Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

My teacher, Mrs Christie

When Sophie Hannah was talking at Bloody Scotland about growing up with Agatha Christie, it was like hearing myself speak. Or it would have been if I could sound as intelligent and articulate as Sophie. And I wished I’d known this ‘sister’ back when I was twelve, except at the time her mother Adèle Geras was barely out of university herself, so Sophie and I were never destined to be the same age at the same time.

Also, we wouldn’t have had a language in common. It was more our behaviour and reading patterns that seem to have coincided. I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to school with children who read Agatha Christie at twelve. If I had I might not have felt like a freak.

And if there was a likeminded child at school, I’m reasonably certain they didn’t read Agatha in English. (This peculiar habit of reading in a foreign language really only took off with Harry Potter.) Mrs Christie was my English mentor/teacher. If not for her, I wouldn’t have tried. And I suppose I wouldn’t have attempted it if first I’d had to go to the library to check out their foreign langauges section. It helped that Mother-of-witch had a few Christies in the original; leftovers of her own attempts at educational improvement. So I could test drive them to see if it would work, and it did. Reasonably.

Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit

I was going to ask the rhetorical question of whether I’d be blogging right now, were it not for Agatha Christie. But my question has to go deeper than that. Not to be blogging wouldn’t be the end of the world (I mean, if I’d not started, I’d not know what I was missing). But would I have come to Britain to live? There would in all likelihood not have been a Resident IT Consultant. Or Offspring.

Perhaps Agatha wasn’t so much my English teacher, as my life designer. Not that she knew, but still.

It’s extraordinary what an early exposure to niblicks will do to a little girl.

The Monogram Murders

I was quickly enveloped in a lovely, cosy timewarp on starting to read Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders. I was a little surprised by this, but concluded that it had been a really long time since I last read an Agatha Christie novel, and longer still since it was a new Agatha Christie novel. OK, The Monogram Murders is not Agatha, but it is very nicely Poirot.

Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders

The setting is 1929, and it’s most satisfying to find we could go that far back in time. At least it is when you can live like Hercule Poirot and the people involved in a murder mystery of this type. You’re halfway to being in a period film.

I could never work out who did it in Christie’s novels. There were always so many twists and turns, and that’s true here as well. You sort of suspect and feel what must have happened, but it wasn’t quite like that.

Poirot is approached at the beginning by a woman who fears she is about to be murdered, and when she disappears, Poirot worries she is already dead. Meanwhile, his new friend Catchpool from Scotland Yard has a triple murder in a posh hotel to investigate. Before long, it’s clear the two are connected.

He might be ‘on holiday’ but Poirot needs to exercise his little grey cells, and he comes to the rescue of Catchpool who is feeling out of his depth.

I don’t see how Christie fans can help but want to read this book. Lovely setting, wicked people, and a lot of confusion both in London and in the small village, which is behind all that happens. There are vicars and doctors and inn-owners, irate spinsters and widows, plus The Glamorous Woman.

And there is Poirot.

Books To Die For, again

Hot on the heels of Bloody Scotland comes the paperback version of Books To Die For. You know, the book about crime writing by crime writers for crime readers that I love so much. (I’ll tell you a secret. When I picked the books I just had to have with me during my temporary home displacement, BTDF was one of the few I simply had to have by my side. It is that wonderful.)

So two years after John Connolly and Declan Burke travelled round talking about their beautiful collaboration, here it is for anyone who managed to miss it first time round. Who wouldn’t want to hear about Sara Paretsky’s favourite, or find out whose favourite Sara herself is? And so on and so on.

The main danger as always, is finding more people whose books you must read than you have time.

And that leads me to the – slightly horrifying – thought I had on Sunday when listening to Sophie Hannah talk about her admiration for Agatha Christie. Because a lot of the writers in BTDF started their careers in crime by liking Christie’s work.

Like me, Sophie began reading Christie around the age of 12. It was the natural thing for people that age with a taste for reading and that inexplicable spare time we all seemed to have, to do. You looked at your parents’ shelves, or maybe the neighbours’ shelves or anyone else among close grown-ups. And you’d find Christie and you’d try her and most likely be hooked.

After that, you’d go on to more crime, and more, and more.

We didn’t have all those books children today have, and I’m all for pointing the 10-year-old reader in the direction of Artemis Fowl. But will the Artemis Fowl fan grow up to be a fully paid up member of crime reading? Do 20-somethings read a lot of crime today?

I have no idea, and I’m the first to admit I’ve not been pushing Agatha Christie at young people, either. Offspring know her through television. Will she be known mainly for ‘screenwriting’ for Joan Hickson and David Suchet? And what will happen to that natural progression towards all kinds of – written, fictional – crime?

Books To Die For could take over from those parental bookshelves. I hope it will.

Sophie Hannah on Poirot

Sunday morning at Bloody Scotland just had to mean Sophie Hannah on writing the new Poirot. As Alex Gray who talked to Sophie said, it’s the kind of thing that will make you very excited. There had been a lot of serendipity involved in her getting the job, which involved Sophie’s crazy maverick of an agent (a man with hints of Sophie’s mother, Adèle Geras), a HarperCollins editor, Agatha Christie Ltd, and the fact that Sophie already had an idea for a plot that she simply couldn’t make fit into her own novels.

A life-long Agatha Christie fan, Sophie knew the books very well (and hearing her talk about them made me want to rush home and start re-reading), and like Poirot she is rather OCD (in her case about the tassels on her Persian rug). She reckons that David Suchet is Poirot, but she didn’t write with him in mind. There is a strong film interest in her book, The Monogram Mysteries, but as she pointed out, David Suchet has said he won’t do more Poirot.

Sophie Hannah

The novel is set in 1929 in the gap between The Mystery of the Blue Train and Peril at End House. Poirot has gone on holiday, to temporary lodgings opposite his own flat (which seems to have been inspired by Sophie’s father, Norman Geras), in order to be free from people seeking his help. The story is told from the point of view of a young detective called Catchpool, to avoid Sophie having to try and imitate Agatha’s style of writing. Catchpool is there to offset Poirot, to be bright, but obtuse.

One of the many coincidences in her being given the task of writing the book was that long before this she had booked a family holiday staying at Agatha Christie’s house, Greenway. Another odd thing was that the week they were there, the filming of Dead Man’s Folly took place on the property. Sophie worked every evening, and by the time the holiday was over, she had the whole novel in her head. She is ‘very serious about crime fiction’ which is the best kind of fiction.

She accidentally invented a new way of writing while jotting down her ten page plan, when it became 100 pages with every detail of the book. Sophie found that this meant she could forget worrying about plotting while also trying to write nicely, as the job had already been done. (She has since written her latest novel in this way as well.)

Before Sophie was allowed to go public with the news about her book, she discovered on Twitter that feelings go very deep when it comes to people taking over writing somebody else’s work, and she was shocked but not worried. She sat down and thought about it and came to the conclusion it wasn’t morally wrong, and that real fans would want to read a new book, and others were free to not read it. Most of her Twitter followers have since come round, with the help of tea and scones, except for Troy in Minnesota.

There was no reason to list what had to be in the book; she knew instinctively what it needed. She’d be happy to write another Poirot, but does not feel she should be the one to write about Miss Marple – a shrewd old bat – but this would be better done by someone else, like Lee Child…

Her Christie favourites keep changing, but Murder on the Orient Express remains on top, along with Sleeping Murder, and more recently Lord Edgware Dies (it’s got the best murderer in it) and After the Funeral (best motive) and Appointment With Death (psychological tyrant).

People who say Agatha was not a terribly great writer are wrong. There’s a reason Agatha Christie sold more books than anyone else, apart from the Bible and Shakespeare. The books can be read by a 12-year-old ill in bed, or a middle aged professor. They are the perfect blend of simple and complex; funny but filled with darkness, suffering and torment. Sophie reckons that people who say the books are no good ‘might just be a bit stupid.’

Sophie Hannah

The last question of the morning came from ‘Troy  in Minnesota,’ or so he claimed. Probably here for his tea and scones. Sophie said she likes rules, whether for poetry, crime or Agatha Christie. And her own next book has a bit of Golden Age Mystery in it, now that her appetite for such things has been awakened.

Alex Gray spoke for all of us when she said that we would happily have stayed another hour. At least. I feel sorry for anyone who didn’t get out of bed early enough to hear Sophie talk Christie.

Bloody Scotland 2014 programme

Am I allowed to have a favourite? OK, in that case I must admit I am really looking forward to hearing Sophie Hannah talk about ‘becoming’ Agatha Christie, writing the new Poirot.

The programme for this year’s Bloody Scotland – on my own home ground – is out and ready for your perusal, and for buying tickets. It’s another good one. Perhaps not filled with the best selling best sellers, but then that’s not what I feel Bloody Scotland should be about. It should be Scottish crime, and perhaps a little something else on the side. Like Sophie Hannah.

They are rolling out Ian Rankin again. Can’t have him every year – although, why not? – but I’m glad he’s back. My new ‘neighbour’ Craig Robertson is obviously doing his bit, and so is sheep farmer James Oswald, who debuted so well last year by pretending to be Eoin Colfer. He will have had his fourth McLean novel published by the time September arrives. (Slow down!) James will appear with Alexandra Sokoloff and Gordon Brown. Probably not that Gordon Brown, but the other one.

Well, you can read for yourself. You don’t need me to list the whole weekend. They have a new hotel venue in the Hotel Colessio, which isn’t even open yet (and I’d not heard of it). Otherwise they are mostly in the Albert Halls, and at the  Stirling Highland Hotel, when they’re not making crime writers play football against each other. I mean, honestly! (Scotland will win.)

There will be a surprise cinema event at the Old Town Jail (don’t go, whatever you do! They get up to funny stuff in that jail…), as well as the traditional dinner where you eat with people who live off crime.

Sounds like an OK kind of weekend, actually.

The best combination

The book I’m reading now is that best of things. It’s a children’s book. And it’s crime. I’m having trouble staying away from it. You’ll wonder why that is a problem, and the thing is I have so much to do. But I find myself sitting down, promising to read just one chapter before whatever.

It is often several chapters when I surface again.

Back in the olden days I don’t recall finding crime for children once you were past Enid Blyton & Co. So the thing for young readers who wanted to go on detecting, was to move on to adult crime novels. Which was all right as long as you could stick to Agatha Christie and other ‘light murderers.’

Those books are obviously still with us, and presumably young teens who have watched Poirot, might consider trying them. But am I wrong in thinking that new crime tends to be generally more gruesome, and thereby less suitable for the post-Blyton fan?

Actually, there is old-style cosy crime still being published. But when I think new crime, I think much more graphic, with more violence and sex and swearing than you want for your average 14-year-old.

And the reverse question is whether there was a lot of that around 40 years ago, and I just didn’t notice? Among the crime novels I receive now, I seem to mainly be in for the very, very bloody and depressing ones. There are books I just look at briefly, before deciding that even if I had twice the time, I wouldn’t dream of reading that. This week, one arrived accompanied by a wooden spatula, engraved with the title of the book, and both had to go.

On the other hand, with YA books, there is less need to jump straight  from Blyton to, say, Stuart MacBride. One excellent choice would be the one I’m reading now. More about that on Monday. Hopefully.

You can never have too much intelligent YA crime.

The Hobbit

I never read The Lord of the Rings. I just never wanted to. I listened to the BBC dramatisation, which was pretty good. I had trouble telling who was who, apart from Robert Stephens as Aragorn, who was wonderful. I obviously didn’t see the films either. Although, I seem to have seen the end quite a few times, having managed to walk into the room where the DVD was playing, at the same moment every time. It sort of ends happily, I think?

The only Tolkien I’ve read was the first chapter of The Hobbit – to Son at bedtime – many years ago. Luckily something intervened after that, and the Resident IT Consultant continued the reading.

Daughter likes the LOTR films. She liked the first Hobbit film, too, and wants to go and see the second one. Before doing that she decided to actually read the book. She finished it yesterday.

A little bit later she asked if it was all right for her to say something, and once I’d ascertained I’d not be sad or offended by this something, she had my permission to proceed.

‘The Hobbit was boring,’ she said. I replied I wasn’t surprised. There must have been a good reason I never returned to it.

We sort of came to the conclusion the reason it’s possible to make so many films out of the one book, might be that its boringness requires more fun and exciting stuff to be added. Which makes it longer. Rather like the  two-hour films made of Agatha Christie’s short stories. You pad. And then you pad some more.

J R R Tolkien, The Hobbit

(The cover is nice, though.)