Why Each Book Needs A Single Memorable Moment
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.
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.
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.