Wednesday, 23 May 2018

All Good Things ... A Final Swansong

As mentioned in my previous blogpost, the amazing Cottage Bookshop in Penn, Buckinghamshire - my local bookshop for over a decade - is closing its doors on June 9th. It's been there, owned by the same family, since 1951 and it's a tragedy that it has to go. I will certainly miss the ladies who run it - Liz, Paula, Sue and the two Barbaras - as they always seemed to be able to find the secondhand books I needed. Or, as they put it, that needed me.

Therefore, it was lovely to see the bookshop make a final appearance this week on an episode of Midsomer Murders. Series 19 ended on a musical note with Barnaby investigating the murders of two orchestra members. And much of the episode was filmed in Penn. You can clearly identify the Red Lion pub, renamed as the Thassingham Arms (all non-screengrab photos by me).

And here's Simon Callow outside the pub with a view of the green and (just out of sight) the duckpond.

And here's a view up through Elm Road where you can see Strings Music Shop, with its distinctive porch and the bookshop beyond.

Strings used to be the village shop at one time. It's nice that the porch has survived (photo courtesy of SWOP).

And then, finally we come to the Cottage Bookshop which got a passing appearance when Barnaby did some window shopping before discussing the case with Winter.

It's now been in three episodes of Midsomer Murders in total - it featured much more prominently in the episode 'A Rare Bird' in which it was Michael Hipsman's shop in Lower Walden, and in a series 6 episode called  'A Tale of Two Hamlets'.

Sadly, it will appear no more but, as brief as it was, it was nice to see it on screen for one last time.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

All good things ...

Five minutes drive from where I live there's a pretty little village called Penn. It's famous for several things (1) Ruth Ellis's murder victim, David Blakely, is buried in Penn Churchyard (Ruth herself - the last woman to be hanged in the UK - is buried just a few miles up the road in Amersham) as is Alison Uttley who wrote The Little Grey Rabbit books; (2) It's home to a number of popular celebs including Mary Berry, Pauline Quirke and Gabby Logan; and (3) the Cottage Bookshop.You might have seen the bookshop on your TV if, like me, you're a Midsomer Murders fan. The show is filmed all around my part of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire and the shop has featured in a couple of episodes. It also featured in an episode of Chucklevision but we'll move on, shall we?


Terry Pratchett came from this neck of the woods and based the library in his Discworld novels on the shop. It's inspired a great many people to write and to read and it's been doing that for 60 years.

I popped in this morning as I do once a week to pick up some bargains. All the books are secondhand, they're all reasonably priced and THERE ARE SO MANY - around 60,000 at any one time.

So, what's the place like? Let me set the scene: Imagine a three bedroom 18th century cottage with an extension on the back. Now imagine ripping out all the fixtures and fittings in every room. Then fill every available inch of space - on two floors - with floor to ceiling bookshelves and, when they don't all fit on the shelves, stack hundreds of books on the floor and window sills. That's the Cottage Bookshop.

I've always said that I am so very lucky to have this on my doorstep. Book shops are closing down all over the country and browsing is one of life's simple pleasures. It's also how people discover new authors. Once we had proper record shops on every High Street and I discovered many new bands that I still love to this day thanks to browsing. And bookshops performed the same function; an eye-catching cover would often lead me to pick up a book I might not have heard of. Sadly, sites like Amazon are killing the bookshops because the books are cheaper and they're delivered to your door. But equally damaging is the fact that people visit webshops when they already know what they're going to buy; there's no 'wandering around the store looking at covers' to be had on-line and browsing is slowly disappearing. And that's a tragedy.

But the even bigger tragedy is that the Cottage Bookshop is now closing. After six decades of providing secondhand books to generations of local people (and visitors - people come from hundreds of miles away to visit), the owner wants to retire and realise his assets. The business has never made much of a profit and the building itself needs a lot of work. Sadly, there's no saving it.

It's heartbreaking. But I'll be paying the place several more visits before it finally shuts its doors. And I'm going to dedicate my next novel to it, and to the ladies who work there who, unfailingly, have always seemed to be able to find the books I needed when I needed them.

End of an era.

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 fa├žade 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.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

An Englishman’s Home is his Cackle - Have we lost our love of a good literary laugh?

'Given that a lot of the fiction that people read is relatively new fiction, I think it’s striking that people’s choice of comic fiction is quite worn smooth by time.’ 
 - Extract from Open Book, January 12th 2012. BBC Radio 4. 

That was John Mullan, Professor of Literature at UCL, in 2012 commenting on the results of a listeners’ poll to create a list of the funniest books ever written. As he points out, it was a list dominated by older works penned by some of the late grand masters of comic fiction including the likes of P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Jerome K Jerome and Nancy Mitford.

But then Tom Sharpe, who made it onto the list, died the following year aged 85, and Sue Townsend, whose book The Secret Life of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ topped the list, died in 2014. Another year later, we lost David Nobbs. Those three authors alone produced some of the funniest books I’ve ever read and they created a chorus of memorable characters - Eva Wilt, Popeye Scruton and Reginald Perrin among them - who would turn up time and time again in sequels, TV and films. And, in the past couple of decades we’ve sadly had to say goodbye to many more of the finest comic writers that Britain has ever produced: George MacDonald Fraser, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Carla Lane, Alan Simpson, John Mortimer, Victoria Wood and many more.

But to whom has David Nobbs passed the baton? Where are the new Tom Sharpes?

A quick glance at any fiction chart will show you that, for some reason, there is very little new comic fiction about. TV still has occasional glimmers of genius – I’m thinking here of series like Detectorists, Fleabag and Catastrophe to give just three fine recent examples – but comic novels are in short supply. There is, admittedly, a healthy groundswell of RomCom out there with the likes of Sophie Kinsella, Helen Fielding, Mary Jayne Baker and others, and you’ll also find a reasonable amount of funny SciFi, fantasy and horror too; we may have lost giants like Adams and Pratchett but we have Jasper Fforde, Tom Holt, Robert Rankin, Christopher Moore, David Wong et al still in fine form. But in all of these instances, comedy plays second fiddle to the main genre (although, curiously, each genre only seems able to sustain just a couple of comedy superstars). But look in the comedy section of a bookshop these days and what do you find? It’s all comedians’ memoirs, TV panel show tie-ins, humorous travelogues, cartoons or collected newspaper columns by Clarkson. You won’t find many new novels. Modern comedy writers – people like Jonathan Coe, John Niven and Michael Frayn for example – have become a rarity and a bestselling comedy - such as Jonas Jonasson's 2009 The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared is as rare as hen's teeth.

I’m extremely vexed and puzzled by this state of affairs. When did comedy become relegated to just a sub-genre? We may not make the best cars, or produce the best footballers, or have the finest education system in the world anymore but surely the British are damned good at comedy aren’t we? We have more stand-up comedians than nurses (or so it seems some days). And we are the nation that gave the world Monty Python and Cold Comfort Farm, Blandings Castle and Fawlty Towers, Morecambe and Wise, Kenneth Williams and Nigel Molesworth. Don’t we pride ourselves on being able to laugh at ourselves? Isn’t GSOH the most prized of all personality traits on dating sites and app profiles? There was a time, not so very long ago, in the days when people read books on the commute to work instead of watching birds get angry or candy getting crushed, when you would see comedy books in abundance. These were also the days, incidentally, when you could see what people were reading - you can tell nothing from the cover of a tablet, e-reader or smartphone – and quite often my interest was piqued enough to buy or borrow the book for myself. But I digress. Once, not so very long ago, people heading off to work would set themselves up with a smile. It was a joy to witness the occasional uncontrollable snigger among the grey and sad creatures that shared my carriage as some paragraph in the latest Leslie Thomas or Evelyn Waugh or H E Bates tickled someone’s funnybone.

For example, my personal introduction to Tom Sharpe came when sitting on board a ‘green goddess’ riot coach with 24 tired and scared police colleagues during the Brixton Uprising of the early 1980s. In between being pelted by bricks and petrol bombs, we snacked and played cards or read. It was there that a fellow rozzer loaned me Vintage Stuff and, suddenly, I wasn’t waiting for the next call to de-bus and to put my life in danger once again. I was in France in the 1970s, watching Glodstone, a Richard Hannay-obsessed public school teacher, being pelted by raw sewage as he attempted to rescue a countess who didn’t want to be rescued from international terrorists who didn’t exist. I can’t begin to tell you how cathartic it was to snort with laughter as I turned each page. It took me far away from the grim realities of the world outside.

All of which begs the question, where has all the funny gone? Surely in this depressing post-truth era of Brexit, Trump, fracking, climate change denial, North Korea and austerity, shouldn’t we be actively seeking some escape from all the horror and nastiness? Why aren’t we reaching for the tonic that is comic fiction? We love a bit of TV satire and we trip over ourselves to enjoy a little farce; like it or loathe it, Mrs Brown’s Boys was the most-watched show on TV last Christmas Day (barring the Queen) and it pulled in a clear half a million more viewers than the misery porn that is Eastenders. Sandwiched between those two extremes was the feel-good filling of Strictly and Call the Midwife, both of which have their share of laughter. It was also great to see three comedies among the Top 10 best shows of 2017 (Detectorists, Catastrophe, Peter Kay’s Car Share) as voted for by critics in a recent Radio Times poll. But the Top 10 books of 2017 show a dearth of humour except for children’s fiction with two David Walliams books and the latest in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise by Jeff Kinney. There’s a Jamie Oliver cook book, a Guinness Book of Records, a Dan Brown, a Phillip Pullman and a Lee Child. But there are no comic novels. And yet, in 2003 – just 15 years ago – when the BBC ran The Big Read and asked the British public to vote for the top 200 novels of all time, comedy was everywhere.

Douglas Adams came in at Number 4 with The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Joseph Heller (Catch 22) at 11, Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm) at 88, Jerome K Jerome (Three Men in a Boat) at 100. Sue Townsend (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾) came in at 112, and George and Weedon Grossmith (Diary of a Nobody) came in at 186. Terry Pratchett alone had no less than 13 entries in the Top 200, or 14 if you count Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, at 68. There was also a sprinkling of Dickens, such as The Pickwick Papers, some classic funny children’s books like Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh and a great many Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson books on the list. In 2003, at least, people were still enjoying a good laugh. Are we really so po-faced these days? Don’t we yearn for a good hard guffaw?

I started this extended whinge by quoting John Mullan and his suggestion that perhaps comic fiction is like a good single malt and needs to mature and accumulate some age before we look upon it kindly. That’s certainly borne out by the polls I’ve been wading through over the past week or so. But surely we can’t just draw a line in the sand under the Millennium and say that ‘all comic fiction ends here’ and expect the books written before that to be the ones that people hold up as the best. And yet, trying to get a new comedy published if you’re not a celeb and it’s not a TV tie-in is a nightmare. My agent, a chap of great skill and experience who works at one of the top five UK agencies has been pitching some of my comic novels for several years but with no success. ‘Well, maybe they’re not good enough’, I hear you say. I accept that’s a possibility but it’s not what I’m hearing from the rejections. What I’m hearing is that the books are well written, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny and clever. One rejection even said that Tom Sharpe would have been proud to have written one of mine. But those rejections also say, ‘I’d have difficulty in placing it on our current list’ or ‘the market isn’t much interested in comedy right now’ or even ‘if you had a bigger public profile we might risk it.’ And that’s the reality; publishers are no longer producing books they like, they’re producing books that the market dictates and the market itself is driven by supermarkets and online giants like Amazon that discount everything and aim at selling to the lowest common denominator. Find a Will Self or a Salman Rushdie in Tesco and I’ll treat you to a literary lunch. And with so many bookshops shutting down, the only outlets in many towns now are the supermarkets and places like W H Smith that only seem to stock charting books.

Incidentally, it's not solely a British problem. In a recent article for Cracked, Daniel O'Brien pointed out five good reasons why comedy books are in the dumps in the USA too. Chief among them are that comedians seem to be content to write biographies but not novels (although I have no ida why he assumes that only comedians can write comic novels) and the fact that 'funny' is used indiscriminately on book covers. As he says, 'The government should honestly be able to step in and legislate the number of times publishing houses can advertise their books as "funny." The back of my copy of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections says "surprisingly funny," and I guess there are a few funny lines, but at the end of the day, it's a book about Parkinson's disease and an entire family that suffers from depression. I don't know what the criteria is for getting "funny" slapped onto the back of a book, but I have to assume it's "having a number of different words," because that's the only thing that The Great Gatsby (heartbreaking and brutal) has in common with Christopher Moore's Lamb (almost impossibly hilarious), both of which have the word "funny" printed on the back cover.'

It's a depressing picture, isn't it? And it's made all the worse by not having lots of rib-tickling new novels to read.

It's why I was so delighted to discover Unbound. They let readers decide what books they want to see published rather than some faceless accountant or supermarket chain. They're publishing books that otherwise might not have seen the light of day other than as self-published e-books. And I'm delighted to report that my first comic novel A Murder To Die For is now in shops the length and breadth of the UK. Despite having only been out for two months it already has 50+ Five Star reviews on Amazon and over 40 Five Star ratings on Goodreads. Not bad for a book aimed at a market that 'isn't much interested in comedy right now', eh?

And now I'm crowdfunding the sequel The Diabolical Club with Unbound. If you fancy an early special edition that's nicer than the trade copies that will go into the shops (though they are nice too), then please pledge now by clicking here. You'll get your name listed in the back of the book as a patron too; your name, forever, indelibly printed in every edition for as long as books exist. That's not bad for the price of a takeaway is it? And, more importantly, you'll be helping an author make a living, helping to birth a brand new book and, hopefully, giving those commuters something to giggle at.

A Murder To Die For is now available in bookshops everywhere and from online bookstores.



I read today in The Guardian that the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction is rolling over to 2018 because none of the 62 nominated books for 2017 made the judges laugh.

You couldn't make it up.

I bet they all had "funny" printed on the cover though.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

An Obsession to Die for

I was once at Comicon in San Diego when I overheard the following snickering duologue performed by a brace of Tim Burton-era Batmans:

‘Oh my God! It’s like he hasn’t even bothered!’ 
‘I’d be ashamed to go out of the Bat-cave dressed like that.’ 

As they bat-highfived each other, the object of their bat-bitching drew a pair of heavily-paned, dark-rimmed spectacles from his utility belt and perched them on his cowled nose. But that wasn’t what the caped crusaders were laughing at. It was the colour of the other Adam West-era Batman’s tights. Apparently, they were slightly the wrong colour.

Comicon attracts an extraordinary number of cosplayers whose attention to detail is microscopic, which is why something as petty as a shade of grey can send them into paroxysms of laughter or derision. But I love the fact that, even though the poor bloke in the ‘don’t look at the sun’ bins probably couldn’t even see his own legs, let alone the colour tights they were sporting, he’d made the effort. His passion ran that deep. I love that level of commitment.

(These five photos (c) Stevyn Colgan)

It’s all too easy to sneer at people who have a passion for a thing that you don’t. And, at times, their seriousness can seem quite comical to those of us outside of the loop. A friend of mine once alerted me to a video on YouTube called ‘Hang of this life’ by an artist called Daisy Hicks. He told me that I would love it. So I watched. And it was a well-written, well-performed, catchy pop song accompanied by footage of the lissom Ms Hicks stalking around inside an empty train carriage. When I next spoke to my friend I told him that I’d watched it and that it was okay but not really my kind of music. ‘What?’ he exclaimed. ‘Didn’t you read the comments? Oh man, read the comments!’

So I did. And I laughed. I laughed a lot. All of the comments were by train enthusiasts asking each other questions and arguing about the make and model of locos featured and about the fixtures and fittings in the carriage itself. There were pages of comments. All about the trains. It was only after a minute of scrolling that I eventually came to one that simply said, ‘Hey guys! Anyone notice there’s an attractive woman in the video?’

The person who is compelled to collect train numbers, or bottle tops, or postage stamps is an easy target. And yet, they are exhibiting the same compulsive behaviour that drove people to climb mountains, to explore new and uncharted lands, to invent a better steam engine, to do experiment after experiment until they found a cure for smallpox. Admittedly, having an encyclopaedic knowledge of Star Trek probably doesn’t add as much to the sum of human experience as, say, the life’s work of somebody studying weather patterns on Mars. But that doesn’t mean that we should immediately ridicule the effort. Any feat of memory requires study and that’s good for the brain. And, when harnessed and focussed, fanaticism – from which we get the word ‘fan’ of course – can be a driver for good. Passion is powerful and, even when it borders on obsession about some obscure or esoteric subject, it drives innovation.

For example, the reason we can enjoy seedless bananas today is because of one man’s obsession with greenhouses. Joseph Paxton, gardener to William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, designed and built ever-more elaborate structures, culminating in his Great Conservatory at Chatsworth. It provided the template and the engineering know-how for construction of the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. Meanwhile, Paxton was able to grow plants that almost nobody else could and, in the 1850s, he produced a sterile mutant form of banana plant – named the ‘Cavendish Banana’ after his employer – and these were propagated among plantations in the Far East to be grown in large numbers. And because they are bred by cuttings, as they have no seeds, it is likely that every banana you’ve ever eaten (and Brits eat five billion per year) was not only a Cavendish banana, but a clone of that first plant grown in the Peak District by a fanatic.

Paxton was operating during the heyday of the independent ‘Gentleman Scientist’ and, yes, there were many women doing extraordinary things too who are now starting to get the credit they justly deserve. These days, things are rather more controlled and governed by ruling bodies, but we still have joyous mavericks like Elon Musk and Stephen Wolfram and their ilk who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge and achievement all the time. And our museums and universities are bulging with specialists in some very particular areas of expertise. One of my best friends is a dipterist called Dr Erica McAlister. She works at the Natural History Museum and she absolutely adores flies. She is fascinated by everything about them and her enthusiasm is as infectious as some of her specimens. Her colleagues are all equally obsessed with their particular fields of study; so much so, in fact, that they are more often known by their speciality than by their given name. Erica is known to everyone as Fly Girl (it’s even part of her Twitter handle) and, elsewhere in the museum, you’ll meet Fish Boy, Moth Man and Earthworm Emma. I’d like to think that there’s also a Bat-Man who, hopefully, cares enough to wear the right colour tights to work. Most importantly, they all love what they do.

There is a dark side to passion and obsession, of course, especially when tribalism leads to bullying or violence, such as we see between rival football fans, or between different iterations of Batmans. Sci-fi and fantasy fans get more than their share of undeserved abuse and ridicule. I once saw a Vulcan on his way to a London convention and being laughed at by two guys further along the Tube carriage. They were wearing Liverpool football shirts and had their faces painted red. They looked like burns victims and their accents suggested to me that they’d never been north of the Watford Gap. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Who is the obsessive fan here?’ Was it the guy in the home-made Starfleet uniform, plastic ears and bad haircut? Or one of the guys who’d spent £50 on a replica home strip, was wearing make-up, and who probably supports a particular team because all of his mates do?

Tribalism can spread to the workplace too. My chum and fellow QI elf, Dan Schreiber – host of the award-winning podcast No Such Thing as a Fish - once told me a fantastic story about two rival groups of archaeologists who came to physical blows over the origin of the wheelbarrow. And, just recently, I was mesmerised by the story of a feud within the rarefied world of British mole-catchers that another friend, Terry Bergin, made me aware of. There are only three organisations that govern the UK trade - The British Mole-Catchers’ Register, the Guild of Traditional Mole-Catchers, and the Association of Professional Mole Catchers – but they are currently engaged in a war of words with each other about the quality of training offered to new mole-catchers. I love that. I love that they care so much.

I’ve long been fascinated by this aspect of human behaviour and always promised myself that, one day, I’d make it the central theme of a book. I finally did that with A Murder To Die For, a comic novel set at a murder-mystery festival. Fan groups descend upon the birthplace of crime fiction writer Agnes Crabbe for a weekend of events and most of them turn up dressed as her popular lady detective, Millicent Cutter. Rivalry between the many fan clubs is fierce and occasionally boils over into name-calling and mild violence. But then one of the cosplayers is murdered and an extra element of tribalism is added to the mix by involving the police. Much of the comedy in the book came from the clash of cultures between the professional and procedurally-driven police and the various clubs who refuse to work together but all want to solve the crime. It was an absolute joy to write as I am a huge fan of classic crime-fiction and, because I spent three decades working as a police officer in London, I had a good insight into how both ‘sides’ would react to events.

It’s good to be passionate about something, whether it’s a particular TV show, restoring an antique car, trimming your Chinese privet into the shapes of Disney characters, or discovering a new species of fly. That kind of obsessive behaviour is hardwired into us and it’s what makes a Pokemon fan want to catch ‘em all and a scientist want to spend the best years of their life hunched over a microscope and chasing a cure for cancer.

Fanatics, I salute you.

But please don’t laugh at me if I’m not doing the right salute.

A Murder To Die For is in the shops now and is available wherever books are sold online e.g. Amazon.

The campaign to crowdfund the sequel The Diabolical Club can be found HERE.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Quisting the Quisty Quister

As you'll know by now, if you've read A Murder To Die For, I have a character called Gavin Quisty. He's a super-smart Detective Chief Inspector with an extraordinary ability to connect facts together; he's kind of a Sherlock Holmes for the internet age - with maybe a smattering of Dirk Gently and Jonathan Creek thrown in for good measure - but quite different from all three. I can't remember how I arrived at his name. It's not, as far as I know, a real surname (although Quist is a Scandinavian surname). I just liked the fact that it had echoes of quiz and questing in it.

So imagine my delight when my good friend, the author Dr Sarah Marr, pointed this out to me yesterday (from "Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed", Gelett Burgess, 1914).

I think it works rather well, don't you? Did I read the word 'quisty' somewhere in an older book I wonder? No matter. It's mine now! 

Incidentally, I have been working on a series of Quisty short stories, all involving him and his sidekick Kim Woon solving some seemingly impossible crimes. I may release them at some point in the future.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

So many tables ...

I am humbled, excited, overjoyed at how many bookshops have chosen to display A Murder To Die For on tables. Not quite from Lands End to John O'Groats (but definitely from Edinburgh to Truro), the tables are piling up! I'm a happy bunny.