This piece first appeared in The Mystery Reader’s Journal, September 2014.
I read my first book at the age of fifteen. I was bored one summer, and when I complained of nothing to do my mother thrust a tattered paperback into my hands: Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table. That book changed my life.
I’d left school at fourteen when and I emigrated with my parents to Australia; to say that I was not academic would be an understatement. I had no interest in books, reading, or affairs of the mind. I was preoccupied in one thing: football.
However, Agatha Christie changed all that. From the first page I was hooked. I was drawn into the story, the mystery, of Christie’s complex, complicated whodunit. I finished the novel and immediately started reading it again from page one. For the first time in my life I’d been dragged into the mind of another person, privy to the thoughts and feelings of invented characters. Over the course of the next few months I devoured everything Christie had written. Soon after that, I decided to try my hand at writing a crime novel, and succeeded in producing three or four pages before setting them aside.
And then I discovered science fiction, initially the works of Robert Silverberg and H. G. Wells. I took up the pen again and began a series of very bad SF short stories – and then some very poor novels. This productivity, however, resulted fifteen years later in the publication of my first collection, The Time-Lapsed Man, and a year later my first novel, Meridian Days.
Thirty years after first reading Christie, and some fifty books later, I had the idea for a crime novel, and it felt like a homecoming, a return to my literary roots.
Murder by the Book, my first mystery novel, is set in London in 1955 and features the thriller writer Donald Langham and his sidekick literary agent Marie Dupré. Together they solve a series of murders wreaking havoc on the London literary scene. One by one, writers and editors are falling victim to a vicious killer, and Langham is next on the list…
One of the attractions of writing a mystery set in this milieu was that I could utilise my knowledge of the crime writing scene at the time, the incestuous world of writers, editors and agents all plying their trade in the booming market of ’50s London. Another attraction was that, after writing science fiction novels set in the future, I found that I had a greater literary freedom. I didn’t have to build the world from the ground up, or to describe things in as much detail. Readers would know of the world I was writing about because they lived in it from day to day.
I also found it liberating from a technical point of view: I had much more freedom to use metaphor and simile, literary devices which are often hard to use in SF. Have you ever wondered why you don’t come across many similes in SF literature? It’s because when a writer likens something to something else, the object he or she likens it to must be familiar to the reader. If that object is familiar, of this world and of this time, then the hapless writer immediately undercuts the sense of futurity he or she is attempting to maintain: “A spaceship like a cigar-case entered orbit around Saturn…” is a crass example.
I noticed that I had more leeway in the crime novel to invent eccentric characters, which don’t often appear in SF, for reasons that were not at first obvious to me. It’s allied to the above example of not undercutting the reader’s sense of futurity. Eccentric characters are only eccentric in relation to their environment, and as SF futures might be described as ‘eccentric’ in themselves, it makes the SF writer’s job of writing eccentric characters which are eccentric in relation to their settings very hard. These characters can only be ‘odd’ in relation to the setting the reader knows best – ergo, the here and now… which immediately undercuts that sense of futurity the writer is trying to maintain.
Of course, there are difficulties inherent in writing about the London of 1955, namely the research involved in getting the period detail right. I found that one way to go about this was to read newspapers of the time, and of course the Internet was an invaluable help. But, best of all, I gleaned vital information from novels set in the period. I read books set in the capital in the mid-fifties, the works of Graham Greene, Rupert Croft-Cooke and Robin Maugham being particularly helpful. Not only did they deal in the day to day ‘business’ of life at the time, but their rendition of how people spoke at the time came in useful.
My second crime novel, Murder at the Chase, published in 2014, is another mystery involving crime writers – in this case the impossible disappearance of a writer from his locked study, and the possible involvement of the satanist Vivian Stafford. It uses the usual tropes found in classic whodunits: the country house, a locked room conundrum, vicars and tea parties, as well as a murder or two – but, I like to think, concentrates on the characters and their motivations, and on the developing romance between Donald and Maria.
As to the future: I have further ideas for more Langham and Dupré mysteries, set in London and beyond, featuring the literary crowd of the time, skulduggery and even the occasional murder…