After giving him more than 30 murders to investigate, Agatha Christie emphatically killed off Hercule Poirot with a heart attack back in the 1940s. But never mind what Agatha wanted. The fictional Belgian detective is making a comeback, his resurrection to be in a “continuation” novel, written by the writer and poet Sophie Hannah.
Hannah’s Poirot revival has the benediction, encouragement indeed, of Agatha Christie’s family. Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard gave a rather confusing justification for the decision in one interview, saying that it was time to reclaim his grandmother’s place on the shelves of bookstores, while she is still “very well known and very well loved”.
Unlike some people I know who plan their weekends around four-hour Poirot repeats on TV, I have always found David Suchet’s Poirot, which ran for 25 years, a bit more irritating and caricatured than I suspect even Christie imagined the “quaint dandified little man” to be.
But while a television adaptation of a Christie plot is one thing, “borrowing” the product of her extraordinary imagination for your own made-up story is another. No matter how technically good the result of Hannah’s endeavour, won’t it still be as appealing as imitation leather? What possible pleasure is there for the reader in having a faux version of your favourite novelist or crime hero?
And in artistic terms, what is the difference between what Hannah is attempting and those very talented painters in that Chinese village where they do fakes of the Mona Lisa by the dozen?
I have no doubt that Hannah is undertaking this project with a great sense of respect for an author she’s been “obsessed” by since she was 13. There is already a 100-page outline but she has given assurances that she will not take too many liberties and will retain Poirot’s moustache.
She is in good company. The estate of Ian Fleming has hired six writers, including William Boyd, for do-overs of James Bond. Sebastian Faulks was another, and he has also had a go at P G Wodehouse. Anthony Horowitz has done a Sherlock Holmes. Rehashed authors is becoming almost a genre in its own right. But it smacks of barrel-scraping by the estates and the commercial interests behind them.
Publishing and bookselling are in crisis so rather than take chances on new characters or authors, you dig up your dead fictional heroes and send them out to investigate murders or chase villains again.
Agatha Christie is possibly the most successful author of all time. Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist, has described her as a key influence on his work and one of the greats, not just of crime fiction, but of literature. But in Britain she has never quite earned the place she deserves. Although a great admirer of her “craft”, P D James has described Christie’s prose style as “pedestrian”.
Perhaps, at some level it only becomes acceptable to market a pastiche if we don’t entirely respect the original.