Life after death (maybe)

September 8, 2013

Great news! There is life after death, and I know that’s true because I heard it on the BBC:the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4 to be precise.

Unfortunately (you knew there’d be a catch) it’s not for everyone. In fact, it’s only for one of us. And the lucky person is the celebrated Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. You thought he’d gone forever because his creator, Agatha Christie, died in 1976. But, thanks to the miracle of modern marketing, Hercule is to be reborn.

It transpires that novelist Sophie Hannah – with the blessing of Christie’s grandson, Michael Pritchard – is going to write a new Poirot book: thereby bringing the moustachioed maestro back from the grave.

However, if I remember the Frankenstein story correctly, it didn’t have an idyllically happy ending. This attempt to reconstitute the brilliant Belgian will suffer a similar fate. You can’t recreate a character, marvellously made by one writer, just by sub-contracting his personality out to some other writer. Poirot is a creature of Agatha Christie’s mind, just as much as Iago is a creature of Shakespeare’s mind, or Robin and Tigger are creatures of A.A. Milne’s. Characters in literature grow out of their authors’ imagination and they can’t be transplanted willy nilly into someone else’s head just because an accountant thinks it’s a good idea.

If you think I’m implying this new scheme may be driven as much by love of  money as love of literature, shame on you for being so ctnical. However, Pritchard himself spoke of his desire to “re-ignite” interest in Christie’s oeuvre. This might be a euphemism for “publicise granny so we can sell a lot more of her books”.

There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s what I’d do if I were in his position. What I object to is the way he is doing it. By all means publicise Agatha Christie any honest way you wish: but isn’t there something fundamentally false in pretending one  writer can capture the spirit of another? A strong creative voice is an utterly unique and individual thing. You can’t photocopy it, farm it out, or sub-contract it, however convenient that may be.

I haven’t read any of Sophie Hannah’s books. But if she’s a good writer (as I’m sure she is) why doesn’t she stick to writing her own good books, rather than pretend to be someone she isn’t?

We live in a world where marketing is taking over every last corner of our lives. When interviewed on TV, sports celebrities are covered in logos like a human billboard. Every event gets sponsored by some big business or other. The brand is paramount. And now, thanks to Pritchard and Hannah, those values are stepping deeper into the world of books. Because what they are doing is promoting Agatha Christie as a great brand. And I thought she was a great writer: silly me.

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