An interview with Sophie Hannah
Ahead of the publication on 6th September of her second Poirot continuation novel, Closed Casket, Sophie Hannah tells us about her discovery of Agatha Christie’s novels, her fondness of Hercule Poirot, and how Christie has influenced her writing.
What was the first Agatha Christie story that you read?
I read The Body in the Library when I was about twelve, and that was it – there was no going back. I was thoroughly hooked! And I still think it's one of the very best Christie novels - completely flawless. By the time I was fourteen I’d read them all and was a devoted fan for life!
Who introduced you to Agatha Christie’s works?
My father. He loved to collect cricket books and he went to a lot of second- hand book fairs. One day he brought me back a battered old copy of The Body in the Library and said he wondered if I might like it. I did! I told him sternly that he had to bring me back at least one Agatha Christie novel from every fair he went to from then on.
Which is your favourite story?
It's impossible to pick just one! I have a top five or ten at any given time, and it varies. I love Appointment with Death because it’s way ahead of its time, psychologically. But my favourite as an all-round novel is After the Funeral. It’s got the perfect balance of plot, character and atmosphere. And the murder motive is one of the most brilliant, poignant and astute in crime fiction.
Which other characters created by Agatha Christie do you enjoy reading?
I love Miss Marple. She is as great a detective as Hercule Poirot, but totally different - less romantic and more misanthropic. She understands the human psyche, and its darkness, so well. Because I’m a dog lover I also love Bob, the dog from Dumb Witness. I own a Welsh Terrier very like him, called Brewster.
How has Agatha Christie influenced your writing, both for Poirot novels and others?
Agatha is part of my literary DNA. I’m a different kind of writer, stylistically, but she is undoubtedly my biggest influence. Her work taught me that a strong plot is the key to character, because we only stand a chance of understanding and knowing a person once we know what they did and why. Agatha created the perfect blueprint for what I think a detective story should be. At the start of each novel, she shows us an apparently impossible situation and we go mad wondering ‘How can this be happening?’ Then, slowly, she reveals how the impossible is not only possible but the only thing that could have happened. That’s something I try to do in my fiction, too. It’s so much more interesting than saying ‘Here’s a dead body – who killed him/her?’
What do you think is AC's most creative or innovative solution?
Probably Murder on the Orient Express. It has a solution you’d never guess in a million years, but once you’ve read it, it makes perfect sense. In fact, it appears both simple and obvious – but only after you’ve read it.
What was it about Poirot’s character that led to your fondness of him?
Poirot is great fun to read, but we are always laughing with him, not at him. Underneath his foibles and quirks – his fussy neatness, his vanity and conceit – there’s a hugely appealing, loyal and fascinating character. He’s wise, romantic, obsessive, compassionate and committed to justice. And then there are those magnificent moustaches! I know Poirot very well now. He’s an old friend. Also, I share his tidiness obsession. I'm every bit as OCD-ish as he is about neatness and order!
How do you get into the Poirot and Agatha Christie mindset when writing a continuation novel?
I reread all the books before I started writing The Monogram Murders. That reminded me of just how brilliant they are. Writing about Poirot is a joy because I know him so well, and love him so much - I feel as if I'm helping him to show off how great he is! The real challenge is making sure every part of the book is good enough for him and his fans. I’ve never tried to copy Agatha’s writing style because I’m a different kind of writer and there can never be another Agatha Christie. No writer should ever try to mimic the style of another.
How did you come up with the character of Catchpool and why did you develop him as you did?
It seemed sensible to introduce a new narrator, to go with the inevitable change of writing style. Edward Catchpool sees Poirot through his own eyes and lets me write in my own way while staying true to Agatha’s wonderful character and period. Catchpool is a Scotland Yard inspector who becomes Poirot’s sidekick. He’s clever but nowhere near as talented a detective as Poirot, and he comes to like Poirot and respect him. Poirot sees that Catchpool is bright and has potential, and tries to help him improve his deductive skills. It's rather like a mentor/mentee relationship.
Can you tell us a bit about Closed Casket?
I’m really happy with Closed Casket. It’s set in Clonakilty, Ireland, in 1929. A famous children's writer gathers her family together and announces that she’s changing her will: cutting off her two children and leaving her entire fortune to a terminally ill young man who’s certain to die long before she does. What on earth could have possessed her? Before she can explain, there’s a murder …and luckily Poirot is on hand to solve it!