B&M / Q&A
Don’t believe that publishers spend their time waiting for authors to deliver. Much of our lives are spent waiting for publishers to decide. While I’m in a holding pattern over the fate of Bryant & May, and a number of other works, here’s a Q&A I did recently about writing.
‘The Bleeding Heart is the eleventh outing for your detectives and they’re still going strong. A couple of elderly and grumpy detectives don’t sound very appealing, and yet it works and they have a legion of fans. What is it about these two old, cantankerous gentlemen that make them so appealing to your readers?
I could make them simultaneously behave like experienced adults and immature children. I think heroes are so often boring simply because they have to be appealingly young and feisty, or troubled – well, they don’t have to be; they could be esoteric, eccentric, bad-tempered and as weird as the villains, who in most books are more interesting. So they’re normal human beings with a few accentuated quirks, and working like a comedian double-act, with a funny man and a foil.
Every case so far has a touch of the macabre. In ‘The Bleeding Heart’ the case revolves around a corpse coming alive, zombies and resurrectionists. As you also write horror besides the Bryant and May series, does your fascination for the supernatural bleed in to your detective novels?
I think so, but it was important that the stories were realistic and non-supernatural, so that they conformed to established crime rules. It was also important not to fall into the Scooby Doo trap of having everything explained as some kind of hoax. (‘It’s Mr Grudge, the old mill owner!’) And the London of my childhood was a city steeped in a far more gothic, sinister atmosphere – I’m just playing up those memories. It’s a far more sanitised place now.
Your latest Bryant and May starts with a man appearing to escape from his own grave in St George’s Gardens in Bloomsbury. There are lots of tiny corners of London that crop up in your books that make it feel like an A to Z of hidden London. Is it your mission to show readers the hidden/lost parts of London?
I’m a born Londoner and spent my childhood charging around the West End, but each discovery I made revealed the tip of something else. There’s a lot of lazy writing about London, but if you poke about and talk to people you discover incredible riches. ‘The Bleeding Heart’ started from hearing about the legend of Bleeding Heart Yard, but also from watching office workers on lunch breaks sitting on gravestones without any idea of who was buried beneath them. Death is still (just about) present in London, from gravestones to plaques and memorials.
This latest case is populated by the usual motley crew from the PCU, with a few new faces appearing. Is it difficult to keep an ongoing series fresh and attractive to your army of fans without changing the landscape too much?
I get bored easily, so I like to ring the changes a bit. I always wanted to explore my detectives’ careers from beginning to end, so I started with an origin story using the setting of old London theatres, because they’ve hardly changed in decades. London is full of unusual characters, so I use a lot of people I’ve met, including British Museum academics, artists, lecturers, a white witch, a scientist, members of the Gilbert and Sullivan society – all real (but exaggerated by the time I’ve finished with them!)
You also published a graphic novel of Bryant and May. Were you conscious of the fact about giving people an image of the two gentlemen which may not have correlated with their own personal image of your elderly detectives?
Yes, and while I’m very proud of the book I’m not sure it worked, but not for that reason; after all, people don’t mind seeing their favourite detectives on TV. The problem was that crime fans don’t read graphic novels – the markets are separate, and in the UK we barely read comics at all compared to Europe. But it was a lovely exercise. I’m proud of the book and think artist Keith Page did a magnificent job.
You obviously do a lot of research on myths, folklore, the occult, spiritualism and all types of mysticism. Is it research for you or are you like a big kid in a sweet shop with this sort of stuff? As with Arthur Bryant, have you collected a raft of insider knowledge and contacts over the years?
Not intentionally, but I love doing the research, and my collection of personal-fave London books is pretty big now. As a location, London offers more anachronistic juxtapositions than most European cities – you’re likely to find a church beside a strip club – and it was important to find a way of reflecting this. Each story tries out a different kind of Golden Age mystery fiction; ‘Full Dark House’ is a whodunnit. ‘The Water Room’ is a John Dickson-Carr style locked-room mystery. ’77 Clocks’ is an adventure in the style of Bulldog Drummond, and so on.
The unlikeliest elements of these tales are mined from London’s forgotten lore; tales of lost paintings, demonised celebrities, buried sacrifices, mysterious guilds and social panics have casts of whores, mountebanks, lunatics and impresarios who have been washed aside by the tide of history – but their descendants are still all around us, living in the capital city. I’ve still only scratched the surface of those stories, but I can’t turn every book into a history lesson.
You have also written two memoirs. Was it a vastly different experience writing these books and in what way was the process different from writing fiction?
They sort of coalesced into being – I love doing readings, but often just reading out a chapter is confusing for an audience, so I took to writing snippets about my background. Soon my family and my love of books and films overtook these pieces, and I found that they were going down very well. I ended up with these strangely upbeat volumes, which I think of as anti-misery memoirs. The first memoir I ever read was Gerald Durrell’s enchanting ‘My Family And Other Animals’, and that left an impression.
For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
Just one? Oh, man! How about this (actually two in one); You have to love something about your hero, and you must always leave room for your characters to breathe.
What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
Let’s not mention Sherlock Holmes here, or the wonderful Bleak House, which people tend to forget is a murder mystery. I’d go for personal game-changers.
The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin taught me that crime could be great fun to read. Keith Ridgway’s astonishing Hawthorn & Child changed the rules for me by throwing out all the usual crime novel yardsticks and viewing events through a kaleidoscope. And AD Miller’s Snowdrops challenges you to try and understand if a crime has even been committed, forcing you to ask; what is a crime at all?