English crime writer Sophie Hannah tells Esther McCarthy why she decided to set the latest Hercule Poirot novel in Clonakilty
THE beautiful West Cork town of Clonakilty has long inspired artists and writers, and when Sophie Hannah visited a few years ago, she was hooked by its grand country houses and natural beauty.
The top UK novelist decided to set her current Hercule Poirot novel, Closed Casket, in the town, immortalising Clon in the greatly loved series. She even returned for the book’s launch.
“It’s particularly great to go to Ireland at the moment because my latest book, my Poirot novel, is set in Clonakilty. It’s a kind of enclosed community murder mystery so everybody’s staying in this big country mansion. Somebody gets murdered and the suspects are the other people in the house, basically.
“What I quite often do now is choose to set books based on where I’ve been, that I’ve liked. I just thought it would be great to have a load of Anglo-Irish aristocrats in this house in rural Ireland.
“I went back to Ireland while I was writing it, and I went back again when it came out, and did an event at Clonakilty Bookshop, which was wonderful. It felt as though everyone in Clonakilty had come out to see me and the book! It felt like everyone was very excited that the book was set in Clonakilty.”
In recent years, Hannah has made a name for herself as one of the great crime fiction writers, her original premises drawing in readers from the get-go, and her tight, twisty plotting unleashing great and unexpected reveals.
It has made the Mancunian one of the leading writers in a crowded field, her novels published in 32 languages in 51 territories.
Her first novel, Little Face, heralded the beginning of the popular Culver Valley series and introduced us to detectives Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer.
She’s also a well-known poet and short-story writer, but it was her connection to one of her idols, Agatha Christie, that became a publishing sensation.
Hannah has succeeded in bringing back Christie’s most famous detective, Hercule Poirot, while maintaining her own voice as an author, with The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket.
She will talk about the process as part of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway later this month. Other prolific writers taking part in the week-long festival include John Boyne and Claire Hennessy. The opportunity to bring Poirot back to life happened by chance, says Hannah.
“It came about completely by a coincidence of timing. My literary agent was having a meeting with an editor at Harper Collins, not about me or Agatha Christie. He was sitting next to a shelf of Agatha Christie novels, which reminded him that Harper Collins were Agatha Christie’s publishers, and he remembered at that moment that I was a big Agatha Christie fan. Off the top of his head he said that he should get my author Sophie Hannah to write a Christie novel.
“The editor said: ‘I’m sure the family wouldn’t allow that, though we’d love to have more Agatha Christie novels’. By sheer coincidence the very next day that editor had a meeting with the Christie family. Unprompted by him, they said: ‘You know, this is going to surprise you, but we’re thinking that the time might now be right to have some sort of continuation novel’.
“A meeting was arranged and we all got on very well and it went from there. That was just such a stroke of luck.”
She worked closely with Christie’s estate, keeping the author’s family informed of plot points and characters throughout the process.
“We all agreed that they needed to be involved every step of the way, so I showed them a detailed story plan before I started writing,” she explains. “They approved that and thought it sounded wonderful. I wrote the book knowing they already knew and liked the basic idea for the story. Once I wrote the book they read the full version and they loved it. The whole process of working with them has been wonderful.”
Still, from the outset she realised she needed to bring her own input as a writer to the series, and set about making that possible.
“I knew that I didn’t want to try and mimic Agatha Christie’s writing style or voice, because I don’t think one writer can or should imitate another in that sense,” she observes.
“The way I decided to get around it was to create a new sidekick for Poirot and therefore a new narrator. So in my books the narrator is Edward Catchpoole, who’s the Scotland Yard policeman. He isn’t in Agatha’s books, I invented him. He’s writing about the Poirot that everyone knows and loves, but he’s writing in his voice. That seemed to me to be a fairly sensible way of getting around the issue of it being me and not Agatha who’s writing the books. I thought it would be a good way of creating the ‘same but different’ feel.
“My Poirot novels are set quite far back in his timeline. There were four years between 1928 and 1932 when she didn’t write any Poirot novels. That’s the sort of classic golden age detective novel period, so my two are set at that time.”
She and other authors have spoken in the past about class being an issue when it comes to setting stories in locations. Indeed, her other series of crime novels is set in the fictional Culver Valley area.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a huge problem, but in England and in America, if you set a book in a place, people have assumptions about that place.
“Let’s say you set a book in Hull, for instance. Everyone would assume this was not going to be a book about posh people who sat around drinking Earl Grey tea.
“And if you set a book in the home counties, in a pretty Hampshire village, then everyone would assume that this was not going to be a book about people shooting up smack and killing each other over drug turf. It’s those kinds of regional assumptions that people bring to bear on real places. And in my series of crime novels I just wanted to avoid that.”
Her next novel, out in August, is called Did You See Melody? “That’s a standalone contemporary thriller. It’s set in Arizona and it starts with an English wife and mother who’s run away from home and we don’t know why. She takes half of the family savings and she goes to a five-star resort in Arizona. When she gets there late at night, checks into her room, her room is already occupied by a sleeping man and teenage girl.
“The next day, various things happen that lead her to believe the teenage girl she saw in the hotel room is America’s most famous murder victim. This girl is supposed to be dead, and her parents are in jail for her murder.”
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