Art of being a proper Poirot
As 'Murder on the Orient Express' brings vintage Agatha Christie back to our cinemas, novelist Sophie Hannah tells how she resurrected the brilliant Belgian detective on the page
When I heard that Kenneth Branagh was to star as Hercule Poirot in a new Hollywood film of Murder on the Orient Express, I was quietly pleased. Branagh is a brilliant actor, and I had a sense that he would be a great Poirot. There have already been several - David Suchet, Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney were excellent in their different ways - and I looked forward to seeing Branagh join their ranks.
Well, last Thursday night I did, at the Royal Albert Hall, for the movie's world premiere. It was an impressive and lavish event attended by thousands. The smartest character, of course, was the immaculately dressed Belgian genius, Hercule Poirot. I soon saw that I'd been right to trust Branagh. His portrayal of Agatha Christie's most loved character is superb. It isn't so much that his moustache is luxurious and resplendent (though it is both); it is simply that he feels like a real, proper Poirot. That, for me, was the most important thing.
What counts as a real, proper Poirot and what doesn't is a question I've spent a lot of time thinking about since I was commissioned in 2013 to write a continuation novel starring the greatest fictional detective. I was honoured to be asked by Christie's grandson and great-grandson, Mathew and James Prichard, to continue the character in new mystery novels.
Christie is my favourite crime writer. She's the bestselling novelist in history, with sales exceeding two billion, and only the Bible and Shakespeare have sold better. She is also Britain's most successful female playwright, a fact rarely mentioned despite the 65-year run (and counting) of The Mousetrap.
My first Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, in 2014 was followed by Closed Casket in 2016. I'm working on a third, which will be published next year, and there will be a fourth in 2020. Before I agreed to write any, however, I had to ask myself one crucial question: could I, notable for my comprehensive and eternal inability to be, or ever to become, Agatha Christie, write real, proper Poirot? If I couldn't, it would surely be sensible to write no Poirot.
There's a name for novels like my Poirots and others of their kind: continuation novels. Often, at my events, people tentatively ask me things like: "So, are you Agatha Christie now?"
They don't know the correct term for what I'm doing. No, I'm not Christie, and so I decided very early on that I would not in any way try to copy her writing. No writer can or should ever try to mimic the prose style of another, unless they are writing a parody or a pastiche.
I soon realised that if I was to write real, proper Poirot, then I needed to write about Christie's Poirot, not to change or add to him in order to "make him my own". Absolutely not, I thought. He is not my own. He belongs to Christie and to her billions of fans.
My task - should I choose to accept it, which I soon did, because concocting a baffling mystery for the brilliant Belgian sleuth to solve was the most exciting creative challenge I had ever faced - was to bring the Poirot we all know and love a new case that would frustrate and puzzle him right up until he worked out the solution.
I decided that the best approach would be to create a new sidekick for Poirot, who would be his co-star as well as the narrator of my stories. So I created Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who narrates The Monogram Murders, Closed Casket and the one I'm writing now (title embargoed until further notice!).
In many of Christie's Poirot novels, Captain Hastings is the sidekick and the teller of the story, but, much as I love Hastings, I knew I didn't want to include him in my Poirot mysteries.
It felt important to me to use only Poirot from Christie's cast list, although George the valet makes a brief appearance in the one I'm writing now. To use Hastings would have made me feel that I was writing faux-Christie, rather than my own original Poirot novels. A new sidekick and narrator felt like a sensible way of mirroring the situation I was in, as a new person writing about a well-known person. Catchpool, like me, is a fresh voice writing about the legend that is Hercule Poirot.
There were some things about Agatha Christie's writing that I did want to emulate: not the prose style itself, but her blueprint for what the ideal crime novel should be and do. She often started with an outlandish, almost impossible-seeming plot premise that cranked up the suspense level to maximum right from the start; her stories have the strongest bone structure of any I've ever read, with the brilliantly elegant story-shape sticking out pleasingly at every possible point; she made the clues extremely obvious, to play fair with the reader, but always safe in the knowledge that her imagination was so ambitious and unpredictable that nobody would ever guess the solution.
All of these key elements of Christie's brilliance I have tried to emulate, and I have been trying to do so since I wrote my first crime novel, Little Face, in 2004. I have always been a crime writer in the Christie mould, though the surface texture of each contemporary thriller is very different from that of a Christie novel. Being asked to write The Monogram Murders felt like being invited to come out of a closet, in a way.
Other key decisions had to be made: when should the book be set? Not after the action of Curtain (1975) - Poirot is dead and can't come back to life. It was suggested that I should write a prequel, set, perhaps, in 1910, before the action of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. But that felt wrong: it is the first Poirot novel and it must remain so. Luckily, there were four years, in the heart of the golden age, in which Christie didn't set any Poirot novels: 1928 to 1932. Poirot was unaccounted for during that period, so that's the one I chose.
And the choice to make the detective Poirot himself, rather than Miss Marple, was not a foregone conclusion. Mathew and James Prichard asked me which of Christie's characters I most wanted to write about. I love Poirot and Marple equally as a reader, but by the time we were having this conversation, I'd already had an idea, which became The Monogram Murders.
It felt to me like a case that would be perfect for Poirot, who likes to demonstrate his cleverness in front of an audience and make a bit of a production out of it, whereas Miss Marple's brilliance is less ostentatious.
My idea for a clever and twisty plot felt almost show-off-ish so it felt perfect for Poirot - and the Christie estate agreed that this was the best way forward. My friendship with Mathew and James has been one of the nicest things about working with Poirot and the family - they have both been endlessly supportive and enthusiastic. They are a delight to work with, and, so far, we haven't disagreed about anything.
Not everybody approves of continuation novels. I have had the odd sniffy email since I started writing Poirot. Why, I've been asked, did I need to pen more Poirot novels when Christie has already written so many, and when I'm not her? I didn't need to, I tell such people. I was asked to and I found that I really, really wanted to.
My Poirot novels are my love letters to my favourite writer and inspiration, the queen of crime. And, since 2014, I've received hundreds of emails from Christie and Poirot fans worldwide, saying, "Thank you for bringing him back." These are the words I wanted to say after the movie premiere: Thank you, Kenneth Branagh, for bringing Poirot back.