I’ve been a reader of crime fiction from the age of fifteen, when I began reading novels. I’d somehow managed to avoid reading fiction before then, but in 1975 discovered Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, quickly followed by Robert Silverberg’s Sundance and other stories. And if Christie was a revelation, you can imagine what effect Silverberg had on my innocent young mind.
After reading his Sundance, I wanted to be a science fiction writer.
Seventeen years after that, my first SF novel, Meridian Days, was published, and for the past twenty-odd years all my output, other than a few children’s books, has been in the genre.
But for over twenty years I had an idea for a crime story. It involved an embittered writer and his murderous scheme to get even with critics, colleagues and editors (and no, it isn’t autobiographical). The central conceit – which I won’t give away here – meant that it had to be set before DNA testing came into use, or the crime would have been discovered in a few hours.
About five years ago I wrote the tale as a short story, not a novel, “The Human Element”, and it sold to Pete Crowther’s excellent Postscripts magazine/anthology. A year or two later it came to me that I could expand the story into a novel.
Not much remains of that early effort, other than the core idea of an embittered author. The central character, not the embittered author but a successful writer of crime thrillers, becomes embroiled in a series of murders. Around him, fellow writers, editors and critics are being despatched one by one – and our hero Donald Langham, ably assisted by his literary agent Maria Dupré, attempts to solve the crimes.
It’s set in 1955 – because DNA testing wasn’t around then, and because the fifties is an era I find interesting. Britain was emerging from the privations of the pre-war years, and change was in the air. London was still the Smoke, and the countryside was relatively unspoilt.
I wrote the first draft in a month – about the average time I take to write a novel these days. I found writing about the nineteen-fifties, writing about the ‘real’ world, as opposed to an invented future world, incredibly liberating. 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 let the ms of the crime novel lie for a few weeks, then rewrote it and sent it off to my agent, with a couple of recommendations as to where to send it. I forgot about it and concentrated on other projects – The Devil’s Nebula and Helix Wars.
Weeks elapsed, then months, and when a year had passed by without any news from the publishers, I nudged my agent (who had been nudging the publishers in turn), and heard back from Severn House. Their response was, “Haven’t got round to reading it yet, but will do soon…”
I reconciled myself to another long wait – par for the course in this line of work – and was surprised when a week later I heard from the editors. They very much liked the novel, but felt that the mystery and intrigue element could be ratcheted up in the last third of the book. I agreed, and duly rewrote the last third, and a chapter near the start, adding two new characters and ten thousand words.
Thankfully the editors were happy with the rewrite. But one sticking point remained: the title. I’d called the book The Grub Street Murders – which I thought pretty well summed up the story. However, the powers that be at Severn House considered it too abstract, and thought that the ‘grub’ in the title wouldn’t go down well in the US, where much of their market resided. We passed through a period of batting alternative titles back and forth before someone in the Severn House office came up with the excellent Murder by the Book which, while not wholly original, did fit with the content of the novel and sounded good.
So my first crime novel, Murder by the Book, came out in June 2013, the opening volume of what I hope will be a series of ‘Langham and Dupré’ mysteries. The second book, Murder at the Chase, was published this year.
Next on the cards, it’s back to SF with a follow-up to my steampunk novel Jani and the Greater Game; and following that the fourth novella in the Telemass Quartet.
And then… Well, I have the vague, first stirrings of the third Langham and Dupré mystery niggling away in my back-brain.
This piece first appeared on Upcoming4me.