According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Agatha Christie is ‘bestselling author ever’, but you really don’t need the Records to tell you that. Walk into any bookstore in India and you’ll find Christie’s ingenious whodunits stacked in shelves reserved for bestsellers. If her estate is to be believed, Agatha Christie’s novels remain one of the most widely published ones, only behind Shakespeare and the Bible. She is the Queen of Crime, agree book critics and admirers, and everyone knows her famed detectives, their quirks and classic traits – the pompous, luxuriant-moustached Hercule Poirot, and the elderly but sharp as a razor, Miss Marple.
Ever since news of the Christie family's decision to commission a new Poirot novel to British writer Sophie Hannah (who has also written crime fiction and psychological thrillers) created headlines, life for the writer has taken a surreal turn. In an email interview with dna, Hannah talks about the overwhelming task that lies ahead, Poirot and how her book can do no harm to Christie...
You are about to bring one of the most iconic characters in crime fiction to life. Being a fan yourself, do you feel overwhelmed by the task at hand?
Of course I am scared and, yes, a little overwhelmed! But I'm also hugely excited. I have concerns: what if I write a bad book is the main one. But I thought long and hard about this and decided that since I am, in literary terms, roughly equivalent to a speck of dust on the immortal moustache of Hercule Poirot, I cannot possibly do him any harm. Nor can I do Christie any harm. They are both literary legends and will remain so. If I write a terrible book (which I I will try very hard not to!) it will fade away and leave the Queen of Crime untouched. But, if it goes well, I hope to provide Poirot with a mystery that his little grey cells will enjoy solving, and readers with a gripping detective novel.
What drew you to Christie’s novels and Poirot?
Christie is a uniquely audacious storyteller. Her plots are high-concept, outlandish, risky, highly imaginative, but she always makes them work brilliantly. And while all the stunning narrative acrobatics are going on in the foreground, there's a deep understanding of the darkness of the human psyche underpinning it all, so that the stories have immense power and resonance. I think Poirot’s loyal, kind, wise, cautious at the right times, humble when he knows he's made a mistake, and he always gets it right in the end. He cares passionately about delivering justice, but he's neveanur vindictive or cruel. There's something incredibly comforting and reassuring about him - I just want to give him a big cuddle!
Practically everyone's read a Christie book, or at least heard about her. Keeping that in mind, how have you approached this task of resurrecting Poirot? And when is the new book expected to release?
I must clarify: I am not planning to resurrect Poirot from the dead. Christie killed him at the end of 'Curtain' ... My Poirot novel will be set in the late 1920s, between The Mystery of the Blue Train and Peril at End House. That way I don't have to undo any of Christie's creative decisions, which I would never do.
I have reread the Poirot novels several times, and am in the process of rereading them all again. The book will be published in September 2014 and will feature a protagonist who will write in the first person about his experience of being involved in a case with Poirot.
I have to ask – why Poirot ? Why not Marple?
In many ways, I would have possibly found it easier to write a Marple - but the idea I had felt very obviously to me was like a more Poirot-ish idea. It's high-concept and the denouement will be full of astonishing revelations. I need Poirot's theatrical grand-standing to make sure those revelations have the impact they need!
Which is your favourite Christie book? And why?
Sleeping Murder, I think. Because it's the best example of one of my favourite things in crime fiction: an opening scenario where you think, 'This is simply impossible. It cannot be resolved without cheating.' And then Christie resolves it perfectly. It (Sleeping Murder) is a structurally perfect novel, and they are very rare. A recent contemporary example is the contemporary psychological thriller Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson - another structurally perfect crime novel!
Many critics have criticised the Christie family’s decision to commission a new novel. Some say it’s for the money. Your take?
It's been done before, and nothing bad seemed to happen to Agatha or to Poirot! Charles Osborne novelised the Christie play Black Coffee, 20 years after Agatha's death. And in 46 years’ time, Poirot will be out of copyright and hundreds of Poirot homages will spring up - Zombie Poirot, Vampire Poirot... who knows what else? So, since I was inspired by this story idea and it just felt to me as if it had to be solved by Poirot, I couldn't see the harm. It's not about the money. As I've already said on Twitter, I would have done it for twenty quid and a packet of Minstrels.
I see it as a kind of justice thing. Poirot is easily as important a fictional detective as Sherlock - he deserves a new book about him. Otherwise, I don't know, it'd be a bit like Sherlock being invited to a literary party that Poirot wasn't invited to, and that would simply be wrong. Even if it's a weird party!
How has your life changed at a more basic level? Did anyone actually try to talk you out of writing the novel?
It's very surreal to be a news item, on the national news on TV, on the front page of newspapers. I think I'm still suffering from PPTSD - Poirot Post Traumatic Stress Disorder! I picked up several hundred new Twitter followers in the space of 24 hours. Strangers have shouted at me across the street, 'Congratulations! Great news about Poirot!' One of my neighbours turned up on my doorstep after dark one night and said, 'I hate Poirot - can't you do Marple instead?' Most people - both online and in the real world - have been incredibly positive and encouraging.