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interview for cads - crime and detective stories issue 59

the questions

1. which was the first book (of any type) to make a strong impression on you - and why?

the mystery of the disappearing cat by enid blyton. it was the first book i ever read in one day -  i was ill with mumps i think. effectively a locked-room mystery, with a very clever key, it is - on re-reading - replete with all that is wrong with blyton. however it sticks in the mind for the thrill of the puzzle, and the amazing revelation that you can put your feet up and read a book non-stop until its over. pretty much a damascene moment.

2. at what point did you discover that you had some facility with the written word?
i was listening to andrew taylor recently at a book launch and he reminded me of a truth - that often writers know they are writers before they have written anything worth reading. i think in his case he was in his thirties before he actually sat down one lunchtime at work and wrote a paragraph of fiction. but up until then he\'d been telling people he was a writer for years. i cringe at the memory but i can recall answering the question: \'what do you do ?\' with the answer \"i\'m a journalist - but i also write books.\' it was just that i didn\'t - i played with ideas, typed up first pages, and spent 25 years as a journalist. it was my wife who called my bluff. she seemed to think that to qualify as a writer i had to actually do it. i gave her the first 20,000 words of a novel while we were on holiday, and she promptly disappeared upstairs to read it. what she said when she got back was the best review i\'ve ever had. \"you\'re not wasting your time.\"

3. what attracted you to crime writing?
the great attraction about crime and mystery is that it has an accepted form - which is a plus for readers and writers alike. clearly, you can subvert that form, but the fact that it is there at all makes life much easier if you\'re planning a first novel. also i had previous - in the sense that my father was a detective, at scotland yard. he didn\'t talk about his work - ever. but i think i know what makes policemen - cid anyway - get up in the morning. i\'d always liked mystery and crime, although i don\'t like anything too homespun. so i thought i\'d try to walk down the middle of the battlefield, as it were, between the army of grit and the army of cosy. the result of which, of course, is that you get fired on by both sides.

4. was the water clock (2002) your first completed novel? any rejections along the way?
i\'d written two completed novels by the time i got to write the water clock. both are in my desk, in the bottom draw, and that\'s where they\'re staying. the first was about a young man who misunderstands a vision. it was called electric bay, and it is very bad. the second was a crime mystery set in york featuring a forensic archaeologist called kallendar. (gebbit. time, archaeology...) or i did think of quartz. it makes electric bay look like the great gatsby. there are several other bits of books - notably a crime thriller based on a forensic accountant. that got the publishers jumping. unfortunately - despite being tax and accountancy correspondent of the financial times at the time - i didn\'t know enough about what accountants really do to pull it off.

5. what were you trying to achieve with those first few novels?
the water clock, and the fire baby, and the moon tunnel are - sneakily- books about how landscape makes us what we are. that\'s another great thing about the crime genre, that you can smuggle all kinds of ideas into the parcel along with the usual suspects - plot, murder, mystery etc...the emotional relationship between people and place is the least appreciated aspect of being a human being in the 21st century. my hero - philip dryden - and his sidekick - humph - roam around the snow-clogged black fens of cambridgeshire unaware that their moods, and their thoughts, are inspired by what they can see; that is,  to borrow dorothy l sayer\'s line from the nine tailors - \'an eternity of winter\'. and part of the idea was to weave the landscape into the crime as well - both from the point of view of the killer, and the sleuths. if the water clock is a whodunnit, then the landscape did it. 
 
6. major influences on your writing?
i like my reading to be eccentric, with something challenging in the writing, as well as the plot. early on that was jack kerouac, i like the fact that someone can abandon grammar and structure but still convey meaning, and also create a great sense of excitement and pace. i went to a bob dylan concert recently and before he came on someone read a few hundred words from on the road - it was a perfect match for the lyrics which followed. so dylan too - a great poet, and a major teller of stories as well. then i guess sayers - especially for the nine tailors. it\'s a perfect book in many ways - although maybe a bit wordy to modern tastes and with the odd cut-out character, like potty peake. but the plot is like one of those faberge eggs - great craftmanship, and beauty. i once worked out the \'shape\' of the plot - in the sense that most plots are linear, although circular is now popular, with a glimpse of the end at the start. the nine tailors is shaped like a bow tie, and begins and ends in the middle. it is sensationally clever. one other influence would be a very long engagement by sebastien japrisot. what i like here is the way in which as a reader you just know what the end is going to be almost immediately, but you can\'t see how he can possibly pull it off. but he does. two others - now i\'m in my stride ! i\'d have to mention winesburg, ohio by sherwood anderson, which is all about a small us town seen through the eyes of a young newspaper reporter. it is an amazing book - and its style would be seen as modern and challenging now. it came out in 1919. and lastly my favourite book is le grand meaunes by alain fournier. it\'s about two adolescent boys finding a magical lost house in the middle of the deepest french countryside. it has genuine magic, which he can\'t sustain for the whole book, but which nevertheless inspired other writers to try - notably john fowles in the magus. it\'s not rabbit-out-of-a-hat magic - it\'s the magic of  the world seen through the eyes of youth. fournier died in the great war, and it\'s his only book.    

7. which comes first for you - an idea, plot, place or characters. and why?
a plot idea. it\'s like the first bit of a crystal that\'s going to grow under the microscope. for example, in the moon tunnel, my wife - who writes history and biography - was very interested at the time about pow camps. i found out that there had been one here in ely, in the heart of the fens, where i iive and work. and i thought how clever, and mysterious it would be if an archaeologist dug up the site of the old camp and found the bones of someone in an escape tunnel. it was just that image really - the white bones, the black soil - and someone in the tunnel, but not facing out, facing in. why would someone want to break into a pow camp ?  and there you\'ve got the story in one question.  and that\'s where i start.

8. what do you consider to be your strongest points as a writer?
it\'s a wise author who knows what they\'re good at ! i\'d like to think i can create a real sense of place in a book, and that over time my characters have got better. that\'s certainly what people seem to like. i think when i started i was pretty much an amateur when it came to plot. so i put a lot of work into improving that aspect of the books, and i now sense that i\'ve gone too far along that road. that my plots edge towards complicated, when they should be complex, in that complexity is a surface quality - a sense of fine detail and intricate relationships. i think complications in novels are bad - they\'re deep rooted, and fundamental, and i think they can disorientate a reader. after all, you die of complications, not complexities ! 

9. in what skill (as a writer) would you most like to improve?
i think the one thing i admire most in other writers is good dialogue. the trick is finding some mannerism or quality in a character which is reflected in the way they speak. but that is very difficult to pull off without resorting to regional accents, and so on, which are not very satisfactory. the one aspect of the genre which gives me sleepless nights is ending chapters -  some writers have a genius for this. the mistake is thinking it always has to be a plot twist - a kind of hook - which leads you to the next chapter. that works well, occasionally. often the best way is just with a phrase, something a bit elevated above the usual style. but that\'s easier said than done.

10. a recent change in your series characters. what lies behind that change? any thoughts on series vs. standalone novels?
i enjoyed writing the dryden books - the first five published. choosing a local journalist as a hero played to my own memory banks. but having a sleuth who is not a policeman, especially in the modern context, makes plotting very difficult, because you essentially need two threads: one is the main plot, the other - almost as tricky - is a plot which explains why the police aren\'t on the case, and ahead of our hero. so i thought it would be liberating to have a policeman as hero, and it would give me a chance to explore my own background through dad. penguin, my publisher, was looking for a police series at the time, and asked if i\'d do it. so i bit their hand off. the two policemen i dreamt up - di shaw and ds valentine -  are both dad, one young and idealistic, the other near retirement, and cynical. it also gave me the chance to switch locations, going north, to the wonderful norfolk coast of m.r. james - all mists and mystery; and the gritty town of kings lynn, with its wonderfully dark medieval heart. on standalones: i think the real way forward is to treat each book in a series as a standalone, in the sense that you should develop and alter the characters, and explore new territory. that way the series stays fresh. i think standalones do have their own value as well - especially in redefining a writer for a new readership. i have a couple on the back-burner, and one day soon i\'m hoping to turn up the gas. one is a re-telling of the story of capt scott - with a suitable crime thrown in. this has been many years in the making, but we\'re close now to moving beyond synopses and outlines. i think that working out the plot for this book - provisionally titled tera nova - has really helped all my writing because it was such a tricky thing, blending history and fiction.

11. any (printable) views on critics, particularly in the field of crime?

my views on critics are like those two old ladies in the woody allen joke who are complaining about the food in the old peoples\' home. \"the food here is terrible,\" says one. \"yes. and such small portions.\" because, over the piece, critics have been very kind about my work, it\'s just that its so difficult to get any kind of review in the major newspapers. and that\'s not just that i like seeing my ego inflated - good reviews, in the sense of perceptive reviews, are incredibly helpful. i think that generally critics only have space left to write about books they like, or at least value in some way. my favourite review was on amazon, and was several pages long. it extolled my virtues, many of which i don\'t posses. but then when it got to the final line the reviewer just couldn\'t stop himself getting one in under the belt. \"overall, however,\" he wrote. \"jim kelly is no leo tolstoy.\" always nice to get a reminder. the most helpful critique of my work was given by one of the overseas\' agents and passed on by my agent. she said that she\'d enjoyed a particular book but been disappointed by the fact that in the final analysis all the criminals had the same motive - money. this was right - and a flaw in the work. ever since i\'ve always tried to give a range of possible motives for murder - which is a big challenge for the genre, and a good way of judging the success of any crime novel.

12. what is your definition of writing heaven? and writing hell?

every now and then i just see a whole scene - the place, the action, the dialogue, everything - all pulled together and ready to write. it\'s happened - perhaps - five times in the last ten years. when it does writing the scene is bliss, as if i\'d written it in an earlier life. i\'m usually out in my hut - which is on my allotment - so i just write until the scene\'s over, and then i just shut the laptop and drink tea, and look at the veg. bliss. hell ? i wrote the first two books in the dryden series on the train between london and ely. i was a daily commuter. i actually enjoyed the environment of the train because a carriage is a bit like a newspaper newsroom - busy, loud, chaotic, and quiet exciting, especially in summer, with the top windows open and rattling along at top speed. the battery on my laptop used to last about two hours so it was just right for the journey - which was about 70 mins, plus any delays. hell was getting on the train and finding i\'d forgotten to charge the battery.

13. how do you relax?

i like cooking, because it combines action with being in the kitchen, which is the best room in our house. i like playing badminton, which i\'m no good at, but that\'s alright because i\'m 53 and a beginner. i used to be a good long-distance cyclist, but i don\'t think my knees would survive now. i play dominoes in a league - because the maths is fun, and we go out to all these tiny fen villages to play. i like reading to my daughter. i like digging up things i\'ve grown. i like walking along the cornish coast, which i do for a week every year. i like ringing church bells, which i do at st mary\'s in ely. (inspired, again by the nine tailors). but most of all i like exploring old country houses with my wife.

14. favourite news media: old (print) or new (electronic)?

my first newspaper was all bright and shiny new technology - the bedfordshire times. i was very disappointed, as i really liked the industry because it was just that - industrial. so i liked big greasy printing presses, not lines of cold little computer screens. gloriously, my second paper, the york evening press, was very old technology. the building was listed, the newsprint delivered by barge, and the presses right outside the newsroom. you could actually see your tea vibrate when they ran the presses. i love newspapers, on paper, because they are so good to hold, and they invite the reader to read things they weren\'t planning to, which is how we learn. having said that i monitor the bbc and gaurdian websites whenever i\'m online  - which is about half my working day. the newspaper is for the breakfast table, the train, and the armchair. 

15. what book(s) are you reading at the moment?

i\'m reading mincemeat by ben mcintyre, the true story of the best bit of deception ever practised in war. i\'ve just finished peace by richard bausch, a novella about three american soldiers in italy in the war, on a night time patrol. it has been compared to heart of darkness, and it is that good. you get the impression this is 25,000 words whittled down from 125,000. i am just about to start another c j sansom, having just finished sovereign, and found it unadulterated fun.

16. which new(ish) writer have you most enjoyed reading recently?

philip kerr. i read the quiet flame on holiday and loved it - largely for the chandleresque style, which has an added twist of extra humour in kerr\'s hands. the quality of the writing is sustained and excellent, and i thought gunter was a great sleuth.

17. \'desert island\' films, plays and/or music?

film: the right stuff, from the tom wolfe novel about the gemini space programme.
play: death of a salesman by arthur miller, about fathers and sons.
music: the sinking of the titanic by gavin bryars. orchestral work, partly recorded in a water tower. stunning.

18. a favourite book shop?

topping of ely and bath. the best bookshop i\'ve ever been in - and its less than 200 yards away ! my spiritual home since the launch of the water clock there in 2002. we often play a game with visitors to our house. get them to name their three favourite books, then we go round to toppings and see if they\'ve got them. rarely not 3 out of 3.

19. are you in favour of the death penalty for murder?

no. my father had to witness several executions as prosecuting officer and had no time for capital punishment, despite a war spent as a commando in italy and greece. he was no soppy liberal, but i suspect witnessing judicial death was enough to win the argument for him. i recall something bill connor the newspaper columnist said about ruth ellis: \"some people say i\'m a sucker for a pretty face. well i\'m a sucker for any face that isn\'t lolling at the end of a judicially broken neck.\"

20. which living person do you most admire?

barry fry, for securing barnet\'s promotion to the football league.

21. who or what makes you laugh?

early doors -  which most of your readers will not have seen. very few people did. it was on bbc 2, written by craig cash and phil mealey. it only ran for two series and told the story of the regulars in a manchester pub called the grapes. as the guardian commented - the humour was so slow-burn you didn\'t start laughing until the next programme. it was dry, warm, and wonderful. by the last episode not one line could have been transfered from one character to the another - each had their own humour, backstory, and voice. one day it will be recognised for what it was - a classic. i have the box set.

22. what depresses you most about contemporary britain?

a disregard for history and landscape.

23. what excites you most about contemporary britain?

history and landscape.

24. what single thing would improve the quality of your life?

a 24 book contract. 50 per cent up front.

25. which non-crime book would you most like to have written?

scenes from provincial life by william cooper. the best book about what it is like to live in a  small english town. ask anyone who has lived out of london to read it and they will be absolutely convinced the book is a portrait of their town. it is all towns, in one spare sketch. cooper was a brilliant stylist, and way ahead of his time. the book came out in 1950 but its anti-hero - joe lunn - prefigures lucky jim, which came out four years later. 

26. which crime novel would you most like to have written? and why?

john dickson carr\'s the hollow man - please. i like a lot of the classic locked-room mysteries because, in order to divert your attention from the plot, they have wonderfully eccentric characters. dr gideon fell is the best, and the solution to the mystery is wonderfully elegant. (that\'s the man shot in the street, the entry wound showing the gun was pressed to his flesh, but there\'s no gun, and no footprints in the snow, and witnesses saw him fall) it really is very simple ! i\'d kill for a plot that good.

27. which, of your own work to date, is/are the book(s) which you consider came off best?

i have a strange affection for the fire baby - the second dryden novel. the water clock was all freezing water, snow and ice. so i wanted a contrast, and so went for fire, and a heat wave. everyone muttered that the second book is always the one that finds out who is a writer, and who isn\'t it, because everyone has a freudian book in them - about themselves. but can you stand outside yourself and write a jungian novel ? but, wonderfully, i found the fire baby the easiest book to write. and when i look back now i can see there\'s a lot in it - it\'s quiet an unrelenting book, although i didn\'t mean it to be.  and it was a very satisfying book because everyone said that the fens are naturally wet, and cold, and freezing, and forbidding. and here was a book in which they were baked dry, and dusty, and hot. but i think it works, right down to the self-combusting lone pine tree.