History & Mystery

Reading & Writing

My hair, the one change everyone swore they could predict, never fell out. But it did turn white. Now it’s starting to turn black. Every day’s a surprise in C-Land.

As my fuzzy head clears and I build up a head of steam to write, the question is no longer ‘Can I?’ but ‘What should I write about?’ I have three finished non-Bryant & May books in the pipeline. The first, ‘Hot Water’, is a thriller with ‘a devastating ending’ that appears in March.

All of which rather suggests I should attempt another Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery. And already you can see the problems this presents. But rather than discuss those I want to consider a bigger question. Should it be in the style of the previous volumes, or a little different?

The last three novels, ‘The Lonely Hour’, ‘Oranges & Lemons’ and ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ were increasingly dense and baroque, to the point where the research alone took months. What if I made them not simpler but smoother? Let the complex London histories pass by for once and write about the characters from their human side? I know there are readers who especially enjoy the London trivia, but it was getting to the point where history was eclipsing mystery.

There’s another issue we don’t talk about much. I get no translation sales from Bryant & May because they don’t appear in other languages; they’re too difficult to translate. I’ve had this problem for a long time and once set out to write a simpler thriller – but the end result, ‘Plastic’, was probably the most outrageously dense book I ever wrote. Page by page it’s great but I can’t imagine trying to read much of it in one go.

A Date With Density

‘Hot Water’ isn’t like that. The language is clean and sleek. The first cover roughs are in and the winner chosen. I’m thrilled with it. And I’d like to apply the sleeker language style used in the novel to Bryant & May. Right now English books are selling well in Europe, especially in Sweden and Germany. It’s about finding new readership without changing the integrity of your work.

Sometimes I feel like my job is equivalent to dry-stone walling or wicker bottom chair repairing; a peculiar artisanal branch of craftsmanship appreciated only by those attuned to it. So to make it a tad less history-based makes sense. Plus, there’s another reason I can’t disclose yet. All will become clear in the fullness of time. I’m pushing for publication dates. I think you know why.


33 comments on “History & Mystery”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    First — the writing and the hair. Great news — and in that order… I presume you did have black hair prior to chemo — rather than suddenly growing it along with now being able to write in Mandarin (?) I can’t speak for the others (I could but I would soon hear about it…) you have fully realized — and may I say ‘venerated’ characters — so what you do with them is pretty much irrelevant. I have a problem even calling them ‘characters.’

    Personally, I might (‘might’ being the operative word here) draw the line at chucking AB back to the Wild West, but anything else is fair dinkum as far as I’m concerned. The arcane historical detail always went down a treat but was/is not the raison d’être for me enjoying B&M (how about that — Australian and French in adjacent sentences). Chances are you would likely not only find that new readership through translation (and doubtless, otherwise) but your new approach might also finally open up a real opportunity to see the PCU on the big screen. Good to see the ‘Trickster’ is back.

  2. Helen+Martin says:

    What you do with the characters is surely not up to us to decide. We just sit here with our mouths open waiting for whatever you shove at us.
    I like the sound of what you’re proposing: straight forward prose, the plot grounded in the present, and something of a nod to the characters’ personal lives.
    Looking forward to the spring thriller, too.

  3. John Howard says:

    Yup… I’m with Helen here… Whatever B & M do and however they do it, we will follow. London detail is lovely but not an essential. The characters are what we are here for.. They are old friends, even though they may not realise that there are hordes of us peering around the edges of their lives.
    And like her, I’m not just here for them. I really enjoyed Plastic by the way..!!
    Onwards and Upwards, here we go boys… Stay safe both of you.

  4. Brooke says:

    2:00 AM. Awake, waiting for flood alert to subside. May as well use the time to annoy you.

    Someone said: The fewer the words, the greater the profit (triple meaning here). Your recent works weigh in at 400 plus pages. Reading the books left me thinking your editor should be dismissed. You’ve written several posts about book length and how longer novels are popular; stop trying to imitate Susanna Clarke and her kind. Profit or no, they’re bad writers.

    Not sure what you mean by “dense and baroque.” I do know you’re “visual;” you want the reader to “see” what you see, as in a play or cinema. And because London is a central character, its detail must be described, thus introducing complexity. Other writers I’ve heard speak to the issue, like Chkhartishvili/Akunin, say they avoid descriptive detail, relying on readers to mentally fill it in. After all, everyone has Netflix.

    I like the idea of sleek. But, as Thoreau, spokesperson for muscular simplicity, said, “The story doesn’t need to be long—but it will take a long while to make it short.”

  5. Mark+Pack says:

    There’s such an amazing range of characters you’ve created through the Bryant and May novels that I wonder how a book which takes a different style but also has one of those others as the focus (rather than B + M themselves) might work? I always enjoyed how Anthony Price’s espionage novels kept their freshness by switching around between the different novels whose eyes they told the story through.

  6. Roger says:

    Good to hear about the hair!

    I’m disappointed that you haven’t had translation bids for B&M. The challenge is part of deciding which books to translate, according to a translator I know. Couldn’t you inspire imitators instead? · Les mystères de Paris inspired books from all sorts of apparently unmysterious places and the task of finding Estonian or Liechtensteinian equivalents to B&M should get the creative juices running.

  7. Keith says:

    ‘Saul Goodman’, or at least it sounds like it is. Bryant and May in Space perhaps? Could you take them out of London? Would Arthur want you to? Could Ramsey Campbell take his novels out of Liverpool? Would your extensive knowledge of London allow you to? Take them to Barcelona, or bring them over the North Sea, investigating some impossible murder on a P&O ferry.

    Wherever the setting, wherever your fictional hand decides to take us I think you’d have great fun, as would we. And I must say after reading ‘The Casebook of’, it would be marvelous if you and Keith Page could work on another graphic novel. I just love that artwork.

    I do get that it would be hard to translate the B&M novels. I mean what’s the Dutch word for a Jammie Dodger? The whole whimsical entertainment would be lost in translation.

    After living with the awesome twosome for so long I can imagine losing them akin to losing a limb, and living with the ghost of one (or two).

    Sod it, do we have to wait till March to read Hot Water? Hope I make it. Good luck with everything Chris!

  8. Peter+T says:

    I’m afraid I’ve suggested it before but B&M go to Barcelona in search of their author?

  9. John Griffin says:

    ‘Plastic’ I read in one sitting on a stormy day, and loved it. I also like the pace-or lack of it – in B&M, as it does a nice counterpoint to when things happen suddenly – as they do in real life. Coming from a family of soldiers, teachers and coppers, very few novels reflect real life, especially police procedurals; it’s good to dawdle on the byways, as one does in real life, daydreaming and contemplating the world, between the bouts of frenetic action.

  10. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    If you decided to write a book about dry-stone walling or wicker bottom chair repairing I would read it.

  11. Keith says:

    @Cornelia. Second that!

  12. Liz+Thompson says:

    You write whatever you choose. We’ll all buy it.

  13. Jo W says:

    Wow, Chris, black hair? I always thought you were blonde? Will you get Pete to “do your roots”? Still, you could end up with a Christopher Lee look….hmmm not bad.
    Back to writing quickly, for obvious reasons, you can just put down whatever you want to, we’ll read it ! ( Stands up to announce that “my name is Jo and I’m a Fowlerholic!”). Ooh that sounds good.
    A question- would A Date With Density be a little nod to a certain time travel film? Just wondering…….

  14. admin says:

    Hair = had always been blonde

    Prose = going for sleeker, more human approach

    Length = reduce the doorstops to something a bit more manageable

    ‘Good comedy is saying things funnily, not saying funny things.’ – Jimmy James

  15. Colin says:

    Just write what you enjoy Chris, Sandmen was a brilliant book but sadly overlooked by most readers

  16. Wayne+Mook says:

    Glad to hear about the hair and writing.

    Thinking on previous posts the thing people always mention first and foremost are the characters. In other posts people have always suggested maybe we could have one of the other characters as a lead. As to London, you know so much you don’t need to do so much research.

    You could put them in one place and keep them there, either raised flood water keeps them on a single eyot/ait/island (London seems obsessed with water either floods or drought.) or in a single building, quite easy just say they are shut up due to quarantine (or when they open one of the large office buildings for the homeless but in this case for medical reasons). You don’t need to make it time specific as we had tb isolation hospitals well into the 60s or have Mr B complaining he’d be told freedom day had long past, or even on a boat.; or just in a house, large or small with a made up back story, Nyctophobia is one of my favourite books.

    To be honest you have always changed your styles and I’ve always found you very readable, from the early days of Roofworld to B&M and many points in-between, so like many hear I trust you to take me where ever you will in the style of your choosing.

    Actually how about using a night school setting, you could have basket making classes and cookery classes, we’ve not mentioned turnips in ages.


  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Well, so much for the Jamie Lee Curtis look. On to ‘noirette,’ or what used to be simply called brunette. Unless of course your hair colour again changes to something that would do Billie Eilish proud. Anyway, as for that ‘doorstop’ or ‘book as a brick’ business, maybe a pet flap in your case. You’re a very considerable distance down the list in the English canon. If you’re looking for a mental ‘hernia,’ try writing something like Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ at 1,349 pages and 591,552 words. Talk about ‘heavy lifting!’ And of course you simply would be laughed out of the ‘competition’ in comparison with Samuel Richardson’s 970,000 word, 1,534 pages, seven volume ‘Clarissa,’ starting with the full title which runs a half page all by itself: ‘Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady: Comprehending the Most Important Concerns of Private Life. And Particularly Shewing, the Distresses that May Attend the Misconduct Both of Parents and Children, In Relation to Marriage’ So — anything between 400+ and 1,534 pages would be fine. Just please don’t do any of those ‘slim volumes’ of which literary ‘artistes’ are so fond.

  18. LuciaA says:

    Long time reader but new voice here. Trapped in America. The world has finally had the sense to ban the lot of us. What took so long. Americans are insular, without any patience and seem to be proud of the fact that we’re one step away from a pitchfork mob.

    I’m re-reading B&M again and enjoying myself as I always do. Aside from Moby Dick, I don’t usually re-read. I used to carry around a copy of Moby Dick because I thought it made me look scholarly and it definitely killed conversation with strangers. One day I read the first page and the hook was in.

    I sometimes worry about Raymond. Could you do something about him? He seems to have a limited ability to realize when the traffic light has changed. In my mental casting of the B&M film series, it’s Anton Lesser. I’ve spent too much time thinking about this.

    It’s impertinent of me to say “just write.” That’s as bad as those idiotic Nike adverts demanding you “just do it.” It’s an excellent signpost on this journey you’ve allowed us to share that you’re thinking again of B&M. Whatever you write, I’m there. Sending you courage and many good wishes from over here to you over there.


  19. Stephen Groves says:

    OMG . more space on the wall to find bookshelves for, Mrs. G will not be happy, by all accounts were trying to go for the minimalist look this year , all clear space and plain walls. I keep having to keep her away from the loft, there are over 600 books stored (hidden ) up there a third of them by you ,if this makes me a secret hoarder at least in a discerning one. Just keep writing the good stuff and keep in mind the weight limit on my ceiling joists.
    All best

  20. Rich says:

    Great to read that the fog is clearing. I echo what Liz Thompson says. You write what you want to write, we’ll buy it.

  21. Joan says:

    I love your books Chris, the odd stories and London history got me hooked. However I really liked Paper Boy also. You write it and I will read it. Something to look forward too in these stressful times.
    Take care and take it easy!

  22. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin I have to say I’m a bit concerned you may go Dostoevsky on us when you talk about your prose becoming ‘…more human.’ Perhaps an emphasis on certain character backstories ? A touch more moral conflict here and there, Absolutely. But I’m not sure ratcheting up stream of consciousness, for example, would make any of the PCU crew more ‘human,’ if that’s figuring in your present thoughts. On the other hand — a touch more introspection and a few more foibles ? Go for it.

    But with the foibles and eccentricities hitherto ascribed to the crew members, my view is they are are already well and truly ‘human’ — to say nothing of Arthur, of course, who sits at the top of that totem pole. In fact, as I’ve said before, I have a hard time thinking of them as fictional ‘characters.’ I recall you mentioning in a previous post about possibly having Arthur interact with a normal family (‘House That Jack Built’ outline ?) as a way of taking him out of his comfort zone and having to deal with the exigencies of everyday life. Although he has, to all intents and purposes, always been a ‘fish out of water.’ that certainly would have him ‘flopping around’ even more and no doubt having to reconnect (?) with what must have been human feelings and impulses at one time. I could also see young Sidney in similar situations. That sort of forced ‘situational humanisation’ works for me. But then, paraphrasing Mr. Shaw, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t — talk at great length about it.”

  23. Jane says:

    I could read an entire book of Arthur and his landlady’s arguments.

  24. Ian Luck says:

    I was just reading ‘One Night Out’ from your short story collection ‘Demonized’: a great set of stories, by the way – and it moved me to tears. Probably shouldn’t have read it on the 17th anniversary of my own father’s death. Like your character’s dad, mine missed his birthday by a few days. Excellent writing, Chris, which pulled me up short. Thank you.

  25. andrew.holme says:

    Sometimes two words open the floodgates. Jimmy James. if you don’t know ‘Two lions in a box’ – and I presume most of us here do – look it up. Especially the version with Roy Castle and Eli Woods. Every line is perfect and adds something to the escalating madness of the sketch. Never bettered. Sorry, Python/Cook/Fry/ Atkinson and everyone who came afterward, but Jimmy beat you all for surreal daftness.

  26. Ben Morris says:

    There’s definitely a difference between your B&M books and they others. As with others it was the link to London history that drew me in to the B&M books but they do feel like they’ve become more difficult to read. I like the non B&M books, they feel like they for well. Plastic is probably one of the best of these and from the car chase onwards it feels liked the author is really enjoying himself. Which ever you choose I think you just have to be true to yourself, this is the X factor which makes all your books unique.

  27. David Fletcher says:

    I love the unending London history lessons that Arthur brings to the fore, but…. given that tiny NYC sojourn in “London Bridge…”… I can easily see Bryant warming to the subject of whatever case/mission has been assigned to them under their new remit, wherever it may be. His penchant for arcana is insatiable.

    But first, of course, you must wake him from his latest slumber.

    Aside from that, though, perhaps my biggest joy with the B&M series is the running commentary with the present, and all its absurdities, vanities, and short attention span. The Unit–or whatever its new moniker may be–has become a clubhouse for all of us reading from afar, wishing that we knew such people and could have a chat over the tipple of choice, perhaps gaining some new perspective on this or that concern of the day.

    Crime-solving is certainly the glue that holds the stories together, but it’s the unbeatable comradery that keeps us coming back for what’s next. I have every faith that you’ll do right by your band of brothers (and sisters), whether it’s by simplifying the prose (it already flows like wine, Chris, but you’re the boss) or getting them out of London more and more.

    Perilous times, old trout. We need B&M and the gang more than ever.

  28. admin says:

    Thanks for some sage advice there, David. I think what I’ll do is ‘de-densify’ the prose to make it more readable, and trim out some of the sub-plots so that it’s easier to follow.

  29. Helen+Martin says:

    Please, Chris, that sounds dangerously like dumbing down. We may be ignorant of many things but we’re not stupid and it is so easy these days to learn whatever we need. The books are not dense or I wouldn’t be reading them and the sub plots are what make them more like life.
    Just saying.

  30. Dawn says:

    I’m reading, again, the entire series before I read the last book, so I don’t know what happens. ( and not reading any other comments) but I really enjoy retro Bryant and May. Perhaps something set in the seventies?

  31. Donna H says:

    I would like to add my delight to hear you are writing again and I am look forward to whatever is published. I have been a reader ever since Psychoville and happily followed your adventures in writing through the short stories, the early Bryant & Mays, Rune, Spanky, the graphic novel Menz Insansa and the Curse of the Snakes. I am reminded of Calabash when I pass the Brighton bandstand. Look up in London and think of Roofworld. I have put off reading “London Bridge is falling down” because I wasn’t sure I could cope with the emotional impact. But the most important thing is that you are writing for your needs and I am glad you are feeling able.

  32. Linwood says:

    As David said above, and yes, I was about to tear up (as in sadness not violent rendering). Somewhat offshoots, as it were, of the characters we all know and love, might be an avenue. But know that no matter what, they are part of our family – and we love how you’ve brought them up, and how you’ve chronicled their actions and thoughts and feelings.
    The important thing is that you’re getting healthier, have an obviously great motivation to carry on, and we hope that what you do write will be as wonderful as what you’ve brought to us before.

  33. Chris says:

    You spoke of the density of Plastic….Having read everything you have written since the late 80s( nearly) it was one of the few times I had to take several run ups to complete. In the end it was well worth it.

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