On resurrecting the dead

On resurrecting the dead

The Guardian reported this morning that there is to be a new Hercule Poirot novel, written by Sophie Hannah.  Poirot is a Belgian detective created by Dame Agatha Christie who featured in thirty-three novels and more than fifty short stories.  The character died in the novel Curtain which was published in 1975.

When Curtain was published The New York Times ran a full-page obituary in Poirot’s honour, and he remains the only fictional character to get such treatment.

Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England.  His age was unknown.  Mr. Poirot achieved fame as a private investigator after he retired as a member of the Belgian police force in 1904.  His career, as chronicled in the novels of Dame Agatha Christie, was one of the most illustrious in fiction.

You can read the full obituary here

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
Source – Wikipedia

Reviving deceased characters is nothing new.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, only to bring him back ten years later in The Adventure of the Empty House, apparently having faked his death to fool his enemies.  Doyle had not planned to resurrect Holmes, but ended bowing to public demand – the people wanted Holmes back.  Holmes eventually had a peaceful retirement and we never got to experience his second death.

Pencil sketch by Sidney Paget depicting Sherlock Holmes
The original Holmes by Sidney Paget
Source: Wikipedia

While there has been many modern adaptations of the Holmes tales, the most recent the one by Steven Moffat starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (when’s season three coming out by the way, Mr Moffat?), no new Sherlock Holmes tales have been written after Doyle’s death (at least not any authorised by his estate).

Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes
We don’t speak of this Holmes…ever.

Not so with 007.  Ian Fleming had faked Bond’s death at least once to allow him to get the drop on his enemies.  But Bond also never dies.  New Bond novels are still being written after Fleming’s death, the latest Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver, constantly moving Bond into a more modern setting while he doesn’t seem to age at all.  In the films, as one actor becomes too old for the physical rigours of the role, a younger one takes his place.  My explanation for this is that James Bond is not so much a person as a persona, an identity that each new 007-agent adopts.  The agents eventually retire or die, but 007 lives on making it possible for new authors to constantly reinvent the character in new novels.

James Bond gunbarrel logo
As with The Doctor, we each have our favourite Bond, but in the end it’s just a persona

Speaking of The Doctor, he’s been dead and revived at least ten times so far (that we know of), but as he started as a television character with the novels coming later he maybe does not quite fit into this discussion.  Jason Bourne, however, does.  While Bourne himself hasn’t died, Robert Ludlum has been dead for quite some time, the last eight novels (of eleven) written by Eric van Lustbader.

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne
Jason Bourne
James Bond
Coincidence?

Which brings us back to Hercule Poirot’s impending resurrection.  It’s always tricky bringing a character back from the death.  With Holmes one could easily believe his death had been faked as Watson (and by extension we) never get to see him go over the Reichenbach Falls and his body is never found.  Poirot, however, dies from a heart condition, so there’s no coming back.  Ms Hannah is solving this problem by fitting the new novel in between existing ones, setting the story in the period where Poirot is still alive.

But I still wonder at the wisdom of adding to an already impressive canon of work by an author as magnificent as Agatha Christie.  Hercule Poirot is one of the most beloved characters in English fiction (though I’m partial to Miss Marple myself) and Agatha Christie had a very distinctive writing style – it would be so easy to ruin both with a sequel of this type.  007 and The Doctor have always been changing, both in character and in writing style, but should one touch characters like Holmes and Poirot, like Alex Cross or Robert Langdon?  (That last one was a joke, by the way.)

Fan-fiction is one thing, but this novel, when finished, will actually become part of the canon of work on Hercule Poirot.  Maybe, as her family reckons, Dame Agatha wouldn’t mind this intrusion into her world.  On the other hand, it is known that she did not particularly like Poirot, referring to him as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep” so perhaps she won’t be all that happy at him getting another lease on life.

How do you feel about authors writing with someone else’s characters, even if it’s authorised?  And what about reviving long-dead characters?

For the writers reading this, have you ever written a character you secretly hate?

2 thoughts on “On resurrecting the dead

  1. As an avid fan of Christie’s work (and particularly to her Poirot stories), I plan to reserve judgement until more information regarding the novel is released and the novel published. I’m actually surprised that no one has written additional Poirot stories (aside from fan fiction) given his popularity; at least this new novel is authorized by the Christie Estate. I’m sure the impending end to the Poirot series on TV with David Suchet as the definitive Poirot (in my opinion) might have prompted a certain need for something new for Poirot. I’m curious to see where and when in the canon this new story will be set.

    Also, to your comment about no new Sherlock Holmes stories written after Conan Doyle’s death, there have been a plethora of Holmes stories, both short story and novel length, written by various authors and at least one (to my knowledge) authorized by the Conan Doyle estate – “The House of Silk” by Anthony Horowitz, which was pretty good (and Anthony Horowitz is a fantastic writer).

    As for your query about authors writing stories using someone else’s characters, I don’t really mind them doing so, so long as the stories that are written remain faithful to the source material and that there are no radical changes made to the characters that would render the character unrecognizable. If the character(s) in question is/are fully developed and well rounded, there’s the potential for continuing stories, perhaps to elucidate aspects of the character’s background or to expound upon events mentioned in passing that were never fully explored or explained in the Canon.

    As an aspiring novelist, I have created a few characters that are disliked, and a few others who have annoyed me, but not (yet) to the point of secretly hating them (though I might respond differently in a few years’ time). I’m pretty sure Christie didn’t initially dislike Poirot, though her dislike stemmed more from pressures to comply with the public’s demand for more Poirot stories (at least that’s what I’ve read and heard in various articles/interviews about Christie and her work).

    (Also, I think the US TV series “Elementary” is a modern adaptation of which should not be spoken – changing Watson’s gender and transplanting Holmes to New York City is an insult to the Conan Doyle canon, but that’s just my opinion).

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