The Miscellany Of My Mind
What’s in the picture-book today?
A miscellany – some thoughts passing through my head as I sit in my study trying to cool down enough to concentrate on writing a new novel.
Writers produce a lot of work that’s not published. For years I kept drawerfuls of abandoned manuscripts, movie scripts, TV productions, radio scripts, half-finished novels, unsold short stories and ephemera, but changing technology and generally moving about too much consigned 95% of that stuff to lost formats and bins. No writer I know who produced regular work can possibly store everything, with the exception of Kim Newman and Stephen Gallagher, who have the librarian gene.
It goes without saying that I am absolutely rubbish at this. I barely manage to recall where and what has been published. Here’s a collection of some covers you may not have seen.
Some of these editions – the ones I remembered to keep covers of – are delightful, some appalling. And still the advance copies (Res) and author copies pour in with nowhere to store them. They pile themselves up on my desk, and get handed out to poor commuters at tube stations.
Meanwhile, as a new contract lands on my desk, my output doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Another novel has been accepted by my agent and editor. My thriller is riding the top of the e-book charts, thanks to sterling publicity from Quercus, and for once I’m ahead of the game, with a couple of books in hand. I’m sitting here looking at a nice fresh screen. A blank page is filled with infinite possibilities. (The book below is the only one I regret, not because it’s bad – I love it – but because it suffered the worst case of bad timing I’ve ever heard of).
I often feel as if I’m running two parallel writing careers, producing a crime series that’s carefully constructed to be fun and accessible, and creating an entirely separate line of unconnected stand-alone novels that require a bigger leap of faith from readers. I don’t read that much crime myself, although I have my modern favourites, including Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Laura Wilson, Lee Child and most recently, Bill Beverly. One of the hardest things to do is to keep the reasons for criminal behaviour relevant and modern, and reflect life as it’s lived today.
But the other part – especially in a series – is coming up with good characters, and many readers say they’re more interested in that element than actual investigations. I can see why; it’s hard to create a criminal tale that hasn’t been committed to paper before, although AD Miller managed it with ‘Snowdrops’ by making the reader question if there had even been a crime at all, and Keith Ridgeway aced it with the still jaw-dropping ‘Hawthorn & Child’, in which the two titular coppers phase in and out of reality, giving the reader a kaleidoscope of changing identities. I’m still drawn to two polar opposites; dark humour and terror. I’m lucky that I can find outlets for both.
I’ve long wanted to write an existential mystery with no solution, but that would have to be on my ‘Experimental’ side. I had planned it out and was about to start when the year of Trump and Brexit happened, pre-empting much of the attitude that was going to go into the book. Now that real life is becoming increasingly bizarre, from the damaging realities of Brexit to the banana republic politics of the USA, I can barely keep up and reflect life in the books as I did. As a result I’ve back-burnered the experimental novel for now and am planning further Bryant & Mays.
Before starting a new volume, though, I embarked upon a mammoth task; sorting through every one of the books and listing all of the incidental characters, their personalities and locations, so that I can maintain continuity for the next volume. I’m horrified to discover that so far – I’m not all the way through – I’ve invented around 150 fairly detailed characters. But I’ve also noticed something else. The volumes are jam-packed with in-jokes, games, homages and little tricks. There are so many, in fact, that I could never hope to analyse them all properly.
For example, on P251 of ‘The Invisible Code’ a character called Daniella Asquith complains about the whistleblowers who caught her cheating her expenses. She says; ‘You know what? It’s jealousy. We have got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral, but it’s a merchant’s house from the nineteenth century. It was Labour who introduced the Freedom of Information Act, and it is Labour who insisted on the things that caught us on the wrong foot.’
This is a verbatim quote from a Tory MP who attempted to explain why he honestly thought he should get away with fiddling his expenses. For anyone who thinks the stories are far-fetched, I could point out dozens of scenes which I’ve actually had to tone down from real life, because no-one would believe them.
Similarly, the novel ‘Hell Train’ was packed with the kind of references and jokes only an obsessive Hammer aficionado would get. I’m amazed I could sell it at all.
On P289 of ‘Wild Chamber’ there’s a department store mentioned called Marabelle & Dimmock; the film reference is so obscure that I don’t expect anyone to ever get it, but these things are fun for me, at least. In the next Bryant & May, set in 1969, there are all kinds of factual sixties nuggets.
The good news is that there are going to be more audiobooks, hopefully still with the excellent Tim Goodman. I’m also recording my own first audiobook, for ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’. If only I had train or car journeys I would listen to them all the time, but the longest work trip I do is from my study to the kitchen (usually to ogle the contents of the fridge).
As ‘Bryant & May: The TV series’ once again stumbles and falls, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tackle writing the first episode myself. The problem appears to be that appointed scriptwriters try to turn it into a straightforward police procedural, when what it needs is to be made stranger and more peculiar (that word again).
My dream casting for Bryant & May would be Toby Jones for Bryant, Luke Evans (aged up) for May and Juliet Stevenson for Janice Longbright. Arthur Lowe would have been the perfect Bryant, of course, with John Le Mesurier as May and Diana Does as Longbright. Time to stop thinking so much now, and switch my brain off. (Incidentally ‘Off’ was the title of an SF story I wrote. It’s been anthologised in the e-collection ‘Frightening’. Could someone who’s read the book possibly leave a review on Amazon? It would make me happy to think that somebody read it!