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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Murder, she wrote

The spirit of Agatha Christie lives on…in a new Hercule Poirot book by Sophie Hannah

It probably marks me out as irredeemably middle-brow, but I am a complete and utter devotee of Agatha Christie. The queen of the intricately-plotted murder mystery, Christie is a past mistress of setting the scene just so, littering the story with red herrings, before pulling together all the clues (and false clues) together in a denouement that I never ever saw coming. I read my first Christie when I was still at school, and ever since, I pull out her books every couple of years or so to re-read them, just so that I can experience once again the thrill that I felt when I first came upon them. And Christie, bless her dear departed soul, never disappoints.

Of the two staples of her fiction, I always preferred Hercule Poirot, the quirky, eccentric, French-expostulating, terrifying bright, and brilliantly (or should that be Brilliantined?) moustachioed Belgian detective, to the English spinster, Miss Marple, whose inquisitive disposition and propensity to meddle made me feel positively squeamish on occasion. So, you can imagine my delight when I read that Hercule Poirot was being brought back to life by the Christie estate, with his new adventure being assigned to the British writer, Sophie Hannah, who is quite the dab hand at writing psychological crime thrillers.

I have been a fan of Hannah as well, though she doesn’t inspire the same devotion as Christie, but I wasn’t quite sure if she could bring the spirit of Christie and the personality of Poirot come alive once again on paper. Well, I have just finished reading The Monogram Murders (as it always is with every ‘Agatha Christie’, in one greedy gulp) and I am happy to report that, for the most part, Hannah succeeds very well indeed.

The turning-and-twisting plot is worthy of Christie herself, the portrayal of Hercule Poirot is dead-on (is it just me who can never read the name without conjuring up the image of David Suchet in my head?), and Hannah – a big Christie fan herself – does a splendid job of conjuring up the atmosphere of England between the two wars, a society in flux in which the old moral certainties are fraying rapidly. Where she fails is in replicating the classic simplicity of a Christie whodunit. The devices are all intact but the plot is much too convoluted and the denouement stretches credulity a tad. That said, I was glad to have read the book and sad when it finished – which is sometimes all you can ask of a novel.

But would the story have worked just as well if the detective had been an Italian called Gianni Pirelli? And if the only author credited was Sophie Hannah? Yes, it would. And perhaps it would have worked better because the reader wouldn’t constantly be referencing Agatha Christie in his or her head.

Which brings me to this week’s question: does it make sense to rework old classics by having them reinvented by new authors? Or should we leave them well alone?

Speaking for myself, I always believed that classics were best left well alone. If you needed to tell a story, why not do it with through characters that you had dreamed up? Why cannibalize those that had their birth in other people’s imaginations?

What made me change my mind was P.D. James’s homage to Pride and Prejudice, a murder mystery called Death Comes to Pemberley. This opens six years after the protagonists of Jane Austen’s magnum opus, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, have married and settled down to blissful matrimony in their sprawling Derbyshire estate, Pemberley. They are all set to host the autumn ball when an ugly, violent death intrudes upon their perfect ordered world.

Like all P.D. James’s suspense thrillers, this one was immaculately crafted as well, but what brought particular pleasure to an Austen fan like me was the glimpse into the married life of Mr and Mrs Darcy, now the proud parents of two young boys. For all of us who wonder what happens after the happily ever after, this was a big bonus, indeed.

For some reason, of all of Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice is the one that exercises the maximum hold on our hearts. But even so, it took particular guts and an amazing leap of imagination for Jo Baker to write Longbourn, the book that tells us the story of the servants who served the Bennet household. And it worked because Baker didn’t just indulge in Upstairs-Downstairs conceit, but instead fleshed out the staff as living, breathing characters with stories of their own (though I still haven’t forgiven her for the needless calumny heaped on poor, old Mr Bennet – no sorry, I’m not telling, you’ll just have to find out for yourself!)   

But while these may be triumphs of imagination over hope, do all such recastings of old classics work? I have never been a fan of Ian Fleming – or James Bond, for that matter – but those who love the spy with a license to kill tell me that William Boyd’s recreation of James Bond is immeasurably superior to that of Jeffrey Deaver’s.

For my part, I have just discovered Jill Paton Walsh’s resurrection of those legendary characters of detective fiction, Lord Peter Wimsey (later the Duke of Denver) and Harriet Vane, created by the inimitable Dorothy L Sayers. And I have a horrid suspicion that they are going to keep terribly busy in the foreseeable future.

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