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Cambridge crime author pens murder mystery musical

By Alex Spencer

Writer Sophie Hannah, photo by Onur Pinar
Writer Sophie Hannah, photo by Onur Pinar

Best selling crime novelist Sophie Hannah is bringing her new murder mystery musical to Cambridge Literary Festival

Writer Sophie Hannah, photo by Onur Pinar
Writer Sophie Hannah, photo by Onur Pinar

Best selling crime author Sophie Hannah was at a school play when an idea dawned on her that was too good to resist.

“It was musical version of Romeo and Juliet, which was brilliant, and as I was watching I realised everything is basically better if you turn it into a musical.

“Whenever I’m least bored at the theatre it is because I am watching a musical. Then I thought: hang on a minute - I’m a crime writer, I write murder mysteries, has there ever been a murder mystery musical?”

She went home to do some research and couldn’t find any examples of musicals based on a murder mystery.

“As far as I could tell there hadn’t been one, so I set out to write a classic family friendly puzzle-based murder mystery musical with a country house and suspects and clues, but also with a lot of very catchy songs.”

As a successful author of psychological crime fiction and a writer of a series of novels continuing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series, she knew the murder mystery genre inside out.

In 2014, with the blessing of Agatha Christie’s family and estate, Sophie published a new Hercule Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was a bestseller in more than 15 countries. She has since published two more bestselling Poirot novels.

Sophie’s novel The Carrier won the Crime Thriller of the Year Award at the Specsavers National Book Awards in 2013. And she has had two other novels adapted for ITV1 under the title Case Sensitive.

When she started to write The Generalist, her first musical, there were a couple of story ideas she had been mulling over for a while but hadn’t used yet.

“For ages I had wanted to create a novel or TV show where the detective instead of being a police officer, detective or amateur sleuth was instead a generalist,” explains Sophie.

“He calls himself =The Generalist - which is the name of the show - and has set up a business all kinds of strange things for all kinds of peculiar people. For example, recently he has helped a widowed elderly woman choose what kind of dog to get to keep her company now that her husband has died. He’s also been on a self help course for a client who is too embarrassed to go.

“We have a very good friend who used to live with us and was was in a relationship with a woman who wanted him to ge a sensible well paid job. He said he didn’t want to do a regular job and he would quite like to be a generalist, instead. He would get a basement somewhere put a brass sign on the door saying The Generalist, consult me about any weird things. It started as a joke but I thought that was a really good idea for a detective series - the generalist who investigates weird mysteries.”

Now Sophie needed a mystery for The Generalist to investigate. “I had this idea for an inverted murder mystery puzzle, where in the very first scene the murder arrives at the house of the detective, introduces himself and says hello I’m the murderer,” she says.

“The detective responds ‘What murder? ‘What’s going on?’. The murderer leaves and says that it’s up to the detective to find out.”

Friends with music teacher Annette Armitage at Sancton Wood School in Cambridge, Sophie asked her to write the music to match her lyrics. “The songs are immensely catchy - she has written some amazingly brilliant tunes,” says Sophie.

“We agreed we wanted a variety of songs, so our model was the classic west end musical like My Fair Lady or Guys and Dolls.

“The setting is very much english country house, which belongs to a world famous romantic novelist. The show has turned out to be full of absurd eccentric humour it’s not meant to be a gritty realistic murder mystery. But the puzzle aspect is real and genuine.”

The Generalist was staged at Sancton Wood School under a different name - The Mystery of Mr E - and has since toured several crime fiction festivals. It will be performed at next month’s Cambridge Literary Festival and Sophie is in talks to stage the show professionally in London. Watch this space for another musical from the author and music teacher duo, this time a locked room mystery called Work Experience. It will be staged at Sancton Wood School next March.

The Generalist is on at The Old Divinity School, St Johns College on Saturday, November 24 at 8pm and Sunday, November 25 at 7pm. Tickets are £13. Box office: cambridgelivetrust.co.uk.


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