Sophie Hannah talks about Agatha Christie’s influence on her writing

Category: Book club


This month’s Killer Reads Book of the Month is the first Poirot mystery, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES.

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When my agent first suggested to me that I ought to write a new Hercule Poirot novel for Agatha Christie’s publishers, I knew two things straight away: that this might be the most exciting creative challenge I could ever undertake, and that I would not want to write a continuation novel for any other writer, not even one that I loved.  I’ve always been a huge fan of Iris Murdoch, for example, but to try to write a novel featuring one of her characters wouldn’t have worked for me at all.  It would have been too contrived.  I’d have felt like an actor playing one half of a pantomime horse, out of synch with the other half and in an ill-fitting costume.

The idea of writing a Poirot novel did not feel like that at all – which, if you think about it, is rather odd.  Why didn’t it?  Why did it feel so natural and possible?  I think it’s because Agatha Christie’s influence is such an integral part of my writerly DNA, and always has been.  She was my main influence, and the writer who made me fall in love with mysteries.  I discovered her early – at twelve – and I’d read every word she’d published by the time I was fourteen.  I was hooked.  And a pattern had been firmly set up in my mind, the blueprint for what I believed an ideal detective story ought to be: an intriguing, structurally ambitious mystery – far more interesting and puzzling than simply ‘Here’s a corpse – who killed it?’; a super-clever detective who reliably and brilliantly solves every last puzzle at the end; an abundance of clues, indecipherable when we first encounter them, but making perfect sense once we’ve heard the detective’s explanation; the apparently impossible being shown to be possible; the combination of a fun, hooky read with psychological insight and an awareness of the depths of darkness in every human psyche.

When I set out to write crime fiction, I didn’t think to myself, ‘I’m going to model myself on Agatha Christie’ or ‘I am going to be a crime writer in the Christie tradition’.  Nevertheless, the Queen of Crime’s example must have been strong in my mind, because I wrote mystery novel after mystery novel that opened with what I thought of as ‘an Agatha-ish beginning’.  What I meant by this was: something so puzzling appears to be happening that readers cannot begin to speculate what might be going on, and fear that the only way the idea can be made to work is by resorting to the supernatural.  So, in my novel The Dead Lie Down (which is called The Other Half Lives in England), a man confesses to the murder of a woman who isn’t dead.  No matter how hard the police try to convince him that he can’t possibly have killed her because, look, there she is, alive and well and claiming never to have heard of him, this man continues to insist that she can’t possibly be still alive, because he killed her – yes, that very same woman – several years earlier.  My novel Kind of Cruel starts with a woman arrested for murder because she uttered the words ‘Kind, Cruel, Kind of Cruel’ in a confidential hypnotherapy session and those same words were the only clue found at the scene of a brutal murder – but how could detectives have known that the heroine said these words to her therapist in a private therapy session overheard by nobody?

The trick is to show, slowly and logically, how what appears to be impossible is in fact eminently possible.  Agatha Christie pulls it off brilliantly in Sleeping Murder, Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, Sparkling Cyanide and many other of her novels, and I try to do it in the crime fiction that I write.  I didn’t realise until I was asked to write a new Hercule Poirot novel that, from my very first attempt at crime fiction when I was a teenager, I had been trying to write like Agatha Christie in so many ways.  Being asked to do so openly and officially, and taking up that challenge, felt like a sort of literary coming out of the closet – a closet full of old paperback editions of Agatha Christie novels, the ones I collected as a teenager.  After coming out of it, I wanted to crawl back in and reread all those wonderful books!

Follow Christie on @queenofcrime and Sophie @sophiehannahCB1


November’s Killer Reads Book Club title is…

Category: Book club

We’re very excited that the next book in the Killer Reads book club is the very first Agatha Christie Poirot novel: The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

This is an absolute classic, and we can’t wait for everyone to get stuck in.

Want to win a copy? Register here for your chance to win!

Watch Estates Publisher David Brawn talking about the book, and telling some stories you might not know about how it came to be…

Intruders episode one preview

Category: Book club

Here at Killer Reads we were hugely excited to hear that BBC America was going to turn one of our favourite books, THE INTRUDERS, into an 8-part TV show. We waited on tenterhooks to hear what the plans for UK transmission would be. Whispers reached our ears that it was probably going to air on BBC2, which seemed like it might be too good to be true. In the meantime, the transmission date for the US premiere was set for 23rd August. But when would we get to see it in the UK? It seemed so unfair – after all, although the novel, and the TV show, are set in the US, the author is British!

Then I got a very exciting email inviting me to see the first episode on the same day as it aired in the US. Michael Marshall was going to be in Brighton on the 23rd August, but BBC America had been kind enough to send him a preview disc and grant him permission to share it with a small group of family and friends – and he in turn was kind enough to include me in that group.

It was a huge privilege to get an early look at the show and thankfully it didn’t disappoint. For those who have read the book, the opening scene might be somewhat confusing – the show begins in a completely different way from the novel. It’s less hard-hitting, but immediately intriguing and I thought a very clever way of drawing viewers in to the story.

Episode one as a whole is something of a slow burn as there are a lot of characters and ideas to introduce, but in my opinion it’s no bad thing for a show to take its time with the set-up and trust the viewer to have a bit of patience. BBC2 have probably made a wise decision in starting off with a double-bill of episodes one and two so that viewers will have a chance to really get to know the characters, become engaged in the story and sink into the compellingly creepy atmosphere.

It’s a particularly well-cast show, with John Simm, Mira Sorvino and James Frain all taking key roles and inhabiting them with ease. The standout performance, however, has to be that of ten-year-old Millie Brown. If you’re a fan of chilling performances by child actors, this is your kind of show.

But what did the author himself think of it all? On your behalf, I asked him, and he said this:

‘As an author what you most hope for is that an adaptation preserve the spirit and intention of the book – and this series does that in spades, developing the mystery slowly and ominously until it seeps into your bones. Add to that the array of people working at the top of their game – the great cast, of course, but also Glen Morgan’s show-running genius, Mark Freeborn’s production designs, Bear McCreary’s extraordinary score, quality directors like Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Stamm … Some of the most talented people in television have given this show their very best, and I’m delighted with the result. It’s striking and unusual, insidious and compelling. You may love it, you may hate it — but I guarantee you won’t say “Meh”.’

Tune in to BBC2 at 9pm on Monday 27th October to find out for yourselves.

The Intruders is the first book in the Killer Reads Book Club – want to discuss the book and / or the series? Come and join us here.