All Thanks to Agatha…

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…

 

 

 

 

 

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The Unbearably Patronising BBC History of Science Fiction…

I know I shouldn’t have been disappointed by the BBC documentary about science fiction, Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction, presented by Dominic Sandbrook and broadcast recently on BBC2 here in Britain. I should have realised that it would be a glib overview of the genre for those millions of viewers whose knowledge of SF goes no further than Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dr Who; I should have known that it would be skewed towards the visual, concentrating on film and television. But I was disappointed by the programme: how it told me nothing I didn’t already know; how it was padded with clips from movies and TV programmes I’d seen a hundred times before. I was also disappointed by the talking heads they inserted between these clips. We’ve had a few big name SF authors saying their bit, Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson… but they’re not on for long, and not allowed to say much of relevance before the hapless viewer is subjected to another out-of-context film clip. Then there are the other talking heads, John Landis and John Carpenter among others, who contribute nothing to the discussion and do so at tedious length. And – god help us – we’re even treated to the views of an actor who was inside a robot in a Star Wars film.

But why am I complaining? What did I expect from a programme about SF aired at 9.45 on a Saturday night?

Well, I had hoped for something along the lines of Alan Yentob’s excellent Imagine series mainly about writers and artists, which isn’t afraid to let its subjects speak, and which doesn’t patronise its viewers with a plethora of film clips.

But then we’re talking about SF here, aren’t we, which the BBC has always regarded as little more than throwaway entertainment for children.

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Jani2

I finished the second draft of Jani and the Great Pursuit last week. It came out at 104,500 words, which gives me a bit of leeway for cutting when I go through the ms again with a red pen before Christmas. Jani and the Greater Game was 96,500 words long, so if needs be I can cut around eight thousand words. It’s amazing what I will end up cutting, everything from minor things like ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ and ‘he nodded’, etc, to bigger things like paragraphs of description. At the moment, I don’t think I’ll be cutting entire scenes – but I’ve said that before at this stage and, in the cold light of day, come to realise that what I thought were vital episodes were only so much dead wood that could be excised to the betterment of the story. We’ll see.

And then? I have the third Telemass novella, Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II, to rewrite and submit to PS Publishing, hopefully before Christmas, and a short story that needs work. As for what I’ll be doing next year… At the moment, I don’t know (other than writing the fourth Telemass novella, as yet untitled). I do know what I’d like to work on: the third Langham and Dupré crime novel and the third Jani book, but neither has been commissioned yet (it all depends on the sales figures of the previous books in the series), so things are still up in the air, work-wise.

But before then it’s the Christmas holiday, which we’re spending with family down in Haworth, Yorkshire, a world away from work, the dog, and work on packing up here (Tyninghame, Dunbar) for the move twelve miles south to the village of Cockburnspath in Berwickshire, which should be happening towards the end of January.

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The New Book

I began the second Jani novel, Jani and the Great Pursuit, last week, and it’s going well. I’m around thirty thousand words into the story from Jani’s point of view (I’ll write from two other character’s viewpoints later, before returning to Jani for the finale). I hope to get a good second draft in the bag before Christmas. After that, I’ll send the ms to a few good friends for their criticism, rewrite the novel in February, and with luck hit the March the 10th deadline.

Anyway, that’s the reason I haven’t been keeping the website up-to-date with these pieces – I have very little time, between working on the book, walking the hound three times a day, and fetching my daughter from school… quite apart from cooking and cleaning the house. (Which sounds as if my wife does nothing; let me state, before she verbally clobbers me, that she has a full-time job as a university lecturer, and her workload makes mine look miniscule).

Right, Uther the red and white setter is demanding his afternoon constitutional… so I’d better obey.

~

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Upcoming4.me

I’ve written several pieces about my work for Upcoming4.me. Here’s the publisher’s blurb about the third collected volume of these writings by various hands:

Story Behind the Book: Volume 3 collects nearly 40 non-fiction essays from some of the most exciting authors working today. Offering an unique insight into the creative and publishing process, these essays reveal all the beauty, effort and frustration that inevitable comes hand in hand with the urge to write, edit or illustrate.

All proceeds will be donated to Epilepsy Action.

Contents:

Story behind The Demi-Monde by Rod Rees
Story behind Salvage by Eric Brown
Story behind The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill
Story behind The Ballad of Halo Jones by Ian Gibson
Story behind Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey
Story behind The Shoal Sequence by Gary Gibson
Story behind The Fabulous Beast by Garry Kilworth
Story behind Celestial Inventories by Steve Rasnic Tem
Story behind Shadows of the Apt by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Story behind The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeod
Story behind The Bride Price by Cat Sparks
Story behind Falling Over by James Everington
Story behind Age of Godpunk by James Lovegrove
Story behind Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson
Story behind Plastic by Christopher Fowler
Story behind Chalk by Pat Cadigan
Story behind Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff
Story behind The Mona Lisa Sacrifice by Peter Roman
Story behind Dust by Hugh Howey
Story behind Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye by Paul Tremblay
Story behind Blood Song by Anthony Ryan
Story behind Dragon Queen by Stephen Deas
Story behind Saxon’s Bane by Geoffrey Gudgion
Story behind Ironskin by Tina Connolly
Story behind Dust by Joan Frances Turner
Story behind A Taste of Blood Wine by Freda Warrington
Story behind Allegiance by Beth Bernobich
Story behind Trickster by Jeff Somers
Story behind Seven Forges” by James A. Moore
Story behind Phoenicia’s Worlds by Ben Jeapes
Story behind The Revelations of Zang by John R. Fultz
Story behind Bullettime by Nick Mamatas
Story behind Wounded Prey by Sean Lynch
Story behind Clean Burn by Karen Sandler
Story behind Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
Story behind Marrow by Robert Reed
Story behind The Scourge and The Scourge Nostrum by Roberto Calas
Story behind Greenbeard by Richard James Bentley
Story behind The Bird Saviors by William J. Cobb

The cover image is of a fluorescent micrograph of acridine orange and propidium iodide double-stained human non-small cell lung cancer cells (H460).

The links are:

Amazon.com
E-book:

Paperback:

Amazon.co.uk
E-book:

Paperback:

~

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The Frozen Woman

My short story “The Frozen Woman” is now on StarShipSofa as a podcast, along with an interview with me conducted by Tony C. Smith.

The story was first published in Interzone 190 back in 2003. It’s a time travel tale about a journalist, Amy Sullivan, who is summoned to a country house to meet the most famous human being on Earth, Timothy Masters – the Frozen Man. There Masters reveals how he became ‘frozen’, what this entails, and the reason he summoned Amy. It’s a love story as well as a time travel tale – a combination I thinks works well.

I wrote this story back in 2002, though to be honest I have almost no recollection of doing so. All I can recall is that the idea came one day and I wrote it the next – one of those rare, but happy, occurrences for a writer.

“The Frozen Woman” was reprinted in my collection The Angels of Life and Death, Infinity Plus Books, 2012. It also appeared in Greek translation, in the magazine ‘9′ #126.

~

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Glossophobia

10.00 am…

Well, I’m being interviewed by Tony Smith from StarShipSofa – or as my daughter says, Spaceship Settee – later this morning and I’m dreading it. My fear of public speaking extends to phone interviews. So this piece is in two parts. This bit, pre-interview – and a follow up piece post-interview.

I live my life by Laurens Van Der Post’s dictum, “Reality is never as bad as you expect it to be” – which he came up with, amazingly enough, while imprisoned by the Japanese during World War Two.

Or rather I try to live my life by it. By and large I succeed, but public speaking is another matter. No matter what I tell myself: “The only thing I have to fear is fear itself,” and, “It’ll be fine once it’s under way,” I can’t dispel the bowel-quaking nerves that beset me before the event. That’s why I never appear on panels at conventions, and try as best I can to avoid speaking engagements.

I suppose my upbringing is responsible for this. I come from a northern working-class background and I left school at fourteen: two facts that don’t augur well for confidence before an audience. I was brought up in the Yorkshire tradition of ‘shut up until you’re spoken to’, and ‘don’t get above yourself’. The idea of getting up on a podium and pronouncing was anathema. ‘Who the hell does he think he is…” etc.

And leaving school at fourteen has left me with a life-long inferiority complex when it comes to matters of the mind. I know it’s daft, and I know too that it has no bearing on most people’s apprehension of me. But a lack of education can be a debilitating thing. Despite the fact that I’ve written over fifty books, and some of them have been well reviewed, I fear the day when I’ll be ‘found out.’

Non-writers, I think, expect writers to fall into stereotypes – university educated, intellectual… when in fact all we are, at base, is story-tellers. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Dammit, that’s the phone. Here goes…
~
11.25 am…

Well, what can I say? Laurens was right. All I had to fear, etcetera…

Tony Smith at StarShipSofa was the perfect host and put me at ease immediately, asking some great questions. At one point, ten minutes into the interview, I found myself actually enjoying the experience. ‘Reality is never as bad as you expect it to be.’

But, come the next interview, or public speaking engagement, will I dispel fear with a nonchalant shrug? Of course not. I’ll be as apprehensive as ever.

Well-meaning friends have suggested I do more public speaking, to get over the fear. And while I agree that experience might ease the apprehension, the fear would still be there. After all, veteran actors still suffer stage-fright before a performance.

A few years ago, against my better judgement, I took part in a few engagements over the course of a month or so. I spoke to the Brum SF group, then gave a talk to students at Keith Brooke’s SF writing course at Essex University, and then – terrifyingly – addressed prisoners at a gaol in Chelmsford – which I wrote about in an earlier piece on this site called Lalophobia. (Which title, I’ve just discovered, is wrong. Lalophobia is the fear of speaking in general. Fear of public speaking is known as glossophobia.)

And, despite the fact that I did these events one after the other, by the time it came to go to gaol, I was still petrified. Life for a few days leading up to the visit was unpleasant.

So, all things being even, and everything considered, I’ll remain averse to climbing on my soapbox.

Anyway, my thanks to Tony Smith for the experience. My story “The Frozen Woman” will be aired on StarShipSofa as a podcast on Wednesday, along with the interview. I’ll write a piece about the story on this site on Wednesday or Thursday.

~

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