‘How’s the novel coming along?’ asked my husband, who’s also an academic.
‘Hard going,’ I said.
‘You know how when you’re writing something scholarly, you have to decide what to put in and what you think about it?’
‘Well, imagine if you had to make it all up as well.’
When my first novel came out I found myself thinking about a story I once read about a young wife who turns into a fox. Sometime I feel I have undergone a similar transformation: academic into crime-writer. I was once – and it doesn’t seem so long ago – a lecturer in art history at a college in Cambridge. I had a PhD and articles and books on nineteenth century art and literature to my credit. I was cited in the work of other scholars. I had a regular salary, I had colleagues, I had students, I had a packed time-table. In short I had a respectable career.
I’ve still got the PhD and the books. I even write the odd academic paper. But the rest has gone, and with it many of the attitudes to writing that go with being an academic.
I can pinpoint almost to the exact day and certainly to the exact place when I started to become a novelist. It was around the 17th or 18th of February 1998 and the place was a bedroom in a house in Peckham, south London. It was the half-term holiday. I had a deadline for a big academic book on Arthurian legend in fine and applied nineteenth century art. I was staying with an old friend to get away from a house full of my teenage stepchildren and their friends. The idea for MURDER IS ACADEMIC arrived out of the blue. I was working at full stretch and I had flung myself down on my bed for a brief rest when the idea for a novel just popped into my head out of nowhere. And it came in the form of two opening sentences: ‘The day I discovered I was pregnant was the day that my head of department was murdered. I had mixed feeling about both events.’ Those lines didn’t actually make in into the finished novel – though maybe they should have done! I’ve always loved crime novels, but it had never occurred to me that I might write one myself and I had no real intention of doing so now. I jotted the lines down – I’ve still got the bit of paper somewhere – and then got back to work on the big academic book.
Once the THE QUEST FOR THE GRAIL was safely at press, my thoughts kept returning to the idea I’d had. The pregnant narrator was a great idea, wasn’t it? As the plot thickens, so does her waistline. And now I could see how it ended, too. The baby and the solution to the mystery would arrive together in a startling denouement. But I wasn’t really going to write it, was I? I was busy by now with another project, but maybe if I wrote for half an hour a day, just as an experiment?
So began the enthralling, infuriating, despair-inducing experience of writing my first novel and learning the craft of crime-writing. It was hard to get out of academic ways of writing. Early on I went on a short creative writing course. I showed the first pages of my novel to the tutor. She took a pencil and crossed out ‘very,’ ‘rather,’ and every other qualifier. Another early reader more bluntly told me that my treatment was too dry. He was right. For a scholar a judicious caution is necessary, but for a novelist it’s death. As historian I was constantly referring back to things that had really happened, even if they could never be completely reconstructed. As a novelist I had to do something went completely against my academic training: I had to make it all up. Apart from the actual city of Cambridge, the background to my novel, there was no reality out there. It was in all my head. Writing fiction was like performing without a safety net, exhilarating, scary and damned hard work.
I’d rather not think about how many drafts MURDER IS ACADEMIC went through. Eventually it was finished and published and to my surprise, I realized that non-writers see crime writing as a glamorous and raffish activity, rather foxy in fact. A glimpse of my daily life would soon dispel this notion. And yet in another sense there is some foxy about the crime writer. As we set about plundering the world around us for characters and ideas and plots we have a certain affinity with the urban fox, trotting across suburban gardens in the dawn, overturning dustbins and rooting among the contents.
When I began to rummage in the dustbins of Cambridge, I found plenty of juicy tidbits. No wonder so many crime novels have been set in universities and colleges. They are stuffed to the gunwales with highly intelligent, highly devious, highly sexed people. They are, in short, hotbeds of neurotic over-achievement, back-biting, and intellectual snobbery. Money from home for the crime-writer, especially when you consider the parlous state of higher education these days. There are plenty of disaffected academics around. As one of my friends remarked: ‘many crimes go unrecorded in Cambridge’. Yes, indeed, and I knew where the bodies were buried.
In a sense I myself was one of those bodies. I was made redundant when my department was closed down. Writing MURDER IS ACADEMIC allowed me to settle a few scores. Of course I changed everything, names, personality, gender, and the novel soon took on a life of its own. One nineteenth century novelist was asked if she based her characters on real people. She replied: ‘Of course, but you’d never recognize the pig from the sausage.’ That’s how it was. The characters ended up bearing no resemblance to my ex-colleagues, and my fictional college St Etheldreda’s is nothing like its real-life progenitor. But the anger and hurt I felt were real enough and a vital spur to finishing that first novel. Strangely enough when the proofs arrived and I checked my list of characters against the Cambridge University directory, I found that I unwittingly named my murderer after a real person and had to do some last minute corrections.
In terms of topography, too, Cambridge is a wonderful place to set a crime novel. As a reader, a sense of place had always been very important to me. I love crime novels which allow me to be somewhere else for a while, to have a holiday from my own life – Tony Hillerman’s New Mexico, Donna Leon’s Venice. My own experience of Cambridge, especially academic Cambridge, was the bedrock of my first novel. I knew about the darkness between the book stacks on the top floor of the University library on a winter’s afternoon, the sound of footsteps echoing on flagstones, the dead florescent light in a college corridor at dusk. Cambridge is a deeply creepy place: it isn’t lit by gaslight, but it feels as if it is. It’s not just the architecture, it’s the large pockets of open space, the commons and the backs, and college grounds, all poorly lit at night. It’s not for nothing that M. R. James, the writer of ghost stories par excellence, is so closely associated with Cambridge. I never considered setting MURDER IS ACADEMIC anywhere else. It was always closely bound up with that dark, dank Gothic city on the edge of the vast, empty expanses of the fens.
My old career fed into my new one in other ways. The best scholars are those who combine an obsessive attention to detail with an ability to see the wider picture, and the same is true of crime-writers and their fictional alter egos. My amateur detective and professional academic, Cassandra James, asks herself how she would go about solving a crime. ‘I’d do exactly what I did when I was researching my academic books. I wouldn’t rely on anything anyone told me unless there was evidence to back it up. I’d go right back to the beginning and work my way forward, casting my net as wide as I could. And all along I’d be weighing the evidence, looking for the connections and patterns, piecing together a picture . . . ‘
I too have carried over my research skills into my new career. For my second Cassandra novel, STAGE FRIGHT, I went behind the scenes at several theatres and sat in on rehearsals run by a well-known director and playwright. For FOOTFALL, set in an independent library, I visited a number of these quirky institutions and chatted to librarians. I did a lot of research into rare books and auction houses and I enjoyed every minute.
It’s not surprising then that people sometimes ask me, ‘Is Cassandra really you?’ Well, yes . . . and no. Like Cassandra I am an academic specializing in nineteenth century British culture and like her I am the mother of a small child. In FOOTFALL Cassandra puts her hand bag on the roof of her car while struggling to get her daughter into her child-seat and drives off with it still on the roof. I did that. Academic life is also a rich source of inspiration. Years ago my PhD supervisor told me a story about an MA student whose excuse for not producing a chapter of her thesis on time was that she had contacted the subject, let’s say Conan Doyle, at a seance. He told her that what she had written wasn’t good enough, so she tore it up. It certainly beats ‘the dog ate my homework’ and I used it in MURDER IS ACADEMIC. On the other hand I’ve never discovered the body of my boss floating in a swimming pool under a layer of exam papers and I’ve never gone into premature labour in a fog-bound house in the Fens. Cassandra is younger, braver and more impulsive than I am. That’s where the fiction comes in.
So has the transformation from lady into fox been complete? Not really. I’ll never stop being an academic. It’s gone too deep. I still have an ongoing research project (the stepfamily in Victorian and Edwardian culture), I still go to the odd conference and write the odd paper. And besides academia is too far too good a source of material to be abandoned. But I’ll never be a full-time academic again. I love writing fiction and I get a real buzz from leading a parallel life in my novels. And I like the way I can combine the writing life with looking after my daughter. Agatha Christie once remarked: ‘Murder is a good occupation for a woman at home’. That’s as true today as it ever was.
Christine Poulson is the author of three Cassandra James novels: MURDER IS ACADEMIC (UK title, DEAD LETTERS) and STAGE FRIGHT were published by Hale in the UK and St Martin’s Press in the USA, while FOOTFALL, published by Hale in April, has yet to find an American publisher. She is working on a stand-alone mystery set on Exmoor and is planning a fourth Cassandra James novel. Her website is www.christinepoulson.co.uk
‘I Know Where the Bodies are Buried’ by Christine Poulson: First published in the Academic Mysteries 202 issue of the Mystery Readers Journal, Vol 22, Number 4, Winter 2007-7.
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