Saturday 26 May 2018

Poirot solves his first murder on Irish shores

Sophie Hannah had the idea for her second book about the Belgian detective in west Cork

Fan fiction: Sophie Hannah says she is not trying to copy Agatha Christie's style in her Poirot novels
Fan fiction: Sophie Hannah says she is not trying to copy Agatha Christie's style in her Poirot novels
Andrew Lynch

Andrew Lynch

Hercule Poirot did not enjoy his first stay in Ireland. When Agatha Christie sent her iconic detective to the west coast in a 1940 short story called The Apples of the Hesperides, he suffered badly at a hotel with broken windows and terrible food. "It was a land where common sense and an orderly way of life were unknown," the famously fastidious Belgian lamented. "The standards by which he lived were here not appreciated."

Happily, anyone who reads Sophie Hannah's new novel Closed Casket will find Poirot having a much more positive Irish experience. "The idea came when I was driving around west Cork and indulging my addiction for property websites," the celebrated English crime writer recalls. "I came across a beautiful country house in Clonakilty on the banks of the River Argideen. Poirot had been to Ireland before, but never actually solved a murder there - so I decided this would be a great location for his first."

Hannah gets to make such decisions because she can now be described as keeper of the Agatha Christie flame. Four years ago, Christie's literary estate asked her to write a "continuation novel" featuring Poirot for the first time since his creator's death in 1976. While Hannah jokes that she would have signed up "for 20 quid and a packet of Minstrels", it seems likely that The Monogram Murders has earned her rather more - since it became an international bestseller and made a follow-up almost inevitable.

"I think Agatha was a genius, but I'm not trying to copy her style," she maintains. "I see these books as a kind of fan fiction. Of course there are some people who don't approve, but luckily the reaction from readers has been overwhelmingly positive."

Closed Casket certainly contains all the familiar ingredients of a 'Golden Age' murder mystery. The year is 1929 and Poirot has been invited to a house party by Lady Playford, a wealthy Anglo-Irish author who plans to disinherit her children and leave everything to her terminally ill secretary. Before long, the great detective is confronted with a bloody corpse, a varied list of suspects and a battle of wits between himself and An Garda Siochána.

"When you read a classic Christie novel such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the solution is both brilliant and simple," says Hannah. "I hope I've achieved something similar with Closed Casket. You could actually sum up the idea in just four words, but at the same time, it's so unusual that I really don't think anybody will guess it."

The Irish background to Closed Casket is sketched in lightly, with one character remarking, "A lot of the big houses belonging to English families were burnt to the ground in the recent… unpleasant business over here." Hannah used a research assistant to get the historical details right. "I realised that the early days of the Irish Free State was a very interesting time. The Anglo-Irish aristocrats were still there, but their way of life was coming to an end."

Agatha Christie occasionally became sick of writing about Poirot, once denouncing him as "a tiresome, egocentric little creep". Hannah, however, claims to still love the character as much as ever.

"My working title for Closed Casket was 'You're so vain, you probably think this Poirot is about you'," she laughs. "Of course he is incredibly boastful, but he's so much cleverer than everyone else that he has a right to be."

Does she picture him in her mind as David Suchet, whose performance in the ITV adaptations is widely regarded as definitive? "Yes, I do. But Kenneth Branagh is about to play Poirot in a film of Murder on the Orient Express, so perhaps I'll start seeing him instead."

Although Hannah "absolutely" hopes to write more Poirot novels, she is also carrying on with her day job as an author of contemporary psychological thrillers. She has published 10 featuring her own super-sleuth, Simon Waterhouse, two of which were filmed for the television series Case Sensitive. Some critics are sniffy about the merits of crime fiction, but for her, there is no higher form of literature.

"When crime stories are done well, they reflect our experience of real life better than any other genre," she claims. "There is nothing shallow about mysteries, they come out of our deepest fears and neuroses. We are all puzzles to each other and we spend a lot of our time trying to decide who we can trust."

Hannah grew up in Manchester, the daughter of a Marxist academic and a children's author. She was an only child until the age of seven and remembers "inventing lots of stories for my dolls and teddies".

After her first three attempts at a crime novel were rejected, she became a poet instead, writing highly structured verses that are widely studied in British schools and universities.

A breakthrough moment came when Hannah spent five days giving birth to her first child, fell asleep and was handed the wrong baby by a midwife. She turned this idea into Little Face, which sold over 100,000 copies and proved her ability to devise highly ingenious plots.

"I'm not interested in writing about everyday crimes," she says. "I never start with a dead body, I try to create a scenario that seems impossible - such as somebody confessing to the murder of a woman who's still alive. My definition of plausibility is: could it happen once?"

Hannah used to live near the notorious Manchester district of Moss Side, where she was held up at both gunpoint and knifepoint. Today, she enjoys a more peaceful existence in Cambridge, but still describes herself as "a weird blend of optimism and pessimism - I seem very jolly but I find it hard to stand up for myself." Just like Hercule Poirot, she is acutely aware of "the terrible harm that human beings are capable of doing to each other".

This Monday, Hannah will return to west Cork as part of her promotional duties for Closed Casket.

"That's another reason why I set the book in Ireland," she says. "Names are incredibly important to me and I just love the word 'Clonakilty' - I knew I would enjoy saying it over and over again."

Closed Casket is published by HarperCollins. Sophie Hannah will be reading from the book at Cork Central Library on Monday, September 19

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