Word for Word: Taking on the mantle of Poirot
David Suchet as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who is set to be revived by crime writer Sophie Hannah
When I was about six years old I became intensely jealous of A.A Milne. He had invented Tigger and Roo, so I couldn’t write stories about them myself. I could have just written fan fiction, as writers of all ages have done for centuries. But I had a bizarrely strong sense of intellectual copyright, and believed I had no right to write about somebody else’s creations.
But what if Milne had asked me to? I don’t think my Tigger-loving self could have said no. So when I heard that the poet and crime novelist Sophie Hannah had accepted the request by Agatha Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, to write the first authorised Poirot novel since Christie’s death, in 1976, I understood why she’d said yes.
Hannah is not the first to take on the mantle of a beloved author. Eoin Colfer wrote a new Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel in 2009, William Boyd, Jeffery Deaver and Sebastian Faulks have written new James Bond novels, and Jill Paton Walsh has written several books about Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Many authors have tackled out-of-copyright creations, which tend to work best when, as in Jo Baker’s new Austen-inspired novel Longbourn, they tell stories only tangentially related to the original text.
But the news that another author is taking over a fictional world doesn’t always go down well with fans. I don’t mind the idea of a new Poirot adventure, partly because Hannah is a fine crime writer and partly because Christie fans have never read the books for the prose. But what if a writer decides to follow in the footsteps of an author with a distinctive voice? When I read that Sebastian Faulks, whose own books I find unreadable, was writing a new novel about P.G Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster, I was appalled. The comic genius of Wodehouse lies in his dazzlingly perfect prose. Who would dare try to emulate it?
My childhood self would. I may not have written stories about established characters, but I had no problem with emulating beloved authors. In fact, when I first read Christie and Sayers at the age of 12, I wrote an old-fashioned crime novel, starring my own Harriet Vane-esque detective, Phyllis Hall. It was about the murder of an auctioneer (“The man’s form was sprawled across the rug and his face was deathly pale . . . ‘It looks like poison,’ said Phyllis”) and I called it Going, Going, Gone, a title of which I was very proud. I got bored after 20 pages and the ending might have been a bit rushed (“The butler, Jefferies, was most suspiciously carrying on, and it turned out it was him. He was completely mad”), but I’m sure I’d have more sticking power now. If Hannah changes her mind about the Poirot book, Mr Prichard, you know where I am.
Anna Carey’s debut novel, The Real Rebecca, won the Senior Children’s Book prize at the 2011 Irish Book Awards. Her third book, Rebecca Rocks, has just been published.