Why Each Book Needs A Single Memorable Moment

Christopher Fowler
7491700 I have a friend who wants to be a writer. He tells me he's about to start 'a huge series of books, which will be better when they film it as a series'. He still hasn't started a single one after ten years, despite being obsessed by the idea of quantity. The author Magnus Mills writes a slim, deceptively simple volume every three or four years. He aims to strip back the complexities of the modern novel to an almost zen-like minimalist structure that makes his first, 'The Restraint of Beasts', seem positively action-packed (nothing happens in it; it's wonderful).   But without quantity, there's often no traction in the book market. I sometimes think the only reason people are now starting to notice the Bryant & May books a little more is because I haven't given up on them. Then I discovered the facts about John Creasey. Churn & Burn The English thriller writer was one of the most prolific authors of all time, producing 562 books under 28 different pseudonyms. Even he had no recollection of some of his titles, and no comprehensive catalogue of his works has ever been completed. Although he received 743 rejection slips for his work, his sales totaled around 2.5 million copies a year, and he was awarded an MBE. Creasey created eleven different series, always writing longhand, and he supposedly revised each volume half a dozen times before sending it out. He wrote with a special typewriter that was equipped with three extra keys, and it took him around a week to finish a book. Oh, and he had time to spare. He was married four times and went around the world twice, founded a political movement advocating shared all-party responsibility and fought four by-elections. He also lent his name to John Creasey Mystery Magazine, and had his own literary agency and paperback publishing house. Did I mention that he founded the Crime Writers' Association, which is still in rude health? Feeling tired yet? Creasey was born to a working class family in Southfields, Surrey in 1908, the seventh of nine children. His first book was published when he was 22. By his 29th birthday, 29 of his books were already in print. He created an array of sleuths and secret service agents from The Toff to Inspector Gideon, Dr Palfrey and The Baron. 'Gideon's Way' was filmed for TV with John Gregson, and was later a John Ford film, while The Baron became a series starring Steve Forrest. Creasey once said in an interview, 'Occasionally I find that a new plot is becoming a little vague because I am concentrating on too many at once.' 'The Toff Goes On' could have been titled, 'The Toff Goes On A Bit Too Much', but it beats 'The Toff Goes Gay', which was another Creasey title. Name One So much for quantity. But how was the quality? Well, let's say that each word was not torn from Creasey's tortured soul, but given that he produced between seven and ten thousand words a day, the writing is solidly appealing, with unpretentious characters doing a good job of work as they handle exciting situations. Creasey created the pseudonyms because booksellers complained that he dominated the 'C' section in bookshops. He also wrote on politics and philosophy, and there is a Creasey museum in Salisbury, Wiltshire. But there's something that doesn't quite come into focus about him — biographies trumpet his prolific output but rarely champion a single volume as the archetypal Creasey novel. And there's the problem; memorability. For the reader it might not even lie in a single book but in a passage within it. I remember being captivated by 'A High Wind In Jamaica' by Richard Hughes.
What starts as merely good storytelling becomes something dreamlike and haunting; it's not a novel you easily forget. Memorability It's about some British children living in Jamaica who survive a hurricane and are sent back to England, but are captured by pirates. The description of the storm is filled with bizarre incident — a pack of wildcats is blown through the windows, and the shutters bulge 'as if tired elephants were leaning against them'. It's a book about growing up and recognising the cruelties that allow the young to survive. Nothing fazes the children, whose amoral attitude to their parents should be a warning that the pirates are not psychologically matched to defeat them. The plot turns on a casually shocking death that underlines the loss of innocence they suffer. Hughes was brilliant at pinning down the interior lives of children, and it would be interesting to know how today's kids react to it. But it's those wildcats I'll always remember. In Melvyn Peake's Gormenghast there's a scene on the roof of the castle with a stork lazily flapping into the sky that I can see in my mind's eye now. Not quantity then, but a single memorable image. If you have a favourite image from a novel, let me know.


Ken Mann (not verified) Wed, 22/10/2014 - 12:51

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One early one for me was a scene from "The Future Took Us" by David Severn. Two schoolboys are snatched into the future and find themselves in a familar English countryside landscape. Their first clue apart from the transfer experience itself that they are more lost than they know is finding a tumbled power pylon which has the roots of giant trees grown over it. An early exposure to an image illustrating "deep time". David Severn was actually David Unwin, son of the Unwin in Allen & Unwin, though most of his books were published by people other than dad.

Mim (not verified) Wed, 22/10/2014 - 13:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have a fair few of Creasey's Inspector West novels. I just kept finding them in charity shops. Didn't know there was a museum to him, though - I'll have to get on the train and visit it.

J. Folgard (not verified) Wed, 22/10/2014 - 18:22

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There's a single scene in Ann Leckie's recent 'Ancillary Justice' where all the main character's bodies start singing simultaneously, with great context -I enjoyed the whole novel but this moment, set at the beginning of the story, "sold" the book to me.
When recalling a novel it's quite often the general mood and the characters that I remember above all, so yes to this: a memorable moment that either encapsulates the whole thing or turns it on its ear. Curiously, I rarely remember the endings, even in series, and even if I enjoyed them!

John Griffin (not verified) Wed, 22/10/2014 - 20:27

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There is a moment in Peter Straub's 'Koko' when what happened in the cave in Vietnam is partially revealed, and you realise the true monster is not the serial killer 'Koko' but Harry Beevers, one of the supposed flawed heroes. to be honest, there are several reveals in the 'Blue Rose' trilogy, such as Lamont's murder, which come out of left field. The opening scenes of Peter Robinsons 'Aftermath' are superior to much of his output and genuinely make that book stand out.
You can't beat the ending of the film Memento though for a stand-out moment.

Rh (not verified) Wed, 22/10/2014 - 20:51

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Intrigued: What were the three extra keys?

Slabman (not verified) Wed, 22/10/2014 - 21:47

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John Creasey was like a one-man James Patterson

Charles (not verified) Wed, 22/10/2014 - 23:23

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This! I definitely agree. Those one or two memorable moments in books are what drives me to re-read the same books time after time. There needs to be a defining moment in a story where the reader is enjoying himself so much, he has ceased to be the reader, but is simply "there".

One of my favourite images from a novel is from Jim Kjelgaard's "Wild Trek". Though a children's novel and not of any particular literary importance, I've read that book over a dozen times since I was a child.

Charles (not verified) Wed, 22/10/2014 - 23:30

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(Whoops... accidentally pressed Post before I finished...)

The defining moment is when, after being stranded in the isolated Cariboo mountain range with only a single known entrance that has since been blocked by a landslide, for weeks with only primitive tools and no means of creating fire, the two main characters escape down a rocky river on a raft down a narrow gorge, only to narrowly escape going over the edge of the waterfall. I've done a terrible job describing the scene, but it's essentially for that moment that I keep re-reading book.

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 23/10/2014 - 05:29

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Creasey always wrote longhand, but used a typewriter? Now that I'd like to see, or was one of those extra keys something which magically converted handwriting to typescript?
I read a few Creasey books, a Toff for one, and I notice our library has quite a collection of Gideon Fells, but I don't remember much about the Toff.
Cariboo Mountains? Were they in Canada? I remember Kjelgaard's "Big Red", which I remember for the dog itself, which I fell in love with from the cover as I'd never seen an Irish setter.
Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days has a staff room (as we would call it - master's common room?) that just feels so much like every staff room I've been in, one man complaining over the paper, another playing tricks on a mate, the whole crowded in, fusty, worn, carelessly treated space. It doesn't matter if the room is old or new, the teachers are men and/or women the feel is the same and it is one of the things that brings me back, although not as often now that I've retired.
Desmond Bagley. There was always a spot where you learned something you'd never known before. I wouldn't have thought of melting gold to form the counterweight in the keel, nor known anything about Iceland. It was his book about Iceland that made we want to see it - which I now have. That was the book that taught me about sghian dhus, too, although I don't think you could get through customs with one now. My gaelic spelling leaves much to be desired. Wyatt's Hurricane supposedly taught me about hurricanes but since then I've been told that leaving doors and windows open does not save even light structures.

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 23/10/2014 - 16:18

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Edgar Wallace was another prolific crime writer. There was a cartoon in "Punch" which had a lady customer at W H Smith's on a railway station platform asking "Is the lunchtime Wallace in yet, please?"

Tom Callaghan (not verified) Mon, 27/10/2014 - 15:43

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Another Richard Hughes book, 'The Fox In The Attic' has a wonderful opening, set at twilight, with a young man carrying the body of a young girl across marshes. Best bit of the book.