Now We Are Twelve: The Secret History Of Bryant & May
When the first Bryant & May book was written as a stand-alone novel for the publishers Little, Brown it was turned down. To be fair to them, they had supported an author who seemed unable to settle into any style or genre, who threw all their attempts to pigeonhole or create a fanbase. They had made some mistakes, publishing ‘Calabash’ under sufferance and not really understanding it, but generally they were good publishers and nice people to work with.
Transworld ‘got’ Bryant & May thanks to their editor, Simon Taylor, who saw a future in them that even I hadn’t foreseen. He suggested a sequel, not me. As the first book had originally started out as a period romp, I rewrote it to set the thing up as an origin story, and so the series was born. I planned to cap it at six books, with a story arc buried within the entirely separate plots that involved a man called Peter Jukes and a Ministry of Defence conspiracy to cover up a series of deaths.
This was based on a number of real incidents occurring at the time, involving the suicides of several Indian workers. This is from a site called Truthfall.com;
What is it about scientists working at Porton Down that make them want to commit suicide? Just recently, the body of Dr Richard Holmes, 48, was found in a field only 4 miles away, and in very similar circumstances to the now infamous “suicide” of UK weapons inspector to Iraq, Dr David Kelly back in 2003. Holmes too, was a weapons scientist working at the government’s secret chemical warfare laboratory, until he resigned a few weeks ago.
When I closed the arc of six tales in ‘The Victoria Vanishes’, we adopted a wait-and-see approach to the books, which were selling to a small group of dedicated fans, but certainly not a threat to the big names in crime. WH Smith wouldn’t stock me (they still don’t) but specialist shops loved the series, and both Waterstones and Foyles proved loyal stockists.
Most importantly, the publishers didn’t actively lose money on them, so on we went.
I started to trim down the history lessons within the books, which were getting a bit lengthy, and began enjoying myself with the subsidiary characters. The first cover had been created by a wonderful artist, Jake Rickwood, who was represented by Meiklejohn Illustration. Coincidentally, I had known Chris Meiklejohn for donkey’s years beforehand, and he could have been in a B&M novel. A darkly handsome man with one arm, he wore a sinister black glove on his false hand and repped his artists around ad agencies.
When we came to do a second book, Mr Rickwood announced that he was retiring – landing us with no new artist to take the series on. The result was that we ended up with a disastrous attempt to recreate the first cover, which was scrapped in favour of an even more awful one which became known as the ‘Simpsons’ cover, because on it Bryant & May were bright yellow. We finally found the brilliant David Frankland, who instantly understood the semiotics required for the books; a hint of those old railway carriage posters, an Englishness, a balance of architecture and humans, a touch of darkness.
And now I was up to volumes 9 and 10, and another story arc had formed in my head, this time involving the characters. I knew that Volume 12 would had to bring us full circle, with a building on fire, and that with it I had to close something off. Over the books, one of the pleasures for me has been confounding readers who said ‘you can’t surely get any more out of this genre’ by proving that I could. Because by this time I realised I had created a weird sub-genre of my own, not as comfortable as ‘cosy’, fanciful but within the realms of possibility.
After all, the original concept had been rooted in hard fact, my scientist father having worked in just such a postwar unit. Still, I planned to end the series at Volume 12 because it was where the second arc finished, and I had an idea for new crime series. Even more excitingly, when I ran the idea of this new series past agents, they nearly all hated in, which was enough to make me want to prove them wrong and make it work.
Once again my plans were rerouted, because writing ‘The Invisible Code’ provoked a sea-change in me. If you look at the books from that point you can see something has changed; they’re more relaxed, they trust the reader, they have more confidence and lightness of touch. It helped that my outgoing agent Mandy had intervened to remove a new character and make me set him aside for another time. She said; ‘Concentrate on what you’ve already got.’ It proved to be great advice.
Unlike my stand-alone novels, like ‘Plastic’ and ‘Nyctophobia’, the Bryant & Mays feel as if they write themselves. I’d be lying if I denied they’re hard work to put together – they are – but I have far more confidence now. I knew that typing ‘The End’ would come as a terrible wrench on the twelfth volume, so I didn’t (you’re not allowed to look and see what I put instead unless you’ve first read it!)
Now we sail into darker waters…at the end of March I’ll be explaining what I’m up to on this site, and what else you can expect.