From Poetry To Poirot, How Author Sophie Hannah Revived Agatha Christie’s Famous Detective

The bestselling author on how she thinks crime fiction done well is the highest literary form.
Sophie Hannah in a file photo.
Sophie Hannah in a file photo.

BENGALURU, Karnataka — It's a Sunday morning at Bangalore Lit Fest, and crime writer Sophie Hannah is singing to a delighted crowd. Other writers before her have discoursed seriously —and at tedious length — on the ingredients of good crime fiction. Hannah, in sharp contrast, has chosen to warble a verse from her recent murder mystery musical, which ambitiously rhymes "denouement" with "clue".

Hannah takes her work very seriously, but she does not take herself seriously. This came in handy when she was asked to revive Agatha Christie's iconic Poirot series in 2014, by Christie's own grandson. A daunting task, but one that she took to with optimism.

"I thought, what would be the worst that could happen? I will do it badly and people will think I am an idiot. People have thought that all my life anyway."

Three novels into the series, she's similarly philosophical about the outrage from purists.

"Anyone who doesn't want to read a Poirot not written by Agatha shouldn't read it. What people mostly say to me is 'It's not exactly like Agatha but I like it.' The novels do not mimic Christie's language; there are no mentions of Poirot's 'little grey cells'. "I am very clear that I am writing a new Poirot novel, not a new Christie novel. Only Christie can write Christie," she says.

Domestic noir: The family is the enemy

In India, Hannah is best known for her Poirot novels, as they have been translated into Hindi. (One fan on Amazon India describes The Monogram Murders, the first in the series, as 'zabardast').

But way before she came to Poirot, she was a poet whose poems were part of school syllabi. Then, in one of the leaps she is known for, she wrote a series of bestselling psychological thrillers. Her first, Little Face, in 2006, was a twisty tale of a woman convinced her new-born baby is not her own, even as her husband insists that it is. It was one of the very early domestic noirs, way before Gone Girl made the genre ubiquitous. In a market dominated by procedural thrillers, it sold a 1,00,000 copies.

The family is a terrifying place in a Sophie Hannah novel. The women are often jittery and paranoid, convinced that someone is out to get them (they are usually right). Exhausted mothers resent their children, spouses cheat on each other and parents lead double lives. The reader is left feeling strangely unsettled, yet desperate to know what really happened.

"It's always seemed to me that the people closest to you do not always have your best interests at heart and can do you the most harm."

"It's always seemed to me that the people closest to you do not always have your best interests at heart and can do you the most harm," says Hannah, of her fascination with the family as enemy.

A Sophie Hannah novel always begins with a totally unexpected, often chilling situation. In Lasting Damage a woman goes on to a property website for a virtual tour, looks around an expensive house, and sees a dead woman in the living room. In her latest Did You See Melody? a tired mother escapes to a posh hotel, then is given a key card for a room that is not her own. As she walks in, she sees a man and a girl, whom she recognises as Melody, the most famous murder victim in the country.

Many of her unpredictable ideas come from real life, such as the plot for Little Face. "I was five days in labour with my first child. I was lying in the hospital, immobile from the waist below because it was a C-section, and suddenly the nurse brought in a baby. Just as I picked it up, she went "oh that's not your baby." Then she went out and brought in another one, which looked exactly the same. So that got me thinking...."

Her critics have called her female characters hysterical and unlikeable, a charge that Hannah rebuts unapologetically. "I quite understand if readers want to read about calm, well-adjusted women, but I am interested in writing about people in crisis. I don't want to write about perfect, likeable people who never have affairs, who never do a thing wrong, who love everyone. My women behave badly."

Poirot as fan fiction

Hannah came to Poirot by pure luck.

"I have been an Agatha fan all my life, but I did not chase this. Lots of people ask me, "How did you persuade the Christies? I hate the idea that I went pestering them to let me write the new series. I didn't!"

Hannah's agent was at Harper Collins, and noticed a shelf of Christies. Impulsively, he suggested to the publisher that Hannah recreate Poirot. Harper hated the idea.

"My agent, out of the blue, had created an opportunity for me to be rejected for something I didn't even apply for," says Hannah, in mock outrage. "It was as if he had asked Brad Pitt to marry me, and then came back with "Oops, he said no." But by coincidence, Christie's grandson Matthew Pritchard was considering a revival. Hannah just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

On the face of it, Hannah's hard boiled thrillers and Christie's genteel Golden Age classics could not be more different. Delve deeper and the similarities are obvious. Both Hannah and Christie rely on unexpected, deeply puzzling scenarios. Like Hannah, Christie wrote many novels with a deep psychological element.

"Christie wrote such diverse novels. For instance, One Two Buckle My Shoe was set in a dentist's office, but nobody thinks of Agatha as linked with dentistry!"

"Christie was interested in the human condition, like I am. People are always saying 'Oh, do a classic Agatha.' I know what they mean by that, set in a classic country house with a butler, but the fact is Christie wrote such diverse novels. For instance, One Two Buckle My Shoe was set in a dentist's office, but nobody thinks of Agatha as linked with dentistry!"

Nevertheless, Hannah set some ground rules. She chose to set her series between 1928 to 1932, when Christie did not write any Poirot novels, a handy gap for her to use. Choosing not to revive the trusty but dim Hastings, Christie created a new character, detective Edward Catchpool, who serves as a narrator.

Hannah then made sure she had the classic Christie ingredients. "Intriguing plot hook, clues scattered freely, twisty plot, justice always delivered, and Poirot's moral centre and integrity." Her latest, The Mystery of Three Quarters, blends a psychological background with Poirot's classic detection and a strong dog motif, bringing to mind Christie's classic Dumb Witness.

"Crime fiction is the best fiction"

Hannah is often asked about the snobbery against crime fiction, which Christie also encountered.

"There are people who think that crime writing is not literature, but I think that is such bullshit. I think they just have a preconceived idea that anything that people enjoy can't be literary."

We talk awhile about our mutual love for the Irish author, Tana French, who writes novels that bridge the gap between literary and commercial. "I think that crime fiction, written well, is the best kind of book there is. Writers like Tana French and Gillian Flynn are great novelists, not just great mystery writers. The fact that their books have a mystery at heart doesn't make them any less of a novel than the Booker winners."

"All the self-help books I read would tell me to rise above my grudges and be enlightened. I enjoy my grudges and think they are healthy."

These days though, she is diversifying from crime, with more unpredictable forays. 'I love musicals, and I thought "No one's ever written a murder mystery one". So, she did. Her murder mystery musical, "The Generalist" is touring literary festivals. Somewhat unexpectedly, Hannah is also a huge fan of self-help books, especially the writer Eckhart Tolle. She has just written her first self-help book "How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment: the Power of Grudges to Transform".

"All the self-help books I read would tell me to rise above my grudges and be enlightened. I enjoy my grudges and think they are healthy. I think, 'Oh Pete always stabs me in the back, so I am not going to have him around for dinner anymore.' There has never been a book on grudges as a psychological condition, and I thought why not? They are so much a part of the human condition."

"Holding a grudge, of course, is pure crime fiction," she says wickedly. You can't get any more in character than that.

Sophie Hannah's top five psychological thrillers

  1. A Dark Adapted Eye: Barbara Vine

  2. Innocent Blood: P.D James

  3. Before I Go to Sleep: S.J Watson

  4. Broken Harbour: Tana French

  5. The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton