Friday, 28 July 2017

The Origin of the Species

I was sorting out some files on my computer yesterday when I came across my very first pitch for A Murder To Die For.

This was back in 2004!

However, the time wasn't right; my agent was pushing me towards non-fiction books and, sure enough, that's what I wrote for the next ten years.

However, in 2015 I decided that I wanted to break into fiction. Over the previous two decades I'd written thirteen novels and so I pitched the strongest of these to my regular publishers, Unbound. And they liked it. So I went into their offices to discuss it and something odd happened ... when asked whether I saw the novel as a one off or as part of a series, I explained that I had a series in mind and described the plots to them. 'They're great!' they said. 'But we'd like the murder mystery one first.'

That, of course, was A Murder To Die For. So, I went away and wrote it.

I very quickly decided that it should be set at a murder-mystery convention so that we could have lots of cosplay. I also decided to base the convention around the work of a single writer called Agnes Crabbe. As a name, Agnes Crabbe was an obvious nod to Agatha Christie but what to call her greatest creation? Her lady detective started life as Miss Lettice Quimper but I knew that it wasn't right. Names are important (see here). She then became Miss Magnolia Chetwynd but still wasn't quite right. But then, after I'd completed the first draft, the name Millicent Cutter came to me and it was just right. It was even better when a friend suggested that the fans could be called 'Millies'. That would never have worked with Lettice or Magnolia.

Eight months later I delivered the manuscript.

And now you can read it ... fourteen years after that first pitch.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Beautiful Words, Beautiful Birds

I was invited to a book launch last night by the cover artist of A Murder To Die For, the supremely talented Neil Gower. Neil has collaborated with award-winning writer Alex Preston to produce a stunning book called As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

It's a series of chapters, each about a particular bird in which Alex draws on his own experiences and love of birds and combines it with literary references and descriptions of those birds by writers and poets. Each chapter is fronted by a stunning painting by Neil. It's a thing of love and beauty.

Neil had brought all of the original paintings with him and, when I arrived, he was lining them all up for display along the bookshelves. The venue for the launch was Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street, a stunning old non-chain bookshop of the kind that's slowly disappearing, sadly. We got a quick selfie in before the majority of the crowds arrived.

Alex and Neil gave lovely speeches from the minstrel's gallery in which their passion for this project shone through. Then we all got down to the serious business of chatting and drinking and celebrating the creation of what will become a treasured book of mine in years to come.

Now, roll on my own book launch in January!

(Last two photos by Andy Miller)

Monday, 10 July 2017

Murder at Liberty

So, what connects Liberty - the famous store in Regent Street, London, and the hugely popular and succesful Midsomer Murders TV show?

There is a tiny, picturesque village, about seven miles from where I live, curiously called The Lee. I don't suppose there are many English villages with the word 'The' in front - I know that Westward Ho! is the only one with an exclamation mark - but The Lee is one of them. It's a cluster of pretty cottages around a lovely village green and pond, and has a beautiful manor house once owned by the Liberty family, the people who founded and built the iconic London store. They also pretty much built The Lee.

You may know that the Liberty store was built using timbers from two ships, HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan (the length of the store front was set by the length of the Hindustan). Well, there's another reminder of this fact as you drive into the village and are treated to the sight of the figurehead of HMS Impregnable, a sculpture of Lord Howe, looming out at you as you pass a house called 'Pipers', where the Liberty family still live. The Liberty influence is everywhere; store founder Arthur Liberty built new cottages, created the village green, sank a new well and maintained the village as part of his estate when he owned the manor.

He also built a new pub for the locals, The Cock and Rabbit Inn (The Carry On films couldn't have chosen a much better name), which, quite apart from being a pretty little village pub, is a very good Italian restaurant with portion sizes that are huge for the price. But the very best thing about the pub is that it is almost unchanged since the 1970s. While other pubs have installed giant plasma screens, loud music, stainless steel beer engines and video games, this place has patterned carpets, dark oak panelling and brass fixtures, insanely decorous tablecloths, and a log fire. It's amazing. The photos don't do it it justice I'm afraid. They were taken on my phone in low light on a dark and stormy evening last autumn but you get the gist I hope. Anyhow, fantastic food and wonderfully friendly hosts - you coudn't ask for a nicer evening out.

But there is a little extra treat in store for you, especially if you like a certain TV detective show ...

The Lee, like many villages on the border of South Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, has appeared in more than a few episodes of Midsomer Murders. As the owners of the pub, Franco and Victoria joked to me, 'It's a miracle we have any customers left'. The pub itself has also featured in several episodes and has a Midsomer memorabilia wall.

There are signed photos of the stars, props and posters and leaflets and even some pages of script. For a murder mystery fan like me, it's a delicious visual digestif to an excelllent meal.

A Murder To Die For has a pub called The Happy Onion in which quite a lot of the action happens. I had the The Cock and Rabbit Inn very much in my head as I ws writing those scenes.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Never mind the fuel efficiency, look at the curves

As part of the research process for A Murder To Die For I spent quite a lot of my time in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the novel is set in the present day, the plot centres - to some degree - around the life and works of a fictional crime fiction writer called Agnes Crabbe and her lady detective, Miss Millicent Cutter. Their story pretty much takes place between the wars and I immersed myself in the style and the fashion of the era to get a sense of it. And from a very early stage in the writing process I knew exactly what Miss Cutter would look like.

Model, actor and socialite Louise Brooks was sassy, tomboyish and seductive. She had an amazing life - hedonistic, scandalous and enigmatic (there's a nice Arena documentary about her which someone has kindly put up on YouTube here) - but ultimately tragic towards the end of her life as she was forgotten by Hollywood and ended up almost in penury. She was an icon of 20's 'flapper' society and the silent movie era and she is exactly how I see Miss Cutter.

I quite fell in love with Ms Brooks during the novel's progress. But I also fell head over heels for the gorgeous Art Deco curves of 1920s and 1930s transport. Now, I don't know much about cars or bikes or trains and, whenever I think about those decades, all I see in my head are Model T Fords. What I hadn't expected was to find was vehicles of such staggering beauty as this 1930 Henderson KJ Slimline motorcycle:

How beautiful is that? It looks like Batman's spare batbike. And how about this 1937 Delahaye 135MS Roadster?

Or this 1939 Bugatti Type 57c cabriolet:

Even the trains were gorgeous. We all know the Mallard in the UK but how about this New York Central Mercury engine from 1936? Oh my. These were vehicles designed to be streamlined ... but sexy as well.

I look at today's diesel trains and utterly boring hatchback saloon cars and I long for the days when money wasn't the primary method of valuing something. In my last book Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road? I recounted a story told by advertising guru Rory Sutherland: 'Eurostar wanted suggestions on how to improve the service. Engineers came up with a £6 billion solution that involved laying a whole new set of tracks and faster trains that got you to the coast 40 minutes earlier. It strikes me that it’s a pretty unimaginative way of improving a train journey just to make it faster. They could have put on decent wi-fi and had all of the world’s top male and female supermodels wandering up and down the carriages serving Château Pétrus for the entire journey instead and they’d have saved around £3 billion. I’m pretty sure passengers would see this as an improvement and people would actually be asking for the trains to go slower.’ Yes, petrol is expensive. That's why your car is shaped like a jelly mould. But one glorious day, when renewable energy makes vehicles cheap to run, maybe we can have some style and elan back again. And maybe our vehicles will once again be as beautiful as those they enjoyed nearly 100 years ago.