My introduction to crime, as I’ve probably mentioned before, was from the opposite direction to most readers. Not from the detective’s point of view, but the criminal’s. Simon Templar, known as The Saint, who was hero of numerous novels and short stories, as well as several TV and film incarnations. With a twinkle in his eye, he ran rings around the inept but dogged Inspector Claude Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard.
Ironically perhaps, I moved from the works of Leslie Charteris to those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose fictional hero also made the police look somewhat like dolts. Sherlock Holmes was no criminal, although he was known to ponder that he would have made an excellent one. I devoured every Sherlock Holmes story and novel, and taking great delight in the black-and-white movies with Basil Rathbone in the title role and Nigel Bruce as the slightly bumbling Doctor Watson—always to my mind an unfair portrayal.
The first consulting detective and famous occupant of 221B Baker Street never lacked for TV and movie outings, some taken more seriously than others. I was a particular fan of the version starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. This adaptation did not shy away from Holmes’ cocaine use, and Watson was far closer to the stout companion of the novels.
Those two versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories kept the characters in their original Edwardian setting—more or less. I seem to recall the Rathbone incarnation being stretched into wartime. But more recently there have been two very successful modern takes on the Baker Street detective which have approached things from very different angles.
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Finland in October. I’ll be honest—I was hoping for snow. Maybe not in Helsinki itself, but certainly out in the wilds of Karelia where I spent the second half of my brief trip. Alas, it was mild, even by UK standards, and there were only a couple of days when gloves were a necessity, never mind full polar explorer wear.
Finland is known as the land of a thousand lakes, and for good reason. In fact, there are just shy of 188,000 lakes, so flying into Helsinki it was like looking down onto an intricate paper doily. I expected fir trees—nearly 70 per cent of the country is forest, after all—but not the amazing amount of silver birch, with their startling pale bark and their leaves turning shades of yellow and copper and gold.
And the silence.
The silence had a quality all its own.
Helsinki was as busy and bustling as you’d expect any major city to be. It’s easy to forget, when you’re there, that for a country that is in area the eighth largest in Europe, it has only around 5.5 million people. (To put that into perspective for me, there are over 8 million people in London alone, and 66 million in the UK.)
The rest of this post appears over on Murder Is Everywhere.
As I write this, I’m in a small apartment in Helsinki. My first time in the city, or Finland, or Scandinavia, come to that. It has a very un-English feel that strikes me as similar to other major European cities I’ve visited—not that there have been so many of those, either, I admit.
I suppose, to begin with, I expected something a little closer to Reykjavík but it’s not quite so quirky. Some of the buildings in the city centre have a stately, almost baronial grandness to them, where others are simply stark and ugly, the way of city buildings everywhere.
There are green spaces and parks everywhere, currently covered in golden carpets of falling leaves. The view coming into land at the airport was one of beautiful autumn colours, evergreen conifers mixed with deciduous birch.
The streets are cobbled and filled with the clank and rattle of trams. A public transport system that is easy and logical, even for non-Finnish speakers. So far, I have learned to say only “hello”, “bye bye”, and “thank you”—“moi”, “hei hei”, “kiitos”.
The road signs are in both Finnish and Swedish, which is an official language of Finland. Everybody, it seems, speaks English, and can identify your need to be communicated with that way just by looking.
Mind you, the people are stylish here, and attractive, in a way that they simply are not in London. The language is fascinating, but very alien, apart from the few words that always cause entertainment. A shop called the Acne Studios, for instance, complete with spotted leopard in the window, or the shelves of drinks called Glögi.
Helsinkii is a very green city, not simply because of the parks. They recycle everything, hybrid cars are encouraged, and it was 25c for the cheapest biodegradable carrier bag in a grocery store. The proximity to the sea makes the air clean—or it would be if everyone didn’t seem to be a smoker.
Still, on Sunday morning there were lots of people taking a brisk walk along the shoreline in the October sunshine. The harbour held everything from small yachts to a couple of giant cruise ships, and even a flotilla of classic tall ships, which were welcoming people aboard to look round.
Bookstores are plentiful, as are shops selling second-hand designer clothes. We even came across one place selling everything Russian. Perhaps this was in celebration of the fact Finland is one of the few countries to fight against Russia and win.
We took a sneak peek at the British embassy, out on the headland in a cluster of other official buildings. Painted pink, it was one of the few not plastered with signs warning against photography, unlike the US embassy just across the road.
Tomorrow I head up into the wilds north of the capital to sample the delights of rural Finland. If it’s anything like the city, it should be a fascinating trip.
This week’s Word of the Week is hysteresis, meaning a state that exists when the pressure has been removed but the strain remains (much like in divorce) or when the state of something depends partly upon its history. The word comes from the ancient Greek meaning lagging behind.
I have been invited to take part in Noir @ The Bar London ‘Chilled To The Marrow’, which takes place on Monday, October 22 from 7:00–10:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:00 p.m.) at The Urban Bar, 176 Whitechapel Road, E1 1BJ. The line-up is Susi Holliday, William Shaw, Mark Hill, Derek Farrell, Jay Stringer, JA Marley, Alex Caan, Barbara Nadel, Zoë Sharp, Liz (Elizabeth) Mundy, Caroline (Caz) Frear, Felicia Yap, and a Wildcard chosen on the night. It’s hosted by Nikki East. Entry is free.
If you haven’t come across Noir @ The Bar events, they’re short readings by crime authors, which take place in cool bars across the UK and across the Atlantic, with book giveaways to boot. They’re always a great way to hear work by authors you might not have come across before, as well as your favourites. If you’re in London on October 22, get yourself to Whitechapel and drink in a treat.
I came to the conclusion years ago that I need to write faster. Actually, I should qualify that by saying, ‘faster without degenerating into rubbish’ because I’m sure I could rattle out thousands of words a day, if I wasn’t bothered about which words…
The quality of what I do is always uppermost in my mind, however. It’s the thing I worry about most (probably) as I write. I’ve heard all the advice that says you can fix a page but you can’t fix a blank page, but find this hard. Once I’ve written a scene, I find it incredibly difficult to pick that scene apart and slightly alter the slant of it. Far easier to point it in the right direction to start with. (In this case, the word ‘easier’ is used in its loosest sense—in the same way that it’s far easier to prevent the glaciers melting in the first place than it is to reverse global warming. You get the idea.)
The result of this is that I tend to manage around a thousand words on a good day when I’m in the midst of a book. I have writer friends who can apparently produce ten times that amount. And yes, amazingly, they are still my friends!
Some of them use dictation software to achieve this. I’ve tried this method, but my somewhat mongrel accent seems to utterly confuse it, plus the delay between words spoken and some form of them appearing on the screen is disconcerting. I find myself quickly distracted.
Read the rest of this post over on Murder Is Everywhere.
Keeping up with the UK news every day, it’s been hard to avoid the latest creaking and groaning of the Brexit debate. Deals crafted at Chequers and destroyed in Salzburg, dire warnings of businesses leaving the country for mainland Europe, and a falling pound.
I feared when the ‘Yes’ vote came in after the referendum that it might prove an impossible mess to disentangle the UK from Europe after 40+ years of union. But any time of upheaval is a rich seam for a writer to mine.
It’s hard not to have your imagination prodded by the possibilities. After all, when you’re constructing a story idea you tend to take a basic concept and give it the ‘what if…’ treatment. Things will certainly change after Brexit, but what if they changed far more than anybody expected?
What if, for example, the UK should collapse into economic chaos and bankruptcy after Brexit. What if the United States, always seen as our ally, decided that this group of islands parked conveniently off the coast of mainland Europe would be better under more direct control. (And, let’s face it, with the present administration in power, almost anything is possible.)
And what if, having come to such a conclusion, the US decided to enforce it by means of military occupation?
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There’s a programme on BBC Radio 4 called I’m Sorry I Haven’t Clue. It’s subtitled ‘the antidote to panel games’ and consists of ‘two teams of two comedians ‘being given silly things to do’ by the host. A simple enough format, but one that has endured for years. The show began, hosted by the late Humphrey Lyttelton, in 1972. After the death of the famously grumpy Humph, Jack Dee took over and the show is still going strong.
I rarely miss the show when a series is running, and if I do I try to do the Listen Again thing to catch up with it. In fact, I often do the Listen Again thing even when I did hear it go out live, just to have another chance to giggle. We are too short of things that make us laugh out loud these days, but ISIHAC is one of them for me.
One of my favourite rounds has always been the teams reading out their entries from the UXBRIDGE ENGLISH DICTIONARY, where new meanings are given to existing words. In 2016 some enterprising spark at Random Penguin finally brought out a collected edition, edited by Graeme Garden (a regular panellist) and Jon Naismith, who has been the producer of the show since 1991.
Here are a few of the ones that made me laugh the hardest. For more, you’ll simply have to listen to the show or buy the book.
Accomplish: a drunken sidekick
Befuddle: a tight group of cattle
Croquette: a tiny little crocodile
Dictaphone: someone you really don’t like calling
Economist: cheap fog
Falsetto: fake ice cream
Ghoulish: Hungarian stew that comes back to haunt you
Hobnob: cooking accident
Intercontinental: someone who has wet themselves all over the world
Juniper: Did you bite that woman?
Nosing Around in the Boston Aquarium
I knew I wanted to set part of Second Shot, the sixth Charlie Fox book, in Boston. Partly this was to set up the contrast of the city against the small-town feel of North Conway up in New Hampshire, where other scenes of the book take place. The internet is great for research, but sometimes there really is no substitute for going there and seeing it for yourself.
For one thing, while visiting Boston I paid a visit to the fabulous Aquarium on the edge of the harbour. Immediately, I could visualise some of the action taking place there. And, having been in person, I was able to better describe the place. Not just the look, but the smell.
As soon as you walk in through the entrance to the modern, open-plan building, you see the penguin enclosure in front of you. Upstairs is the café, so the first smell that hits you is the smell of fried fish. A little unfair on the inhabitants, I thought, but a very useful splash (pun intended) of colour to add to my description of the place.
How to Mix the Perfect Cocktail
For one of the major action scenes in Road Kill, I needed to have Charlie and several others hijack a moving vehicle from motorcycles while they’re in Ireland. For the best way to do this I picked the brains of an ex-military friend who suggested the good old-fashioned Molotov cocktail might be the best method, with a twist.
Petrol in liquid form is actually very difficult to ignite—it’s the vapour that burns. So, I had Charlie leave quite a gap at the top of the bottle for the vapour to build up. She also added sugar to the mix, which both makes it burn hotter and stick to whatever it hits. The final problem was how best to light such a mixture, bearing in mind she and her cohorts are on solo motorcycles, chasing a speeding van at the time.
Here my ex-military mate—who just so happened to specialise in bomb disposal during his time with the RAF—suggested firework sparklers. These are usually made from an iron wire coated at one end with a metal fuel, an oxidiser and a binder. Different types of metals will produce different colours, so Ferrotitanium will give a golden glow, while Titanium will give silver or white. The advantage of a sparkler is that, once lit, they’re very difficult to put out, so they would survive being in the airflow of a bike. They also provide a time delay fuse, if part of the sparkler is outside the cap of the bottle containing the cocktail, and part is inside where the vapour has built up.
I did wonder, in these paranoid times, if I should have described this process here, but I’ve done so in the book, and a quick Google search will bring up any number of pages that go into far greater detail. Anyway, for the purposes of the chase scene in Road Kill, it worked a treat!
Read the rest of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.
Last week I read a very interesting article by indie author Maggie Lynch on the Alliance of Independent Authors website about what makes readers buy books.
Maggie has clearly gone into a great deal of depth on this subject, including doing a questionnaire with her own email list. If you want to read the full study, follow the link above to the piece.
She also quotes from a very scientific survey done for the Australia Council of the Arts in 2016, which covers all kinds of genres, including non-fiction, and a lot of details on how else people spend their leisure time.
Maggie mentions various other surveys and studies, from which the answers vary quite a bit as to what are the main points of influence for book buying. A good deal of it seemed to revolve around what questions were asked and how they were phrased, although generally, we didn’t get to see that part.
Among Maggie’s own readership, the most important factor was how well-known the author was to the reader, closely followed by the cover, if the book was recommended by a friend (as opposed to being recommended via social media, which rated much lower) the description, and if it was part of a series. Way down the list was apparent bestseller status, literary prizes won, or who the book was published by.
To read the full blog over on Murder Is Everywhere, including the Word of the Week, cly-faker, click here.
It was a comment on Twitter that sparked this blog. Someone brought up the subject of trying to keep characters’ names straight in your head while you’re writing, and ensuring that you don’t have too many characters whose first or last names begin with the same letter.
I came up with a solution to this problem ages ago and discovered, somewhat to my embarrassment, that I had not applied it to the current Charlie Fox book. A quick check revealed that I had, indeed, not got the balance quite right. Thank you to fellow author, Graham Smith, for reminding me to make use of my own system!
Even if you don’t outline or plan, this method works well and is very simple. I jot down an alphabet in a line across the middle of a page. Then I start with the recurring characters, like Charlie Fox herself, and put a mark above the letter C to indicate a first name starting with that letter, and another below the letter F to indicate a last name.
I carry on in this way through the entire cast list, although when it comes to family members who have the same last name I usually put just one mark under that letter. I try to make the mark bold if it relates to a continuing character.
Having now gone through this for the current WIP, I can see at a glance that the letter F has become overcrowded. I’ve also got three characters with last names beginning with S, none of which are recurring from previous books, so I could pick different names for at least a couple of them. And I’ve not only got one first and two last name uses of E, but the names are all four or five letters, so there isn’t even the variety of length to separate them.
OK, back to the drawing board for some of these minor characters’ names!
This week’s Word of the Week is pusillanimous, meaning cowardly or timid. It comes from Latin pusillanimis, having little courage, and is a translation of the Greek oligopsychos, small-souled.
Leaving France, where I spent just about the whole of July, was hard. Not only because it was beautiful, but because it was also a place that seemed to inspire creativity. Had I realised how distracted I would be once I got back to the UK, I might have been tempted to stay on another month or two! Just until the latest Charlie Fox book was finished, anyway.
Of course, it had its downside, like the flying ant invasion that suddenly appeared in my bedroom one night. The problem was, they disappeared during the day and you never quite knew when they might pop up again. I’m not particularly squeamish, but I was feeling severely outnumbered.
Read the full story over on Murder Is Everywhere