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Sophie Hannah on Sidekicks

12th September 2018

A few years ago, I was driving with my family in Cirencester when I noticed a big yellow sign by the side of the road advertising a show by a world-famous touring psychic. ‘Look,’ I said to my husband. ‘A psychic’s coming to town. Shall we go and see him?’ (I knew my husband would be horrified by the suggestion, and I was looking forward to hearing just how horrified.)

Before he could answer, my son piped up from the back seat, ‘A sidekick? You mean like Hastings?’

Never have I had a prouder moment in all my life. My son was only nine, but he knew what a sidekick was and that Hastings was Poirot’s. After congratulating myself on being almost definitely the best mother in world, I started to think about sidekicks. Several weeks earlier, I had accepted a commission to write the first Hercule Poirot mystery since Agatha Christie's death, which was a great honour but also a little daunting. One of the first decisions I had to make was: should Hastings be included in my forthcoming Poirot novel? Sidekicks, as I’d impressed upon my son, were crucial, and Hastings was second to none. 

In the end, I reluctantly decided not to include him in The Monogram Murders. Hastings is the narrator of every original novel he appears in, and that means that his voice is Agatha Christie’s prose style. I don’t think one writer can or should copy the prose style of another - it’s as pointless as trying to copy someone’s fingerprints. A writer's voice is what makes him or her unique. I wanted to write the best Poirot novel that I could, not a fake Agatha Christie novel.

I did, however, want a sidekick in my story. I felt Poirot needed one. Some characters (Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights springs to mind) are so powerful, unusual and awe-inspiring that they are better conveyed through the filter of a more ordinary person, who can almost play the role of the reader, or the reader’s ally, showing us that we are not alone in our ordinary-person reactions to the larger-than-life character.

What kind of sidekick did I want Poirot to have in my first book about him? Before I could decide, I had to look at all the sidekicks Poirot had been given by Agatha Christie over the years. As well as Hastings, there was Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s marvellously eccentric self-portrait. There was Dr Shepherd, the quiet country doctor in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the sharp-tongued nurse Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia and a whole host of helpers and apprentices.

I eventually decided that I wanted two qualities above all others for my own Poirot-sidekick: intelligence and the ability to learn. After all, working with the great Belgian genius would be a fantastic opportunity, something I didn’t want to waste on someone who couldn’t improve his own murder-solving skills as a result. 

Inspector Edward Catchpool, who first helped Poirot in The Monogram Murders and has helped him twice since in Closed Casket and The Mystery of Three Quarters, is a clever and able detective. He is nowhere near as brilliant as Poirot, but he has honed his skills and grown more confident under Poirot’s expert tutelage. Their relationship is one of mentor and mentee — and, with each case, Catchpool loses a little more of his awkwardness, his insecurity and his resentment at being in the less stellar position. In The Mystery of Three Quarters, egotistical considerations seem not to bother him at all and he is content to let Poirot shine without feeling at all grumpy about it.

I wonder if he will be rewarded for his newfound maturity in my fourth Poirot novel, which is due to be published in 2020. I’m not sure yet. Maybe I’ll track down that psychic from the yellow road-side sign and see if he has any idea…

Written by Sophie Hannah, author of The Mystery of Three Quarters.

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