Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

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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Death and a Quick Pen

I write fast.

When I start a novel, I write two thousand words at a sitting, twice a day. There was a time when I wrote every day until I finished whatever I was working on. Now, older and married, I write five days a week and keep the weekends free. That still means that writing four thousand words a day I chalk up twenty thousand words a week. I complete the first draft of a novel in four or five weeks.

Admittedly, I feel pretty jaded by then – but the hard work is done. All that remains to do is the fiddly work of the rewrite.

And the reason I write so fast is that, when I was sixteen, I thought I was dying.

I’d left school at fourteen when my parents and I emigrated to Melbourne, Australia. At that time, in the mid-seventies, pupils could leave school in Victoria at fifteen. As I was not in the slightest academic – let’s face it, I wasn’t very bright – I opted not to tread the groves of academe, but work in my parents’ corner shop instead.

I was fifteen when I discovered Agatha Christie, and knew instantly that I wanted to be a writer.

But how did a working class lad with ne’er two brain cells to rub together, with no formal education to speak of – and whose first attempts at writing a story dispensed with commas and full stops – hope to write books that people might want to read?

Well, I didn’t ask myself that at the time. With a degree of ignorance and blind faith which in retrospect is frightening, I began scribbling short crime stories set in the English countryside that, sequestered in the outback, I missed so much.

I began my first novel a year after discovering the works of Agatha Christie, and a week later developed wracking chest pains and cramps. I was convinced, with the unshakeable certitude of the hypochondriac that I would remain for the rest of my life, that I was not long for this world. In fact, I gave myself six months.

Now I’d read somewhere that most novelists took a year to write their books… and a quick calculation brought me to the realisation that my magnum opus – a murder mystery set aboard the Titanic – would still be unfinished at the time of my early passing.

Galvanised, I alternated between periods of morose teenage melancholia and bursts of frenetic writing activity in a manic effort to finish the novel.

I did, all sixty thousand words of it – and I even outlived my self-prophesied six months. In fact, I had time to rewrite the novel, which I did too.

Then it came to me – when the chest pains abated – that I’d written a novel pretty damned quickly. And that ability to write at speed has never left me.

And the novel of fiendish multiple murder and cunning detection set aboard the doomed passenger liner?

It was terrible, and languishes still in my files – probably the worst whodunit in the history of literary creation, but a manuscript which I think of with fondness and gratitude.

Now the bouts of hypochondria visit me rarely, but I still write like a man possessed. When an idea grips me I make copious notes, daydream for hours on end, and live with the characters and their travails until the pressure builds and I can no longer hold it in. At which point I sit at my desk – a big, old 1950s Baird radiogram – and start writing.

I’d like to go back in time and tell the sixteen year old that I was – homesick for England and suffering the certainty of an early death – that nearly forty year later not only would I still be in the land of the living, but that I’d be a published novelist and a reviewer for the Guardian newspaper. I’d tell him that he had nothing to fear but fear itself, and thank him for teaching me that it’s fine to write fast, despite what the literary elitists might say.

And I like to think that he’d be proud – after he’d overcome his initial disbelief, of course.

~

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Murder…

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.

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