‘You mean Inspector Morse, Inspector Rebus and yourself, Hercule Poirot?’, I said.
‘Oui, mon ami, précisément,’ he said, ‘and why not, how you say, throw in for the measure good, some New Tricks?’
‘You want me to tell you what links them and you to this fiendish plot?’, I asked.
‘Am I the only one who can see the truth? Please use your little grey cells just this once. Come to me when you have figured it out.’ And with that Poirot turned and walked out of the room.
Agatha Christie published Curtain: Hercule Poirot’s Last Case in 1975, the year before her death. In this final story Poirot returns to Styles Court, the location of his first case, where he dies, not at the hands of an arch-villain (like that suggested of Holmes and Moriarty) but of a coronary. A fitting finale for the illustrious little Belgian detective who made appearances in 35 novels, 2 plays and over 50 stories courtesy of his creator. During the intervening years Harper Collins has coined in the backlist, the estate of Agatha Christie has scooped-up royalties, David Suchet has made an enviable reputation emulating the character, and Chorion, the former rights holder has benefited from dramatizing Agatha Christies works, with endless repeats of repeats. One might be tempted to think it was time for all of this to become part of history. Not so.
Now, after 39 years, Poirot has emerged again. Harper Collins has produced a beautifully bound hardback in gold and black with black and gold dust-jacket. There is even an inverse design on the inside of the dust-jacket. At a mere £18.99 (publisher’s price), and with the blessings and encouragement of the Christie estate who “felt that the time was right for a new Christie to be written”, one can acquire from “the best-selling novelist of all time”, “the world’s most famous detective”, “The Brand New Hercule Poirot Mystery”. However, with only one slight difference – it was not written by Agatha Christie (as signed on the cover) but by Sophie Hannah.
Sophie Hannah is, of course, a well-known crime writer and poet in her own right. So one wonders why Poirot is resurrected by her?
Agatha Christie is the world’s best-selling author (after the Bible and Shakespeare) and has sold over a billion copies in English and a billion copies in foreign languages. It seems Harper Collins and the Agatha Christie Estate must be feeling the pinch.
Colin Dexter was born in 1930 and still lives. He is the creator of his wonderful policeman, Detective (Chief) Inspector (Endeavour) Morse. After 13 novels which began with Last Bus to Woodcock (1975), a collection of short stories and a successful career with 33 TV episodes (1987 – 2000), Inspector Morse (sometimes mistaken for the actor John Thaw) came to an untimely end, suffering a heart attack in hospital in The Remorseful Day (1999). Morse was blessed with his faithful Detective Sergeant Lewis, who always seemed to end up buying the drinks. Lewis was able to save the day, and the income stream for Colin Dexter and Pan-Macmillan, by being promoted into the role of Detective Inspector. Lewis was the foil to the former Oxford undergraduate, crossword loving, operatic and Wagner aficionado, the intellectual Detective Inspector, seen driving his red jaguar car. In turn, Detective Sergeant Hathaway, a former Cambridge theology graduate and Oxford seminary student assisted the newly promoted Lewis. The brand could continue – despite the demise of Morse – and the public appetite satiated.
Can good things last forever? Even with Lewis in 2014 it became time to call a halt to this spin-off. Enough was enough – or was it? How could the income stream be perpetuated? How could this goose continue to lay golden eggs? Particularly difficult when the original star, John Thaw, was now dead. “How about prequels and sequels?” someone must have said.
Nine letters can spell more than merely ‘rapacious’. It also, we learned, spells ‘Endeavour’ – Morse’s first name from his Quaker parents. So the prequel Endeavour was launched to produce stories of the young policeman, Detective Constable Morse, and an occasional sequel to (or for?) Lewis where, despite Hathaway now himself promoted as the Detective Inspector, Lewis comes back out of retirement to lend a hand. Can a chap not die, or retire and be left alone?
I have always enjoyed reading Ian Rankin, said to be the UK’s most popular crime writer, who has now produced 20 Inspector Rebus Novels, or to be more correct, 18 books and a novella, and the latest one where Rebus returns as a Detective Sergeant. In addition Rebus appeared in 5 brief TV series, 4 episodes starring John Hannah (2000-01) and 10 episodes with Ken Stott (2006-07). While Poirot lived in London, but often rushed off to other places by train, air, boat, bus or car (despite his displeasure at travelling), and Morse worked in Oxford and its colleges, Rebus based himself in Edinburgh. Rankin is always happy to recall his own Fife roots, and uses his Edinburgh locations and haunts to better weave his tapestry. John Rebus always sails close to the wind and, in the process of solving the crimes – which sometimes initially only Rebus senses had been committed – we are given insights into his past, his demons and his unease with life. Having being created in Knots and Crosses (1987) he, too, finally retired in Exit Music (2007). No doubt his detractors would have argued that he was lucky to have survived as a policeman till then. He certainly evaded death and disciplinary dismissal on a number of occasions. But, as we know – could Rebus really go? Could Rankin really say farewell to Rebus? Would Orion and Hachette want to part with a best-seller? Heaven forbid. Rankin sells 10% of the crime market in the UK. So Rebus evading dismissal retires to be re-engaged in the Cold Cases Review (Standing in Another Man’s Grave, 2012), where he can upset a few more of his colleagues who he might have missed first time round. Meanwhile, his favourite protégé Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke – who perhaps begins to think more like Rebus than she cares to admit – is now promoted to Detective Inspector. Unlike Lewis, who was brought back in his old rank to help Hathaway, Rebus applies to rejoin, but with financial constraints and all those people he previously upset, he is made to suffer, and re-employed as a Detective Sergeant working for his previous Sergeant, now made Inspector (Saints of the Shadow Bible, 2013). Rebus’s love of the job, or his need to do something, overcomes his loss of pride and status. So we may still see more of DS Rebus, and Rankin and his publishers will hopefully fend off the wolves from their doors for a little longer.
Tangential to all of this – but something to keep writers and ageing actors happy – let us introduce UCOS: The Unsolved Crimes and Open Cases Squad. This fictional unit in the Met, recruiting retired police officers to re-investigate old unsolved crimes. The title of the series New Tricks comes from the proverb ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’.
However, thankfully for the BBC, this television series has become extremely popular and, having commenced in 2003, has completed its 11th series and 97 episodes. There is something about this genre, its script and the acting that echoes its opening theme ‘It’s Alright‘ as the series retains a strong following.
Getting former police officers to open up old cases, or simply bringing them back from retirement seems to work. Either that or we lack the imagination to create something new and go on relying on the tried and tested money spinners, and the old-established formula.
So why won’t we let old police officers just retire and take up some other interest? Indeed why bring them back? To warm-up cold cases? Or why resurrect them long after their obituaries have been written? Of course, the answer is simple, N’est pas? It’s the money!
When Dame Agatha Christie died, and when Poirot died at Styles, so did the frontlist. No more new novels and thus no more lists on the verso page. No more lists of other Poirots to tantalize potential readers and encourage them to part with their cash and get further books. Hence the idea – let’s create a new Agatha Christie, a new Poirot. Then as well as promoting and selling the Monogram Murders, Harper Collins can promote a vast backlist of Poirot. And, let us not forget Miss Marple, nor the unstoppable play The Mousetrap, which has been running since 1952 and given over 25,000 performances. Much about Agatha Christie defies the record books – with over 2 billion copies sold – so why not a new Poirot from beyond his and her graves? After all, if Colin Dexter can support the many Endeavours of Morse and Lewis, and Rankin is happy to keep Rebus employed, albeit in a more junior rank, who are we to complain? If the reading public clamour for more, and the publishers, authors and their estates grow even richer on the pickings – well good luck to them if they want to make a killing.
If Sophie Hannah can write a Poirot – does this mean that anyone can now do so? Copyright is one thing, but intellectual property another? Who has the intellectual property to Poirot now that Agatha Christie is no longer with us? And, is Sophie Hannah the first of the new genre of Poirot fan fiction?
Perhaps we are moving into the realms of James Bond. The Ian Fleming enterprise has generated over £4 billion. Who will the next screen-writer be? Is the spectre of a new Bond movie a license to thrill or a license to generate a few more hundred million pounds?
As for the new Poirot? Alas, I think it would have been better if he had remained deceased. In my view the new book is repetitive and monotonous. It is a page-turner simply because, having invested time and effort in reading the first hundred pages, one wants to get to the end and find out who did it. But it is not a turn-on. Despite the facsimile of Agatha Christie’s signature on the cover the book is not written by her. It is not an Agatha Christie novel and not from her masterclass stable. It dilutes, not improves, the brand. Would I wish to read another Poirot, from the back-list, after reading the Monogram Murders? I think not. If I had never read Agatha Christie before, and this was my introduction to her, I would leave well alone. A case of shooting oneself in the foot, I think.
“Ah, there you have it, mon ami, the love of money. What stronger motive can there be for such a crime?”