How The Bryant & May Series Works – Part 2: Going The Distance
(Continued from yesterday)
If I’d felt the series was going to run out of steam (the publisher’s nightmare, that an author invested in fails to deliver with consistency) I needn’t have worried. By pegging the characters to a more recognisable world I could lightly reflect current events and always have something new to write about.
I was still wary of turning the Bryant & May series into a soap opera, and tried to stay out of their private lives, but I noticed that the more human I made them, the more readers responded. They even started worrying about Crippen the cat.
The uniting feature of the Golden Age detectives is that they have no internal lives but are problem-solving ciphers given a few defining physical tics by their authors. I didn’t want cardboard cutout detectives, and developed their characters. Now that I was more confident I became relaxed about letting them roam across different crime sub-genres. I involved them in the unscrupulous rebuilding of London in ‘On The Loose’ and in the rise of violence on the London Underground in ‘Off The Rails’. Two plot motors in the latter book were based on real London events. And there were still jokes.
BANBURY:A serial killer, that’s what I reckon we’ve got here. We’ve not had many of them at the PCU, have we?
BRYANT: Not proper saw-off-the-arms-and-legs-boil-the-innards-put-the-head-in-a-handbag-and-throw-it-from-a-bridge-jobs, no.
The series does reflect my life fairly accurately. I don’t see the life of the drug dealer, I’m in a middle-class world where my neighbours are mostly in media, where you attend talks and concerts, eat out twice a week and go to the theatre almost as often. However, compared to my neighbours I’m ‘street’. I know an awful lot of eccentrics and crazies. King’s Cross is skewed far from the norm. It has a wild nightlife, with pop-up bars and rooftop hideouts everywhere. There’s a Greek cobblers called ‘Achilles Heels’ and a bookshop-barge where musicians play on deck while you browse. There are live performances on street corners, lots of cross-dressing students, kids playing in fountains and on a giant neon swing. Even our local Waitrose has a jazz bar in it. It’s messy, chaotic and energised.
As for the old-school criminal fraternities, you only have to look up the road a few hundred yards. There have been street gangs around Caledonian Road for 400 years, and knowledge like this is a tool that Arthur Bryant recognises. He knows that the past still informs the present.
The question remained; what were my detectives actually for? I needed goals, purposes and quests for them.
And I realised – they lived for work and asked themselves the same question. They had become a sounding board for the awkward, embarrassing state of having to be British, and the more uncomfortable I made them the more they responded. This is why their offices are in a permanent state of upheaval, their future is never secure, they doubt themselves and make mistakes. They cannot merely be Golden Age detectives in a modern world – they have to be like us, argumentative and difficult, imaginative and unruly.
To achieve this, I write the Bryant & May books differently to the way I tackle all other novels. I plan far less, writing a plot synopsis of no more than about eight pages, then diving straight into the first draft almost unprepared. It didn’t matter that I started doing this because I knew my characters inside out.
DOCTOR: You need to start acting your age, Mr Bryant.
BRYANT: If I did that, I’d be dead.
Golden Age mystery writers loved the artifice of theatre and its conventions; no wonder Ngaio Marsh used the stage as a setting! I played around with the idea in ‘The Memory of Blood’. When I wanted to have a gentle dig at the class system, I mined newspaper reports of the MPs’ expenses scandal and wrote ‘The Invisible Code’. Now it looked as if the series was going to extend beyond ten novels…
(Article concludes tomorrow)