It took 25 years, but Captain Hastings has finally solved a mystery. Hugh Fraser, 64, the man famous for playing the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot's guileless sidekick, has emerged from behind his patrician television persona and written Harm, a suspense novel all his own.
"Hastings might say something right by mistake and then Poirot would go, 'Ah oui, absolument!' But that would be about it," the actor says of the bewildered character, approximating co-star David Suchet's accent. Fraser's peals of warm laughter over the phone from his home in Suffolk make his affection for the series, and the hapless Hastings role for which he is best known, evident; after 43 excursions in the first dozen years of the popular procedural, he returned to the role last year to help conclude the television series's run.
In the meantime, he also pursued other roles and talents. As a musician in the 1970s in the folk-rock band Telltale, Fraser played on and co-wrote the theme song for the British children's program Rainbow; when he isn't acting or directing, he says he still picks up his Parker Fly to gig, playing bass for singer-songwriter Kimberley Moore.
In hindsight, Fraser was perhaps destined for a fictional life of crime. A photograph from the Royal Court Theatre's 1975 production of Teeth 'n' Smiles has been making the rounds on Twitter, one that shows a lanky young Fraser jamming on stage with equally fresh-faced Helen Mirren, who starred in the largely forgotten David Hare musical about a rock band on the skids. Fraser was part of that original cast, and I point out that he shared the stage with actors who would become best known as the whodunit who's who of British small-screen sleuths – there's Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw), Detective Superintendent Wycliffe (Jack Shepherd) and Mirren's groundbreaking DCI Jane Tennison.
The idea for Harm came naturally, Fraser says, since he's an avid reader and crime is his preferred genre (and not just because he's been the narrator of more than 90 Agatha Christie audiobooks). "I've always liked James Ellroy, Lee Child and Elmore Leonard and going back to Raymond Chandler and James Hadley Chase, those sorts of thrillers," he says. And British writers such as Martina Cole, whose books portray "a very gritty sort of East End, Kray twins world of gangsters." Fraser first started writing (mostly plays and a radio series) in the 1990s, during the annual Poirot hiatus. He didn't write fiction, however, until a few years ago, after he enrolled in creative writing courses with the University of East Anglia, the Guardian masterclass program taught by writers like Gillian Slovo Geoff Dyer, Ian McEwan and in Fraser's case, Bernadine Evaristo.
Harm is Fraser's first book (published this month by Armstrong Nyman). The novel opens in the lobby of the Flamingo Hotel in Acapulco circa 1974, all sunken-aquarium cocktail bar and towering coconut palms – an exotic locale that could be straight out of a Poirot episode. So far, so Christie. But it's a red herring – within a few pages, Fraser's page-turner soon subverts any cozy Sunday evening mystery expectations in several ways.
There are pages of graphic sex and violence, and the setting is about as far from the aristocratic circles and English drawing rooms as possible. The reader is plunged into 1974 Mexico and embroiled in the double-cross of a dangerous drug cartel, following female contract killer Rina through her several identities, guises and disguises (Alias by way of Orphan Black) as she infiltrates and unravels an assassination plot in the syndicate. The Mexico action chapters alternate with a parallel timeline of Rina's childhood in the immigrant slums of 1956 Notting Hill, a milieu Fraser does know firsthand, from his own memories. He recalls how as a poor drama student in the early 1960s he and a friend shared a room in Westbourne Park Road, very near to where the story is set. "This was before the slum clearances, and the area was rebuilt and the environment I refer to in the book was very present. We had a Polish landlord and there was a West Indian gambling club downstairs," he recalls. "You were very aware of criminality in the neighbourhood and the racial tension at that time, only about five years after the Notting Hill race riots, which were catastrophic."
Writing as a first-person feminist narrator doesn't seem like the common wisdom to "write what you know," but it doesn't seem as far-fetched when we get talking. Most of the key supporting characters are also women, but it isn't simply that tough, avenging angel in the zeitgeist right now. "I have a daughter and many women friends who are strong, determined women and hold very definite views about equality and emancipation," he says, and explains that his great aunts were also among the suffragettes who took part in the infamous Holloway hunger strike, imprisoned with Emmeline Pankhurst a century ago for inciting a rush on the House of Commons. "I have my aunt Nancy John's medal," he adds with a measure of pride.
"It's funny, you know – people talk about the gentility of Christie," Fraser continues, but recounts the plot of The Mystery of the Spanish Chest as a rebuttal. "Remember, she has the cuckolded husband hiding inside in the library, and through a hole in the chest he watches his wife and her lover heavy petting across the room. When the lover sees him, he takes a dagger and sticks it in the hole, through his eye and into his brain. That, as an act of violence, is pretty far out. It's quite brutal!
"And besides, who knows what happened when he went off to Argentina?" Fraser adds of his soft-spoken alter-ego, with a chuckle. "All I can say is that perhaps Captain Hastings has an interesting private life."