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Crime writing demystified by Sophie Hannah, a mistress of suspense

Stepping into the (gum)shoes of Agatha Christie is a hard act to follow, but the challenge has been embraced by Sophie Hannah. The former poet tells us about the importance of plot, structure, the element of surprise and the darkness beneath the surface.
British novelist and playwright Agatha Christie (1890-1976), pictured here at her desk in 1950, wrote 66 detective novels and is listed as the best-selling novelist of all time. Popperfoto / Getty Images.
British novelist and playwright Agatha Christie (1890-1976), pictured here at her desk in 1950, wrote 66 detective novels and is listed as the best-selling novelist of all time. Popperfoto / Getty Images.

“People have said, ‘You are such a good writer; why would you waste that on crime novels?’ It doesn’t offend me. If you think that, then you are an idiot. You don’t see the potential of this genre to be amazing. A good crime novel is a good novel.”

Surprise is Sophie Hannah’s creative stock-in-trade, whether she is crafting a sonnet or a sophisticated, twisting psychological whodunnit. Bestsellers like Little Face, A Room Swept White or most recently, The Narrow Bed, combine police procedurals, morally-complex characters and tantalising premises that beggar belief, or at least seem to. In conversation, 46 year-old Hannah is intelligent, witty and to the point.

“One of the main skills you need as a writer is surprising and unpredictable plotting. There is nothing worse in a book of any kind where you can see exactly the way things are going and then are proved right. What is brilliant, and the best writers do this, is to be reading and thinking, ‘This is so exciting, I have no idea what is going to happen next.’”

This relish for narrative sleight-of-hand made Hannah an obvious candidate to resurrect Hercule Poirot, which she did with the blessing of Agatha Christie’s estate in 2014 with The Monogram Murders.

Filling the shoes of the world’s most popular crime writer might seem a long way from her beginnings as a poet, but Hannah herself makes no such distinction. “Both poetry and crime fiction have a massive preoccupation with structure. In a poem, every word has to be in the right relation to every other word. In a crime novel, if you are going to have a big revelation in chapter 30, you have to plant the information in chapters three and 11.”

Hannah possesses impressive literary pedigree. Her mother, Adèle Geras, has written up to 100 books, ranging from children’s fiction to more adult fare. Hannah’s father, Norman, was a university lecturer specialising in political theory. When we first met at her home in Cambridge in 2010, Hannah told me hers was a happy childhood, albeit tinged with graver accents.

“I am actually incredibly contented, happy and jolly. I tend to be very optimistic. But, and I have no idea why this is, I have a really strong interest in and empathy with all kinds of warped and destructive modes of thinking. Those things coexist. I definitely have an awareness of darkness ever-present beneath surface contentment. I think there’s a relationship between the two.”

Similar underlying tensions would eventually emerge in Hannah’s fiction, the “crimes” often growing out of the most everyday situations: desperate mothers; past loves; even house-hunters browsing real estate websites. Ask where this adulation of a whodunnit comes from, and Hannah’s answer is rapid: Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven series, which she discovered aged six.

“That’s when I got hooked on mystery. They were so much better than every other story because they’ve got mystery. It makes you want to read so much more because you want to find out. I remember thinking, why don’t all writers put mysteries in their books? I’ve never really changed my mind since.”

Hannah found her bearings as a writer with children’s books, but more seriously with acute light verse about love, longing and loss. Early collections like 1993’s The Hero and the Girl Next Door or Leaving and Leaving You (1999) contained few murders, but displayed her gift for playing with a reader’s expectations. The ironic conclusion of this finely-crafted stanza from Symptoms (1995) delivers a twist in the tail, as pointed as her crime novels:

Although you have given me a raging temper,

Insomnia, a rising sense of panic,

A hopeless challenge, bouts of introspection,

Raw, bitten nails, a voice that’s strangely manic,

A selfish streak, a fear of isolation,

A silly smile, lips that are chapped and sore,

A running joke, a risk, an inspiration –

Life now is better than it was before.

Hannah’s first published novel was Little Face, although she does admit to three previous attempts including an “embarrassing private eye story”. Little Face established a blueprint for subsequent fiendish set-ups. New mother Alice leaves her baby daughter alone for the first time. Returning to her husband and Mrs Danvers-like mother-in-law, she becomes convinced her child has been replaced with another.

Gothic as this sounds, Hannah says her inspiration was, like most of her work, deeply personal: in this case, the birth her own first daughter, Phoebe. Exhausted after five days of labour, she “hobbled onto the ward to try and find [Phoebe]. I nearly picked up the wrong baby. A midwife directed me to the wrong cot. I looked at these two babies and thought, What is the difference? That’s what gave me the idea. I thought, I am this person’s closest relative and I am not entirely sure what she looks like.”

As well as mining her own experiences, Hannah is intent on breathing new life into literary clichés. “One thing I like to do is to take a staple of the genre – babies being mixed up in the hospital – and turn it into something unusual. I am always adding to and improving upon reality because sometimes reality seems a bit lacklustre. My imagination takes off in a weird direction.”

The most obvious example of Hannah revitalising old forms is her adoption of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. “It’s not my version of Christie,” she corrects smartly. “It’s me writing new Poirot novels. I am trying to create new cases for Poirot to solve. Poirot is absolutely Agatha Christie’s Poirot.” Given her lifelong fanaticism (Christie succeeded Enid Blyton in her formative affections), I ask if Hannah had any reservations about taking the plunge. “It was daunting and challenging. It was a huge honour. I was so influenced by Christie – she’s my favourite crime writer. How could I resist the chance to write a mystery worthy of the great Poirot?”

Nor was she deterred by the prospect of Christie aficionados nitpicking their way through her Poirot 2.0. “There are always going to be some people who get scared when something is done slightly differently? There may be slightly more space given to psychological meanderings, but I would expect it to be slightly different.”

Has Hannah learnt about her own work in comparison to the great Agatha? As she suggests herself, her own writing is routinely praised for its baroque exposition of psychological motivation, whereas Christie’s brilliant puzzles rely less on character than elegance of structure. Hannah is having none of it.

“People who think that Christie’s characters don’t have psychological depth simply haven’t read her carefully or seriously enough. That’s a classic misapprehension. Her characters do have depth, but because of her stylistic presentation it doesn’t get a lot of air time. It’s absolutely there, but summed up very succinctly in one or two brilliant lines. And then the plot occupies centre stage.”

The success of The Monogram Murders and 2016’s Closed Casket has ensured that Hannah is busier than ever. “Every time I’ve a new book to write, I think, How am I actually going to get this done, given that my diary always has 12 things that doesn’t actually include any writing?”

One struggles to feel too sorry for her when those 12 things include flying to Dubai last weekend to lead a crime-writing workshop. Having first appeared at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature two years ago (“That was great. Absolutely loved it”), Hannah looked forward to her return. “I want to be as helpful and informative to the students as I can. I want to teach them things I didn’t know when I started and that would have been helpful.”

Is there one bit of advice she can impart off the top of her head? “Concentrate on telling an original, unusual and unpredictable story.”

James Kidd is a freelance journalist who lives in London.

Updated: April 27, 2017 04:00 AM

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