Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Name's Afoot!

It won’t be apparent to you at the moment but, once you get your mitts on a copy of A Murder To Die For, you’ll see that many of the characters sport unusual surnames.

This is no accident.

I love names. And names are important when you’re creating characters.

Imagine, for example, if Ian Fleming had decided to name his most famous creation Trevor Lillicrap instead of James Bond. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Trevor Lillicrap; it’s a perfectly respectable name. But does it sound like a spy’s name? If it doesn’t, you might argue that it’s because we’ve got used to the name James Bond. But if you were writing a spy thriller tomorrow would you call your womanising, hell-raising, licence to kill character Trevor Lillicrap? Or Colin Bamforth? Or Peter Tubby?

A name can work as a kind of shortcut for the reader. Rightly or wrongly, we associate certain names with certain characteristics and traits. If I write a name – say, Pamela Utterthwaite – you’ll form an impression of what Pamela looks and sounds like. If I call her Nikki Crick or Amelia Courtnay-Huskins you’ll form different impressions. Partly, this is due to a kind of mild synaesthesia, a curious blending of our senses, that affects us all. It means that our brains merge sound and vision. For example, which of these characters is called Bouba and which is Kiki?

Chances are that you’ll have picked the name Kiki for the spiky figure and Bouba for the blobby figure – 99% of people do, wherever they are from in the world and whatever language they speak - because the names ‘sound’ spiky and blobby. Some scientists believe that this facility for ‘seeing’ sounds may have helped to kickstart the evolution of language.

Picking the right names for your characters is one of the fun parts of writing. You can take a kind of nominative deterministic route – picking a name that in some way reflects the person’s character – by creating a killer called Butcher or a sex worker called Gotobed or a torturer called Payne, but that is a little obvious. You can also reference other people or characters that inspired your character, like Dan Brown did when he named Sir Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code; the name is a semi-anagram made from Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the book that influenced Brown’s plot. And the name of Hugh Laurie’s hugely popular TV character House is an homage to Sherlock Holmes due to the nature of his deductive reasoning. The character even lives at 221B Baker Street.

Because my book is set in a fictional village in a fictional county that is quite old-fashioned and olde-worlde, I deliberately set out to find lovely old English surnames, particularly ones that aren’t so common these days. And I found some wonderful examples: Crantlemain, Tradescant, Wilderspin, Handibode, Nithercott. There’s something lovely about the way that three syllables roll off the tongue: Horningtop, Berrycloth, Pomerance, Gawkrodger. Of course, they weren’t all three syllables long; I also found Shunters, Greeleys, Feblands, Sallows and Raynotts.

Although I haven't used them in this book, I'm also quite fond of names that defy conventional pronunciation. It's a lovely British quirk that we pronounce Marjoribanks as ‘march-banks’, Chalmondeley as ‘chum-lee’, Horseflesh as 'hoe-flay' and Featherstonehaugh, bizarrely, as ‘fan-shore’. Another famous one is Menzies, which, as this limerick cleverly shows, is pronounced in a most counterintuitive way:

A lively young damsel named Menzies Inquired: 
"Do you know what this thenzies?" 
Her aunt, with a gasp, Replied: 
"It's a wasp, 
And you're holding the end where the stenzies.” 

I did include two as place-names, however. The book takes place in the fictional county of South Herewardshire, which should properly be pronounced as ‘hur-wurd-shur’ and the town of Bowcester, is pronounced as ‘boaster’. At least in my head it does.

I delight in finding interesting names and I often find them in books and history documentaries. Occasionally I find them in real life; on one particular day in the 1990s when I was still a policeman I met two neighbours engaged in a bitter dispute over the position of a fence. They were called Boggis and Sparrowcock. What a fantastic buddy cop movie duo they would be.

Another favourite source is churches; I may be a humanist but I can’t deny the beauty of these buildings and I love wandering around them, reading the memorials and the headstones outside in the graveyards. We filmed part of the promotional video for A Murder To Die For in Bradenham, Buckinghamshire, near where I live, and I found these crackers in the churchyard of St Botolph’s (another great name):

Christopher Robin St Quintin Wall and Francesca Giovanna Maria Fummi. 

Nigel Montagu Finch-Hatton.

Vice Admiral Mortimer Lestrange Silver. And just last week I found a marvelously monickered chap in the church yard in Penn village called Hakesly Gravestock. There’s a kind of poetry to some names isn’t there? And, who knows … one day I may use some parts of those names in one of my future novels.

Have you come across any fantastic names? If so, leave a comment and share them on here. I’d love to hear them.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Now and Then

I'm part of a group on Facebook that posts photos of local places as they are now compared to in the past. And this week I was particularly struck by this old photo from nearby West Wycombe (posted by a lady called Susie Chester):

And the reason it struck me is because it was taken from very near the spot where I was standing when we filmed the promotional video for A Murder To Die For. It's in Church Lane looking down towards Church Loft. You can see the video here, but here's a still:

We hadn't originally intended to use this location. We'd planned to use the curiously creepy Dashwood Mausoleum on top of the hill but there was another film crew there filming scenes for Bridget Jones' Baby (This area, on the South Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire borders is very photogenic and gets used for filming in many shows, most notably Midsomer Murders. Close to London you see. And Pinewood and Shepperton Studios.). But I'm glad that we ended up where we did. The location was just right.

All of the buildings in the older photo are still there and so is the pump that you can see the children using. It's still in situ outside the old vicarage although it's not in use any more. It too features in the video:

The West Wycombe website also has some lovely old photos of Church Lane looking up the hill:

And here's me, wittering on, and standing just alittle way behind where that group is standing on the right:

Isn't it lovely when things are preserved like that? And isn't it fantastic that someone took the time to collate all of these images onto a public access site? We're very lucky around here to have the SWOP - Sharing Wycombe's Old Photographs - site. Every town and village and city should be lucky enough to have their own equivalent.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Dad's Legacy of MURDER ...

Today, the 13th May, is something of a landmark for me but not in any happy way. It marks the 26th anniversary of my father dying unexpectedly, and tragically young at the age of just 51, and with one of his great ambitions unrealised.

Like me, Dad was a career cop. He specialised in homicide. And, like me, he was passionate about writing. Under his pen-name of Myghal Colgan (his birthname was Michael), he had many articles and features published, mostly in Cornish and country interest magazines and newspapers. But, deep down, he wanted to tell stories. And, being a proud Cornishman, he wanted to tell stories about Cornish people set in Cornish locations.

In the mid-late 1980s he began work on a novel. In order to ensure that the historical details were correct, he spent over a year on pre-internet research; visiting libraries and reading endless books.Set in 1931 and titled The Chief Constable Regrets, his story involved the systematic murder of surviving members of a platoon from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry who had fought together in WWI. I can remember long telephone conversations with him as he told me about some fact he'd uncovered and how he planned to incorporate it into the book. I can also remember his frustration over never seeming to find the time to write it. He was an exceptional detective and much in demand, often spending weeks away from home on some investigation or other. My family lived in West Cornwall but the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary covers a huge area and an investigation in Plymouth or Exeter would take him 90-150 miles away from his typewriter. No laptops back then, of course. He looked forward to his imminent retirement when he'd have the time to devote to his novel.

But then on 13th May 1991, cruelly just a few months after he'd retired, Dad suffered a massive and fatal heart attack. It took a little while to sort out his affairs and part of that involved me going through a box of floppy discs that he'd used to store work done on his old Amstrad word processor. I went through the files and converted his documents to a format which means that I still have them safely backed up and preserved for posterity to this day. But there was no trace of a novel among the discs or on his processor’s 256k onboard memory. What he’d written, if indeed he'd written anything, seemed to have been tragically lost. But then, while sorting through some box files of material that Dad had accumulated while researching our family tree, my brother Si found some pages of notes relating to the novel and 24 printed pages of text comprising the first three chapters of the book. His notes seem to suggest that maybe this is how far he got.

We'll never be entirely sure but I'd like to think that everything he wrote has been saved. (That newspaper article he's not-so-subtly displaying in the photo above is one that he wrote and illustrated. Oh, and he wasn't a nudist. Honestly. There are shorts there if you look.)

In the quarter century since he died people have suggested to me that I finish The Chief Constable Regrets. I would genuinely love to. But, sadly, I have no idea how. There are no clues to how he imagined the plot to run and, while he left notes regarding the characters, I cannot be sure who commits the murders (although I have a shrewd idea). However, Dad's novel - or some of it at least - will finally see the light of day because I've incorporated some of it into A Murder To Die For.

My story takes place at a festival celebrating the life and works of crime fiction writer Agnes Crabbe and I'm using extracts from Dad's book in the novel to represent her prose. Whenever one of my characters reads any of her work, what they'll actually be reading is some of The Chief Constable Regrets. It means that some of Dad's unfinished first novel will get to be published. I think that he'd have liked that.

I just wish I could tell him.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Top Globs! (4,4) An individual entry made by a blogger

I crowdfunded the production of A Murder To Die For with the innovative and award-winning publishing house Unbound. And, in order to bring in some new subscribers, I ran various competitions and promotions. By far the most popular was my Agatha Christie cryptic puzzle.

Hidden in this poster are the titles of 12 works by the great author. Can you spot them all? (Left click on the image for an even larger version.)

It caught a few people out but there were worthy winners too. If you want to know the answers, left click here (or right click and open in new tab).

And if you enjoyed that, buy the novel!

It contains a further 10 Agatha Christie novels that have been turned into anagrams of proper names. So, for example, I might have hidden The Pale Horse as the name ‘Peter Holeash’, or I could have turned Giant’s Bread into a place name like ‘East Brading’.

As it happens, I didn’t use either of those in the book. But I did use ten others.

So, buy the book and good luck finding them all!

Monday, 1 May 2017

Pardon me, I just farced

Farce (noun) - A comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable.

I love farce. I’m a farce-oholic.

Some of my earliest memories involve dark, wet Sunday afternoons sat in front of the TV with my family, watching old British comedy films on the BBC. You’ll know many of the films I’m talking about: Whisky Galore!, Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykillers, The Man in the White Suit, The Naked Truth, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, Two Way Stretch … I could go on and on. From the mid 1940s up until the mid 1960s, the UK produced hundreds of wonderful comedies, often mistakenly pulled together under the banner of ‘Ealing comedies’. In fact, Ealing Studios didn’t make that many, but studios at Pinewood, Elstree, Beaconsfield – curiously all close to where I live and in the area that inspired my fictional county of South Herewardshire - were churning them out by the dozen, directed by wonderful people like Mario Zampi, the Boulting Brothers and Michael Balcon. What all of these films had in common was that they were very British, they nearly always involved a simple plot that quickly became very complicated and confused, they involved elements of slapstick and, perhaps most importantly, the bad guys – even if you were rooting for them – never quite got away with it. And, of course, they were very, very funny. Pure farce.

Bernard Cribbens, David Lodge and Peter Sellers in Two Way Stretch

As I got older I discovered farce at the theatre. I roared with laughter at Michael Frayn’s Noises off, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest, Nöel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and the Marriott and Foote classic No Sex Please, we’re British! On TV too, the tradition continued with sitcoms from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin to One Foot in the Grave to Blackadder. Fawlty Towers pretty much tops with list with 12 episodes of pure unadulterated farce. And then there are the films of Laurel and Hardy, arguably the greatest farceurs of all time.

The greatest farceurs of all time in a scene from Busy Bodies.

My first real literary encounter with farce was Wilde’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime which had me in stitches (I later went on to play the anarchist Herr Winkelkopf in a pro-am stage production for which I got pretty good reviews despite my dodgy German accent). Then I discovered P G Wodehouse and David Nobbs and Richard Gordon and I was hooked. But the star, for me, was the late great Tom Sharpe. I first discovered his books in the early 1980s. I must have read every one of them a dozen times since. He wrote darkly comic satires about apartheid (Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure) and the publishing industry (The Great Pursuit). He spoofed the ‘Boys Own’ style adventure genre with Vintage Stuff and poked fun at the landed gentry in Blott on the Landscape and Ancestral Vices. They are beautifully written, savage, visceral and uproariously funny books. And I wondered to myself whether, one day, I could write something of my own to join the genre.

 Well, it took me over a decade but here it is. A Murder To Die For brings together three things: my 30 years of experience as a cop, my love of classic murder mysteries, and my deep and abiding passion for farce.

Farce isn’t dead.

It’s just hiding in the wardrobe with no trousers on and the vicar has come to tea.