Mark Lawson: inside the business of Agatha Christie Ltd

The death of an author doesn’t necessarily mean the death of their characters. Hercule Poirot is the latest sleuth to come back for an encore. 

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Agatha Christie plotted for her stand-out character to survive her if necessary, writing in the early 1940s a final Hercule Poirot adventure, which was locked in her publisher’s safe to give the detective a neat career even if his creator were suddenly interrupted. As it turned out, Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case eventually appeared in 1975, a year before Dame Agatha’s death.

But although Christie had a cunning mind she had not foreseen the international publishing plot to keep celebrated fictional characters alive. Ian Fleming wrote a dozen novels about James Bond, but three times that number have been licensed posthumously by his heirs, including, most recently, William Boyd’s Solo. This year, John Banville, under his crime-fiction pseudonym Benjamin Black, was hired by the Raymond Chandler estate to write The Black-Eyed Blonde, rescuing the private eye Philip Marlowe from his creator’s big sleep.

And now, 40 years after the fall of Poirot’s final Curtain, he is called back for an encore in The Monogram Murders, written by the psychological novelist Sophie Hannah, but, in the fashion of continuation literature, copyrighted to Agatha Christie Ltd.

The main decisions for a literary continuer involve how much to take off the prose and take on the character. Chandler and Fleming, whose prose has a distinctive rhythm, taunt the later author with the prospect of pastiche. Banville-as-Black went toe to toe with the guvnor in the metaphor contest, and when a novelist already noted as a parodist wrote a Bond continuation, Devil May Care, he opted for the unusual credit of “Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming”. In contrast, 007’s next literary medium, the American thriller writer Jeffery Deaver, emphasised that his Carte Blanche was a Deaver novel using Fleming characters.

Because Christie was a major plotter and psychologist but a minor stylist, Hannah has an easier mission with narrative and dialogue, but sensibly keeps the sleuth’s Franglais blend of Belgian speech (“There will be no vacances for the mind of Poirot!”) and impressively passes the biggest test of the Christie imitator, which is the construction of a puzzle: the mystery of three corpses of murdered people, found in one hotel on the same evening and with initialled cufflinks inserted at different angles in their mouths, has some echoes of the thematic killings in The ABC Murders but is also enjoyably ingenious and (the highest compliment in this ventriloquist genre) original.

The practice of seance-publication is now so common that current authors may be advised to make a living will on the matter. For example, three great seniors of English writing – P D James, John le Carré, Ruth Rendell – should tell their executors whether they could tolerate other writers’ fingers taking hold of George Smiley, Adam Dalgliesh and Reg Wexford. (J K Rowling has a hands-off-Potter clause with movie studios.)

In all these cases, I would suggest “no resuscitation”, as the novels seem so completely a reflection of the writers’ lives and minds. But the greed of readers, the bottom lines of publishers and the model of Hollywood suggest that the deaths of major authors will increasingly leave their characters merely in cryogenic suspension.

At least the standards of continuation novels are getting ever higher: Solo, The Black-Eyed Blonde and The Monogram Murders could all plausibly have been passed off as manuscripts found in the attic of the originators. It seems somewhat unimaginative, though, that the commissions so far have always employed a ghost of the same gender. Next time, it might be intriguing to read what William Boyd does with Poirot or Sophie Hannah with Bond.

 

Your words? My words

Theatre this year is becoming a striptease joint for dramatists. James Graham’s Privacy contained a character called Writer who was researching the play we were watching and David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face featured an Asian-American playwright called DHH. And, just opened at the Almeida in London, Little Revolution by Alecky Blythe, a verbatim play about the Hackney riots of 2011, includes among the characters a verbatim playwright called Alecky, who is played by . . . Alecky Blythe.

As is standard in this writer’s work, the actors are listening through earpieces to the taped witness interviews and reproducing every mutter and stutter. The point at which Blythe is being told by a local to be sure to include her laugh is as complex a dance of veils as self-dramatising has done.

Blythe’s aim is presumably to acknowledge the manipulations and complicities of playwrighting, but the dramatist remains in control. We get the impression that she is sending herself up, but in other cases it is impossible to know how much comedic mediation is taking place. I happen slightly to know one of the other characters – the Radio 4 reporter Alan Dein – and Rufus Wright’s portrayal seemed to be exaggerating a single earnest aspect of Dein’s manner. It would be fascinating to see a performance of Little Revolution in which all of the originals revoiced their own words. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown