Note - This article was originally written when Sophie Hannah was announced as the author of a new Poirot novel. The intended publication, for a variety of reasons, never actually published the piece. But now seems like a good time to resurrect it, with a new Marlowe novel written by John Banville due to appear in the next few weeks. Advance word is, of course, mixed. I do think that only a handful of authors – and maybe not even those – would be able to successfully replicate the unique atmosphere of Chandler and Marlowe, but at the same time I think that readers cannot get too upset when their favourite author’s creations are touched upon by others. As with film adaptations, the originals are still there to be devoured and re-read and discovered by new readers that may be brought to them by the fresh and new interpretation.
So let’s jump in the way-back machine and go back to 2013, just a few days after Hannah was announced as the author of the new Poirot novel…
Scroll down the internet comment pages and you’ll come across a number of opinions regarding the recent news that Sophie Hannah has been chosen to write a new Poirot novel, the first time that anyone except Christie has dared to touch the Belgian Detective – in print – aside from Agatha Christie. The majority of these opinions, being that this is the internet after all, are overwhelmingly negative. I can understand that people might be worried. Hannah is a safe pair of hands, but the idea of Poirot being written by someone other than his creator seems, at first glance, counter intuitive. It might seem to some like a mere money grabbing scheme (but then, I always wonder, what author wouldn’t really appreciate something that brings money to them or their estate? Anyone who claims they wouldn’t is merely posturing - - selling out is absolutely not the worst thing that can happen to an author; being ignored is). But the whole idea of a literary estate passing onto another writer is not new. It has been done before – and will be done again – with varying degrees of success. And in the field of crime and thriller fiction, it seems almost mandatory to have your series character continue after your death. Here are but a few examples:
Sherlock Holmes (created by Arthur Conan Doyle) – Holmes has of course entered into the public domain which means that anyone who’s everyone has written a “new adventure” for Holmes, ranging from the bloody terrible to the surprisingly good. He’s appeared in a Doctor Who novel, fighting the ancient creatures of HP Lovecraft’s imagination, and even on the Titanic. There was a raft of “New Sherlock Holmes” which have recently been re-released by Titan books and which are of varying quality depending on the author tackling the subject. But the only “official” new Holmes adventure was written by Anthony Horowitz a few years back. Consensus of House of Silk was that it wasn’t quite Conan Doyle, but was nevertheless a diverting and fun read. Which perhaps shows more than Holmes has outgrown his creator with the passing of time; it’s not Conan Doyle people care about so much as the character at the centre of the novels.
James Bond (created by Ian Fleming) – There were a fair few Bond novels written after Fleming’s death by the likes of John Gardner and even Martin Amis, but they never really achieved the success of the original novels. In recent years, Sebastian Faulks gave the series a shot in the arm but more for the media hoopla surrounding the release of Devil May Care than the actual quality of the book. Jeffery Deaver came along next, and now William Boyd will be tackling 007. But while the books often get a lot of coverage, there’s a sense that its more because of the names being attracted to the series than the quality of the novels. Besides, Bond has become a media creation now, the movies overshadowing the literary works in terms of public knowledge.
Jason Bourne (created by Robert Ludlum) – The amnesiac secret agent was originally created by doorstop thriller writer Ludlum and featured in three novels that were mercifully streamlined for a series of blockbuster movies. After Ludlum’s death, his estate authorised a number of authors to continue his various series, but the most successful has been Eric Van Lustbader’s continuation of Bourne’s adventures that continue to appear regularly to satiate fans eager for more espionage.
Sam Spade (created by Dashiell Hammett) – With a face made of V’s and a tough demeanour, Spade is the most natural equal to Chandler’s Marlowe. Hammett brought a tough style to his fiction gained from his own years as a detective, although he only ever wrote one novel with Sam Spade at the centre. That book was the Maltese Falcon. The man hired to write the prequel a few years ago was Joe Gorres, who had made his name with a book called Hammett that put the creator of Spade as the lead in a brilliantly executed period thriller. He seemed to have the chops, and certainly his effort, titled Spade and Archer was one of the most authentic attempt to recapture the feel of a novelist who had passed on decades earlier. A book that if you haven’t read, you really should seek out.
Mike Hammer (created by Mickey Spillane) – After Spillane’s death, his friend, Max Allan Collins, has continued to rework old books for re-release by a variety of publishers including unpublished Hammer novels. The tough guy private eye lives on, it seems, even after his equally tough creator is gone. Collins seems to have been well place to continue Spillane’s legacy, and the books have been very well received.
Philip Marlowe (created by Raymond Chandler) – Marlowe was the archetype for the wisecracking first person PI, and Chandler imbued him with a unique voice that has brought real pleasure to millions of readers. He died having only written a chapter of The Poodle Springs Novel (later titled just Poodle Springs), starting with the near impossible task of seeing Marlowe married off. The book was finished by acclaimed PI writer Robert B Parker, but it lacked the spark of an original Chandler or even an original Parker and is perhaps best regarded as a curiosity for completists. Parker also wrote an original Marlowe novel (which is perhaps even more obscure), and now Benjamin Black has been tasked with writing a new Marlowe adventure by the Chandler estate.
We can add to this list a number of other strange attempts from other genres, including Emma Tennant’s addition to the world of Jane Eyre (The French Dancer’s Bastard), and PD James’s slightly bizarre attempt to put a murder mystery into Austen with Death Comes to Pemberley. But it’s clear that despite the outrage from certain camps of Christie-ites, the tradition of the posthumous novel – particularly in crime fiction – is one that has been, ironically, alive and kicking for a long time.