An Interview with Sophie Hannah

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • September 13, 2014

Award-winning poet and novelist Sophie Hannah is author of The Orphan Choir and The Carrier. Recently, she penned The Monogram Murders, the first new Hercule Poirot novel in 40 years.

An Interview with Sophie Hannah

The Monogram Murders is the first Hercule Poirot novel in four decades. It comes courtesy of Sophie Hannah, who was granted permission by the Agatha Christie estate to bring the beloved fictional Belgian detective back to life. In his inaugural mystery of the 21st century, Poirot puts his gray matter to good use solving a diabolical triple murder that takes place in three separate rooms in a luxury hotel. A very clever puzzle, indeed.

Why do you think Agatha Christie created a side man for Hercule Poirot? Did she need a conduit to fully explore the detective? 

Very interesting question! It’s a device that’s quite often used — look at Lockwood in Wuthering Heights, the “ordinary man” narrator who describes Heathcliff to us. When a character (like Heathcliff or Poirot) is almost a legend, it sort of makes sense to keep the reader at one remove from them so that they retain a bit of their alluring mystery and never become too familiar. Poirot would find it hard to remain “the Great Detective” if we were able to get right inside his head — we would almost identify with him too much. Instead, readers are encouraged to identify with the sidekick, who is in awe of Poirot.

Do you think Christie believed that a reader might not tolerate the straight skinny of his intelligence?

Possibly she thought that Poirot’s direct voice would be too opinionated, bombastic, boastful — too hard to listen to for an entire novel!

Catchpool is the contemporary Hastings. Why such a name? Is he the reservoir for the haphazard collection of Poirot’s observations? The ones that are not quite so well ordered?

I got the name Catchpool from one of the gravestones in a disused cemetery near my house, where I regularly walk my dog. As soon as I read it on the stone, I thought, “What a great name — I must use it in my Poirot novel.” He is Poirot’s helper, sidekick, and (in a way) apprentice. Poirot sees that Catchpool is bright and has potential, but Catchpool lacks confidence. Poirot wants to be a kind of mentor to Catchpool, to bring out the best in him and turn him into the best possible detective he can be.

Would you say that Catchpool is just a little less observant than Hastings, his earlier counterpart?

I don’t know if he’s less observant, but he’s a lot less confident. Catchpool is having something of a crisis of self and doubts his ability to be effective. He does, however, manage to come up with one crucial part of the mystery’s solution, and it’s his insight that enables Poirot to solve the rest of the case. This is a key difference between Catchpool and Hastings. Hastings often unintentionally says things that help Poirot solve the crime, but Catchpool’s contribution is actually a deliberate and accurate act of problem-solving. In my mind, Catchpool, if he were to continue, would become better and better as a detective in his own right.

Poirot knows that he does not have the monopoly on using gray matter. Oftentimes, there is another observant character, just not so observant as he. Is this the way Poirot demonstrates “everyone could be like me” when he credits Fee Spring, the waitress in his favorite café, with such intelligence?

I’m glad you spotted that! Yes, Fee Spring is extremely astute, and Poirot recognizes this and is impressed. I wanted to show that, for someone as brilliant as Poirot, it must be quite lonely to be so much cleverer than everyone else. I couldn’t bear the thought of isolating him completely and surrounding him only with people of normal intelligence, so I threw in Fee Spring (and, of course, Catchpool) so that Poirot could have something resembling an intellectual equal.

Did you have to rewrite many passages to infuse it with Christie-ism?

No, none. The tone/voice of the book flowed quite naturally. I like to think that Agatha was helping me from on high!

What was your process for being a true “ghost writer”?

I’m not at all a ghost writer. A ghost writer’s name doesn’t appear on the book. What I am is the author of a continuation novel. The main part of my process was rereading all Agatha’s Poirots to remind myself of the texture and character of those books.

Which character did you create first?

I can’t actually remember! I created the plot first — I always do — and the characters grew out of the needs of the story, as well as out of the ideas I wanted to explore.

Throughout the story, Catchpool is trying to create his own crossword puzzle. Is the puzzle a metaphor for your sentiments, for what you were also doing, but rather more successfully?

Yes, I suppose that works at a metaphorical level, but it certainly wasn’t deliberate. The crossword puzzle was really there because I needed one of the clues in order to further the plot!

Is there a Miss Marple in our future?

Not from me! Having committed to Poirot, I’d feel disloyal eloping with Marple!

Could you, for a moment, imagine a contemporary Hercule Poirot?

I absolutely cannot imagine a contemporary Poirot — he must stay as he is, as Agatha created him. Anything else wouldn’t be proper Poirot.

Were the parameters of creating a new story for an old character helpful or daunting?

Both! It was helpful to be working with such an iconic, brilliant character, but daunting to know that I had to write something that would be worthy of him.

“It’s the unchanging daily routine, Catchpool, that makes for the restful mind.” Why do I get the sense that this is you and Poirot speaking?

Actually, that is more Poirot than me. I hate routine and change mine all the time. I never write two consecutive books in the same way, for example — I change my routine for every book so that I don’t get into a rut.

Catchpool declares that “if Poirot had been English, I probably would have made a greater effort to keep myself in check.” Why?

Because Catchpool knows that other English people might think less of him for expressing his feelings too openly. Poirot, a European, wouldn’t judge him as harshly for showing his feelings.

[Sophie Hannah will appear at this year’s Fall for the Book festival on Tuesday, Sept. 16th, at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Click here for five good reasons you should attend the event.]

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