facebook search twitter close-envelope printer web-link close
read on
James Bond's 'GoldenEye' (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Iconic Images/Getty Images)

Authors, Resurrected

Essay | 9 minute read
It is said that great fictional creations transcend the boundaries of their authors’ imaginations and become the property of their readers. But what is the creative process for living writers who continue the stories of dead novelists?

Until relatively recently, it was a given – often, a much-lamented given – that when the creator of an especially iconic character or subject died, their ‘brand’ expired with them. Sometimes, this was swiftly dealt with by the simple expedient of a writer’s estate commissioning other well-known authors to continue their characters’ stories. This was done most notably in the case of Ian Fleming’s executors; the first non-Fleming James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, was published in 1968, four years after his creator’s death and was written by ‘Robert Markham’, a pseudonym for Kingsley Amis.

This came about because Gildrose Productions, as the Fleming estate was then known, wished to retain copyright in the Bond character, and that could only exist if he carried on appearing in novels. Thus, they cast around for authors who would be up to the task that the master had set. Since then, writers as distinguished as William Boyd, Sebastian Faulks and Anthony Horowitz have continued the literary adventures of Bond, while the two best-known non-Fleming writers of his stories, John Gardner and Raymond Benson, wrote a total of twenty-five novels, and sundry short tales, between them. For the sake of comparison, Fleming himself wrote a comparatively paltry thirteen novels and two novellas.

The Bond industry is big business because of the ongoing success of the films, which keep the character in the public eye every few years. Yet there are increasing instances of beloved fictional characters being resurrected by major authors, due to a mixture of commercial viability and deeply held love for their legacies. The most recent example is Ben Schott’s new Jeeves and Wooster novel, Jeeves and the King of Clubs. P. G. Wodehouse is, of course, one of the great prose writers in the English language, with an inimitable style that few could ever hope to match. Yet Sebastian Faulks – once again – did a decent job of recreating the Wodehousian flair in his 2013 novel Jeeves and the Wedding Bells in which (spoiler alert) both Bertie and Jeeves find themselves abandoning lives of confirmed bachelordom for marital bliss.

Sebastian Faulks (Photo by Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Schott does not attempt anything so radical, instead opting for a skilful and witty continuation of the dynamic duo’s exploits, which works both as homage to the master and its own entity. As he says, ‘The greatest challenges I faced while writing in Wodehouse’s style were nothing much; he’s just the greatest craftsman of comic prose in the English language! The major challenge was avoiding pastiche, caricature or (worst of all) parody. In this, my aim was to capture the rhythm, cadence and vocabulary of each individual character, for each of Wodehouse’s creations has a truly distinct voice: Jeeves is sober and imperturbable; Aunt Dahlia is loud and exasperated; Spode is boorish and bombastic; Madeline is soupy and wheedling … the only voice I didn’t try to match was that of Wodehouse himself.’

Although he had not written a novel before, let alone one like this, Schott relished the chance to create a synthesis of his and Wodehouse’s styles. ‘It speaks to the distinction between “graphic design”  and “art”. With graphic design there is a problem which has to be solved (with, say, a logo) – the better you understand the problem, the better your design, because the problem contains the solution. With art, on the other hand, you have to create the problem ex nihilo. Wodehouse, then, is the artist: he created the characters, the world, the style and the joy from out of the ether. My job, with Jeeves and the King of Clubs, was to solve the problem of Bertie becoming a British spy.’

He acknowledges that ‘there are, of course, many Schottian touches – not least some deliberately inserted anachronisms (a Spinal Tap joke, a nod to Fry and Laurie) … and the book even concludes with a mini miscellany of endnotes.’ Schott also praises the Wodehouse estate as ‘amazing… the fact that I had never before written a novel quite reasonably elongated an eyebrow, but I managed to convince them that writing Jeeves and the King of Clubs was less “novelising” than a deadly serious game, the end result of which was a novel. Sir Edward Cazalet – Plum’s step-grandson – was especially kind, inviting me down to browse through Wodehouse’s personal library and peruse his original manuscripts. This, as you can imagine, was as moving as it was intimidating.’ Nonetheless, this represents Schott’s only desire to tread in the footsteps of a literary idol; when asked if there is anyone else he would do the same for, his reply is ‘absolutely not’.

From one icon to another, it seems as if barely a year goes past without a new incarnation of Agatha Christie’s great detective Hercule Poirot appearing on television or in the cinema, played by Kenneth Branagh, John Malkovich or, no doubt, other non-Belgian actors. Yet it has fallen to the acclaimed crime novelist Sophie Hannah to continue his adventures in her novels The Monogram Murders, Closed Casket and, most recently, The Mystery Of Three Quarters.

As with Schott, the books were written with great reverence for their author. Hannah says, ‘I immersed myself into the Agatha Christie mindset by re-reading all her novels. I was already a massive fan and had read them all before, some of them multiple times, but I read them much more analytically, from a literary point of view, once I knew I’d be writing a Poirot novel myself!’ Her interest, like Schott, was not simply in recreating her forbear: ‘I’m not Agatha Christie, and I don’t believe one writer can or should try to mimic the prose style of another. What I tried to do instead was write the sort of novel that I hoped would appeal to people who loved Agatha’s books… that had the same set of priorities as the best of her novels: an intriguing hook, plenty of clues, an unguessable solution. I saw my job as being: construct a baffling mystery for Poirot – Agatha Christie’s Poirot – to solve, one that only he could solve.’

Any well-known writer who resurrects another’s characters faces an integral question; how do I put my own stamp on the material? For Hannah, it was by creating her own narrator. ‘I knew from the start that I wanted Poirot to have a companion who would be the narrator of any novels I wrote about him. Poirot is a larger-than-life character, and we need to see him at a certain distance – it wouldn’t work, or be desirable, to get right inside his head, so he needs to be seen through more conventional eyes. As a sidekick for Poirot, Hastings is a brilliant creation and I love him, but his voice is Christie’s voice, which, as I said, I didn’t want to copy. So, I created Inspector Edward Catchpool, who acts as Poirot’s companion and his mentee. He’s a good detective in his own right, but he has plenty to learn from Poirot.’

Hercule Poirot in a scene from Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder On The Orient Express’, 1974 (Photo by EMI Films/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Inevitably, there is a weight of expectation that comes from writing about iconic literary figures, but Hannah was undaunted. ‘I love a challenge, and it was a very exciting creative prospect – like being given the finest ingredient to work with. I grew up with Poirot and I know him very well, almost as if he were a real person in my life, so when I contemplated writing about him, it felt possible. Yes, it was obviously a huge responsibility, but I wanted to take the risk because I love Agatha Christie and Poirot so much, and really my Poirot novels are a way of expressing that.’

Much the same could be said of William Boyd, whose 2013 James Bond novel, Solo, took various liberties with the character; as he says, ‘I wrote Solo in my own authorial voice, which was quite different to my good friend Sebastian Faulks, who I think wrote his James Bond book as if he were Ian Fleming. Sebastian’s a great pasticheur, and he can do it, but I couldn’t. So I read everything that Fleming ever wrote about Bond – pen in hand, taking notes chronologically – and I found all these amazing nuggets of information, which then factored into the novel.

Solo’s a real portrait of Bond as a forty-five-year old man, a bit over the hill, an avid reader who quotes poetry and not English; he’s half Scottish, half Swiss. All the stuff, in other words, that Fleming put in the canon piecemeal, and I was able to extract it and put it in the novel. He goes to Africa in mine, somewhere he barely visits in the Fleming books; I thought ‘that’s a new continent, with no guns and no gadgets, just a man in the jungle.’ Boyd, perhaps the most distinguished of all literary recreators to date, expresses nothing but pride in his book; ‘It can sit on my shelf in its rightful place alongside any of my other novels.’

Although the books that these writers have produced have all been excellent (dare one say it, in some cases better written than the originals), there are obvious risks should quality control dip. Anyone who has suffered through the endless apocrypha of the Middle-Earth series ‘edited’ by Tolkien’s son Christopher will know that sometimes an author’s work has to be allowed to gracefully finish when they do, and there is the obvious risk of someone a great deal less talented than a novel’s creator producing a substandard sequel.

Little wonder that an unauthorised follow-up to Brideshead Revisited, 2003’s Brideshead Regained, resulted in an angry response and legal action from the [Evelyn] Waugh estate. It is also hard to avoid a faint feeling in these cases – perhaps unavoidably – that one is encountering a beautifully conceived recreation, rather than a novel in its own right, which returns us to Scott’s distinction between graphic design and art.

Writers are limited in what they can do; it is unlikely, for instance, that we can expect to see Bertie Wooster in a passionate clinch with Gussie Fink-Nottle, or a sixty-five-year-old James Bond finally succumbing to the inevitable coronary after a life lived rather more fully than most. Yet, at their best, there is something glorious about the way in which much-loved characters can carry on appearing in new stories.

It is said that really great fictional creations transcend the boundaries of their authors’ imaginations and become the property of all of their readers. On current evidence, all it needs for their continued prosperity are some suitably skilled and able mediums, and we can look forward to following our favourites’ adventures for years to come.

Want more great Boundless essays in your inbox every Sunday? Sign up to the free, weekly newsletter, here