A NEW LOCKED-ROOM TALE FEATURING POIROT CONTINUES THE TRADITION OF A MASTER OF MYSTERY
Why was Sophie Hannah asked by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new novel featuring Christie characters? She’s a best-selling crime author, a huge fan of Christie — she read all the books as a child and again in her twenties — and she had the right plot in mind.
The Monogram Murders opens with Poirot startled by a woman who rushes into the restaurant he’s been frequenting. Clearly terrified, she says she will soon be dead. She talks distractedly to Poirot, telling him, “Let no one open their mouths,” and that the police must not look for her killer. Upon which, she hurries out before a mystified Poirot can ask any more questions.
Soon after, three bodies are found in a hotel. Each has a cufflink in its mouth. Poirot’s young friend, Edward Catchpool, who’s investigating the case, asks for his help, and Poirot realises there must be a connection between the murder victims and the frightened woman he spoke with.
I asked Hannah about the difficulty of tackling such a project, why she made the choices she did in telling the story, and where she and Christie might have differed along the way.
What was most daunting about taking on this project?
Making sure the story was worthy of Poirot and Agatha — I knew I had to try to write something that was in keeping with their traditions, but without copying/imitating that tradition. It’s a tricky balancing act, writing a story that is both true to you, as a writer, and at the same time true to the legacy of another writer.
What research did you do?
I began by re-reading all the Poirot books. I had read them before, when I was a child, and it was really interesting to return to them as an adult and read them more analytically. I also watched all of the David Suchet Poirot TV adaptations again. My homework was extremely — almost indecently — enjoyable.
What was the biggest challenge re getting things right?
I’ve never written a historical novel before, and I don’t generally read them, so the hardest part by far was getting the right tone of voice for a man based in 1929! Also, getting all the detail right for the period. For example, sherry plays a part in the story, and I wanted to use Harvey’s Bristol Cream, which is my favourite sherry, but first I had to check it existed in 1929. Fortunately it did!
You went with a classic locked-room murder plot, but that was something you’d actually come up with before the Christie estate contacted you, wasn’t it?
Yes, I had an idea that had been knocking around in my head for a couple of years, but I’d never previously been able to get it to fit together properly. I kept shelving it, determined to use it in the future — and what I loved about it was that it seemed to me to be a very Agatha-ish idea! When I was asked to write a Poirot continuation novel, I realised that my idea-in-waiting would be perfect for Poirot. And I realised why it didn’t quite fit in any of my other books, which are contemporary psychological thrillers: it was a golden age detective story idea that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as contemporary crime fiction.
Why did you decide to narrate the story from the point of view of Edward Catchpool?
Catchpool’s narration explains the change of tone between Agatha’s Poirot novels and mine. When the reader inevitably thinks “This doesn’t sound like Agatha Christie’s writing,” it can be explained sensibly by the fact that Edward Catchpool, the narrator, has never appeared in one of Christie’s novels — so obviously the voice/tone/style would be slightly different. I didn’t want to try to replicate Hastings’ voice and fail. Also, I wanted my novel to be as original as possible, so apart from the one “given” — Poirot — I wanted to invent the rest.
You had Poirot residing in a boarding house right across the street from his house when the story begins; why?
I wanted Poirot in London, but not in his usual flat where Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon might turn up! I wanted Poirot to be the only inherited ingredient from Agatha’s work, and I thought a different London setting, like Catchpool’s narration, would be a good way to indicate that this was a slightly different kind of Poirot novel from the usual!
Poirot is very much a mentor to Catchpool, isn’t he?
Yes — he wants to help Catchpool become a better detective. He sees great potential in him. Catchpool is extremely bright, but lacks confidence in his own judgement. Poirot has an excess of confidence, and seeks to infuse Catchpool with a similar belief in himself.
How does the Poirot/Catchpool relationship compare to that of Poirot/Hastings?
It’s clear that Poirot never thinks Hastings could ever be a good or even an adequate detective! Hastings, in Christie’s novels, represents the nice, ordinary man on the street. Catchpool, by contrast, is a less solid, stable character.
You’ve said that Christie has a penchant for mysterious mysteries. What do you mean by that?
Agatha Christie’s stories are more imaginatively ingenious than anyone else’s. She’s very keen on pushing conceptual boundaries and exploring the possibilities of what a story can do. In that sense she’s a radical writer. The suspense — the sense of the outlandish that is, nevertheless, unfolding before your eyes — makes Agatha’s mysterious (in my opinion!) more mysterious than those of most crime writers.
Christie has been criticized for her stereotypical characters, but her cases often turned on psychology, didn’t they?
Yes — her stories are very psychological, they’re just presented differently to more modern psychological novels because of the time they were written. So the psychology is all there, and the wisdom, and the knowledge of human foibles...but it’s presented in passing, while the mechanics of the plot take centre stage. Sometimes Christie’s characters seem like bland stereotypes on the surface, but I think this is a deliberate tactic — Christie’s way of highlighting the vast gulf between how we seem and what we truly are.
Margaret Ernst, who is one of the people Catchpool interviews about the victims, has very decided opinions on morality and ethics. What can you tell me about her?
You’re the first person who has asked about Margaret! Well done! She is crucial to the story. Obviously some readers might disagree, but to me Margaret is the voice of true virtue and morality in the book — in other words, the sort of morality that seeks to do good while never making the mistake of moral oversimplification. She is the closest thing the novel has to a wholly good character, but her goodness is more complex than that of, say, the church, Poirot or Catchpool. Hers is a goodness that allows for the odd sin to be committed — for example, she tells a significant lie in the story in order to prevent what she sees as a greater harm. So, in a way, she’s the novel’s moral arbiter.
It seems to me that some of your book’s morals are quite up-to-date; for example, Margaret’s thoughts on love taking precedence over social conventions. Would you say that’s true to Christie, or perhaps your mores sneaking in?
Yes, I’d say Margaret’s morality is closer to mine than Agatha Christie’s. I’m not sure Agatha would have condoned adultery in cases where people are madly in love with a forbidden person, and I’m not sure I could ever bring myself to condemn in such cases! Having said that, Agatha wasn’t afraid of breaking with social conventions when it came to her stories. She was, I think, the sort of writer who could easily imagine herself into the minds of people who think against the grain. So perhaps she’d have had more sympathy for Margaret’s view than I’d expect!
When writing the book, you must have been particularly aware of your readers, of how absolutely everything, not just the crime, would be perceived by them. What was that like?
I was very aware of this, but I soon realised that the book’s readers would be people who were most likely looking for the same thing as me: a story that did justice to Hercule Poirot, so I stopped worrying about all the readers’ possible reactions and asked myself: Is this case, this puzzle, good enough for Poirot? Is it baffling and puzzling enough? I was satisfied that it was suitably challenging for him, and that readers would enjoy it, and in the end, you have write mainly for yourself as a reader — would you, if you hadn’t written the book, love to read it? That was the kind of question I asked myself.
What do you think makes Poirot such a successful and enduring character?
He’s just such an interesting character. He’s almost superhuman in terms of his intelligence and powers of observation, his ability to understand other people and their motivations. He’s capable of quickly understanding things we ordinary mortals can barely grasp. At the same time, he’s all too human. He has irritating habits, he's vain and boastful, irrationally irritated by untidiness. This means we do, after all, see him as a real person and, paradoxically, his flaws — and his slightly absurd appearance — help to endear him to us.
What have you learned from this experience?
That continuation novels can be every bit as valid and creatively inspired as non-continuation novels, and should not be ghetto-ised, treated as a sub-class and accused of being written for purely cynical commercial reasons. Writing The Monogram Murders refreshed and energised me creatively more than I can possibly describe.
Will there be another Christie mystery?
We’ll have to wait and see! Nothing has been firmed up as yet.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just finished writing a new psychological thriller called A Game for All the Family.