A novel of murder, Marxism and mohair suits.
Never being one to fear the accusation of self-indulgent bollocks or unoriginality, I was inspired to write this by The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, which I am in the middle of reading. It explores human history through objects, showing how we have shaped the world and been shaped by it. And I thought – are there 10 objects which I could list which have played a part of making me who I am? With nothing on TV and not worrying if anyone could give a toss, I decided to give it a go.
So, switching concepts and ripping someone else off, we start our magical mystery tour, and as you read it, maybe you might consider what you might list for yourself:
A MAGIC CUPBOARD.
Or to be precise, the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis. Because quite possibly, much of what follows stems from this book. It was as a primary school kid, listening to my teacher read this to the class every day that I first got totally enthralled by a book. I couldn’t wait for the next day’s reading; always knowing exactly where we had got up to. Every book which I read later and loved, be it by Raymond Chandler, Leon Trotsky or Hilary Mantel or whoever, was read because that teacher introduced me to a different world. It doesn’t matter that now, as an adult, I find the book wanting – that is totally irrelevant , it hooked me then. Years later, and I am myself now a primary school teacher, and I make sure that I read to the class every day. Indeed, with successive governments doing their best to damage a child’s love of reading and writing with their mechanical obsession on the technical aspects of language, it is vitally important to remember that the primary reason for reading – is to enjoy.
NANA’S GREEN SHIRT.
At much the same time I was given a green, button down check, short sleeve shirt by my maternal grandmother. It wasn’t expensive (probably bought from a stall in the then not-yet gentrified Islington, north London). It was way too large for me. But I thought it the epitome of cool. So I kept it in my own cupboard (sadly without witches or lions) and once a year would get it out and try it on. Finally, by the time I left school, it fitted and I wore it to death. A neat metaphor maybe for the importance of my grandparents, but certainly for my shallow love of clothes.
THE HOOVER BUILDING
Mum and Dad are from London and we would often visit relatives there. A highlight would be to jump in my uncle Bernie’s car (we didn’t have one) and at Christmas drive up and down the A40 looking at the Christmas lights. The stand-out was the 1933 Art-Deco masterpiece of the Hoover Building. During the war it had been an armaments factory and now it is a supermarket (there’s a moral in there somewhere) and I still think it is wonderful building. For me, it started a love of architecture, especially industrial, and a belief that London was where IT WAS AT. Even if it was just the A40.
SPINNING DISCS OF WONDER
One Christmas, Mum and Dad gave me a red record player (possibly a Dansette, or more likely a copy). To go with it they had bought a single they knew I liked, Children of the Revolution by T.Rex (an apt choice in view of future political changes). The stylus hitting the vinyl, was the start of an expensive love of music.
Without an older brother or sister, to guide me, I missed the ‘serious’ music of the seventies. Many friends might be into heavy or prog rock but I stayed with the pop, which by then was deemed by the more hip as being childish. So when I first heard the Clash on a friend’s tape recorder (his dad had a few bob, so he had one of the very first) it was quite a jump from The Sweet to punk (then again, maybe not). But it changed me. I could have listed the Clash first album here, because as a 15 year old, feeling bored and listless in a Hampshire/Surrey commuter village (the village I grew up in is on the border, and for some reason I always felt that locating it in Hampshire was more street cred than Surrey. Sadly, decades later, I still do it) its anger strangely resonated with me. Soon after hearing it, came the music now known as post-punk which consumed me totally.
But not being allowed to, let alone being able to afford to, go to London on my own, the trip to Guildford and in particular, the record shop, Bonaparte Records, in Phoenix Court, was a trip to wonderland. It was a shop which was rare, in that it stocked as many of the new punk and indie releases as it could (writing this, I googled it and found that it was apparently owned by the manager of the Stranglers, so that explains it). Waiting for it to open on a Saturday morning, and running in to look at the new singles stapled to the wall was the highlight of the week. In my mind I can still see them there. Many we would have heard on John Peel but others we would pester the poor sales assistants to play (and wo betide if they hadn’t had time to unpack them – hey, I might have been a fledgling socialist but never mind worker’s rights, if we were waiting for the latest Slits, or Raincoats or Buzzcocks single- work a bit quicker!).
I would read/hear about feminism or socialism, or lesbians or gays. That was all new to me. You never heard about any of that at our local post office. And in our overwhelmingly white village, I was also was introduced to the fact that black music other than the Jackson Five existed. That whole time started to shape my politics. It was an education and shifted my dissatisfaction leftwards to find answers. Depending on the latest single release or article in the NME, I would call myself an anarchist or socialist or a mixture of the two. In reality, not knowing what they actually meant. It was then, on Anti-Nazi marches that I took my first political action. Indeed, the iconic ANL lollipop could/should have been the fifth choice here. But as sad as it might seem, it was those records on Bonaparte’s walls, which got me asking questions, and thinking I had the answers. Political awakening can come from all manner of places.
Now Bonaparte Records has long gone, and I wonder if the era of downloads has deprived people of that joy of seeing a single as more than just three minutes of music.
But back then, I was starting to be able to pay for those records from my wages because the ‘O’ Levels were over and I was working. The final five were to come.
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.
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.
Since publishing Comrades Come Rally one of the first questions people ask me is – what made you write it?
It’s a good question, although, an occasionally worrying one, if the person has read it and I think I can detect a tone of critical disbelief. So far though, they have assured me that it isn’t a reprimand, and to be honest, I choose to believe them. But the answer isn’t easy.
It certainly wasn’t from a dream of getting rich by outselling J.K. Rowling and purchasing an island next to Richard Branson’s. I’ll be lucky to get into the three hundreds so J.K can sleep soundly. And I can do likewise, on the impossibility of the latter purchase (it would be hell wouldn’t it – like living beneath Heathrow’s main flight path as wannabes fly to see him, seeking fame, fortune and cheap Virgin space flight tickets to the Moon).
Nor was it from pure ego. I know it used to be called vanity publishing, but strangely, for someone who can spend hours gazing into a mirror to see if that shirt will go with that jacket, it wasn’t for that either. In actual fact, I have found the need to self-promote rather embarrassing (just take my word for it that I am blushing right now). Okay, if thousands of people came up to me and said the book was brilliant and so was I, I could handle that, saying ‘aw shucks’. But having to do it myself is rather…er…tacky.
I have heard some authors say that the story demanded to be told. Well, as the original idea occurred to me twenty odd years ago it wasn’t that clamorous. There have been flower pots which have been more exacting. That said, I did want to write a private eye detective story set in Britain; I did want to set it against a socialist revolution and I did want to reclaim the suit from bankers and politicians. A trio of noble aims you will agree, but they were not knocking inside my head on a daily basis.
Others have said that reading novels and believing that they could do better had been the spur. Well, like anyone else I have read some right duffers. Including it has to be said, some which have won trunk loads of awards. I have just sat there gob smacked, pondering whether the writer was a relative of both the publisher and the literary judges. Or perhaps they just went to the same school. But then there have been many more which have just made me go – shit! That IS bloody good! And slunk off, feeling totally unworthy.
Actually pointing to what made me want to write it is difficult. Like many people (who are often the ones who ask the question this blog began with) I have always wanted to write a book. As a kid I loved writing stories and was at school at a time when creativity and imagination was the premium, which as a teacher myself, I worry is being eroded by a fanatical concern with the technical aspects of language. Children leaving primary school with semi-colons and non-finite verbs, but also feelings that writing is a chore. But for me it was a joy.
So with such a love it was obvious that my first job at 16 was…er…as a mechanical engineering apprentice. Needless to say, I was crap. (Actually, saying I was crap is being far too kind to me – I was positively life threatening on a lathe). I soon left, pompously announcing that I was off to be a man of letters/a journalist/a novelist. Well, I can say that I close to that. I unpacked boxes of novels; I piled up pallets of collected works of journalism and shelved selections of letters. I was no teenage literary wunderkid, but a processor in the goods inwards department of a book wholesaler.
But I always wanted to write. Over the years, ideas came and went, but some started to stay. What was keeping me from writing it was the same as with most people – life, work, housing, relationships etc etc. I started, then stopped. Then started again. It was unfinished business. It was only when my partner pushed me into starting; into thinking, that you get one life and to try and live it with as few regrets as you can, that gave me the impetus I needed. Some people’s dream is to have children, others to climb a mountain or running a marathon. Some might want all three (though probably not at the same time). Mine was to write a book. I should give it a go, otherwise, I could end up reproaching myself for not doing so. What made me write it, was simply so I could say to myself – I did it.
So I made a serious start. And that occasions the next question people ask me– where did you get the ideas from?