Writer Sophie Hannah has made a literary adoption of Agatha Christie’s fictional character, Hercule Poirot. She speaks to Latha Srinivasan about her latest Poirot novel, The Mystery of Three Quarters.
Author and poet Sophie Hannah has kept the beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot on his toes and kept Agatha Christie’s legacy alive. Hannah’s third Poirot novel, The Mystery of Three Quarters, hit the stands recently but she acknowledges that Poirot belongs to Agatha Christie. Crime fiction is a genre that continues to gain popularity, and author Sophie Hannah believes that it is intrinsically connected to our lives. In conversation with Guardian 20, Hannah deconstructs the mystery of Hercule Poirot and crime fiction.
Q. Your latest Hercule Poirot novel, The Mystery of Three Quarters, is out now, and is being lapped up by fans. What makes Poirot so appealing for readers?
A. Poirot is a character we all know and can’t help loving. He is, on one level, an amusing collection of quirks and foibles, but he is also a romantic, compassionate, loyal and wise man who is dedicated above all to justice. He isn’t traditional male-lead material, but he›s brilliant and charismatic, and we know he’ll always be on our side.
Q. How different or similar is your Poirot to Agatha Christie’s?
A. When I started writing my first Poirot book, The Monogram Murders, I made a point of rereading all of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels and kind of studying them in a way I never had before. I wanted to be absolutely sure that I had put Agatha Christie’s character into these new stories. It helped that I grew up reading about Poirot, so I knew him well. The Poirot I write about is absolutely Agatha’s Poirot, but seen through new eyes—mine, obviously, but also those of Inspector Edward Catchpool, a character I invented, who is Poirot’s sidekick in all three of my Poirot novels. I created Catchpool because I knew I had to write about the character of Poirot as I know him—a new take on him, in a voice never heard in a Poirot story before. I didn’t want to use Hastings as the narrator for my books and try to imitate Agatha Christie’s writing style. So, the presentation might be slightly different, but the character of Poirot is absolutely the same.
Q. Following Agatha Christie on her Poirot, must have put a lot of pressure on you?
A. I was asked a lot if I found it daunting, but that’s not a word I’d use. What other people call daunting, I prefer to think of as an exciting creative challenge. I love to agree to do things that will really stretch me, and then rise to that challenge. My concern was with creating a mystery that would make Agatha Christie’s family proud, and do her, Poirot and their many fans justice.
One thing that separates Agatha Christie from other writers is that her plots are ambitious. They are really incredibly challenging puzzles with the perfect mix of character and setting. So, I knew I had to create some extra-special cases for Poirot to solve.
Q. Which is your favourite Agatha Christie novel?
A. My favourite Agatha Christie novel changes all the time! Right now, it is The Hollow. This is a Poirot novel from the 1940s, and I think the plot and characters are perfectly balanced within it. Everyone in this story has their own fascinating personality. We want to know more about them and the solution to the mystery is ingenious.
Q. If Agatha Christie read your Poirot novels, what do you think she would say?
A. I am very lucky to have the support of her grandson, Mathew, and her great-grandson, James. I would never want to publish anything Poirot-related that didn’t have their full approval and they have loved everything I›ve written about Poirot so far. It has been an absolute joy to work with them. I hope that if Agatha were to read the novels, she would have liked them—but there›s really no way of knowing that.
Q. When you are writing a Poirot novel, is there any one thing you always keep in mind?
A. Let Poirot do his thing! He is a character who likes to have the limelight. I need to make sure that, if he wants to take centre stage for a bit, I give him the opportunity. I might be telling the story, but Poirot is its star.
Q. Why is crime fiction such a popular genre among readers?
A. I think that crime fiction is one of those genres that puts the reader first. The main aim of a crime novel is to entertain and engage the reader, rather than to do clever things with words or propose complicated philosophies. This means the best crime fiction is based around a gripping plot. There is nothing like reading suspense and tension, turning the pages to get to the next stage of the action.
I also believe that in real life we are solving puzzles every day. Whenever we talk to other people, we’re trying to work out what they really mean, why they’re behaving as they are and so on. The puzzle in a crime novel engages that part of us and promises an answer: we know that all will be explained in the end. If only real life could be like that!
Q. From poetry to crime fiction, your life as a writer has been very diverse.
A. When I write something, I write it in the format that suits it best: it might be a novel, a poem or even a musical! While I love having all of these genres available in which to express myself, I don’t think the actual demands of writing are very different. You just try to do your best in whatever genre you’ve chosen.
To write formal metrical poetry, you need to pay close attention to structure. You also need to do this when writing tightly-plotted crime fiction. In both cases, every element has to be in exactly the right position in relation to every other element. So, these two genres, I feel, have quite a lot in common, and it›s no surprise they both attract writers obsessed with structure, like me.
Q. Lastly, Poirot has a lot of fans in India. Is he coming to India anytime soon?
A. Well, I haven’t yet decided where to send him in the next book! But I am looking forward to talking about The Mystery of Three Quartersat the Bangalore Literature Festival in October. Poirot has a huge and loyal fan base in India, and I love talking about him to fellow fans at literary festivals.