Twenty of my favourite crime novels: in no particular order and shamelessly mixing sub-genres. I’m not saying they’re the best and there are notable omissions. The only thing they have in common is that I love them.
1. Ross Macdonald: The Drowning Pool: Macdonald is possibly my favourite crime fiction writer. This is one of the many I devoured when I was in my early twenties. Lew Archer is a PI who is funny and tough, who leads us in an exciting and witty journey through the underbelly of Californian life. There should be a law forcing people to read Ross Macdonald.
2. Carl Hiaasen: Double Whammy: Set in Florida, Hiaasen’s novels usually have an eco-theme. They always have a humorous surreal realism. Here PI R.J. Decker is hired to investigate cheating on the Florida bass-fishing circuit. I smile when I read Hiaasen…which does make me look a bit odd.
3. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: Laughing Policeman: Change of genre. Here is a police procedural and an early (1968) example of Scandinavian crime fiction. It’s the fourth of the (ten) Martin Beck novels by the left-wing husband and wife team. Their aim was not only to write great crime books but to show that Sweden wasn’t the utopia people believed it to be. Much more was to follow from that part of the world.
4. Mark Billingham: Sleepyhead: I saw this in a bookshop and bought it on impulse. Good move. It’s the first DI Thorne novel and shows what Billingham fans have grown to expect – tightly written plots which show a real nasty side to our species. A London resident to boot.
5. C.J Sansom: Dissolution: There is a sub-genre of historical detectives, which can be either great or truly awful. This is the former. This is the first of the Shardlake series, which has the Tudor lawyer working for Thomas Cromwell investigating a murder in a Suffolk Monastery. Not only a gripping detective story but brings the turbulent times of Henry VIII alive. Cromwell is a looming presence. I am impatient for another one to be published.
6. P.D James: A Shroud for a Nightingale: If I was going to point a finger at my favourite Brit police procedural then it might possibly be a P.D James one. Adam Dalgliesh is honest and a poet, which in light of recent news about corruption at the Met seems rather quaint. But I still believe in him; here he investigates murders of nurses. I first opened this book, intending to read a few pages before going to sleep; I ended up staying awake for hours and reading the whole thing.
7. Chester Himes: Cotton Comes to Harlem: Written in 1965, the novel fizzes as NY detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed (surely contenders for the best character names ever) investigate murder and double crosses. Himes as well as being a fine novelist had quite a life himself, with a friend list which included Langston Hughes, Picasso and Malcolm X.
8. Robert Harris: Fatherland: This features an alternative future which is far bleaker than CCR. Hitler has won WWII and is about to celebrate his 75th birthday. A high ranking Nazi is murdered and Berlin detective Xavier March investigates. Like all Harris’ novels it moves along at a great pace.
9. Stieg Larsson: Girl with a Dragon Tattoo: The phrase, ‘Publishing Sensation’ is a cliché but what else can you call Girl with a Dragon Tattoo? Also in Lisbeth Salander it contains one of the great female characters of crime fiction.
10. Val McDermid: Fever of the Bone: A good crime book needs a hero you can get hooked by and a baddie, which even if the reader doesn’t know their identity, is similarly bound to them. Both boxes are ticked by this book. McDermid’s clinical psychologist Tony Hill is a marvellously complex character.
11. Walter Mosley: Devil in a Blue Dress: Jazz, smoky bars of 1948 LA and Easy Rawlins (rivalling the pair from Himes’ detectives written 40 years earlier for the best name award) is down on his luck until he falls into investigating the whereabouts of Daphne Monet and ends with him deciding that PI-ing is his future. It also features a great character, in his friend Mouse.
12. Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep: What’s left to say? Not only one of the greatest crime novels but one of the great novels full stop. Philip Marlowe – the greatest PI? One of the coolest characters? A novel to measure other hard-boiled detectives by? One of the greatest films? Humphrey Bogart’s greatest role? There’s strong arguments in favour of each of the these, even allowing notable contenders.
13. Dashiell Hammett: Maltese Falcon: Talking of which. A rival for all the above.
14. Sue Grafton: A is for Alibi: First of the Kinsey Millhone alphabet series. A wonderful female PI and the book which introduced me to what LBD meant. (Sad I know). I am aware that in some quarters this is a much sniffed at phrase but I think this has readability.
15. Ian Pears: Instance of a Fingerpost: Set in Oxford after the restoration of the monarchy after the English Civil War this is almost the reverse of Comrades Come Rally. It’s told by different narrators, none of whom can be taken at face value. This novel shows that crime fiction doesn’t not have to be formulaic. And is so good that numerous friends of mine received this a birthday present.
16. Asa Larsson: The Black Path: One thing’s for sure in crime novels and that is that there are rarely straight forward deaths. Murderers tend to do it grisly. Actually, make that two things: rarely are people happy. Both are true of this Swedish novel.
17. Jo Nesbo: The Redeemer: It is almost impossible to go into an airport book shop and not see Jo Nesbo books on sale. His Oslo detective Harry Hole is everywhere. This, like the others, is truly a page-turner, beginning with shots in a cold December night. Great fun. I even forgive Nesbo his support for Spurs.
18. Robert Galbraith: Cuckoo’s Calling: Most the publicity surrounding this is the fact that it is J.K Rowling. Personally, I’m not that bothered whether it’s her or if it was a bloke from Kings Lynn because I think it is a real fun read. Maybe not top of the realistic-story-list but then most crime fic isn’t. The cast of characters are exotic and PI Cormoran Strike (another fun character name) is a great creation.
19. Michael Cox: Meaning of the Night: It’s as much an evocation of the dark alleyways of Victorian London as a crime mystery but the rivalry between book lover Edward Glyver and poet and criminal Phoebus Rainsford Daunt is gripping.
20. Arnaldur Indridson: The Draining Lake: The Reykjavik Detective Erlunder investigates a case which has its roots in cold war Eastern Europe. Another quality detective creation from northern Europe. They are on a roll; it must be the cold weather and long nights.
Really, is there anything, if not soul-destroying then soul slapping, than receiving another returned manuscript with a pre-typed note apologising that the literary agent think that my book – which I have put my heart, and YES, MY SOUL, into – is not for them? Well maybe, being a school teacher I might put a visit from the government school inspectors, OFSTED, up (down?) there with it.
It took roughly 10 months to write Comrades Come Rally. Work days would be: get to school early to prep for lessons; teach; stay a short time to tidy up; then home to mark and then two hours of writing. Weekends would allow longer for writing. It would take seconds to see said returned manuscript on the welcome mat to get another whack to the soul. Yes indeed, writing was the easy bit. For starters, in my head there were no missing words, grammatical errors or plain old cock ups. That was certainly proved wrong when my partner would go through proof reading it. To which I would give a measured and thoughtful response by banging doors, throwing tantrums and generally doing a fair impression of a teething two year old. (Later I had matured to a surly teenager when receiving the comments of the professional proof reader). Still, it made me know how my pupils feel when I take the teacher pen to their work. Having no idea whatsoever about how to get a book published I did extensive research. Well…I bought a copy of the Writers and Readers Yearbook. Then I sent the manuscript out to as many literary agents as I thought appropriate. Hence, the returns. Most had the reply, ‘We are not taking on any further clients at the present’, which I thought had several possible meanings: (a) what it said (b) they couldn’t be arsed to read it (c) they felt it was not a saleable product (d) Christ, it was truly crap. Some did give personal advice and there were some kind – handwritten – comments.
But alas, no-one begged to take it. So I decided to self-publish. Now here perhaps, to medicate my soul (OK, I have flogged that metaphor to death), I should let rip and denounce publishers/literary agents as establishment types, mostly drawn from a similar class who only see the lowest common denominator quick-buck. Who only see distinct genres whilst mine is a mix of them. Who dislike anything political (and it is true that one agent did say that she liked the story but could I cut the politics!). And because of this, I self-published to put two fingers up to the establishment; to stick it to ‘the man’. Er… yeah. Trouble is, that I self-published through a subsidiary of Amazon, so I maybe won’t be raising that red flag just yet. Let’s face it, Amazon is pretty well – THE MAN.
Some of the criticisms of the publishing world might be valid and the argument that only the crap doesn’t get published is obviously wrong (God, I have read some real stinkers in the last twelve months and avoided far worse – I mean, celebrity memoirs of twenty-something comedians anyone?). Certainly though, there are some who have a sneering hostility to self-published authors. Why? Is it because technology allows too much rubbish to be printed (as if publishers don’t do that themselves)? Or is it a threat that they fear to their profit base? Is it snobbishness? But then on the other hand, I don’t see self-publishing as inherently radical. Let’s face it; it depends on what is being published. Marx, Trotsky, Lenin et al are all available through major publishers and equally, there are badly written romance novels self-published. So it is not so quite ‘them and us’. And true, a lot of self-published work is inferior. And let’s also be honest, I would have much preferred to have a major publisher. If nothing else, I would not have had to set myself up as a one man (plus partner and cat) PR department.
(Talking of which, for a day or two, I thought I’d been a bit of a Bill Gates by setting up a twitter account (Phil Brett @philjbrett ), a Facebook page, Comrades Come Rally, and a website (Comrades Come Rally). I’d even done a you tube interview – Comrades Come Rally . Okay, as the titles suggest, not particularly an imaginative one, but hey previously mastering texting had been a feat, but then I discovered that social media is some kind of multi-headed hydra, where you cut one head off and another grows).
Okay, take a deep breath. But I digress, back to self-publishing. It used to be known as vanity publishing. Obviously those published through a publishing house don’t suffer vanity and are completely ego-free (hmm). Maybe it is vanity publishing, maybe not, but I will put my hand up (the one, with the three fingers which I type with) and say that when I got the proof copy of Comrades Come Rally sent to me, I was proud. I had done it. What I had dreamt of doing, since being a kid (well, alongside at different ages – being Arsenal’s centre forward, working as a vet, being David Bowie, being in the Style Council, designing cutting-edge buildings, leading the revolution and so on) had come true.
Am I in it? So which characters are based on people you know? The ups and downs of a self-published author Part 2.
It was my embarrassing secret, something which should be kept hidden, so questions on Comrades Come Rally came later. But when I had finally come out the closet and announced (or more accurately, mumbled with acute embarrassment) what I had done, it was interesting what people wanted to know. (Here I should pause and make an obvious point, obviously I refer to friends and colleagues because with sales on the modest scale, it is not yet on the GCSE curriculum, so the wider public have no idea of its existence.)
The reaction of some friends has been, shall we say, intriguing, with a determination to locate some of the characters in mutual acquaintances. There was one such who was/is utterly convinced that one of the major characters was someone we both know. This is despite the real person being of a different age, having a very different personality, different dress sense, radically different politics and…oh…er…a different ethnicity. Still, both shared a gender and a first name. So it must be them!
Then there’s Pete Kalder – he must be you, virtually everyone shouts. That’s because we both wear suits and used to be a librarian. The other marked differences don’t appear to be important (smart apparel seemingly more important than having a wife, daughter and being able to swim and drive a car. All the latter attached to Kalder but not, as yet, to me). Then there’s his personality: God, do people really think I am like that? But they won’t let it go. He has a cat – so have you! He supports Arsenal! So do you! Now, at the moment of writing this, I haven’t access to the internet so I can’t tell you how many cat owners support the Gunners (I’m sure that such data is available somewhere) but I bet it’s a fair few. Still, lots of people I know are convinced that Pete Kalder is me. That’s worrying. It is worth a minute or two of my time to weigh up whether a call to a psychiatrist or lawyer is in order.
But the reality is that the characters all just came out of an idle imagination; day dreaming hours away, after work, trying to relax after another stressful day. Writing about them was an antidote to the scores of maths and literacy books which I have to mark as a primary school teacher. (I love my job but believe me; you sometimes need a break after writing thirty odd times how to find a fraction of a number when the numerator is greater than one).
The idea of a smartly dressed detective, rather separate from the world, didn’t stem from basing it on me (I actually rather dislike being alone) but from the standard genre of private investigators. When I was in my early twenties, someone gave me a Ross Macdonald novel and the character of Lew Archer – a loner, sharply dressed and with a sharp wit but a touch of humanity – just blew me away. I promptly read every Macdonald book I could find. Hammett, Himes and Chandler followed before getting onto the Brit crime novels. I loved them – I wanted to write one.
But I wanted it to be based in Britain. But then what would a private eye investigate that the police wouldn’t? I tried several scenarios, revolving around police corruption, racism or incompetence. Let’s face it; there have been a number of real life instances which have involved all three. But then the obvious struck me. Since leaving school I have considered myself a socialist of various types; since the great British miners strike of 1984, a revolutionary socialist. I believe people have the power to change society and have done so throughout history. More importantly, I believe that they can do so to create a world based on need and not profit. In other words – socialism. So why not base the story in a revolutionary upheaval in Britain? Where would the police be in a pre-revolutionary Britain?
From that premise, I started writing. Some writers plan out their stories. I didn’t. I had a main character, a central idea of what happens and how it ends, but other than that, I just started writing. The story flowed from what seemed logical whilst writing it. The question of what might happen to a Britain facing a revolution would be a constant theme to it. Not that people would have to have read the collected works of Marx and Engels to enjoy it, or indeed believe it to be a possibility. My politics might have shaped the story but they weren’t a requirement for others to enjoy it. After all, you don’t have to believe in boy wizards, small creatures with hairy feet, possessing a ring or an invasion of Earth by alien creatures to enjoy the works of Rowling, Tolkien or H.G Wells. Of course, one slight drawback in that analogy is the skill of those three writers to create an alternative world. Well, whilst writing in secret, I could at least imagine being on par with them.
Being set in the near future of huge social upheaval did give me the freedom to imagine what I wished. Even those people who believe that a worker’s revolution is possible cannot say in what form it would take. A problem I did face, and have discussed previously, was technology. Although, with no set dates, I imagined it to be roughly thirty years from now, so obviously things would be different. However, I did not want rockets flying all over the place and such like, because firstly, I wanted the reader to concentrate on believing in the revolutionary situation and not pondering on whether this or that form of travel would be available. Secondly, in a sense I did not think it was important. The essence that however automated a society is, you still need human labour at some point, was the main issue, And lastly, I barely know what end of the remote to point at the TV, let alone, think of anything more technical.
The story and the characters evolved. Whilst it is true to say that none were actually based on any particular individuals, I did take bits from people I knew, had read about or saw on TV (at times when the remote had been correctly aimed) but they got so mashed that now I cannot remember who they are.
Some things were put in because they interested me. Art for example is there, not just because I thought it a great job for Kalder to have, but one that interests me. Sometimes though, I might wander off the point because Pete Kalder’s brain works like that. Sometimes, it was my brain doing it and I would find the experience of my day’s work ‘guiding’ me right off the beaten track, into the bushes and up a tree of a narrative. So chunks might be written featuring goggle-eyed, blood thirsty, rabid, evil, education inspectors. Entire chapters on killer OFSTED inspectors had to be edited out.
It was important to keep writing though, – every night – as otherwise having a full-time job would become a reason for it not get done.
Writing it did I think, make me look around a bit more, looking for ideas. Dare I say it? For inspiration. For example, whilst writing, the Arab Spring was filling the news and the amazing footage of people seizing control of their society could but not but have an effect on me.
I didn’t want it to be a worthy tome though. I wanted humour and a good sprinkling of naff jokes (which in my own little world I took to be high-concept Wildean wit) with over-extended metaphors and bad puns. Why? Simply, because they made me laugh…after a hard day’s work etc etc.
So people I know are not in it. But maybe they could be in the sequel. I have been told that some writers accept money to include people as characters in their next books. I presume, for charity. This could be an idea, so perhaps for ten quid in a brown envelope you could be in the next one. Hey, for another fiver, you could be the main character. Now there’s an idea.