Georgette McCready talks to best-selling crime writer Sophie Hannah about what it’s like to take on Agatha Christie’s Poirot, the rules of mystery writing and why you shouldn’t make the reader throw a book
across a room
Usually when you ask an actor or writer if they know Bath they offer some tale of a shopping trip or admiring the city’s architecture, but for best-selling crime writer Sophie Hannah Bath brings back memories of the happiest moments of her writing career.
“I was on the way to do some writing workshops,” she recalls, “when the call came that my first novel, Little Face, had finally been accepted for publication. I’d been down a long path of suffering to get to this stage. I’d spent two or three years re-writing, it turned out my agent didn’t like the book, so I had to find a new agent. So when they rang to say Hodder & Stoughton were taking the book and offering me a two book deal I can honestly say it was the happiest day of my entire literary career. “I spent my time in Bath swanning round tea rooms in a delightful mood.”
Let’s hope she will feel equally happy on her return to Bath as a guest of The Bath Festival in May, when she’s coming to talk about her successful writing career, which began as a poet and has taken her to the top of The Sunday Times bestselling charts.
Her first published novel Little Face saw the start in a series of contemporary crime thrillers featuring the detectives Simon Waterhouse and his partner Charlie Zailer. They have featured in ten of the Culver Valley series since.
Is Sophie, in the tradition of other women crime writers (Dorothy L Sayers with her creation Lord Peter Wimsey springs to mind), a little bit in love with her fictional detective Simon, I ask?
“Well he’s been with me since 2006 so I don’t know that I am in love with him, but I certainly love him. I have a great fondness for him and Charlie, and indeed all my main characters. I even have affection for the ghastly Detective Inspector Proust.”
We turn to talk about another fictional detective, Agatha Christie’s great Belgian master of mystery solving, Hercule Poirot. Sophie was approached by the Agatha Christie estate, which includes Christie family members, and invited to write what is known as a continuation novel in the Christie tradition.
“Bath brings back the happiest memories of
my writing career”
How did she win this prestigious role? “It was a weird coincidence. The Agatha Christie estate decided it wanted a writer to create a new Poirot or Miss Marple story. A literary agent was having a meeting with Harper Collins and it came out that I was a huge Christie fan. So a meeting was arranged, we all got on very well, but I said to them, just because we have got on so well doesn’t mean you have to pick me. You could go for someone more eminent, like PD James?
“But Matthew Pritchard said that his grandmother, Agatha was a great believer in fate and so it came about. I then came up with an idea for a plot and it seemed quite showy, so I thought Hercule Poirot is quite a show-off so it would suit him better.”
And so The Monogram Murders was published. And that was so well received that Sophie plotted a second tale for Poirot, set in 1929. Close Casket sets up a cracking premise for a murder. A remote country house, with an enigmatic powerful hostess who’s just cut her children out of her will, a cast of assorted eccentric guests and, of course, the presence of the fastidious and acutely observational detective Poirot.
The reader is taken on a satisfyingly twisting turning journey. Is writing in the Christie style so very different from her own contemporary thrillers? Sophie doesn’t think so. Having been a Christie fan since she was a young teenager she says her method of setting up an intriguing, baffling, almost surreal mystery at the start of the book, which has the reader wondering how this might have come about, is directly informed by Christie and runs through the Culver Valley books. The classic premise is that of the body found in a locked room – the reader is immediately curious about how and why this scenario might have come about.
“There are rules to mystery writing,” Sophie says, having admitted to throwing a book across a room recently after the author ‘practically introduced aliens to solve the mystery’. “You have to play fair with the reader. If the detective can solve the mystery, and he or she will by the end, then it mustn’t be beyond the bounds for the readers to solve it too. But if the reader fails to solve it the detective is there to explain how it all works out.”
What advice does Sophie have for emerging writers? She says it helps to be determined and to be able to weed out what’s helpful advice and what’s not. “If someone says you need to re-write, you may well need to re-write. Be prepared, but also try and develop an inner editor. I tend to know my strengths and weaknesses now, but I didn’t at the start.”
She is currently working on a stand alone thriller set in Arizona, but with a British female lead. “I wanted it to be a Simon and Charlie story but it was going to be too convoluted to get them out there. They’d have had to have gone there on holiday, and Simon’s too much of a homebody and he’s scared of flying, so that wasn’t going to work.”
That Arizona story Did You See Melody? is due out this year and Sophie is now planning her writing projects for 2018, which include writing more crime novels.
After being a poet for more than a decade, followed by runaway success for her thrillers – making The Sunday Times bestselling charts for several titles – Sophie is an engaging and insightful writer and speaker.
Sophie Hannah will be at The Bath Festival on Sunday 28 May, from12.45pm at the Assembly Room,
tickets: £10 / £9.