Saturday, 14 April 2018

A mystery within a mystery within a mystery

In 1991 my father Michael died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of just 51. It knocked friends and family for six, especially as he’d been so fit and healthy. At the time I was working as a cop in London but I immediately set off back to my native Cornwall to offer my mother what comfort and help that I could. It was the start of a literary journey that I have only recently finished. A few weeks later, Mum asked me to sort through Dad’s personal papers and floppy discs to see if there was anything of his that I might find useful. She knew that I had aspirations as an author and Dad had been the same. Having just retired from an exemplary 30 year career as a police detective specialising in homicide, he had been planning to carve out a second career as a professional writer. He’d already had quite a few features and articles published, mostly in country living or Cornish interest magazines, and Mum had just treated him to a fancy new-fangled word processor. Sadly, he’d hardly got any use from it.

I knew that Dad had started writing a murder mystery called The Chief Constable Regrets. He had investigated plenty of real homicides and had a wealth of experience to draw upon. He was also something of an amateur local historian and had thoroughly researched the setting for his novel – post-war Cornwall in 1919. However, he appeared to have only got as far as writing the first three chapters of the book, and what notes he’d left behind related solely to the characters and the regiment. There were barely any notes about the plot but, from the scant amount of material I have, I’ve inferred that it revolved around a group of soldiers from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry who return from the Great War to take up their farming lives when, unexpectedly, someone starts to kill them off one by one. Dad’s notes didn’t reveal ‘whodunnit’. Nor was there any indication of how each murder would happen. Most frustratingly, there was no motive recorded either. Was the murderer someone with a grudge? Maybe they were left for dead by their platoon? Or the killer was a German soldier? Or maybe it was someone suffering from PTSD? The fact is, I don’t know. And that’s why, despite it being suggested to me many times, I have never tried to finish Dad’s novel. After all, how would I possibly be doing it justice if I got his plot completely wrong?

Two decades passed. I completed my 30 years as a police officer and launched into a new one as a writer. My first few published books came out, all non-fiction. I then found my way into TV and radio and became of the writers of the TV show QI and its sister show on BBC Radio 4, The Museum of Curiosity. I also contributed to the QI books and annuals. But deep down, just like my Dad, I wanted to write stories. And more than that; I wanted to write funny stories.

As I wrote about in my previous blog post, Britain has a great tradition of comic novel writing. We produced Jerome K Jerome, George and Weedon Grossmith, Stephen Potter, Sellar and Yeatman, Frank Richards, Willans and Searle and the glorious P G Wodehouse. The baton then passed to humorists like Richard Gordon, George Macdonald Fraser, John Mortimer, Stella Gibbons, David Nobbs, Sue Townsend, B S Johnson, Helen Fielding, Michael Frayn and the late, great Tom Sharpe. But these days it’s hard to find comedy that’s written for a general readership although people like John Niven, Jonathan Coe and Ben Elton are doing their best. It is more commonly found as a subsection of other genres. There is comedy a-plenty in children's fiction and Rom Coms abound, for example. And, thanks to people like Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde, Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett there are chuckles a-plenty to be had among the wizards and aliens too. I wanted to write a comedy murder mystery. Admittedly, such things are thin on the ground but they do exist: Mike Ripley’s Angel series, or Simon Brett’s Charles Paris books, for example. Crime comedy is more commonly found in TV shows like Jonathan Creek, Monk, Diagnosis Murder and others like them.

The first element in the mix was my own love of classic crime fiction. I thoroughly enjoy a good whodunit and I’ve read almost everything written by the likes of Christie, Marsh, Allingham, Sayers and Conan Doyle. I also like TV whodunits … but not cop shows. Like many police officers – or ex-police officer as I am now – I find them difficult to watch because everything is overly-dramatic, the procedures are all wrong and I find it impossible to suspend my disbelief if the programme makers try to sell it as ‘real-life’ when I know that it isn’t even close. But classic TV murder mystery is a different thing altogether. It doesn’t pretend to be real. It’s delightfully silly and set in a world far-removed from reality; a world of poisons, elaborate alibis and ridiculous mechanisms. And beyond Poirot and Marple there are shows set in the 20th century that have that same silliness to them as well, such as Murder She Wrote, Columbo, Jonathan Creek and Midsomer Murders. The latter, with its façade of cop show, is deliciously bonkers at times; any script that features someone being staked out on their croquet lawn and then being bludgeoned to death by having their wine collection hurled at them by a replica Roman trebuchet has my vote any day.

The second element in my mind-mix came from visiting a number of fan conventions, most notably Comicon in San Diego, where the fans dress up in costume – cosplayers – and are almost rabidly passionate about their show/film/book/author of choice. The third element was my own knowledge and experience of being a police officer. When these three elements came together - murder mystery, cosplaying fandom, my policing experience – with my desire to write a comic novel, I suddenly realised that I had the perfect setting. What better place for a murder than a crime fiction convention? It was too good an idea to pass up and, after some seven months of research and writing, I’d produced A Murder To Die For.

The novel is set at an annual event held in the little village of Nasely to celebrate its most famous resident, the late Golden Age crime fiction writer Agnes Crabbe. Crabbe’s greatest creation is sassy amateur sleuth Miss Millicent Cutter and most of the attendees – known as ‘Millies’ - at the event have turned up in dressed as her. So, when a grisly murder is committed, the police find themselves having to investigate a case where the victim, the witnesses and very possibly the perpetrator are all dressed much the same – even the men. And, to add their annoyance, they find themselves having to compete with the Millies and in-fighting and competition between various fan clubs. Much of the humour in the book comes from the clash of cultures between the efficient, business-like and procedurally driven modern police service and the hordes of murder mystery fans who believe that they too can solve the crime using skills honed by a lifetime of reading crime fiction. And this is where Dad once again re-enters the story.

One plotline in A Murder To Die For centres upon a particular Agnes Crabbe novel that may hold the key to why the murder happened. And as I wrote, it suddenly dawned on me just how similar Agnes Crabbe’s Swords Into Ploughshares was to what I knew of Dad’s plot for The Chief Constable regrets. Maybe it had been lurking in my subconscious for all that time? Maybe it was sheer chance. Either way, I realised that here was a golden opportunity to include some of Dad’s unfinished murder mystery novel within the body of my own. So that’s what I did. I still can’t quite believe how seamlessly the two books fitted together like nesting Russian dolls; a murder mystery inside a murder mystery in my murder mystery novel that’s set at a murder mystery festival.

This year marks the 27th anniversary of Dad’s untimely death and, at 56, I’m older now than he ever was. Losing him was a wake-up call to me to achieve as much as I can in the one life I have and I’ve tried to do just that. I’ve become the writer I wanted to be and, with A Murder To Die For, I’m now writing the kind of book I’ve always wanted to write. It’s been something of a comfort to take Dad along for the ride and, as a man who loved life and a damned good belly-laugh, I’d like to think that he’d have enjoyed the book.

There is a curious footnote to this story… When I discussed the idea of including some of Dad’s novel in my novel with my mother, I mentioned my frustration at not knowing the direction in which he intended his plot to go. ‘Isn’t it in his notebook?’ she said. ‘He was always writing things down in his notebook. He took it everywhere he went.’

I don’t have Dad’s notebook.

It’s therefore an intriguing thought that it may be lying at the bottom of some box in Mum’s attic. Or in one of my brothers’ attics – they inherited quite a lot of Dad’s stuff too, things like military memorabilia and his historical research materials. I’m going to have a look next time I’m back in Cornwall. It would be fantastic to find it and to finally find out what he’d intended to write. In the meantime, at least in some small way, I’m commemorating him by having him as my silent co-author. And I don’t have to pay him any royalties!

He’d have roared at that.

A Murder To Die For is available now in all good bookshops and online. It is available in paperback and e-book and willbe avaiable in audiobook (read by Rula Lenska) in July.

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