Sophie Hannah Interview: “Writing had been my hobby since childhood”

As a massive fan of her reimagined Poirot novels, I’m really pleased to be able to share my interview with Sophie Hannah. She shares a unique insight into her work from the very beginning, so if you’re a fan of any of her work, either her standalones or her Poirots, then you should definitely read what she has to say.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and thrillers? 

As a reader I’ve been a mystery addict since I started with Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven series at the age of seven. I discovered Agatha Christie when I was twelve, then moved on to Ruth Rendell. My favourite writers have always been crime writers. So, it was probably inevitable that I would gravitate towards crime and thrillers as a writer; I have a very strong affinity with the genre and it’s what I most love to read.

What is your career background and how did you get in to writing? 

Writing had been my hobby since childhood, but I first became a published writer as a student. I published my first picture book (Carrot the Goldfish – inspired by my husband’s observation that a piece of carrot peel in water resembled a goldfish!) and two poetry pamphlets while doing my degree and MA. Then when I was working as a library admin assistant after graduating university—I’d chosen a very easy, undemanding job in the hope that I’d have lots of time and mental energy free for my writing, and this plan worked brilliantly! — I published my first full-length poetry book. On the back of that, I was offered the most amazing opportunity: a two-year Creative Arts fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, which is where I started to write novels. I published three non-crime novels before discovering my natural niche of crime, and Little Face, my first crime novel, was published in 2006.

How did you get to become a published writer? What was it like getting your work published? 

One of my university tutors really encouraged my poetry writing. He suggested I send off a selection of poems to magazines and then later to a small press publisher, and I started to have regular publication success. People wanted my poems! My first book was a limited edition, 200-copies-only pamphlet, but I really felt as if I’d made it and was now a properly successful writer. The same tutor was also the MD of Carcanet, one of the main UK publishers of poetry, and not long after that he published my first full-length poetry book, The Hero and the Girl Next Door. When it came to publishing my novels though, it was a much harder work.

My wonderful agent at the time absolutely ripped apart my first novel, Gripless, which was agony but she was totally right about everything that was wrong with it. Her feedback enabled me to make loads of improvements and finally it got published. It didn’t sell too well, however, and neither did the next two novels. They simply weren’t commercial in a straightforward way, so I can understand why they didn’t, and I still love them regardless. I then went through two more agents and lots of disappointment before finding my amazing agent Peter Straus, who I’m still with now, and having my big breakthrough with Little Face, whichbecame a surprise word-of-mouth, massive bestseller, sold to 34 countries and led to publishers all over the world saying to my agent and to Hodder (my UK publisher) ‘Please send us lots more books like Little Face by Sophie Hannah’.

Tell me all about your books. Why do you believe readers and critics enjoy them? 

It’s always my aim to create an irresistibly suspenseful hook – to present the reader with a seemingly impossible mystery that they won’t be able to resist because they’ll be desperate to know what’s going on. In Little Face, for example, a mother insists that her new-born baby is missing and that an unknown baby has been left in her place. The baby’s father, however, is equally adamant that his wife is lying or insane.

In my latest standalone psychological thriller, Haven’t They Grown, the protagonist encounters the children of her estranged friend who, twelve years after she’s last seen them, are still three and five years old – no taller and apparently no older than they were more than a decade earlier. My readers can be sure of a complex and twisty ride, followed by a satisfying solution. They tell me they never see what’s coming, which is very important to me, because I’m often disappointed by the guess-ability of solutions in thrillers.

How did you find reimagining the Poirot novels? Talk me through your process of making them unique while still being true to Agatha Christie. 

Thanks to my lifelong and obsessive Agatha Christie fandom, the blueprint for her particular and genius approach to storytelling is somehow imprinted in my DNA. However, Agatha Christie is the greatest crime writer of all time, so the last thing I wanted to do was to try (and, obviously, fail) to ‘be’ her, or copy her—I was very clear about this from the start. I wanted to stay faithful to the Christie-esque elements that readers love — the irresistible premise, the intricate plot and un-guessable solution — but I’m still writing as me.

How did you come up with the character of Inspector Catchpool? What was it like to create a character as part of such a renowned series? 

Poirot belongs very much to Agatha Christie and I didn’t want to seem to be appropriating him. Catchpool is my middleman. I invented him so that he could kind of represent me in the book: he’s a new person working with, and writing about, Poirot, and so am I! To be honest, I have never seen writing continuation novels as being all that different from writing a non-continuation novel. We use true/already-existing elements in our fiction all the time. The novel I’m writing right now, for example, is completely original and not a continuation novel, but it already contains some real places and some real things in the world. Poirot, though a fictional character, is a very real thing in the world.

Are there any other classic crime fiction series that you’d like to reimagine? 

I’d love to have a go at Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven series! I think mystery is the perfect genre to hook in young readers—why would anyone ever want to read a book that wasn’t a gripping page-turner? That’s certainly how I felt as a kid.

Do you prefer writing non-fiction, fiction, or poetry? Is the process different when writing each type of text? 

The process is the same for all of them, really. I don’t have a preference, because whatever I’m writing at any given moment is always the thing I love the most, and the need to satisfy my inner perfectionist means that I have to commit fully to my current project, finish it to the absolute best of my ability and make it as good as it could possibly be. 

What books do you like to read yourself and how do they impact on your own writing? 

Mainly and overwhelmingly, it’s crime fiction and thrillers: I re-read my Agatha Christie collection every few years. Ruth Rendell, Nicci French and Tana French are also firm favourites. I’ve just read an amazingly gripping book called The Housewarming by SE Lynes, and now I’m desperate to read the rest of her novels!

Is there anything else that influences your writing (places, people, films etc)? 

Some of my best ideas come from real-life dramas, grudges and weird experiences. I’m absolutely fascinated by psychology and am always trying to understand what might motivate a person towards a particular action or behaviour. I also have a habit of taking something I’ve seen or experienced in the course of my everyday life and asking, ‘What if…?’ to build up that scenario into something dramatic enough to be the subject of a thriller.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why? 

Cameron Mackintosh. I’ve co-written (with my friend, composer Annette Armitage) two musicals: The Mystery of Mr.E  (a murder mystery musical) and Work Experience (a musical locked room mystery)Very small and local productions of both have been staged in my hometown of Cambridge, and were huge, sell-out successes. The Mystery of Mr. E also did a small, national tour, which was thrilling. The pandemic has put paid to further plans for the moment but watch this space! And my dream would be to have Cameron Mackintosh collaborate with me to stage both at the West End. So, Sir Cameron, if you’re reading this, please get in touch!)

What’s next for your writing? Have you got any exciting plans to develop it that you can share with us? 

My current most exciting projects are, firstly, my online coaching programme for writers, Dream Author, which launched in 2019 and has had the most incredible success so far in terms of the difference it’s made to members’ lives and writing success levels. The programme offers psychological, practical and commercial help (and any/all other help a writer might want or need!) to writers in all genres and at all levels of experience—we have bestselling authors as well unpublished writers just starting out.

I created the programme because I’d noticed that so many writers I knew were creating unnecessary suffering for themselves just by the way they were thinking about their writing, not analysing or challenging the thoughts that were harming both their wellbeing and their ability to work towards their goals. When we learn to think about our writing situations and ambitions in the most helpful way, the positive results can be really dramatic. Anyone who’d like to find out more should visit the Dream Author website: https://dreamauthorcoaching.com/. You can sign up at any time!

I’m also at the moment currently writing Book 11 of my Culver Valley crime series. My detectives Charlie and Simon haven’t had an outing since book 10 in 2016, and I’m hugely exciting about this one coming out later in the year. Details will be available very soon and anyone who’d like to receive news of this latest book, or any of my other projects, can sign up to my newsletter at: https://sophiehannah.com/.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up? 

There is one in particular I’m very much looking forward to but it’s a top-secret project at the moment so I can’t divulge any details! Once it is officially announced there will be lots of excitement, however.

Do you have anything to add?

In the past couple of years, I’ve discovered how much I love podcasting and my How to Hold a Grudge podcast (based on my self-help book of the same name) now has five seasons available on iTunes, Spotify and all podcasty places! I discuss, with various guests, all things grudge-related. In the latest series we’ve covered apologies, complicity, forgiveness, plus the grudge worthy overlooking of Agatha Christie’s Mary Westmacott novels, the US Election and literary prizes.

I’ve also created a private weekly podcast for Dream Author members only, which covers all of the programme’s core topics. There’s a bonus episode on the Dream Author homepage all about building resilience, which anyone can access and you can find How to Hold a Grudge on iTunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/how-to-hold-a-grudge/id1439465411

Huge thanks to Sophie for answering my questions! As a huge fan of your work it’s amazing to find out more about your writing process.

The Killings At Kingfisher Hill Review: Poirot Returns With Another Captivating Case

When I heard that acclaimed thriller writer Sophie Hannah was releasing another novel brining Agatha Christie’s legendary detective Hercule Poirot back to life, I was extremely excited. I’d enjoyed her previous forays into Golden Age crime fiction and brining back Christie’s iconic Belgium sleuth, so I was eager to see what she had in store for us this time around.

Poirot is an incredible character, and Hannah does him justice in her series of novels. She brings back the flair and ingenuity, while also showcasing the humility. Her books don’t just turn him into a caricature, like some film and TV portrayals. Instead, they showcase all of his talents in a way that the Queen Of Crime herself would be proud of.

This latest outing of Hannah’s reimagined Poirot, has him travelling on a Kingfisher Company coach to a private estate outside of London. He travels with the sidekick of Hannah’s creation, Inspector Catchpool, who’s a bit like a policeman version of Christie’s own character Captain Hastings. They’re going to visit Kingfisher Hill, a prestigious estate that houses deadly secrets.

Richard Devenport, whose family owns Little Key, a majestic house in the heart of the estate, has asked Poirot to visit his home to covertly survey his family and find out who killed his brother Frank. Richard’s fiancé, Helen Acton, has confessed to the crime, but Richard is convinced of her innocence. In his letter to Poirot he stipulates that he and Catchpool must pretend that they know nothing of the killing; instead, they are to imply that they want to learn more about a board game that Richard’s father and his business partner have created, called Peepers.

From the moment that the coach sets off, things get morbid, as they’re wont to do in a Golden Age style crime novel. A hysterical woman boards the coach, and almost automatically kicks up a fuss saying that if she doesn’t switch seats, then she’ll be murdered. Poirot changes seats with her, and is promptly faced with a confession of murder.

All of this occurs before the pair of protagonists even arrives at their destination. Once they get there, things quickly take a turn for the even stranger, with their deception becoming discovered. They are quickly called out and their identities are revealed. The woman who made her bizarre murder confession reveals them to be detectives, rather than the board game loving businessmen that they were pretending to be. She then offers up another confession, which throws the entire case into jeopardy.

Later, as the pair starts their work on this extraordinary case, a body is discovered at Little Key, raising even more questions for them to find the answers to. While investigating, they’re faced with strange confessions, unusual coincidences and much more. With no idea who to trust and where to turn, the detective and his policeman sidekick set out to uncover the truth about this utterly absurd series of events, and the equally unusual ones that follow later in the novel.

Hannah’s previous Poirot novels show her penchant for perplexing plots, and The Killings At Kingfisher Hill carries on her legacy of taking Christie’s original flair for the extravagant and taking it one step further. The novel is a perfect combination of outlandish and believable.

Every chapter leads to more questions, but Hannah is skilled at keeping the reader interested and providing them with information in a way that doesn’t feel stilted. As a result, readers are kept intrigued throughout the novel despite the various plot twists and strange occurrences. There’s something new to learn about in each chapter and with every encounter that Poirot and Catchpool have, so that the reader is kept constantly guessing and unsure of what’s coming next.

In her characterisation, Hannah is spot-on, creating believable yet fascinating characters. Both her suspects and her secondary characters are two-dimensional, believable individuals who interest the reader and keep the suspense ramped up throughout the novel. The author demonstrates a profound understanding of human nature that Christie herself would have been proud of.

After all, the Queen of Crime was renowned for her sharp dialogue and incredible characterisation. In Sophie Hannah, she has an ideal modern-day counterpart to continue her legacy and bring Hercule Poirot, Christie’s most famous detective character, to a new generation of readers.

At the end of the day, that’s what reimagining a beloved character is all about; making them accessible to new readers. Hannah has achieved this goal and much more with her amazing Poirot novels, and The Killings At Kingfisher Hill is another spectacular example that is worth reading, whether you’re already a fan of Christie’s pernickety detective or he’s a completely new revelation to you.

Hannah’s novels are standalone pieces, but you’ll want to read more after you’ve finished your first, whether it’s this one or you start at the beginning with The Monogram Murders. Whatever your preference, you’ll be hooked once you sink your teeth in Hannah’s novels, and will soon find yourself desperate to check out Christie’s original stories.  

Five Classic Children’s’ Authors Who Turned To Crime Fiction

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Having recently reviewed (and loved) Bodies From The Library, a Golden Age anthology featuring a short story by Winnie The Pooh creator A.A. Milne, I realised that there are a surprising number of children’s writers who have moved into writing crime fiction. As such, I decided it was high time I picked out five favourites and shared them with you, in case you didn’t realise or were simply intrigued by the prospect.

The reason for this shift in an author’s genre is simple: both children’s literature and crime fiction share the same formulaic nature, which makes them both eminently suitable for an author keen to stick to a way of writing. It is with great pleasure that I share a selection of authors who have all chosen this path, and explore their enduring popularity.

5. Anthony Horowitz: Perhaps most well known for his young adult fiction, Horowitz has also written a number of Sherlock Holmes novels, including the innovative and intriguing The House of Silk. The author, whose Alex Rider series is a cult favourite among teenagers, has also created a James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, and as such has proved his versatility and skill at creating engaging characters and unique plots.

4. J.K. Rowling: Writing under the now defunct synonym Robert Galbraith, Rowling created her Cormoran Strike a few years following the conclusion of her world-renowned and beloved Harry Potter series. Although not incredibly well received, the Strike novels have now been turned into a TV series and remain popular with fans, with a new book scheduled for release later this year.

3. Sophie Hannah: Bet you didn’t see that one coming! Alongside her gripping thrillers and reimaginings of Agatha Christies famed Belgium sleuth Hercule Poirot, Hannah has also written books for children, including a super cute collection of poems called The Box Room. Her latest novel is another Poirot story, The Mystery Of Three Quarters, which I reviewed HERE.

A-A-Milne

2. A.A. Milne: As previously mentioned, the author of the timeless Winnie The Pooh books also wrote crime fiction, which featured in a number of publications. Although his furry creations became a burden to him, as they caused a rift between him and his son, Christopher Robin, and also became what he was predominantly known for despite his being a prolific author, his crime fiction stories remain a real treat.

1. Michael Bond: As well as his renowned Paddington Bear series, this prolific writer also created the innovative detective Monsieur Pamplemousse, who, alongside his dog Pommes Frites, solve a range of baffling puzzles. An undercover food researcher for a culinary guide, Pamplemousse and his faithful pet are a unique detective team that make for great light reading.

 

The Mystery of Three Quarters Review: Another Great Adventure for Sophie Hannah’s Poirot

the mystery of three quaters

Poirot’s latest outing is a true representation of the Queen of Crime’s work- with a convoluted plot and a range of odd characters, the novel has all the classic hallmarks of a true Poirot mystery.

Sophie Hannah’s incarnation of Agatha Christie’s pristine, pedantic Belgium sleuth is an intriguing portrayal of human drama and emotion, although the limited number of murders is almost disappointing for fans of Christie and her vast body counts.

The mystery begins with an irate woman waiting for the detective outside his home. She accuses him of writing her a letter in which he claims to know that she has murdered a man named Barnabas Pandy- a man she claims not to know. Shortly afterwards, a man arrives with a similar story.

So begins an intriguing tale of misdirection and mayhem, all set against the usual backdrop of British institutions: the private boy’s school, the stuffy lawyer’s office and the vast country pile.

With four letters sent in total, Poirot delves into the mystery and soon discovers lies, deceits and many generally strange goings on. Hannah skilfully embodies many of Christie’s renowned tropes, however the reduced body count plays on my mind throughout the novel. Despite this, it is a well-done impersonation of the Queen of Crime, and readers will be impressed by how quickly they are hooked by this engaging mystery.

Twee, quaint and at times just a little absurd, The Mystery of Three Quarters gives readers everything they look for in a traditional Christie. Poirot’s on going fixation throughout the novel with a café owners’ ‘church window cake’, (which is basically a Battenberg cake under a different name) and its supposed relevance to his case is one of the lighter moments of the novel, which, like many of Christie’s own creations, often dresses up incredibly dark moments and calculated deceptions as whimsical and merely something to be observed.

It is in her characterisation that Hannah truly excels, creating a range of characters that are in equal parts pitiable and utterly vile. The majority of her suspects have few attributes to recommend them as even remotely decent human beings, and yet Hannah manages to make them vaguely sympathetic, giving the reader something to ponder alongside the mystery itself.

When all’s said and done, readers will be hard pressed to find any reason not to believe that The Mystery of Three Quarters was actually written by Christie, thanks to Hannah’s skilful characterisation and attention to detail. That’s all anyone really wants when reading a reincarnation of a character who original author is long dead, and the book not only succeeds in this area, but triumphs thanks to its ingenious plotting and exceptional characterisation.

 

Five Classic Crime Series That Need To Be Reimagined

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After my recent review of Stella Duffy’s Money in the Morgue, and in anticipation of Sophie Hannah’s next reimagining of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, I started thinking about all the other detective series that could do with a revamp. Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe have been done to death, but there are so many great series out there whose authors are gone, but could still be bought up to date by a modern fan with the panache to recreate the original writer’s passion and flare.

5. Father Brown: I’m not actually a mad fan of Chesterton’s original series of short stories about his ecclesiastical sleuth, but there is definitely scope for a revival. Some of the stories are pure genius, and I reckon with a bit of work an intrepid author could make a real good go of recreating the Father Brown series and giving it a new lease of life. The stories themselves were well-plotted, with excellent characterisation, and were only really let down by poor dialogue and bad pacing, and these issues could be addressed by a new writer as they created a new dastardly scheme for the cerebral Father Brown to uncover.

4. Tommy & Tuppence: Christie’s doesn’t really do justice to her intrepid sleuthing husband and wife duo in the four novels she penned which feature them, so it would be great to have a more modern take on them. After all, Poirot has been reinvented, but he, like Miss Marple, had a long run of excellent novels and stories created by Christie; she abandoned her Partners in Crime series after just four books, possibly due to its lack of popularity, and as such it would be great to see the pair bought back to life in a new novel.

3. Inspector Morse: I know I know, ITV have done Morse to death with their prequel and sequel TV shows, the lacklustre Lewis and the increasingly unrealistic and unlikely Endeavour. Despite this, I think there is real scope for a talented wordsmith to craft a new novel featuring our intrepid duo. Dexter’s short stories featuring Morse, as well as almost all of his novels, were unique portrayals of both academic and traditional life and the secrets that lurk within, and it would be awesome if someone could reinvent this with a new story for those of us who have re-read Dexter’s own works so many times we know them off by heart.

2. Inspector Maigret: Someone needs to write a new version of Simenon’s classic French detective and give him a new lease of life. A new case, or the portrayal of an old one, would give modern readers the chance to explore this often overlooked sleuth, who manages to be both cerebral and thuggish in equal measure. His Paris is a city of debauchery, deceit and desecration, and one in which only the toughest of cops stands a chance, and as such Simenon created a man of great strength and intellect who was able to rise to the challenge. A new Maigret novel is never a bad thing, and with a new generation introduced to the character thanks to Rowan Atkinson’s portrayal of the character, now is a great time for someone to take him on.

1. Inspector Kurt Wallander: As many of you may very well know, I am a huge fan of Henning Mankell’s dour Scandinavian sleuth, and following his death there is plenty of scope for a Nordic writer to reinvent. Although Mankell effectively ended the series with The Troubled Man, there is space for someone to revisit an old case, exploring some historical setting, event or time period and allowing Wallander the chance to intrigue, delight and surprise a new generation of readers.