Friday, September 26, 2014

Sophie Hannah writes a Golden Age Hercule Poirot for today's avid fans

HALLIE EPHRON: Okay, here's a test. I give you a bit of internal dialogue. You give me the sleuth. 

Ready? Okay: WHO THOUGHT IT?
1. When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it.
2. There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.
3. I should have counted to eleven before I squeezed the trigger.
4. He saw no reason why a warped shelf could not easily be replaced with a straight one, in the same way that he could not comprehend why anybody would place a fork on a square table and not ensure that it lay parallel to the straight line of the table's edge.

1.The character who is honor-bound to avenge his partner's murder, even though he disliked and distrusted the man, is Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade.
2. The man-crazy sleuth is the Jersey girl, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum.
3. The character who counted to ten and then blam is the off-the-grid, ex-military cop, Lee Childs's Jack Reacher.
4. If you guessed that the character who is obsessed with the symmetry of his cutlery is Hercule Poirot, you are right. The sleuth Agatha Christie conjured. So many of us gobbled up the Poirot novels right after we powered through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. But this is M. Poirot in brilliant new hands. Sophie Hannah is the author, and the quote is from her delightful Poirot mystery, The Monogram Murders.

Today we are thrilled -- sacré bleu we are tickled pink -- to have Sophie Hannah as a guest on Jungle Red.

Sophie, your books, from Little Face with its new mother living with the family from hell, convinced that her baby has been replaced by a doppleganger, wade deep into dark psychological suspense and twisted family drama. The Monogram Murders is fun, frothy, exactly the kind of clue-driven puzzle mystery that Poirot readers adore.

How did you make the switch?

SOPHIE HANNAH: I don't see it as a massive switch - my psychological thrillers also contain lighter moments (often in the banter between the police characters!) and The Monogram Murders also has much darkness in it, and many warped psyches!

The main switch is in terms of narrative style.

In Golden Age detective novels, the storytelling aspect is overt. Golden Age mysteries are easier to write than contemporary mysteries because you don't have to be ashamed of storytelling in an upfront way.  They can literally begin with something like, 'Let me tell you about the baffling mystery I solved last summer.  It all began when...'  Whereas contemporary crime novels go to great lengths to create the illusion that no one is telling anyone a story, but, rather, that the reader just happens to be observing these events.

HALLIE: Did you plot the story out  out in advance the way Christie did?

SOPHIE: I always do. It's crucial for getting the story architecture right. Once that's in place, I can write the novel, and focus all my energy on writing it well, without worrying about the plot.  Planning is huge fun - almost my favourite part of the process!

HALLIE: In Monogram, Poirot feels utterly recognizable. Did you have to immerse yourself in the Poirot novels to achieve this, and how is he different now that he's in retirement?

SOPHIE:  I read all the Poirot novels again - that was my homework, and very enjoyable it was too! The Monogram Murders is set in 1929, so relatively early in Poirot's timeline, which means he's no more retired here than in Roger Ackroyd and Orient Express.

HALLIE: Poirot has been played by tons of actors -- Tony Randall, Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, David Suchet to name a few. Which one do you think best captured the essence of Poirot, and what do you think it is about the character that has made him such a mystery icon?

SOPHIE: I think it has to be David Suchet, for sure. He plays a real
man with depth and wisdom, but Poirot is also, in some ways, a superhero and therefore larger than life - instantly memorable with his elaborate moustaches and egg-shaped head! - and so in this sense he is a caricature.  He is so popular with readers for all kinds of reasons, I think: his compassion, his fairness, his wisdom, his loyalty - and of course all his strange little obsessive-compulsive ways!

HALLIE: Are you working on another Poirot? Another suspense novel? What can we look forward to?

SOPHIE :  I'm writing a book called A Game For All The Family at the moment. This is a standalone psychological thriller and will be published next year.  It's set in Devon, and inspired by Greenway, which was Agatha Christie's holiday home! 

But I'm massively looking forward to the release of my next Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer novel in America next summer.  In England it's called The Telling Error, but in the US it will be called Woman With A Secret. 

As for whether or not I'll ever write another Poirot...the official answer is wait and see!

HALLIE: I hope we don't have to wait too long!

Sophie has promised to drop by today to answer questions... so ask them early (it's a lot later in the UK.)

And please, share: What is your favorite thing about Poirot?

I'll start.  His little gray cells: "It is the brain, the little gray cells on which one must rely. One must seek the truth within--not without." And I confess, I hear David Suchet delivering the lines.


  1. Yes, David Suchet is the perhaps the quintessential Poirot . . .
    It's rather difficult to pick one "favorite thing" but I'm going with "Sometimes I think anonymous telephone calls are the only ones worth taking."

    I'm looking forward to reading The Monogram Murders and I'm definitely hoping Sophie is planning more Poirot stories . . .

  2. So exciting to have Sophie here-thanks for coming (and for getting her over Hallie!)

    How did you end up writing the Poirot story Sophie? what an honor to carry on this tradition!

  3. I adore Poirot - he was, perhaps, my first fiction "crush" if I can use that word. My favorite line? I can't say, but I think my favorite story is Murder on the Orient Express. There's a line in there where Poirot is exclaiming over too many clues. Classic.

    I will admit that I was a little apprehensive when I heard there was going to be a "new" Poirot, but it sounds like I can safely read about my favorite Belgian detective without worry. Yay!

    Sophie, my question is the same as Lucy/Roberta's - how did you end up writing this story? I'd imagine the honor and responsibility must be profound.

  4. Yes, too many clues. Like his predecessor who noticed the dog that should have barked in the night...but did not.

  5. Ah, such a great Friday treat to see Sophie Hannah here at JRW's.

    Having just finished The Monogram Murders, I can tell everyone here that this is a MUST READ. My blog review will run next week, but until then, get yourselves to the bookstore.

    I had the great pleasure of having drinks with Sophie after her event at the Fall For the Book festival in Virginia last week. So many of my questions were answered then.

    But I do want to ask a bit about Catchpool, Poirot's Scotland Yard contact and the narrator of The Monogram Murders. He is a great new character in the canon and I wondered "if you were" to write another Poirot novel, do you think you would use Catchpool again? His voice is great (and I even loved the section of the novel where he separated from Poirot).

    Thanks again for stopping by JRW's and thanks to Hallie for making that happen.

    Can't wait for the new standalone!

  6. Welcome, Sophie! And Kristopher, can't wait for your review! (And then I'll be off to the bookstore!)

  7. Oh,I hear him, too!

    And I think that's so brilliant about the overt plot. We were watching a Miss Marple on Masterpiece last night, and that was apparent. It's fine--and expected--that at some point, the narrator will simply tell the story.

    And that at the end, there'll be some sort of elaborate explanation of the clues and motivations and reasoning--which we never completely get to know how the sleuth discovered.

    But we don't care. (And Kristopher, cannot wait!)

    Lots of discussion this week here about Bravery--and Sophie, I think you are so brave to do this! And hurray!

  8. Joan - It's not my place to plan anything with regard to Poirot - I briefly eloped with him, tis true, but it's up to the Agatha Christie estate to decide whether they want more Poirot adventures. I guess we'll all have to wait and see!

  9. Hi Lucy - thank you! It was originally my agent's idea that I should write this book. He suggested to Harper Collins that, since I was an obsessive Agatha fan, they ought to ask me to write a Poirot continuation novel! I'm SO glad he did, as it would never have occurred to me in a million years!

  10. Mary - perhaps weirdly, I actually like it when people say they are apprehensive/suspicious at first. That proves to me that people care about Poirot and won't accept any old nonsense. So it's those people who, in a way, I am most keen to have as readers - so that I can then see if I've lived up to their high expectations.

    I would have been *so* suspicious and worried if I'd heard someone else was doing this. I was a bit worried, to be honest, when I heard I was doing it! But in the end I thought that nothing could go too badly wrong as long as I remained true to all of Agatha's priorities/creative decisions.

  11. Hi Kris

    My suitcase turned up!! Sorry, that's totally irrelevant. But anyway...Am so glad you liked Monogram Murders, and also that you liked Catchpool. I love him - and one of the most interesting things about this whole process is the reaction to Catchpool. Some people think he's dim and wet, and others think he's clever and promising, but just not quite as brilliant as Poirot. Some think he's sympathetically full of self doubt and others think he's too useless to be a convincing detective at all! All of which disagreement makes me think that he's probably the most interesting character in the book, which is very much what I wanted him to be. If I were to write another one, I would certainly like to use his voice again!

  12. Susan - thank you! Hope you enjoy the book if you do read it!

    Hank - re bravery, I am not a particularly brave person, but the reason I was brave enough to do this is that I didn't think there was any risk to Agatha and Poirot. They're fine/legendary/famous/amazing, and nothing I could possibly do from the position of loving them both could harm them. The only risk was that I'd write a not-good book - but so what? I'd have done my best - and I prefer to make decisions based on hope rather than fear.

    I will be back later, everybody! Great chatting to you all!

  13. I grew up reading the usual Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys/Trixie Belden, but later ventured to other genres. While babysitting one night as a high schooler, I was looking for something to read from the family's bookshelves (and I'd already read their copy of WIFEY by Judy Bloom), I read CURTAIN and was hooked on mysteries (again). So I started at the "end".

  14. PK: You made me wonder which of Dame Agatha's oeuvre I started with... I know I was in high school and it was a paperback my mother had by her bed, red cover. I was not immediately captivated. Wasn't until I was out of college that I went back an got well and truly hooked on Miss Marple, and when ran out of those started on Poirot.

  15. Sophie, you sound so relaxed about the whole thing. "The only risk was that I'd write a not-good book" Yikes.

    Did you take the "oath" of the Detection club? Promising promise that your detectives would "well and truly detect the crimes presented to them" without reliance on "divine revelation, feminine intuition, mumbo-jumbo, jiggery-pokery, coincidence, or act of God?"

  16. I was excited when I learned you were writing a Poirot mystery, Sophie. This was awhile back, so I'm extra-excited to see the novel is here! Yay!

    I'm curious about why the Agatha Christie estate (?) decided that now was the time to publish a new Poirot. How did this all come about? And did you have to "interview" (so to speak) for the position?

    Kristopher -- I'll check out your review!

  17. Is Captain Hastings involved in this mystery? I think of Poirot with his little mustache hairnet, ready for bed with a tisane to drink. Fussy, prim, and proper. but very, very moral. Good luck Sophie. I hope the estate allows more stories.

  18. Hallie - I didn't take an official oath, but I certainly tried to abide by all the proper rules of the traditional detective novel! All the clues Poirot saw were there for the reader to see!

    Lisa - the timing was interesting. I think the estate felt that this was a good time to have a new frontlist title that would direct attention towards the backlist, to try to ensure that new generations of readers would discover Christie. These days teenagers have so many entertainment options (Xbox, Nintendo, etc) and it's very difficult to get enough media attention for brilliant older books when frontlist takes up so much of the available media space. So this seemed a good time to say, 'Hey - Agatha Christie is as brilliant as ever', and a new book that was an homage as well as a book in its own right seemed the perfect way to do that.

    I wasn't competing with any other writers, no, but I did meet the estate/family and 'pitch' my story idea! They liked it and the rest is (very recent) history!

    Pat D - no, no Hastings! My book is narrated by a new character - Edward Catchpool, Scotland Yard policeman. He's the first person narrator. I thought that was an authentic and sensible way to deal with the fact that my writing style will inevitably be slightly different from Agatha's!

  19. Excuse me while I kick myself for not having gotten to Sophie Hannah yet. I will correct that egregious error in the very near future. The Monogram Murders is going to be my next book purchase, and after that, well, I plan on catching up on your books, Hannah. Thanks Hallie for bringing Sophie here so that I can admonish myself into reading this wonderful author.

    Sophie, I think you very smart for introducing a new narrator in Edward Catchpool. I'm sure I will love this character, as Kristopher has never steered me wrong. I can't wait to read this book and review it, too.

    One of my favorite aspects of Poirot is his fastidiousness with food, as he treats food with the care of a meaningful event, not just a means of sustenance.

  20. Kathy - I hope you enjoy The Monogram Murders! I must admit that I, like Poirot, am obsessive- compulsive about tidiness. I like everything to be meticulously neat, and can't work unless the whole house is in order. So I kind of identify with Poirot in that respect!

  21. Hi Sophie! So sorry to be late to the party--was traveling on book tour and this is the first chance I've had log in. I know it's "tomorrow" in the UK, but just wanted to say congrats, and that it was all I could do resist taking a copy of The Monogram Murders home in my suitcase tonight. I've promised it to myself the first of next week, when I'll be in one place for a few days. Can't wait to read it, and so lovely to have you on JRW!

  22. Hi Deborah,

    Really hope you enjoy Monogram Murders! Meanwhile, the lovely Morrow crew have put a copy of your latest in the post to me - can't wait to read it!