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introducing death wore white

how would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?

looking back at the five philip dryden novels – and now the first peter shaw – i hope the books combine a sense of the golden age of crime writing, with something of the impossible crime about them, with a more modern, gritty, feel. i’m also very interested in landscape and i hope that the settings of the books are actually more than just characters in their own right – i like to develop them into something larger-than-life, as if they were legendary landscapes. the fens have been perfect for this treatment, and i’m looking forward to doing the same with the north norfolk coast, with its “riddle-of-the-sands” feel, and the old medieval port of kings lynn, where my new sleuth is a policeman.

what type of crime or thriller novels do you like to read? do you prefer series or standalone?

i save reading crime books for the short gaps between writing my own books. the rest of the time i tend to read history. but when i do my favourites are often one-off classics: the nine tailors by d.l.sayers; a very long engagement by sebastien japrisot; the hollow man by john dickson carr. in the series genre i went through all the morse books. i enjoy stephen booth, and i’ve just started c. j. sansom’s historical series. i admire historical crime writers – such as andrew taylor – who wear their knowledge lightly.

the main character of your first five novels was philip dryden. in death wore white we find peter shaw and george valentine (shaw having appeared in the previous novel, the skeleton man). did you fancy a change and felt two policemen opened up new horizons for you with regards to the cases they could investigate? is philip likely to return in any form?

the problem with having an ‘amateur sleuth’ like dryden is that you have to construct two plots: the main one, and then another to explain why the police are so far behind your hero ! this gets to be tedious. also, my father was a detective at scotland yard and i think that i understand the way policemen think – although i’m no expert on the procedures. so i always had a nagging desire to write a police book. dryden’s landscape – the cathedral city of ely and the black fen – was wonderful for atmosphere but restricted the breadth of plot i could attempt. i wanted to stay close to the landscapes of east anglia but have a really urban setting into which i could inject some more exciting and diverse plots. as to dryden – i am absolutely sure i shall return to him, and to humph – his sidekick – and to laura – his wife. i imagine them leading their lives even now – so when we return things may have changed, but not that much – the fenland timescale is pretty glacial.

death wore white involves a murder in a snowstorm with no foot prints to or from the victim. this scenario has resonances of christie with a drop of doyle. did you want to revisit a murder scenario that has been previously told and enjoyed in different forms across the years?

yes – i’ve always loved the golden age locked room mysteries. but that genre allows for really elaborate and frankly improbably solutions. as carr says in the hollow man it is not a matter of the solution being probable, it just has to be possible. i wanted to write a book in this tradition but with the difference that the solution is much more simple. i can explain the entire solution in one line – as would be possible, to be fair, with the nine tailors. i think this is far more satisfying for the reader. i hope i’ve managed to modernise a very old story told thousands of times. i think the first locked room mystery i’ve found is in heroditus – so something like 500 bc!


there is history between shaw and valentine and it seems that it is likely to spill over into the next book. the ending of death wore white appears to lead the reader on to another chapter in the lives of shaw and valentine. is there another book being prepared at this time?

the next book is almost finished – and yes, the overarching story continues. it won’t go on forever as we go forward with the series, but it’s important to explore it as it defines the relationship between shaw and valentine, and encapsulates their two very different attitudes to detection – the first; professional, informed, and fair-minded; the second based on instinct, knowledge, and prejudice.

you seem to enjoy the architecture of the buildings in ely and in death wore white you seem to enjoy describing the beauty and yet coldness of the landscape. is the sense of place especially important to you when writing?

i think it is typical of the english that we have only that one rather insipid phrase – a sense of place – to describe one of the great human emotions – the bond between people and place. the italians use a word derived from their word ‘campanile’ to describe the way people are bound to their village – the word, of course, for the bell tower. it’s not so much that a sense of place is important as essential – i can’t imagine writing a book which skates around from place to place, or is set in some airport-lounge-kind-of-world. all of which explains why i think the nine tailors is the perfect crime novel, because in an odd sense the killer is the landscape.

are we likely to hear even more of shaw’s history in the next instalment? more importantly, will we hear more about valentine?

the problem with “back story” is that it slows down the plot. this is a vice which which makes a lot of uk drama on tv much less watchable than its us counterpart. in the us characters just go forward – but the way they go forward is dictated by their backgrounds. in the uk we tend to stop – go back – then pick up the action again. so we will find out more about them, but i hope by seeing them in action. they have interesting and complex lives – but that’s all in the future.

death wore white doesn’t seem to have quite the gothic edge that the dryden series seems to evoke. was this a conscious decision not to write the same kind of detective novel?

yes. it’s a great challenge, i think, to create a new central character, strong enough to hold together a series. so peter shaw is in many ways a negative of philip dryden. he’s pro-active, very physical, and very intelligent in an almost clinical sort of way. there’s nothing, i hope, of the still outsider which comes across in philip dryden. i think there’s still plenty of gothic imagery in the new books but the switch in setting from the fen country means there is an inevitable lifting of the mood – especially as i can set a lot of the action by the sea, and even on the beach, which i think opens out the books. i hope they are more joyful as a result.

without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?

there is a morse book in which the action takes place in a suburban cul-de-sac. anyone who has not read them all should look away now ! the plot depends on the house numbers in the street. dexter brilliantly remembered that there was a time when builders left out no 13 on the basis that people wouldn’t buy them – or at least, were reluctant. it is such a simple little device, but its repercussions turn the plot on its head. and there’s a moment in the hollow man when a gunshot rings out in a snowy street and a man drops to the pavement, dead. the assumptions that the reader makes at that point are fatal too.

what is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime or thriller novel?

well it’s not the bbc’s version of the nine tailors ! i saw it again recently and the scenery kept flapping about and they’d rearranged the plot disastrously. i think i would have to go for the film of a very long engagement. on the thriller side i’d chose the third man – and especially the moment when the light first falls on harry lime’s face in the doorway.

would you describe yourself as a crime fiction or thriller fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?

no – i’ve always read a lot outside the crime genre. i think that’s healthy, and i love reading history. i’ve just started on a marathon reading project. my wife, midge gillies, is a biographer and historian and i’ve asked her to pick for me the best biography of william the conqueror. for next birthday it will be william rufus, then henry 1, and so on until i’ve done them all in order. then i might try and write a piece on the pros and cons of learning history through the lives of the famous. in between each i’ll read something a bit racier perhaps – i’ve got gaston leroux’s the mystery of the yellow room lined up next.

what is your favourite crime/thriller read of all time?

the nine tailors. (incidentally set in the fens, and in a church bell tower.)