January 2015 Book a Month: The Monogram Murders

The Monogram MurdersAs part of Bas Bleu’s 2015 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus materials to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)

Fans of contemporary fiction are no strangers to Sophie Hannah, the British author whose bestselling oeuvre includes The Telling Error, The Wrong Mother, and Hurting Distance. Yet with all due respect to Ms. Hannah’s previous accomplishments, January’s Book a Month selection, The Monogram Murders, may be her most ambitious undertaking to date.

After all, it’s not every day a novelist has the opportunity—or the guts—to take up the mantle of the queen of crime herself, breathing new life into Agatha Christie’s bombastic detective Hercule Poirot. (Did you know? Poirot’s “death” in 1975’s Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case earned him an obituary in the New York Times.) This week, Sophie stopped by the Bluestocking Salon for a chat about tackling an icon and appreciating the genius of Agatha Christie.

Bas Bleu: The Monogram Murders was written with the blessing of Agatha Christie’s family. How did the project come about? Were you approached by the Christie estate to revive Hercule Poirot, or did you come to them with the idea?  

Sophie Hannah: It was all down to good luck! My agent happened to be meeting with Agatha Christie’s publishers about something else, and he said, off the top of his head, “Hey, you know what? You should ask my author Sophie Hannah to write a new Poirot novel—she’s a huge Agatha Christie fan!” The publishers spoke to the Christie estate the next day and mentioned it, thinking the answer would be no as it always had been in the past when they’d raised to idea of a new Christie novel—but it turned out that the Christie family was thinking about the possibility of an Agatha Christie continuation novel in any case—at just the right time! So it was a stroke of good timing and good fortune.

BB: What draws you in particular to the Belgian detective? Were you apprehensive about tackling such a beloved and iconic character? 

SH: I love Poirot for many reasons. He has the brilliant brain power that equals that of Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes, but he is also in touch with his emotional side.  He is warm, romantic, compassionate, loyal. And his flaws are so endearing: his love of good food and wine, his fondness for luxury, his obsessive tidiness. He gets a lot of pleasure from life. He’s a more rounded character, I think, than some of his equally clever rivals. And yes, of course writing a Poirot novel was a daunting prospect, but I didn’t think of it as being daunted. I thought of it as an exciting challenge—hugely inspiring and refreshing from a creative point of view.

BB: Your previous novels are contemporary thrillers, yet in The Monogram Murders you so vividly evoke 1920s London, in particular the glamorous (fictional) Bloxham Hotel. How did you adapt your research and writing process for The Monogram Murders?

SH: My main research/homework was rereading Agatha’s Golden Age Poirot novels. That fixed the right kind of tone in my mind. I did have to spend a fair bit of time searching online to see whether different things (like Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry) existed in 1929! I also re-watched all the David Suchet TV adaptations. And then I sat down and thought, “Right—now I have to start writing in the voice of a 1920s English policeman—will I be able to do that?” But from the moment I wrote the first word, the voice of Edward Catchpool, my narrator, started to flow. I didn’t feel as if I had to invent him, really—he was just, fortunately, there in my head when I needed him!

BB: You’re obviously a devoted Christie fan. Did you glean any further insight into her literary genius after spending so much time with her most famous detective? 

SH: Absolutely! Everyone knows she’s brilliant at plot, but there’s so much more than that in her work. Her novels are packed with wisdom and psychological insight. She understood that sometimes the best way to illuminate an important truth about reality was to frame it in a startlingly unusual way, using an outlandish, unforgettable story premise that would grab everyone’s attention.

Christie didn’t only tell great stories, though. Her true genius was to convey the story, once she’d come up with it, with palpable relish and irrepressible glee. When you read an Agatha Christie novel, you get a strong sense, all the way through, of how thrilled she is by the clues she’s strewn across your path for you to misinterpret or ignore. You can feel her presence behind the text, laughing and thinking, “Tee hee! You’re never going to get there before me—I’ve been too clever for you again!”

And Christie’s tangible love of storytelling is not her only unique feature as a crime writer. She also manages to combine light and dark, without either of them ever detracting from the other, in a way that no other writer can. Her stories are in no way cozy or twee, though some of their village settings might be; she understands the depravity, ruthlessness, and dangerous weakness of human beings. She knows all about warped minds, long grudges, agonizing need; in each of her novels, a familiarity with the darkest parts of the human psyche underpins the narrative. Yet at the same time, on the surface of her stories there is fun, lightness, warmth, a puzzle to make readers say, “Ooh, this is a good challenge!” The dark side of Christie’s work never undermines the feel-good effect in any way—reading an Agatha Christie novel is, above all else, great fun.

BB: Is there more Poirot in your future? Or perhaps a Miss Marple reboot? 

SH: Definitely not Marple, for me! Poirot would be jealous. Possibly another Poirot—we will have to wait and see!

BB: Aside from your own titles, which mysteries/thrillers are you quick to recommend to readers? 

SH: Broken Harbour by Tana French, The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, The Genius by Jesse Kellerman, The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison, Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

BB: What are a few books by other writers that you wish you’d written? 

SH: None. I think there’s something deeply sinister about wishing you’d written someone else’s book! Though I spend my entire life trying to think of solutions as clever as Agatha’s Murder on the Orient Express!

BB: Many thanks to Sophie for taking a break from her busy writing schedule to share her thoughts on this terrific novel!

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