Q&A WITH CRIME WRITER SUSAN GROSSEY

Portraits of Pretence (The Sam Plank Mysteries Book 4) by [Grossey, Susan]I’m delighted to welcome Susan Grossey to the blog. She is the author of a crime series set in Regency London, figuring Constable Sam Plank’s investigation into financial fraud. Susan is herself an expert in anti-money laundering. Her most recent book, the fourth in the Sam Plank series is Portraits of Pretence. The books are beautifully researched and have wonderful descriptions of Regency London. If you read them you will also discover what it is to be jug-bitten!

Q. Why the Regency period? Can you remember what it was that made you first decide to set your books then?

A. The first Sam Plank book, “Fatal Forgery”, came about almost by accident.  My day job is the prevention of financial crime, and to this end I was reading about bank crime, which of course has existed since banks began.  And I came across the story of Henry Fauntleroy, a banker who stole from his own bank in the 1820s and was caught in 1824.  He immediately admitted his guilt, even though this meant a fast-track to the scaffold, and I wondered why he would do that.  A mere four years later, “Fatal Forgery” was finished!  Along the way I had realised that the Regency period was very under-examined in every writing genre except romance.  There are plenty of books set in the Georgian period, and more Victorian detectives than you can shake a stick at, but Regency?  Not much at all.  And from a London policing perspective this was a fascinating era – post-Bow Street Runners, pre-Metropolitan Police, with very little structure to the service beyond the savvy of the individual constables.

Q. Your books have a real charm to them that I think comes from the tenderness of the relationship between Sam and his wife Martha and Sam’s assistant Wilson. Sam is a protagonist enviably free of dysfunction and that’s very refreshing these days. In some ways it reminds me of the dynamic between Morse, Lewis and Lewis’s wife although in that case the older man is single. Could you tell me a little about the decision making process around your development and characterization of Sam, Martha and Wilson?

A. Sam is an amalgamation of several constables whose actual words I was able to read in the invaluable online transcripts of Old Bailey cases – in fact, the name Sam Plank came from one of those!  And I liked the idea of a man who has been around a bit – Sam escaped a poor upbringing, was a barber for a while and then fell into law enforcement – but remains essentially decent.  As you say, he is not dysfunctional – I was a bit tired of “the copper more damaged than the criminals” – but I have tried to show that he has human flaws (he’s rather vain).  As the books are narrated by Sam, I needed to have discussions in them, rather than just interior thoughts (plus I enjoy writing dialogue), and I liked the idea of a man being brave on the outside only because he has support at home.  At the same time, I have to remind myself constantly not to make Martha modern: she is no feminist, simply a woman who adores her husband and has a good brain.  And as Sam is reaching the end of his career – he’s a good age, for a working man of his era – I wanted to give him a chance to pass on his knowledge, and sometimes to explain to the reader why he was doing certain things, and Wilson is the mechanism for that.  But, as characters will, Wilson is starting to demand more attention.

Q. I was fascinated by the material in the book about miniatures, especially about the fact they were painted on ivory. Could you tell me a little about your research?

A. Some time ago I visited the Wallace Collection in London, a wonderful private collection open to the public, and they have a gorgeous display of miniatures.  I stored the thought away…  I have known for some time that there will be seven Sam Plank books and I have plotted the central crime for each, so I already knew that “Plank 4” – “Portraits of Pretence” – would be about art fraud of some kind.  And when I thought more carefully, I realized that I wanted portable art – miniatures were perfect.  So back I went to the Wallace, to look more closely, and then I started reading all the contemporary sale catalogues I could find for descriptions of miniatures and their frames.  I am lucky enough to be a member of the University Library in Cambridge, and in their rare books collection they have several “how to” guides from the Regency era, written for amateur artists.  Every accomplished young lady wanted to be able to paint miniatures, and careful instructions are given on how to select and prepare materials, and how to paint the picture.

Q. My feeling is you have certainly walked the walk when it comes to describing Constable Plank’s perambulations around Regency London. Could you tell me a little about how you researched that? Were crumbling maps involved! In particular I loved the descriptions of Custom House.

A. My husband calls this research “walking the Plank”!  It’s actually quite simple: I walk around London.  Although the street-level architecture and detail is all very modern, just raise your eyes and from the first floor upwards, most of it is original.  I did consult a few crumbling maps – the University Library again – but the best of all is Greenwood’s 1827 map of London, thoughtfully put online by someone at Bath University.  It’s particularly useful for checking street names; for instance, Sam lives in Norton Street, near Regent’s Park, but you won’t find that name today as it’s now Bolsover Street.

Q. Did you always want to be a writer or did you start writing as an adult?

A. Always, always, always.  I am an only child and spent a huge amount of time reading and writing.  My first success was a short story entitled “Bonkers the Witch”, for which I won a rosette from my headmistress when I was six.

Q. Influences as a writer and crime writer.

A. My absolute hero is CJ Sansom – if I can evoke an era a tenth as well as he can, I’ll be happy.  I find that now that I am a writer myself, I am much more critical when I read: I will make notes along the lines of “make sure it’s always clear who’s speaking” and “don’t indulge yourself in reams of description”.  I’m much less tolerant of poorly edited books, as I think it should be done properly – it’s rude to expect a reader to put up with your laziness.

Q. I see that you have three more to come in the series. Will that then definitely be the end? Or will you continue with Wilson?

A. I’m already a bit sad at the thought of being without Sam, so the smart money – i.e. my husband’s – is on Sam sticking around in a consultative capacity!

Q. Do you have all the others in the series planned out or are you operating on a one by one basis?

A. They are all planned.  There’s a simple pattern to them, in that they take place in consecutive years: “Portraits of Pretence” is in 1827, so “Plank 5” will be 1828.  The unifying feature of the series – apart from Sam himself – is financial crime, so we’ve had bank fraud, investment fraud, bribery, and art fraud.  “Plank 5” will be about… oh no, I can’t reveal that too soon!

Q. Could you give a brief account of your path to publishing. Have you done courses, do you belong to writing groups etc?

A. Once I had the first (extremely rough) draft of “A Fraudster and a Gentleman” – the ghastly original title of “Fatal Forgery”, written from the point of view of the banker Fauntleroy – I hit a road-block: I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t see how to put it right.  I didn’t like the idea of a writing group, because I wanted an expert to help – not other, albeit enthusiastic, amateurs.  And then I read about Gold Dust, a writers’ mentoring scheme set up by a group of proper, professional, published authors.  For about a thousand pounds, they offered a year of monthly meetings with an author, at which you would discuss your latest chapter – which meant writing the blasted thing.  I asked for, and was given, Jill Dawson as my author: she’s local to me, and knows about writing historical fiction.  And every month I had to take something to show her.  What was most valuable – above and beyond the excellent writing and plotting advice she gave me – was her belief that, one day, this would be a book worthy of publication.

At the end of that year I had “Fatal Forgery” ready to go.  I submitted it to five agents and four publishers, and they all turned it down “because no-one is interested in financial crime”.  By then I had fallen in love with Sam, and I decided to rewrite the whole thing from his point of view.  Once that was done, I couldn’t face the agent/publisher merry-go-round again, and self-publishing had come on in leaps and bounds, and I decided to go it alone.

Q. What advice would you give to a young writer starting out now?

A. Set a timetable and deadlines, and stick to them.  If you wait for the muse to appear, for the “writing mood” to descend, you’ll never do anything.  I write a book a year and in the first half of the year, I write a thousand words a week – perfectly manageable.  In the second half of the year, I double that, and in the final month, I really go for it.  Even if it’s rubbish, you can edit rubbish – but if you’ve written nothing because that sock drawer really, really, really needed tidying, you have nothing to edit.

Q. I see that you are an expert on anti-money laundering. How does your experience in that field filter through into your novel writing?

A. I am unashamedly fascinated by financial crime – why people do it, and why it keeps working.  That’s what made me want to explore Regency financial crime, as it’s simply history repeating itself.  In “Fatal Forgery”, Fauntleroy is able to exploit the new financial instrument of the day – share certificates – to bamboozle his customers and steal from them.  Recently, bankers were able to exploit the new financial instrument of the day – subprime mortgages – to bamboozle their customers and steal from them.  Now we have Bitcoin, mobile payments, crowdfunding – on it goes.  The same is true for the crimes in the other Sam Plank books – we still have investment fraud, bribery, art crime.  We greedy and gullible humans never learn our lesson!

Q. I love the design of the covers. They are simple but very striking. Could you tell me a little about your design choices?

A. Aren’t they gorgeous?  I take absolutely no credit for them: they are the work of Andrew and Rebecca at the company Design for Writers.  It was the one area where I decided to treat myself to real talent, as I have the artistic capabilities of a roll-top desk – left to my own devices, I would have created a cover out of glitter and macaroni.  For “Fatal Forgery” they asked me to fill out a long questionnaire about the book and its subject, the sorts of covers I liked and disliked, any fonts I admired, the colours I preferred and so on.  At the end of that, they came up with the cover that you see now – complete with custom-designed “Plank font”.  All I had to ask them to do was adjust the whiskers; the original gentleman they used had a moustache, but Sam has only side-whiskers, so they redrew them.  The fine fellow you see is how Sam imagines himself – I fear the real Sam is a little less elegant.  From then on, we have used that cover as the model for the other books, with the addition of the strapline across the top, indicating that the book is “A Sam Plank Mystery”.

Q. What will you write after the Sam Plank series? Will you stay in the Regency period or spread your wings?

A. I probably should move on, but, as I say, I like writing in a less popular era, and now I know so much about it, I’d hate to leave.  Perhaps I could do the diary of a magistrate, or reminiscences of a prison keeper…

Q. I love the glossary at the back: puff guts, rum cull, square toes, jug-bitten. Is it fun discovering and using these words?

A. So much fun!  There are several Regency lexicons and slang dictionaries that I consult.  My own personal favourites are the ones for throwing up (a pretty common occurrence in Regency times, when almost everything you ate or drank was contaminated with something), such as “flashing the hash” and “casting up your account”.  And if flashing the hash doesn’t purge you sufficiently, you might well end up “wearing a wooden surcoat”… lying in your coffin.

Thank you so much Susan for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope your husband is forced to ‘walk the plank’ for many years to come! Lots of good luck with Portraits of Pretence and the rest of the series.

You will find all the links to Susan’s books in the purchase section of her blog here:

https://susangrossey.wordpress.com

And Sam even has his own twitter account: @ConstablePlank

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CRIME Q&A WITH VENA CORK

vena_largerI’m delighted to welcome the crime writer Vena Cork to the blog. She is the author of the Rosa Thorn trilogy (Thorn, The Art of Dying and Green Eye). Her most recent books are The Lost Ones set in Notting Hill and Toxic set in Willesden. This Q&A is about Toxic set in Yew Court, a block of flats in North West London where dark forces are unleashed.

Q. I loved the Prologue and it reminded me immediately of Alan Garner’s books. I wondered if you’d read them and been influenced by them at all? That feeling of there being something ancient in the land just waiting to burst out!

A. I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen many years ago, but I can’t remember  anything about it except being totally gripped. So if there’s an influence it isn’t a conscious one.  I love Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, though, which tinkers with the reality behind reality, so that may have rubbed of a bit, even though it’s a different genre.  When thinking about Toxic I became fascinated by old photographs of places in London that in the very recent past were little villages in the countryside but are now part of the city. It  made me envisage a time when there were no villages at all, just  primeval forest, and then all that history flowing in between.  It’s exactly the same place on the planet throughout, but forever changing. I do feel in certain places that the ancient past is still there lurking just under the concrete.

Q. Could you tell me a little about how you came to set it in the setting you did. Is there a particular yew in Willesden that caught your eye?

A. I love London and I love how each area has its own distinctive personality. My previous book, The Lost Ones, is set in Portobello Road, Notting Hill, which is a very high profile place. For Toxic I wanted to tackle somewhere that was the opposite, somewhere ostensibly without much atmosphere or known history behind it. I also wanted to tell a story about a tower on a hill, and I found a road on a hill in Willesden with several blocks of flats that absolutely fitted the bill and that also has a view over a wide open space to the neat suburban houses that I wanted Alma to be able to spy on. The yew tree came out of nowhere and became so important that in its latin form, taxus baccata, from which the word toxic derives, it even became the title of the book. Originally I noticed that the block of flats in which I was interested was called by the name of a tree and I thought that was a good idea for my block. That led on to the idea of having a sinister tree outside the flats. Then I remembered that yew trees can live to a great age, and that this would be the obvious link to the savage earth beneath the suburban concrete. Much later, I found out that not only were yew trees poisonous, but that they were also the symbol of The Furies. All this came about in a very round about and serendipitious way. In my experience this is something that often happens when writing a book: strange connections and coincidences surface that fit absolutely with what’s needed.

Q. It strikes me that what Toxic is really about is the marginalized and the vulnerable, those at risk of falling through the cracks and people who could easily disappear. You’re casting a bright light on society and saying look here. This is what can happen if we don’t take care of each other. Was there some of that feeling in you as you wrote the book?

A. Yes absolutely. We have, by and large, lost the habit of caring for our neighbours. In London the rich and comfortably off live cheek by jowl with the poor, but I don’t think there’s much communication going on. There’s a bit of wish fulfillment in Toxic because I don’t know whether in a real block of flats such a coming-together would happen. Although, having said that, I’m reminded of the play and film London Road, co-written by my son Adam Cork and the playwright, Aleckie Blythe, which tells the true story of the inhabitants of London Road, Ipswich, initially strangers, who united to repair their fractured community after the presence of a serial killer in the street had tarnished the reputation of the place.

Q. Now we’ve got to talk about Alma! She was one of my favourites. She reminded me a bit of the women in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – there was that sort of gothic horror aspect to her but she was also very, very funny and I have to say I was rather upset about what you did to her! Did you enjoy writing her?

A. I loved wrtoxiciting Alma. Inventing characters who behave very badly is brilliant fun, in a way that interacting with such characters in real life often isn’t. In a book you can laugh at their all-consuming egos without having to actually deal with them.  And inventing someone who behaves badly always feels slightly transgressive – making them do and say things I’d never allow myself to do and say.

Q. It was very brave to cast such a ghastly character as a bookseller. I’d never dare! Discuss (if you’d like)!

A. I didn’t set out to diss booksellers! I love booksellers – they sell books and books hold a central place in my life as a reader and a writer! David’s new wife was a bookseller by default. His ambition was to open a bookshop and I wanted his new partner to have something major in common with him. When I started the novel I didn’t know she would turn out to be either a bookseller, or so awful. I often find that characters go galloping off on their own path and become completely different from what I initially intended. I also find that sometimes those I imagine are going to be important end up as either minor characters or scrapped altogether, or, vice versa, a peripheral person suddenly begins to loom large and move to centre stage.  In Toxic, Gary is one such character who started out with a very minor role and just grew.

Q. I was really impressed how you marshalled such a large cast of characters together and yet made them distinct and clear in the readers mind and also how you ratcheted up the tension. Is this the biggest cast of characters you’ve dealt with in a book? As I was reading it I thought I would really struggle with this technically. It’s a really skilled piece of writing. Did that involve very careful pre-plotting before writing began? Did you have a clear idea about what would happen and in what order from the beginning?

A. I knew about the beginning of the book and I knew the end would involve the destruction of the tower, and I knew a few points along the way. But that was it. I didn’t know who would bring about the destruction of the tower, or, indeed how that would happen. I initially thought that it would be blown up! I envy writers who are able to plot everything in detail in advance. I can’t do that. I have to crawl forward painfully slowly, wondering what has to happen next and who does what to whom. On the other hand I think I’d become bored if I knew too much in advance. This is the largest number of narrators I’ve dealt with and I often found it difficult knowing which narrator would reveal which piece of information and when.  One thing I did do, though, was scribble out a plan of the tower and write in who was living where and at what number. Before I did that I found it very confusing trying to remember who was on what floor and how that would impact on the plot.

Q. I think I saw that you’re writing a Rosa Thorn novella. Could you tell me a bit about that?

A. The working title is Rosa and Revenge and in it we meet Rosa ten years on.  Her children are grown. Anna is also an actor and Danny’s a journalist. Rosa’s just got her big break starring in one of the country’s top soaps, but as always when she’s around, death and destruction follow, as fellow soap stars start to die. I don’t want to say anymore about it in case I give away the plot.

Q. You can ask 5 writers to dinner which do you choose?

A. This is a very difficult question because there are so many. Would I choose the Victorians – Eliot, Dickens,  the Brontes, Mrs Gaskell, Trollope , Wilkie Collins,  or would I go for  Joseph Heller, Susan Hill, Steven King, Donna Tartt, John Lanchester, John Irvine, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Philip Pullman. Yes – I know – more than five, and added to this list would be all the writers mentioned in the next two questions. So more a party than a dinner party!

Q. Which crime writers do you like?

A. Again – so many: Currently Kate Rhodes, Lesley Thomson, Ben Aaronovich, Elly Griffiths, Harlan Coben, Val Mcdermid, Stuart Macbride, Karin Slaughter, Sabine Durrant, Mark Billingham. I could go on …

Q. Which crime writers influenced you?

A. It’s hard to say who’s had a direct influence on my writing. My first experience of crime novels and the things that have stayed with me from that time are  Agatha Christie’s puzzles, the character of Albert Campion in Margery Allingham’s books, the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and slightly later, John le Carre’s George Smiley books. But latterly there’s   Elizabeth George, Nicky French, Tana French… The list goes on…

Q. Can you remember what book made you want to become a writer?

A. I don’t think there’s one particular book, although as a girl I read and reread Alice in Wonderland, What Katy Did, Heidi, Little Women and a collection of  Greek Myths. I also loved Enid Blyton, The Faraway Tree stories and The Famous Five. I was allowed to go to my local library by myself from about the age of seven and adored discovering all the fantastic stories that were there for the taking. It was here, aged eight, that I first came across Jane Eyre and I remember being terrified when she was locked in The Red Room, and amazed that anyone could write something so real and so gripping. From the moment I learned to read I’ve been hooked on books and I think I’ve always had this urge, both as an actor and a writer to tell stories. The first thing I ever did was a collection of children’s verse, which is sitting in a drawer somewhere along with a couple of short children’s books, and after that I wrote plays for several years. During my time as a drama teacher I was lucky enough to have a couple of these plays performed at the school in which I was working.

Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. The Loving Husband by Christobel Kent, and I’ve just finished The Gap of Time: The Winter’s Tale  Retold by Jeanette Winterson.

Q. How do you work? Do you have a routine? Set place/hours/word count per day or is it more flexible than that?

A.I have a small study, but I don’t use it to work in. It suits me better to work on the sofa in my living room. I usually try to do an hour before breakfast, and then after a walk with my husband, who is also a writer, settle down from 10am and work until lunch time. After another walk I start again around 4pm and work until supper, and sometimes I do a late evening stint before bed. But I’m not rigid about it, and have various breaks during the week for seeing friends or doing other necessary tasks. I constantly live with the idea that I should be working harder and that when I’m doing one thing there’s another that I should be doing instead. With the novella I set myself the task of completing it in a month. I hit my target and then took another two weeks to edit, so six weeks in total, which was pretty full on, but very satisfying. Another source of guilt nowadays, is being told by the health police that if I don’t get up and walk around every ten minutes or so I’ll die. I hate doing things just for the sake of it so now I’m trying to build into my regime, little breaks where I do something useful like iron a skirt, or peel a potato. Needless to say that’s not working out brilliantly.

Thank you very much, Vena, for taking the time and good luck with your future projects.

You’ll find all the links to Vena’s books at http://www.venacork.com

JANUARY BLUES? ASK PHILIP MARLOWE

It’s the end of January. You’re suffering from lack of light, lack of money, general grumpiness and restlessness and you have nine days to complete your tax return. What yer gonna do? A course on mindfulness? If that’s not for you may I offer the next best thing, advice from that great agony uncle PI Philip Marlowe courtesy of Raymond Chandler. Let’s throw him a few questions and see if he can fix us for the coming year.

Q. Philip, I’m thinking of moving to the country. What do you think?

A. You take it friend. I’ll take the big sordid dirty crowded city. *

Q. Should I reduce my coffee intake?

A. I (just) went out to the kitchen to make coffee-yards of coffee. Rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved. The life-blood of tired men. *

Q. What do you think of dry January?

A. Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine.*

Q. Could you describe a recent meal for us.

A. The eighty-five-cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he’d slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete… ***

Q. Oh dear, well moving swiftly on should I get divorced?

A. The first divorce is the only tough one. After that it’s merely a problem in economics. *

Q. I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather should I visit my GP?

A. Doctors are just people, born to sorrow, fighting the long grim fight like the rest of us. **

Q.What do you think of this “I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.” What does that mean Mr Marlowe?

A. Not a bloody thing. It just sounds good. *

Q. Here’s another one “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” Does that suggest anything to you?

A. Yeah, it suggests to me the guy didn’t know very much about women. *

Well, thank you for your time Mr Marlowe, I’m sure that’s made us all feel a whole lot better, hasn’t it? But whatever you do, reader, don’t go and kick a hole in a stained glass window. Unless you’re a bishop of course. If you’re a bishop and you just happen to have seen a blonde go right ahead.

Who do you read to cope with the January blues?

* The Long Goodbye

**The Lady in the Lake

***Farewell My Lovely

GEORGES SIMENON

Simenon wrote over four hundred novels. He was most well-known for his Inspector Maigret books of which there are 75 plus 28  short stories. So he was extraordinarily prolific. What does he have to tell us about writing?

You might think that such a prodigious gift might have come with a happy temperament but no.

“Writing is considered a profession and I don’t think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.”

Not a happy bunny then.

But what about how he did it? Six novels a year that is.

  • he started with names which he got from a telephone book and a map of the place where the book was to be set and something that was worrying him
  • it took him eleven days – eight days writing plus three days for revision
  • before he started he’d get his doctor to check his blood pressure
  • he would line up four dozen freshly sharpened pencils on his desk and put a Do Not Disturb sign stolen from The Plaza Hotel, New York on his study door
  • for each book he had a lucky shirt which had to be washed each day
  • he wrote a chapter a day
  • if he fell ill during the course of writing the novel he’d throw it away and never return to it
  • usually at the end of the book when his doctor checked his blood pressure it would be lower than at the beginning
  • when each book was finished he always had the impression that it had not succeeded and wanted to try again
  • he knew nothing about the events of the novel when he began. If he had it would have been of no interest to him

He always wrote by hand because

“I am an artisan; I need to work with my hands. I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood. My characters – I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional. And I would like to make a man so that everyone looking at him would find his own problems in this man.” 

And finally when asked if he ever changed his writing in response to criticism of it.

“Never. I have a very, very strong will about my writing and will go my own way. For instance all the critics for twenty years have said the same thing: It is time for Simenon to give us a big novel, a novel with twenty or thirty characters.’ They do not understand. I will never write a big novel. My big novel is the mosaic of my small novels.”

When he died, world-wide sales stood at 500 million copies in 55 languages, written in a vocabulary of no more than 2000 words.

Rowan Atkinson is due to take on the role of Inspector Maigret in the next television version. Quite odd casting to my mind but maybe that’s because the bearish figure of Michael Gambon suited the role so well. It will be interesting to see what Atkinson makes of it.

Have you read much Simenon? What do you think of him?

THE OPERA HOUSE MURDERS

I’ve blogged a little before about Dan Billany, the young crime writer, who was a POW and then died in Italy during the Second World War.  This is a review of his book, The Opera House Murders which was published in 1940 by Faber and Faber, then under the helm of T.S. Eliot.  It’s a bit of a mash-up – there’s a country house, Granby House, as the main setting, the protagonist, Robbie Duncan, is a little bit like Sherlock Holmes, and a little like A.J.Raffles, the gentleman thief. There is also a certain hard-boiled element, knuckle dusters etc which probably explains why it went down well in 1940s America where it was published under the title It Takes a Thief.

The book starts with a young boy, Jack, the son of the opera singer Mary Kirby up a tree in the grounds of Granby House, being witness to a man being run over repeatedly by a car.  His tutor is Robbie Duncan, a friend of Mary’s, an ex-private eye and also an ex-con. An interesting combination. So what kind of man is he? Well, he tells us himself near the beginning that …

‘I had all the qualities and the enthusiasm which make an expert criminologist…’

And that…

‘In eight years I saved three lives, caught two murderers and recovered over fifty thousand pounds worth of property.’

Also…

‘At the height of my career my contacts at the Yard admitted that there was only one real detective in the country.’

So, he’s not a man who is short on confidence! There is also a distinctly Robin Hood quality to him and a ‘recognition of the problems of the distribution of wealth’.

I looked at one or two of my wealthy clients with a meditative eye … Sir Joseph Farmer was very rich; Christ said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I planned to put Sir Joseph right with Heaven to the extent of ten thousand pounds …’

The plot involves a criminal gang’s search for £100, 000, which is the booty from a bank robbery, and a watch which contains a scratched map indicating its whereabouts. Jack, as a witness, is at risk, so as well as protecting him Robbie is trying to tackle the problem of where the money has been stashed. In the process he slithers into a drainage pipe, has his jaw broken with a knuckle duster, is hit on the head with a hammer (“biffed on the biscuit”) has the top joint of his little finger shot off and steps in a rat trap. He also shows his expert knowledge of Opera by uncovering a man posing as an agent for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, because the man claims to have heard Caruso sing Othello. He never did apparently!

The tone of the book is brisk and humourous as indicated by some of the chapter headings:The Characteristic Odour of a Rodent, I Admit Myself Kippered and Things that Go Bump in the Night. This is one of my favourite lines:

‘When I was a young man I was sent down from college before taking a degree for grievously wounding a professor.’ 

And Robbie does not hold back  from informing us what he thinks of most opera houses.

‘His architects had made a striking departure from the tradition that an opera house should torture its audience to keep them awake.’

The deaths come thick and fast and you will not be surprised to know that Robbie triumphs by finding and keeping for himself the £100,000 and also getting the ‘girl’, Mary, who agrees to marry him. The romantic element is perhaps the least plausible part of the book. It would have been interesting however to know what the next Robbie Duncan crime caper would have brought us. Would Robbie and Mary have turned into a sort of Tommy and Tuppence? Would there have been baby Duncans? What would Robbie have got up to during the war? Dropped into France or a double agent? With all his skills you’d think that he would definitely have been useful to the secret services. Unfortunately we’re never going to know. Dan Billany died somewhere in Italy after escaping from the POW camp at Fontanellato after the Italian armistice was declared. The circumstances of his death are unknown.

REVIEW: GHOST FLIGHT – MEL HEALY

Ghost Flight by Mel Healy

Ghost Flight by Mel Healy

Some people read crime for the plots, others read crime for, well, other reasons. I’m an ‘other reasons’ sort of reader. The most important thing for me is the character of the main protagonist. Am I interested in them? Am I entertained? Do I want to ‘hang out’ with them? Otherwise frankly what is the point? Ghost Flight is the third in the Moss Reid series, figuring the Irish PI based in the Stonybatter area of Dublin. The other two in the series are Another Case in Cowtown and Black Marigolds.

Moss, I am happy to say, is well worth hanging out with. He is amiable, funny, not afflicted with irritating flaws and wouldn’t be seen dead falling asleep in his chair while listening to his old vinyl collection. He likes a pint and hanging out with his friends, Colley and Arnaud and although he loves his food, he is not pretentious about it. An amuse bouche is a ‘gob tickler’ and he’s as happy with ‘a big dirty Ulster fry’ as ‘tellines de camargue‘.  Oh, and he’s got something in common with Doris Day and Whoopi Goldberg. Always a good sign in a man.

This is not to say that Mel Healy is a slouch at putting together an intriguing plot and if plots are your thing you’ll find plenty here to keep you puzzled and entertained. It involves three men going missing in a light aircraft off the west coast of Ireland and then one of them turning up in France six years later. Then a woman goes missing…

The reason I enjoyed this book is because I now know a whole load of things I did not know before including:

  • what Developmental Prosopagnosia is
  • what the dual nationalities of Schrödinger of Schrödinger’s cat fame were
  • how to whip up perfect scrambled eggs
  • how to pick a pin-tumbler (that’s a lock by the way)
  • what tellines are and how to cook them; it involves pink garlic and hazelnuts
  • how to get out of a French police station if I’ve been arrested for not having enough breathalyzers or high vis jackets in my car
  • where the flying sequences of the film The Blue Max were filmed
  • what the origin is of the canker which is affecting the plane trees which line the Canal du Midi …

I could go on but I’m sure you’re getting the idea by now. Ghost Flight is very well written and funny.  This is one of my favourite lines:

You can tell a lot about a man from his shoes: who he is, what he’s like. If eyes are the window to the soul, then shoes are the Velux skylight.

So there’s something for everyone here, including a few good recipes thrown in for free. In fact my feeling is that if Kinky Friedman were Irish he might well turn out to be Mel Healy.

The last paragraph in the book is this:

That’s the trouble with this town; when people say, “I’ve just finished that book,” you never know whether they are talking about reading one or writing one.

I, for one, am hoping that Mel Healy is getting on and writing the next Moss Reid mystery right now.

Finally, I must issue a severe warning: WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK WHILE HUNGRY. Otherwise you’ll find yourself listening to a growling stomach, while staring disconsolately into your fridge, wishing for Arnaud, Moss and Colley to turn up at the door in Tintin (read the book to find out what Tintin is) and rustle you up some perfect tellines de camargue.

Mel blogs at http://melhealy.wordpress.com and his blog is as funny, idiosyncratic and eclectic as his books. Oh, and there are recipes…

A MOST WANTED MAN

I went to see the film A Most Wanted Man this week; I’d put it off because I couldn’t bear the sadness of seeing the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. But the draw of two greats, le Carré (who wrote the book the film is based on) and Seymour Hoffman, was always going to get me there eventually. Needless to say it’s a fantastic film and Seymour Hoffman is wonderful in it. I love le Carré and I’ve always had writer-envy for the magnificently tough way he ends his novels. They are so bleak; bracing doesn’t even begin to describe them.

Here’s a clip of le Carré talking about A Most Wanted Man.

In 2005 the Crime Writers Association marked its Golden Jubilee by presenting The Dagger of Daggers to him for The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Spy). I voted for him.  Apparently he won by a country mile.  In the same year, I was in the audience when he appeared on stage to wild applause after a screening of The Constant Gardener at the London Film Festival. He seemed rather touchingly embarrassed by his reception which was pretty close, in levels of enthusiasm, to George Clooney’s when he appeared after the very well-received Good Night and Good Luck.

I first read Spy in my early teens, around the time I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn. Oh, those happy teenage years! Spy is the only one I have re-read regularly. I’ve tried The Catcher in the Rye but never managed to get to the end again. I think I’d need to be on Prozac to go anywhere near Cancer Ward. But Spy is such a brilliant, bitter, bleak book.

William Boyd wrote an excellent article in The Guardian in which he suggested that the ending was even grimmer than I’d thought. Could that really be possible? Spoiler Alert if you haven’t read the book. Boyd writes that when Smiley calls to Leamas (astride the wall) from the western part of Berlin, ‘The girl, where’s the girl?’ It’s not because he wants to check that she is alright, it’s because he wants to make sure that she’s dead because she knows too much. Smiley wants Leamas back but not her. Liz is actually  lying dead at the bottom of the wall. Leamas then drops back down on the eastern side of the wall to his own certain death. They turned it into a suitably gritty film with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.

I love this quotation from le Carré about spying and writing:

Graham Greene once referred to the chip of ice that has to be in the writer’s heart. And that is the strain: that you must abstain from relationships and yet at the same time engage in them.There you have I think the real metaphysical relationship between the writer and the spy. JOHN LE CARRÉ 

If ever there was a quote to launch a hundred PhDs surely that’s it. There’s a scene in A Most Wanted Man which reminded me of it.  A young man who’s spying for Günter Bachmann, the character played by Seymour Hoffman, says that he’s frightened, that he can’t do it anymore. Bachmann says, ‘Look, into my eyes,’ and then pulls the young man into his arms. He places his hand against the side of his face. It’s pure seduction; the only thing missing is the kiss.

And this is the other  thing about le Carré; he is a seductive writer. His characters are not simply chess pieces to be moved about. He has compassion for them. He draws you in and makes you care about them and then delivers those brilliantly bleak endings. My top three favourite le Carré books are The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and A Perfect Spy.  If having to make a ‘desert island’ choice I’d probably take  A Perfect Spy, a brilliant book on fathers and sons, on love and betrayal.

After the film, on the way home on the bus, we had one of those conversations about what makes Seymour Hoffman such a good actor. I know that analysing acting can lead one straight to hell via Pseud’s Corner but so what, it’s fun to do. We came to the conclusion it had to do with his lack of vanity, his vulnerability and of course his intelligence. What a great actor. It’s a mesmerizing film. Go see it.

Do you have a favourite le Carré book? Which one would you take to a desert island and why?

Here’s the link to the William Boyd article:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/24/carre-spy-came-cold-boyd

BROADSWORD CALLING DANNY BOY

Where Eagles Dare

Richard Burton doing a bit of bird spotting

“THE WORLD IS GROWN SO BAD, THAT WRENS MAKE PREY WHERE EAGLES DARE NOT PERCH.” 

It was my first author event and the bottle of Rescue Remedy I had glugged down on the train was not having the desired effect on my nerves. I was one of five or six new crime writers sitting in front of a large audience in Heffers Bookshop  in Cambridge. One of our number had been published slightly earlier than the rest of us and was therefore an old hand. Although already in the bookshop, he had taken his seat last, strolling through the audience like Billy Graham (BG) at a revivalist meeting.

The first question we were asked was about writers who had influenced us. BG went first and expounded at length on John Steinbeck.

What, not dear Agatha, or Dorothy, or Margery? I mused.

Suddenly, I didn’t like the look of my choices anymore. They looked a bit lack lustre. Not very Nobel Prize-ish. I began to race through other options: Bukowski? B.S. Johnson? Dostoevsky? Chandler? Hammett? The only trouble (apart from the alarming sex-change of my influences) was that I could determine absolutely no link between my writing and theirs. To claim it would have been laughably arrogant not to mention misleading.

Then I remembered Sara Paretsky, the progenitor of the female private investigator novel. A writer I very much like and admire. But I immediately realised that I had no idea how to pronounce the name of her main character, V. I. Warshawski. Try it yourself now and then imagine saying it in front of a large audience with your heart beat skipping along at the rate of a marathon runner on her last legs. I knew that if I attempted that I would sound like a woman with a sock filled with marbles in her mouth.

And then I heard those rough-gruff tones of Richard Burton: ‘Broardsword calling Danny Boy, are you receiving?’ Well, yes I was. Loud and clear. Thank you very much, Richard.

And I saw a young man with a quiff (not Clint Eastwood although he does sport a very fine quiff in Where Eagles Dare), a white dog and an irascible, sweary captain. The audience was looking at me expectantly.

Captain Haddock meets Tintin for the first time in Herge's The Crab with the Golden Claws

Captain Haddock meets Tintin for the first time in Herge’s The Crab with the Golden Claws

‘Alistair Maclean and Tintin,’ I blurted out.

BG looked bemused. I can’t remember much of what I said after that. No doubt something about the importance of pace and whizzing along, throwing a few jokes in there to keep the reader going and remembering that they may be reading you on the train on the way to work and just before they fall asleep so it’s important to ENTERTAIN THEM and KEEP THEIR ATTENTION! I gabbled and whizzed along myself.

BG went on to win prizes and occupy platforms all by himself; I went off to contemplate my influences and do a course on public speaking.

Here are some questions to end on.

1. Where does the quotation at the beginning of the post come from? Clue: Not a bad influence to claim!

2. Who or what has influenced you? High brow or low brow – in art or in life?