally agree with your points, plus, as avid a fan as I am of the period I’m not sure I could accurately write of it/from it when I didn’t live through it! Christies work is already littered with period references, words and speech patterns which we are not as familiar with anymore (though for me, the nostalgia is part of the appeal). Flemming’s Bond has enjoyed a resurgence via a modern writer but I’m probably a little more sensitive about any man (or woman) writing the little Belgium detective back to life!

  6. gaskella says:

    Sophie Hannah is well-known in the UK for her complex and twisty crime novels, which I’ve read several of and enjoyed. I’ve not read Christie since my teens, and am not sure whether I’ll be reading this one. However, I will read anything in the Bond brand, and enjoy a good Holmes homage upon occasion.

  7. Karolyn Cooper says:

    I am not keen on new authors writing novels for old characters, but I do want to stick up for Sophie Hannah. She is not completely unknown in the UK, and her novels are pretty good.

  8. Reblogged this on 101 Great Expectations and commented:
    An interesting post; I didn’t even realise a new Poirot had been given the green light.

  9. Karl Drobnic says:

    Time will sort out what is good enough, and what is not, to be in the Poirot repertoire. I prefer to laud the attempt and then let the result speak for itself.

  10. Reblogged this on fanshotprediksi's Blog and commented:
    hotsprediksi

  11. chesterama says:

    Agatha Christie is amazing and one of my favorite authors of all time. Although Ms Hannah’s work is probably good, she’s not Christie and the two cannot be compared. I bet its exciting for her to be able to play with Poirot. However, it just will not be the same. Agatha Christie wrote a TON of books, so I agree there is plenty for her fans to continue reading!

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