Saturday, 15 September 2018

Happy birthday Agatha

It's Agatha Christie's birthday today.

She died in 1976 at the age of 86 and, staggeringly, produced 73 novels (66 murder mystery), 28 collections, 16 plays, 2 biographies and a handful of broadcast works and poems in her lifetime.

But, as prolific as she was, the quality never seemed to suffer. She is still the third most published author in human history, having sold over two billion books - a record broken only by the Bible and Shakespeare.

I've been a fan of her work for longer than I can remember. In fact, one of my earliest television memories is of seeing Rene Clair's 1945 version of And Then There Were None on a wintry weekend evening (a dark and stormy night?) with my family and being thrilled by it. I've since read all of her crime novels and also those of her 'Golden Age' contemporaries - Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and more. And, of course, I've read Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories too.

So, when I came to write what became first published novel, a murder mystery seemed to be the natural genre to attempt. A 30 year career in the police service helped too; I've seen more than a few homicides and hundreds of crime scenes. Throwing my knowledge of real-life policing against my love of murder mystery fiction created the delicious tension from which most of the novel's comedy is generated. A Murder To Die For is set at a murder mystery festival weekend celebrating the life and works of crime writer Agnes Crabbe - my thinly-disguised version of Agatha Christie. Crabbe's most popular fictional detective is Miss Millicent Cutter, a younger and saucier Miss Marple, and most of the festival-goers turn up dressed as her, Then, on the first day of the festival, one of the fans is murdered. It then becomes a race between the procedurally-driven police and the murder mystery fans to solve the crime, a job made much more difficult by the fact that the victim, witnesses, and very possibly the murderer, are all dressed as Miss Cutter.

Writing a murder mystery is no easy task and, while going through the process, my respect for Christie grew exponentially. To turn out at least one new crime fiction novel every year for 66 years is a staggering feat. Admittedly, the method of killing is very similar in many of her books - having been a chemist, her knowledge of poisons was excellent - but the plots are always extremely clever and leave the reader guessing until the last page.

Writing such a novel requires an extraordinary level of planning. You need to know where every person is at any one time. You need to create back-stories and descriptions to ensure that the players don't act out of character. I even needed to create a map of my fictional village to ensure that people's movements make sense, If Christie was able to keep all of that content in her head while writing (and writing without the luxury of word processing don't forget), she must have been some kind of genius. 

Luckily, she was a genius. And she was the first British woman to learn how to surf standing up.


She was.

So happy birthday Dame Agatha. And thank you for all of the entertainment, inspiration and murders most foul.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs

Frasier - in my opinion the finest sitcom ever to come out of the US - is 25 years old today and Vanity Fair has published a fantastic oral history that includes many of the cast and creators. Read and enjoy.

Here's the link.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The Writer's Day

(Originally posted on my old blog in March 2017. The Cottage Bookshop has since tragically closed and the Red Lion is up for sale! What did I do?!?!)

8.30am - Tea, granola, enter office. Start researching/writing/editing.

10am - Tea. More research/writing/editing.

11am - Elevenses. More tea. A Brief check of emails, social media etc. Then more research/writing/editing.

12pm - Meet a writer chum for a snifter at the Red Lion in Penn Village. Enjoy a well kept pint of ale, chat about author-ish things, admire ducks in pond, fawn over a chap's vintage Bugatti.

1pm - Raid Penn Cottage Bookshop for goodies.

2pm - Take dogs for yomp o'er fields and woodlands behind the house. Enjoy sunshine and watch the chemtrails poisoning the angels (one for the conspiracy nuts there).

3pm - Tea and a return to researching/writing/editing.

4pm - Tiffin. More tea and a hot cross bun obscenely buttered. Make stock from yesterday's chicken carcase. Return to researching/writing/editing.

6.30pm - Finish for the day. Exit office.

7pm - Cook evening meal (chicken, chorizo and asparagus risotto using fresh stock) and be sociable. Tea.

Amount earned: £0.00

Quality of life improved: Immeasurably.

Happiness levels: Medium to high.

Monday, 3 September 2018

The Denham Massacre

I visited the delightfully pretty Denham Village today to meet author and fellow ex-cop Neil Watson. I was accompanied by ex-BBC radio producer Andy Aliffe, a chum of mine with whom I do a show on local radio. We'd come to interview Neil about his book, The Denham Massacre, and to find out more about the case. Neil is the leading authority on the massacre and his knowledge is encyclopaedic.

The incident took place in May 1870, when seven members of the Marshall family, including three small children, were found brutally murdered in their home in Denham, Buckinghamshire. They had all been bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer, an axe and a poker. The crime scene looked like a battlefield or a slaughterhouse. The person eventually arrested for the crime was John Owen, an armed and dangerous criminal with a long record of petty offending. Following a day-long trial, he was convicted of the crimes and executed at Aylesbury Gaol by the notorious hangman William Calcraft.

What fascinated me about the story was that, despite Owen killing more people than Jack the Ripper, most people haven't heard of the massacre. I can only assume it's because there's no mystery attached to it, other than Owen's motivation (he denied his crimes throughout the investigation and trial and even insisted on his innocence as the hangman dropped him through the hatch). Unsolved crimes take a greater hold on us.

After a chat (and a well-kept pint) in one of the village's several lovely pubs, we took a walk down to the churchyard where the Marshalls were laid to rest. We were told that the funeral attracted thousands of onlookers.

The only survivor of the Marshall family was twelve year old Francis William who, at the time, was staying with his grandparents, Loyal and Sophie Sparks in Uxbridge, Middlesex. Sadly Francis died from TB in 1886 aged only eighteen years. He is buried with his family but his name obviously doesn't feature on the stone that commemorates the massacre.

A fascinating chat.

You can read more in Neil's book, available from all the usual places including here. And the village is always worth a visit just because it's so picturesque.

The Green Man

The Swan (where the inquest was held)

The former home of Sir John Mills, where daughters Hayley and Juliet were raised

St Mary's Church where the family were laid to rest

You can hear the interview on The Emperor's Bits radio show on Wycombe Sound 106.6FM on Wednesday 19th September at 7pm and for a month afterwards on the website's 'Listen Again' page.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Where did August go?

Blimey. That was a busy month.

August was a a blur. It began with a second award nomination for A Murder To Die For - this time it was longlisted for The Guardian's Not The Booker Prize. Which was nice. And then I went on holiday. And, being the kind of chap that I am, I eschewed the sunny delights of Florida or Spain and instead drove the 669 miles to Cluer, a tiny village - well, actually, a collection of homes all about a mile from each other - on the Isle of South Harris in the Outer Hebrides. I couldn't fly, sadly, as I have three dogs, but I spread the drive over three days, stopping the first night in Ayrshire and the second night on the Isle of Skye prior to catching the ferry to Tarbert next morning. It meant that I had time to check out some of the best that Scotland has to offer, including the Falkirk Wheel, the Kelpies and the many lochs and Highland mountains along my route.

I have to say - with scenery like that, the drive really didn't feel so far. The ferry across The Minch from Skye to Harris was pleasant enough an made more so by the appearance of a pod of common dolphins who swam alongside us for just enough time to ensure that I missed them with my camera.

I then had a whole week of peace, tranquility and near solitude. I wrote a lot, I wandered out at night to look at the Milky Way (a fabulous treat denied most of us due to light pollution) and I watched the wildlife, which included seals, golden eagles, gannets, puffins and sea otters. The cottage itself was remote and beautiful and the view from the windows was stunning.

I did get out and about too. I visited the Callanish Stones, the Black House village at Gearannan, Luskentyre Beach, and many more beautiful spots including the harbour on the Isle of Scalpay which has a decommissioned concrete ship. I kid you not (you can read all about concrete ships here).

It is a fantastic place to visit and stay ...but I could never live there. It's too remote, too cold and the Presbyterian Church is all-powerful; you can't do anything on a Sunday - even hang your washing out - so that's one day of holiday you can't visit anywhere or buy anything. I like the idea of keeping Sunday special but not being able to do anything, even hobbies, is a step too far for me.

A farly uneventful trip home ensued, but it's been nice to get back to work. I did a couple of talks at Waterstones in Chesham and signed a few books. And I've landed a gig to interview Graham Norton live on stage at the local Wycombe Swan theatre (details here). Which is nice.

Nice to have a break but even nicer to be home, writing, and meeting my readers.