How to write a murder mystery
Filling the shoes of a deceased author is no easy task. Filling the shoes of one as beloved as Agatha Christie is significantly harder. That is the task of the British author Sophie Hannah, who was tasked with resuscitating the one of literature’s most well-known detectives, Hercule Poirot.
With a string of best-sellers and literary awards under her belt, it was little surprise that both of Hannah's additions to Christie's famed Belgian detective - The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket - were well-received by the public.
Ahead of hosting a series of seminars and private one-on-one writing masterclasses in Dubai this week, Esquire Middle East pressed Hannah on taking on the weighty Poirot legacy, and the secrets to writing a murder mystery.
How did the opportunity to write a new Poirot novel arise?
Without even asking me, my agent suggested it to the Agatha Christie estate’s publishers because he knew I was a big fan and thought it would be a good idea. It so happened that the family were looking for someone to write a new novel at that time, so it was a very lucky coincidence which led to The Monogram Murders.
How did you get around the fact that we saw the end of Poirot in Curtain: Poirot's last case?
Well, as you say, Agatha Christie killed Poirot in Curtain, but there were four years between 1928 and 1932 when she didn’t write and Poirot novels, and he was unaccounted for during those years. So that’s where both novels are set in those four years.
Did you imitate Agatha Christie’s tone or create your own approach?
Well it’s sort of both. Obviously it has to read like an Agatha Christie book and it had to have the tone and feel of a Poirot novel. But I also don't believe a writer should imitate another style, so I didn’t do that on a sentence-by-sentence level. The way I decided to get around the problem was to create a new narrator, Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard. He’s writing about the Poirot who we all love, but it was inevitably going to be different. The narration then makes sense when a new character is writing about an established character.
How did you decide on his personality?
I decided I wanted Poirot to have a sidekick who wasn't dim and useless as most detective fiction sidekicks are. Hastings is lovely and loyal and but he isn’t very bright and hardly ever helps unless it’s by accident. I created a clever detective so that they can have a mentor-mentee relationship, which is interesting because Catchpool is then trained to be a better detective. In Closed Casket he is significantly better at his job than he was in The Monogram Murders due to his previous encounters with Poirot.
What kind of creative freedom did you have from the Agatha Christie estate?
I didn't feel constrained because I never felt I had to reinvent Poirot. If you’re going to write a book about Poirot he needs to be the Poirot people know and love from Agatha Christie’s books. So there is nothing different about him, except for being seen through the eyes of a different character. I rather saw my role as creating new situations and mysterious for him to solve.
Does Inspector Catchpool see Poirot any differently?
Well, he sees himself rather threatened by Poirot. Before they met, Catchpool thought he was a good detective and was quite happy getting on with solving crimes. Poirot’s brilliance is a threat to his ego but Catchpool also wants to learn from him. He also wants to keep Poirot at a distance because he realises that any time they have any interaction he’s just not as cleaver as he thought he was.
What’s the key to writing a great murder mystery?
A lot of murder mysteries start with a dead body, the police and a detective who need to work out who's done it. That's a fairly ordinary style. So the key is to have a really intriguing plot hook so the reader can’t begin to imagine what could possibly be going on, which means there is suspense right from the beginning.
My second Poirot novel, Closed Casket, begins with a woman summoning her lawyer and saying she wants to change her will and leave everything to a man who only has two weeks to live. Naturally her lawyer questions the decision. Why on earth would you disinherit your children and leave it to a dying man? She refuses to explain and shortly after there is a murder. Immediately the reader is absolutely intrigued.
Once you have a great beginning you need to match that with a great solution to the puzzle. You need a great resolution, and ideally with a good twist. And in the middle you need the book to be gripping and keep the suspense up throughout so that readers can’t put it down.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got a book coming out this year called Did you see Melody? which is a contemporary physiological thriller set in Arizona. I’ve also signed up to write two more Poirot novels in 2018 and 2020.
Would you ever consider writing a Miss Marple novel?
No, I think Poirot is more than enough to be taking on from Agatha Christie. However I would love to read a Marple book from someone else.
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Sophie Hannah will be in Dubai on April 23 at Plantation Restaurant, Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah Beach. The two-hour session starts at 7.30pm and the entry fee is Dh50. In addition, she will also offer 30 minutes of one-to-one advice from 9:30am to 12:30pm, priced Dhs200. Visit elfdubai.org for bookings