At least for a while. Maybe I’ll take June off. Go cold turkey. Only thirty days in June, so it might not be too bad. Or maybe wait until August when I’ll be in France for some of the time, so (mostly) out of the reach of temptation. Or should I perhaps just STOP RIGHT NOW. But something must be done, because my study looks like a second-hand bookshop, there are books all over the house, and if I’m not careful I’m going to end up like those people who have so much stuff that they have to tunnel through it to get from room to room. And then there are all the unread books on my e-reader. It is so fatally easy to download with just one click – and often so cheap. I have reluctantly concluded that it is all getting out of hand.
What has brought this on is my trip to Crimefest at the week-end. I decided to limit myself to two new books – not least because I had to carry them home on the train. One was the eagerly awaited The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (soon to be reviewed here) and Jorn Lier Horst’s newly translated The Caveman, both signed by their authors. But it didn’t stop there. I came home with a whole bag of books, because I correctly guessed that Len Tyler’s Crooked Herring would win the Last Laugh Award for the best humorous crime novel. The prize was the shortlist of six. I already had Len’s book, so I gave that to a friend. But it still means that I came home with seven new books. No, make that eight, because I kept one that came free in the goody bag.
And in spite of all that, have I still bought another book today? Why, yes, I have. I met a writing chum, Quentin Bates, at Crimefest and that reminded me to download his new novella, Summerchill.
The rate at which I am acquiring books is far, far outstripping the rate at which I read them – and I am a byword among my friends for the number of books I get through. The gap is getting bigger and bigger. So maybe Quentin’s should be the last for a bit. Just a temporary measure, you understand. But I think I’d be the better for it – and so would my credit card statements.
Of the sub-genres of crime fiction, I think comedy is the hardest to pull off, but Len Tyler succeeds triumphantly. The Ethelred and Elsie series is one of the very best. It began with The Herring Seller’s Apprentice and the fifth has just come out. I began by asking Len to tell us something about it.
Crooked Herring is case number five for the literary detective duo Ethelred and Elsie. Henry, a friend of crime writer Ethelred Tressider, arrives out of the blue to announce that he thinks he may have killed somebody – he’s just not sure who or when. Ethelred feels that ultraconservative Henry is an unlikely murderer. But worryingly Henry’s companion on a drunken New Year pub crawl, thriller writer Crispin Vynall, has vanished without trace. Ethelred knows Crispin and, more to the point, knows Crispin’s wife, who is surprisingly unconcerned that her husband is missing. Will Ethelred solve the problem of the missing thriller writer? Or will his past catch up with him first? Because there are clearly things that Ethelred has not revealed to anyone else (especially to his agent Elsie) about his relationship with Emma Vynall. As Elsie later helpfully points out to the police: ‘He fancied her rotten. Would you like another biscuit with that coffee, Inspector?’?
How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?
It depends how close I am to a deadline! I may be slaving away early morning to late at night, glued to my desk with just a break for a quick beans on toast. Or I may spend time on all sorts of other things like interviews, with coffee every half an hour. My next deadline is January. Do you fancy a cup? I’m just putting the kettle on.
Love one, thanks, and while it’s brewing, What comes first for you: theme, plot, characters, setting?
For the series I do of course have the main characters already, so they are certainly the starting point – a plus in some ways and a major constraint in others. Then it’s usually an idea – in this case, what if you woke up one morning with a vague idea that the night before you had done something dreadful – you just can’t remember what? Not uncommon after a Crime Writers’ Association summer party, you might say, but Henry ‘s car is covered in mud and he has scratches all over him. Then there’s the length of rope in the boot. At that stage in the writing process I may have only the haziest idea what Henry’s done and how Ethelred will fit into the plot, but I’ll find out shortly. Even if I don’t know, the characters usually do. The first draft tends to be all about getting the plot into place. Descriptions of settings and of minor characters usually come later. So do a lot of the jokes.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
I think I was a writer of humour first and a crime writer second, though now obviously crime is what I do. My early influences were PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Alan Coren and Stephen Leacock. Later Christie, Sayers and Ellis Peters. I don’t write Golden Age pastiche exactly, but the influence is there. Lots of amateur detection and red herrings but not too much blood. And all of the sex is off the page. Recently I’ve read CJ Sansom’s Dominion, Ruth Downie’s Tabula Rasa, Eliza Graham’s The One I Was and Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea – all highly recommended by the way. I read for all sorts of reasons. I’ve always read primarily for enjoyment, and that’s still the main incentive to pick up a book. Having started another series, set in the seventeenth century, I now also read a lot for research. And I read some books out of duty in the sense that you have to keep up with what others are writing in the genre and indeed learn from them. Not that these last two categories can’t be fun as well. I might even work out how to write sex scenes.
A favourite bookshop?
Goldsboro Books in Charing Cross – packed with signed first editions, new and old.
What are you writing now?
Unusually for me, I’m working on two books in parallel – the second in the (John Grey) historical series and the sixth E&E. I’m also writing a chapter for the next Detection Club collaborative novel.
And finally: is Elsie’s client list full? Would she consider being my agent?
If you are happy to put up with a great deal of editorial sarcasm and to keep her supplied with chocolate, then I’m sure she’d take you on.
To find out more about Len and his novels go to http://www.lctyler.com
. . . in the Bookshop. This annual event at Heffer’s Bookshop in Cambridge was held on 15 July. It’s always good to meet readers (so there IS someone out there after all!), to chat with old crime-writing friends, and make new friends. This year was no exception. On the train on the way home I thoroughly enjoyed reading a book by L. C. Tyler that I had just bought at Bodies. I had been meaning to read something by Len since meeting him at St Hilda’s last year, and I decided to start with his first, THE HERRING SELLER’S APPRENTICE. And it is a corker. Ethelred Tressider is a crime-writer whose career is going nowhere and it’s hard to say whether, Elsie, his chocolate-guzzling, author-despising agent is a help or a hindrance. Either way this unlikely couple enjoy a collaboration of sorts, when Ethelred’s ex-wife disappears and it seems he might be accused of her murder. Part mystery, part pastiche, and part, it turns out, a rather touching love story, it is great fun and very funny.
On a wholly different note, the other book I’m enjoying at the moment is THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS, VOL. 4. This covers a wide range of authors, some of whom I know and admire, E. B. White, Marilynne Robinson, but many more that I haven’t read. Some I’ll read on the basis of these interviews, mostly notably, so far, Paul Auster. I am so much impressed by what he says about getting older. ‘Little by little the people you love begin to die. By the age of fifty, most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living. It’s hard for a young person to understand this. It’s not that a twenty year old doesn’t know he is going to die, but it’s the loss of others that so profoundly affects an older person – and you can’t know what that accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself.’ This seems to me so penetrating and so true. And I like too his declaration that the novel will never die: it’s ‘the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. The reader and writer make the book together. No other art can do that. No other art can capture the essential inwardness of human life.’ I agree. I’ll have to read Paul Auster. Recommendations, any one?
More about that in a moment, but first I want to lament the passing of an old friend. Over the years I must have bought dozens of books from Galloway and Porter. They stocked remaindered books and were especially strong – from my point of view – on fiction, art history, cookery and guide books. But they also stocked the academic stuff that you’d expect to see in a university town like Cambridge. You saw the same staff in there year after year. I don’t know how long it had been going, but many years, I think. Certainly it was open when I took up my job in Cambridge in 1990. When I was there a few weeks ago, was a notice saying that it was going into administration and then last week, I saw that it was empty and there was a notice on the door: ‘Galloway and Porter is now closed forever.’ I am sorry for the people who used to work there. And with the shop has gone a tiny bit of my life as a bibliophile.
However my very favourite Cambridge bookshop, Heffer’s, is still going strong and on 15 July the incomparable Richard Reynolds. fiction-buyer extraordinaire, will be hosting the annual Bodies in the Bookshop. The format is the same every year. Forty or fifty crime-writers are invited to sign copies of their books and to chat with fans of crime fiction over a glass of wine. It is very friendly and informal and a lot of fun. This year’s line up includes Don Bartlett, translator of the best-selling Norwegian writer, Jo Nesbo, Veronica Heley, Janet Neel, Sophie Hannah, Sheila Quigley, L. C. Tyler, and many, many more. I’ll be there this year, signing copies of a new paperback edition of MURDER IS ACADEMIC, my first Cassandra James novel (published in the UK as DEAD LETTERS). This is the link to buy it on-line: http://www.christinepoulson.co.uk/index_dl.html. And if you are interested in going to Bodies in the Bookshop, tickets at £5 are available from the Ground Floor Cash Desk at Heffers (01223-568568) or by contacting Richard Reynolds on 01223-568532 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
See you there?