Friday, 23 June 2017

The Rules

While I was writing A Murder To Die For, I did quite a lot of research into the murder mystery genre. While I'd always enjoyed reading crime fiction books, I'd never written one before - barring a few short stories - and I was keen to understand how such stories were put together by 'Golden Age' authors like Christie, Marsh, Chesterton and Sayers. And I discovered that there had been several genuine attempts to set 'rules' for detective fiction.

In 1928, the following list of 20 Rules appeared in the September edition of The American Magazine. They were written by author S S Van Dine (1888-1939) - real name Willard Huntington Wright) - whose wealthy amateur sleuth Philo Vance remains one of the most pompous, pretentious, insufferable detectives in fiction (Some of Van Dine's contemporaries noted that the character was not unlike the author). However, he was hugely popular.

So here are the rules (I have removed some of the finer detail to reduce reading time. If you want to see the full thing, click here).

Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2. No wilful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3. There must be no love interest in the story.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions - not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. 

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice.

8. The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic seances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo.

9. There must be but one detective - that is, but one protagonist of deduction - one deus ex machine. 

10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story- that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

11. Servants- such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like - must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent - provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by house-breakers and bandits are the province of the police department - not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of:

  • Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. 
  • The bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. 
  • Forged finger-prints. 
  • The dummy-figure alibi. 
  • The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. 
  • The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspect. 
  • The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. 
  • The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. 
  • The word-association test for guilt. 
  • The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth. 

Okay, have you got all that? Good.

Then, in 1929, the British author and theologian Ronald Knox also made an attempt to create his own (mercifully) shorter Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction. They are that:

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

9. The ‘sidekick’ of the detective - the ‘Watson’ - must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

I can think of murder-mysteries that break all 30 rules. And I broke a few myself with my book. But rules are made to be broken ... aren't they?

Thursday, 15 June 2017

My Top 5 Favourite Comedy Novels

Okay, so, what do the following people have in common (despite all having passed on)?

Douglas Adams, Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge, H E Bates, W E Bowman, T E B Clarke, Richmal Crompton, Roald Dahl, Stella Gibbons, George and Weedon Grossmith, Harry Harrison, Jerome K Jerome, George MacDonald Fraser, Alan Hackney, Compton Mackenzie, Spike Milligan, John Mortimer, Frank Muir, David Nobbs, Stephen Potter, Terry Pratchett, Frank Richards, Willie Rushton, W C Sellar and R J Yeatman, Tom Sharpe, Evelyn Waugh, Leonard Wibberley, Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, P G Wodehouse ... I could go on.

The answer is that they all wrote comic novels.

But who is writing comic novels now?

There's a surprising lack of new British comedy in fiction these days. There was a time when bookshop shelves groaned with the weight of rib-ticklers by Michael Frayn, Richard Gordon, Stella Gibbons, E F Benson ... but now, not so much. Or so it seems to me anyway. Mind you, finding a good bookshop isn't so easy either. There's still a lot of comedy around in children's and young adults' books. And there are a lot of very funny writers, such as Helen Fielding, Jenny Colgan, Wendy Holden, Candace Bushnell, Sophie Kinsella etc., who produce work for the female reader market. Comedy has also flourished in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, boasting such superstars as Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde, Tom Holt, Robert Rankin et al. But when it comes to generalist mainstream comedy, I see little. Yes, there are authors like Jonathan Coe, John Niven and Nick Hornby who write fantastic books that have a comic edge to them. But they are few and far between.

There was a time when I would eagerly look forward to the new David Nobbs, or the latest George MacDonald Fraser or Tom Sharpe in eager anticipation. But, with so many of these great humorists now sadly gone, I find myself struggling to find the next novel that will have me tittering out loud on the train. That's part of the reason why I decided to write A Murder To Die For and the other novels that will (hopefully) follow it; to add a much-needed smile to that commute to work when all around are reading doom and gloom in their newspapers.

Meanwhile, here are my personal - and it can only be personal - favourite Top 5 British comedy novels. I've deliberately excluded sci-fi and fantasy here or the list would have read: Douglas Adams, Douglas Adams, Douglas Adams ... These are all books that I can go back to and read time and time again and always find something to chuckle at. The photos are of my own beaten and bashed and well-thumbed copies.

5 - Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome.

I must have read this book 20 times. It's one of only two books that I am not ashamed to admit that I've paid quite a lot for in order to own a first edition (the other being One-Upmanship by Stephen Potter, the 1952 book that inspired the Ealing comedy School for Scoundrels). Jerome's classic tale of idle chaps (and a dog) taking a short holiday on the Thames for their health will always make me smile. The humour is surprisingly modern and it really is hard sometimes to remember that this is a book from 1889. There are so many wonderful comic set pieces - it's a book that everyone should read at least once. Or, if you fancy an audio experience instead, search out either the audiobook, or the Olivier Award nominated one man show, both by Jeremy Nicholas. I don't think his interpretation can be beaten. Curiously, Jerome seems to have been something of a one hit wonder; the sequel, Three Men on the Bummel is just ... not geat.

4 - The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser.

MacDonald Fraser is much better known for his Flashman books, of course, in which he takes up the story of Rugby School's most notorious bully. I love them all but The Pyrates is a stand-alone gem. Long before Pirates of the Caribbean came along, MacDonald Fraser had already brilliantly lampooned the genre. He introduces us to the ridiculously square-jawed and handsome hero Long Ben Avery and his quest to gather all of the pieces of the Madagascar Crow and to win the heart of Lady Vanity. Along the way we meet the psychotic Firebeard, canny Calico Jack Rackham and the Gucci booted and impossibly buxom Black Sheba. He creates a fantasy alternative universe in which pirates listen to Tortuga FM and have union meetings, and where a buccaneer can't end a sentence without adding 'wi' a curse!' It's a joyous read from bow to stern and it wonderfully pays tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood and a hundred stories from the Boy's Own Paper.

3 - The Molesworth Saga by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle.

Chiz! Chiz! Why isn't Molesworth at the topp at Number 1? It was a close call. To be honest, all of my Top 5 are all so beloved that, frankly, you could shuffle them and I'd still be happy. The four Molesworth books, illustrated energetically by the late great Ronald Searle, never stop being funny. If you've never heard of St Custards School, think of it as the boys' equivalent of St Trinians (also a Searle creation). And even though many anachronisms of the English public school system may have gone (although many haven't) we can still revel in the childhood adventures of Molesworth, Molesworth 2, Peason, Grabber, Fotherington-Thomas and the masters. It's also worth seeking out Simon Brett's very funny tribute, Molesworth Rites Again, in which we catch up with the little rascal as an adult. Great British comedy classics all, as any fule kno.

2 - Hot Water by P G Wodehouse.

How do you pick a favourite P G Wodehouse novel? He wrote 71 of them plus plays, short stories and lots more. Should I pick a story about Blandings Castle? Or Jeeves and Wooster? Or Ukridge? Or Psmith? In the end I went for the one that made me laugh the most on first reading (they've all made me laugh). Hot Water doesn't feature any of Wodehouse's more famous characters. It centres instead on one Packy Franklyn, a millionaire ex-American footballer, engaged to Lady Beatrice Bracken and staying in England. A chance meeting with a publicly dry Senator leads to all hell breaking loose when a letter written by the Senator to his booze bootlegger is used as a tool for blackmail. As always it's farce of the first water with incompetent safe-blowers, idiot ambassadors, confused identities and, always, Wodehouse's trademark eye for the perfect metaphor. Set in France at the seaside resort of Ch√Ęteau Blissac, this was a book written in 1932 at the height of Plum's powers. And it shows.

1 - The Throwback by Tom Sharpe.

I first encountered Tom Sharpe on a police riot coach during the Brixton Uprising in the early 80s. We were often held on such coaches for hours on end as we waited to be deployed to tackle pockets of disorder. A colleague had finished reading his copy of Blott on the Landscape and offered it to me. I loved it immediately. It was savage. It was clever. It was hilarious. I laughed from start to finish. And the laughter helped me to cope with what was a dangerous and stressful time. I went on to read everything that Sharpe wrote many times over. And it was almost impossible to choose a favourite as he only wrote 16 and he didn't ever write a bad book. In the end, it came down to a shortlist of Ancestral Vices, Vintage Stuff and the book that won, The Throwback. If I look at things objectively, I'd probably have to say that Wilt is his best book. But The Throwback just makes me laugh more. It's the tale of Lockhart Flawse, a temporarily disinherited young nobleman sent out into the world by the grandfather who raised him and challenged to find and identify his father so that he can be thrashed to within an inch of his life. Along the way, the terrifyingly unworldly Lockhart destroys the lives of many people in a variety of increasingly terrible but hilarious ways and wins the love of his life. Throughout the book you'll find dogs on LSD, human taxidermy and IRA explosions all added into the gloriously anarchic mix. I've read this book so often that I've destroyed two different editions (all with cover illustrations by the great Paul Sample) and I recently treated myself to a new complete set of Sharpe's books. The saddest thing about them is knowing that there will be no more.

Naturally, there were plenty of also-rans ... 1066 and All That by W C Sellar and R J Yeatman, The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W E Bowman, Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge, Doctor in the House by Richard Gordon, The Commitments by Roddy Doyle, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, W G Grace's Last Case by Willie Rushton, Nice Work by David Lodge, The Foxglove Saga by Auberon Waugh, The Virgin Soldiers by Leslie Thomas, The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, The Better World of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs, Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding, The Darling Buds of May by H E Bates, Towards the end of the Morning by Michael Frayn, Mapp and Lucia by E F Benson, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Puckoon by Spike Milligan, Whiskey Galore by Compton Mackenzie ... to name just a few.

There's no right or wrong to 'Best of' lists of course. Like art, taste in comedy is subjective. But I do advise you to read all of the books I've mentioned. They're all quite brilliant and if I can achieve even 1/10th of their brilliance in my books I'll be a very happy man.

I wonder what would be in your Top 5?

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Forgotten Tibby

Ever heard of T E B 'Tibby' Clarke?

I can't say that I'm surprised. He's kind of been pushed out of comedy writing history by other famous names. And yet, we should be singing Tibby's name from the rooftops as he was instrumental in creating the classic British comedy film, including several hugely well-known films made by Ealing Studios. His scripts always feature careful logical development from a slightly absurd premise to a farcical conclusion. The man was a genius.

Thomas Ernest Bennett Clarke (1907-1989) was the writer of such classics as: Hue and Cry (d. Charles Crichton, 1946), Passport to Pimlico (d. Henry Cornelius, 1949), and The Titfield Thunderbolt (d. Crichton, 1953). His biggest success came with crime caper The Lavender Hill Mob (d. Crichton, 1951) for which he was awarded the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1952.

Of the 15 films he wrote at Ealing, just under half - seven - were comedies. But his serious films were equally influential, particularly The Blue Lamp (d. Dearden, 1950) which, as you'll doubtless be aware, gave birth to the TV series Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76).

He would later break into Hollywood with screenplays for films like A Tale of Two Cities (d. Ralph Thomas, 1958) and Sons and Lovers (d. Jack Cardiff, 1960),

Alongside his work in film, he produced a number of novels (a film version of his book Two and Two make Five gave Benny Hill his big screen debut), as well as unusual pieces of non-fiction such as Intimate Relations or Sixty Years a Bastard (1971). One of his last works, Murder at Buckingham Palace (1981), provided 'documentary' evidence of a murder in the Royal household supposedly covered up in 1935. It was all fiction, of course, but years ahead of other 'fiction as fact' books and TV shows.

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1960 and received an OBE in 1952.

There's a nice little clip of Tibby talking about The Lavender Hill Mob on YouTube here.

And as today would have been his 110th birthday, I declare June 7th as Tibby Day.

The man gave me so much pleasure, and still does. If I could write farces half as good as he could, I'd be twice as happy.