Attempting The Impossible

Bryant and May

B&M Jubilee

When you write stand-alone novels, they live or die on their believability, their premise, their atmosphere, and the trickiest part is getting all the elements in balance first time around (there’s usually no second chance for a standalone, although John Fowles rewrote ‘The Magus’).

With a series, if you’re lucky and it doesn’t damage sales, you get a few chances to refine your template, polishing the plots and adding complexities to the characters. You rebalance the elements and try to make each experience more enjoyable than the last. It doesn’t always work. Dorothy L Sayers had her detective Lord Peter Wimsey marry his great love Harriet Vane, and after many felt that the magic was weakened.

With the Bryant & May series I constantly work to change the style of crime mystery being presented, so that each feels different from the one before, while maintaining continuity through the characters. I take a path created by the great Golden Age authors but combine many contemporary themes. Some books work better than others. Oddly, one of the volumes I consider most successful if the one I get the least mail about – ‘White Corridor’, possibly because it’s not set in London.

‘The Memory of Blood’ had a locked room mystery that strictly adhered to the rules laid down by John Dickson Carr, so much so that the identity of the murderer became less important than the details of the crime. In Dickson Carr tradition, it was a howdunnit rather than a whodunnit.

Lately I’ve been drawn to deepening the characters’ lives, although I’m wary of turning the series into a soap opera (not that such a thing hurt ‘Downton Abbey’ or even ‘Game of Thrones’), but a couple of the more traditionalist mystery reviewers haven’t cared for this, so now I try to rebalance things again. As Arthur Bryant begins a strange new journey, I’m adding what I hope will be a surprising element to the books, but I’m also planning to deepen the psychology of the murderers in the next two volumes.

In this way I hope to reflect the journey the Golden Age authors undertook, from the bizarre and sometimes tortuous mechanics of plots common in the 1930s to the more strongly developed studies of mental states of criminals which emerged in the 1950s.

If the balance isn’t right I listen to you rather than critics, and keep refining the process. It’s an almost impossible task, but that’s what we do, and it’s part of what I love to do.

10 comments on “Attempting The Impossible”

  1. Mike Brough says:

    Perhaps the reason you don’t get so much mail about White Corridor is because satisfied customers don’t tend to shout too loudly.

    I think White Corridor is my favourite, especially with winter coming up. IMHO, it’s on a par with Murder On The Orient Express – the same claustrophobic but somehow cosy (no offence intended) atmosphere.

    I say I ‘think’ it’s my favourite but I’ll need to go back and read them all again, just to be sure. See you in the spring. Toodle-pip.

  2. mike pitcher says:

    white corridor flowed the best ,easiest to follow,but I agree London was missed .

  3. Brooke Lynne says:

    White Corridor was difficult to read because Arthur + John weren’t the centers of gravity. From the states, I didn’t care that London as a character wasn’t center stage. After slogging through the psychology of the two crazy people, I started to enjoy White Corridor. It’s much better on second reading.

  4. Jackie Hayles says:

    For me, The Water Room is the most memorable: really creepy and claustrophobic, with the dampness permeating everything and becoming a threatening presence in its own right. All the books have a distinct character, though, and I can’t wait for more.

  5. Jeanette says:

    I agree with you there Jackie, the Water Room really creeped me out. I do enjoy how you mix the modern day, ‘flashmobs’, ‘anti bankers’ with Old Father Thames rolling in the background holding its centuries old secrets in its rolling mists and seeping walls Admin. I too enjoyed White Corridor, in fact I enjoy all your books.

  6. Alan Morgan says:

    For the long term reader, or me anyway, I find the how the most interesting. We *know* the characters, certainly don’t need recaps, and I feel their progress is well balanced since whilst we want them to live, and to go further, the story always feels bigger. Rightly so in context I feel.

    Plus B&M don’t usually pull the silly out of the hat as to that how. I sometimes feel with a few other authors I’ve read that they don’t themselves know how it’s all done until they run out of story and grumpily have to.

    I liked White Corridor because it was between town and country. I grew up in both so personally it had resonance.

  7. keith page says:

    No sure I have a particular favourite.Here’s hoping for many more B&M’s

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Won’t type it again. If you want to leave a comment you have to press the big red button, but I really liked White Corridor, too.

  9. Jenny Spencer says:

    White Corridor is definitely one of my favorite books but I love them all. It really captures the imagination. Stuck in a snow blizzard on an impassable road with a killer on the loose got me hooked from the beginning.

  10. Michelle dempsey says:

    My favourite is Ten Second Staircase because its the first one I read on the way to Florence last October. Since then I’ve been hooked although White Corridor is my least favourite.

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