Life can be murder for Martin

The time has come to let you know about my new book. For readers seeking an unusual hero to root for, then step forward, Martin, a hapless journalist who works on a London-based financial magazine.

Martin desperately wants to tell you his side of the story about how the blue-eyed new boy, Tom de Lacy, turned up one day in the newsroom, and ended up grabbing all of the limelight, not to mention the well-paid industrial correspondent’s job that he had his eye on.

Once he lost out to Tom, life was never quite the same for him but I’ll let him tell you all about that. If only Martin could match Tom and his amazing elevation into television. If only he too could be, well, a bit like Tom really, someone whose ability was admired by all and sundry.

And it wasn’t an impossibility as he was every much Tom’s equal in journalism. But keeping a job and remaining solvent can be murder, and in certain circumstances could even give rise to it.

Watching Tom’s career blossom wasn’t easy for Martin, so when a really unexpected turn of events occurs, he just had to grab the opportunity with both hands.

But I’ll let Martin tell you how he got into trouble. Just go on to Amazon and pre-order his story now. It’s called, SCOOP OF THE YEAR.

Available in paperback or e-book:

Amazon UK: http://tinyurl.com/y7zwqmqc

Amazon US: http://tinyurl.com/ycyhcx5w

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

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In search of the write stuff

When attending a book festival to listen to an author talk about his or her book, you can bet a pound to a penny that a member of the audience will raise a hand to ask the writer one particular question: Where do your ideas come from?

Most authors say their ideas come when they go on long walks in the countryside or at least somewhere nice and green, giving everyone this romantic idea that being an author is an endless exercise of writing and walking. But I’ve donned my wellies and tramped fields many a time only to return home absent of a eureka moment.

The writer and comedian, John Cleese, has strong advice on the whole subject of creativity, or at least the best chance of conjuring it up. In essence, he claims that by creating the right mood, creativity will follow. Cut yourself off from the busy world and allow yourself to play. Just make sure that time and space is your time and space. When ideas don’t come, work on them some more in your isolated state, then perhaps wait for the unconscious mind to kick-in when you least expect it.

This method of working, he says, explains why so many writers prefer to work late at night or in the early hours of the morning when there is less chance of interruption.

Yet, only the other day I read about a writer’s debut novel being written on a commuter train using her mobile phone. She didn’t specify whether she did this standing up or sitting down, given the state of our overcrowded trains, but you get the point, creativity can happen anywhere, locked away in a log cabin or in a train filled with passengers.

A year ago, I visited the lakeside house of the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, where he lived with his wife Nina, just on the edge of Bergen. I think any writer would have given his or her eyeteeth to work in his cosy hut overlooking Lake Nordas. Working in such tranquillity and light must have been heavenly for the composer. He apparently built it for himself to get away from the din of the house.

But for me, noise isn’t the issue having worked in busy newsrooms where there was constant interruption. I learnt quickly to block out everything around me while writing because there was a deadline to meet.

If anything, I found that I had more ideas floating around my head when I was working in a newsroom than I do today while sitting alone in my office. And when I used to travel for my job ideas seemed to multiply because there was so much going on around me to stimulate my mind.

But I agree with Cleese’s thesis that ideas have to be worked out in your head until a perfect solution is eventually found or otherwise it is just a compromise. I walk around thinking about such problems for days on end and then suddenly come up with an answer while reaching out for a jar in the cupboard. There can be no switching off until the right idea presents itself.

With my new book, Scoop of the Year, due to be published in late October, I wanted to write a suspense story based on a single emotion, jealousy. But I wanted this emotion to be a positive experience for the protagonist. Envy can be good for you, if it gets you off your backside.

I wrote the book in a few months as I knew what I was aiming at, but to figure out the right presentation of the story required an incredible amount of thinking and caused much delay.

Some writers are heavy plotters, and often decide the ending first before working their way back to the beginning of their novel. While others are more improvisational and go where the story takes them, often to places they never would have thought.

I’m somewhere in the middle of the two. I usually know the beginning and the ending before setting sail, but I do let the logic of the story unfold. Sometimes, an idea comes to me out of the blue as my fingers hit the keyboard. If it surprises me at that point, then it will sure surprise the reader.

Some ideas can peter out while writing or they just don’t hold out to keep the story alive, even if everything else is in place in terms of characters and plot. At the end of the day it’s about finding the right stuff to sustain 90,000 words or more. When you have it, you write fast and furiously, but when you don’t it’s a bit like playing a tune on a piano with one finger.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

How do you like your hero…or heroine?

Heroes and heroines in thrillers come in all shapes and sizes, but the one thing they have in common is the enormous baggage they carry, courtesy of the author.

My favourite type of hero is the bad’un who becomes a good’un at the end. A character who repents will always receive high numbers on my scorecard. But then again, I love Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, who is really a bad’un, through and through. He’s a wonderfully cultured and sophisticated chap, who also happens to be a psychopathic killer. The trouble is you can’t help caring about him.

But that’s the whole purpose of having a hero or anti-hero: it’s to put a reader in his shoes so that he or she can experience directly the dilemmas and anxieties facing the protagonist. Once that is achieved, then the writer can go to town on the hero, torturing him as well as the reader as much as possible right up to the end.

But the hero has to be real, usually likeable, and must have his own demons if he is to be accepted by readers.

So who are my fictional heroes? Here goes, and in no particular order:

Jo Nesbo’s loose cannon sleuth, Harry Hole, is a wonderful creation built on the alcoholic detective trope. Only this one is from Oslo, in nice Norway. Harry is a slob who courts disaster wherever he goes, but he always comes up trumps.

While Nesbo is best known for his Harry Hole series, I have to confess I have a soft spot for one of his few standalone books, Headhunters. The cynical protagonist, Roger Brown, is a recruitment specialist, headhunting executives for top jobs. He’s smart, wealthy and …er…short. He has a beautiful wife and a spectacular home. And, oh, he steals paintings on the side. Roger is too clever for his own good, and initially is not likeable. But as his circumstances change, so does the reader’s view about him. He’s not the typical hero readers would normally root for, but that’s part of the charm of the book.

Let’s stick with heroes that have Harry as their first name. Apart from Harry Bridger in Hider Seeker, I also like Harry Palmer in the Len Deighton’s series about the working class spy. Yes, I know, he doesn’t have a name in the book, and only receives one in the Michael Caine films (See article 15 Feb 2017), but the character is well established both in the written word and cinematically. The insubordinate working class hero was a reflection of the changing times in 1960s Britain, but the character is not a million miles from the wise-cracking Philip Marlowe.

When it comes to spies, I’m a sucker for John Le Carre’s British agent, Alec Leamas, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He was brilliantly played by Richard Burton in the 1963 film adaptation of the book, directed by Martin Ritt. There’s no happy ending in this bleak story set in the Cold War. Leamas, weary of his trade, chooses love over loyalty to his country.

However, the hero I liked the most from the Le Carre’s books I’ve read so far is the hapless interpreter, Salvo, in The Mission Song. Salvo, who is half Congolese but educated in England, discovers that a secretly organised British meeting with Congolese warlords is a total sham. But then the unthinkable happens to our naïve Salvo. He transforms from the role of the downtrodden husband to become a spy and lover of the beautiful Hannah. He proves to be a hero of sorts, but as with many of Le Carre’s novels it comes at an enormous cost. Filled with humour and cynicism, Le Carre delivers British treachery in his own inimitable style.

Milo Weaver is also a spy hero of mine who appears in Olen Steinhauer’s 2009 novel, The Tourist. Milo is a former “tourist” – a CIA operative that does the dirty work – and has been given a desk job after retiring from “tourism.” Need I spell out what happens next? Yes, he becomes a “tourist” once again to investigate allegations that a friend of his may have passed secrets to a foreign power. Milo is the reluctant hero who only wants to get back to his wife and kid, but first he needs to sort out some double-dealing by the state. A man with his heart in the right place.

Steinhauer, who cut his teeth on Cold War novels based in Eastern Europe, is often compared to Le Carre, Deighton and Graham Greene.

When it comes to police detectives, I can only say that I have one I really adore, the world-weary communist party member and Moscow policeman, Arkady Renko. Maybe it’s the location of Moscow or perhaps it is Renko’s disillusionment with city’s Prosecution Service, but I feel I want to be there working on his investigations. Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 bestseller Gorky Park, in which he introduced the detective to the world, was highly praised for the portrayal of Cold War Moscow even though the American author had never set foot in the Russian capital.

Surprisingly, Cruz Smith’s publishers turned down the idea of a Russian detective, but Gorky Park became an instant crime classic, and the author was soon being compared not only to John le Carre, but also to Dostoevsky.

And what about heroines? Well, who better than Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic 24-year-old with a history of delinquency and a genius on a computer keyboard? She’s cool, violent, and not really the sort of girl to be messed with. But nevertheless she gets on with righting wrongs in her own way.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t an instant success in Britain, and I can remember receiving my free copy from an Evening Standard newsstand, a ploy used by the publisher to help push sales of the then unknown Swedish author. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

Deighton returns to the silver screen

Len Deighton, who turned 88 this month, is enjoying a revival of interest in his work as filmmakers are turning to his books again for inspiration.

A five-part mini-series based on his 1978 novel SS-GB is about to be aired by the BBC, and there has been talk for some while of the nine Bernard Samson novels – Deighton’s magnum opus – being adapted for television as well.

SS-GB is a counter-factual history adventure set in 1941 Britain where the Nazis have taken occupation. Deighton, a highly respected writer on military history, penned the novel after carrying out painstaking research on Hitler’s occupation plans, speaking to German army generals and senior SS officers.

It provides an exciting backdrop for a murder investigation by Scotland Yard detective, Douglas Archer, who uncovers a terrible truth at the heart of the British puppet government under Nazi rule.

The world renowned author claims that he never wanted to be a writer,  but a chance introduction with the literary agent, Johnathan Clowes, turned jottings made while on holiday into The Ipcress File. This was 1962, the same year of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, and a year before John le Carre published The Spy Who came in from the Cold.

The three British masters of the spy novel were about to start vying on the silver screen. But while Ian Fleming’s James Bond won hands down in general public appeal the world over, Deighton and le Carre’s anti-heroes proved the perfect antidote to those filmgoers who hated the glamorous fantasy world of 007.

Harry Saltzman, who made Dr.No, had the good sense to hedge his bets about what the paying public wanted from their British spy and produced The Ipcress File in 1965, offering  the sharp witted cockney Michael Caine as an alternative to the smooth talking Sean Connery.

The film helped to launch Deighton’s career as a major author, and more spy novels followed, including many books featuring the jaded middle-aged MI6 spy, Bernard Samson. In the 1970s he wrote Fighter, an account of the Battle of Britain, as well as deeply researched novels about the Second World War, including Bomber, and SS-GB.

His historical non-fiction has also been highly praised over the years, despite being criticised for interviewing German veterans at a time when the only point of view of the war was from that of the allies.

He also found time to become travel editor of Playboy while also writing and producing the film version of Oh! What a lovely War.

But his real passion in life was cooking, taught to him while growing up in London by his mother who was cook by profession. As a trained illustrator he also drew cartoon strips based on recipes for The Observer. Cooking books followed, including Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook, Basic French Cooking, and, ABC of French Food.

Before becoming an illustrator after studying at London’s top art schools, he spent 30 months in RAF intelligence during his National Service, followed by a stint as a railway clerk, a BOAC steward, and a press photographer.

In total he wrote 27 novels, 11 miscellaneous works including films and television scripts, and 16 non-fiction books. Several of his works have been adapted for screen, three starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, and a Granada Television mini-series starring Ian Holm as Bernard Samson.

But the success in his early career was to some extent helped greatly by his good friend Michael Caine who personified the working class hero probably better than the author could have ever created in The Ipcress File. Deighton admits he had no idea why he made the unnamed hero, who narrates the story in the book, a northerner, and supposes that it may have been his way of disguising the fact that he was a Londoner who spoke with a cockney accent.

Caine restored the balance by making the spy a cockney, and by also giving him a name for the audience. He was looking for the most common sounding name possible, starting with Saltzman’s first name. Caine brought Deighton’s hero to life, capturing both the time and mood of the 1960s. Deighton’s book was seen at the time as fresh and different largely because of the way the hero was insubordinate to his often untrustworthy superiors. In truth, this was a return to the wisecracking Philip Marlowe only with a cockney accent. A hero with his own code of ethics.

The success of The Ipcress File caught Deighton by surprise as he instantly shot to global fame. But he was not the only one surprised by his immediate success; his publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, had restricted the print order to only 4,000 books and were sold out in just a couple of days.

He claims he never had any intense literary ambitions despite being a voracious reader since childhood thanks to the encouragement of his father who was a chauffeur and mechanic. But luckily for us he decided to swap his day job as an illustrator to become one of Britain’s finest writers in the spy genre.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

The poet of apprehension

Patricia Highsmith’s advice to budding writers was to begin a novel with events of everyday life that may spark off a story, and then capture the reader’s attention with invention.

Sounds simple, but it would coming from an author who turned the psychological thriller into a high art form.

At the age of 29 she wrote her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, a plot that captured the imagination of one generation after another. It was adapted as a film by Alfred Hitchcock a year later in 1951, and then re-used in several other adaptations in one form or another, including films, television, theatre as well as in other novels.

Highsmith’s book in my opinion was superior to Hitchcock’s version, which proved to be his comeback film after a couple of flops. Hitchcock chose the novel because it had the right type of material for him to work with. He was confident at the time that no other director would have spotted the book’s potential as a film. But converting the prose into a suspenseful script proved much harder than he imagined. Big names like Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck turned down the opportunity to work with him. He finally got Raymond Chandler to produce a script, which proved to be a disaster, and in the end Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, came to the rescue with the help of other scriptwriters.

The story begins with an everyday occurrence of two strangers sitting on a long train journey chatting. Then the tempo rises when Guy and Bruno discuss carrying out murders for each other to solve their problems. Such random acts would make it almost impossible for the police to connect them to the victims.

On reading Strangers on a Train it reminded me more of Crime and Punishment than a contemporary thriller of its day. The two men could be one man, conflicted with guilt. Good at odds with evil.

The guilt of Guy when Bruno suddenly murders Guy’s wife without his agreement is palpable. But if that is not enough Highsmith adds more tension when Bruno blackmails Guy into honouring his part of the bargain of murdering his father. And if that is not ratcheting it up enough, a private detective gets wind of their pact.

In her book to help young aspiring writers, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, she explains she always likes to thicken the plot by bringing in new complications to freshen up the story. It certainly works well in the case of Strangers on a Train.

Her next book The Price of Salt, later retitled Carol, was also a big hit and was written under the pen name Claire Morgan. The story of a young shop girl falling in love with a married woman was recently adapted by Phyllis Nagy into a successful film in 2015.

Then in 1955, Highsmith created the wonderful psychopath anti-hero in The Talented Mr Ripley. She went on to write several more Ripley novels and then continued writing more novels exploring characters with a dark side.

My particular favourite The Cry of the Owl (1962) was a psychological thriller that she didn’t care much for. It was apparently based on her own experience of stalking a woman, the same one that inspired her to write The Price of Salt. There have been three film/television adaptions of the book, including one by the renowned French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who was of course a great admirer of Hitchcock.

Highsmith didn’t see herself as a crime writer and preferred to be called an entertainer. According to friends, she didn’t suffer fools but her troubled life tended to follow her wherever she went.

She moved to Europe from the US in the early 1960s and surprisingly enjoyed a higher recognition there than in her native country. She eventually settled in Switzerland in the 1980s where she remained until her death in 1995, aged 74.

The Times once named her number one in their list of the greatest ever crime writers, although her ranking elsewhere is inexplicably much lower.

She completed 22 novels and eight books of short stories, but she admitted rather candidly in her handbook on writing that the possibility of failure was always ever present for the author. It is difficult to believe that she had suffered failures of her own, but she viewed every failure as teaching her something.

Highsmith was an admirer of Graham Greene and he reciprocated by describing her as “the poet of apprehension.” He said that she “created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational, which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.”

 

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

Last night I dreamt I went to …

During the summer I took refuge in a second hand bookshop in Lyme Regis to get out of the pouring rain and found myself weaving around the higgledy-piggledy assortment of shelves, lazily scanning hundreds of titles to read.

The aptly named Sanctuary Bookshop on Broad Street stocks metres of books in every direction. It also has a reading room with comfortable armchairs, a cosy fire, and if you are a slow reader they can put you up in overnight accommodation. It’s a book lover’s paradise. (http://www.lyme-regis.com/)

For some reason I felt myself being drawn to the back of the shop and to a particular shelf where I found the book I’d been longing to read but never got around to doing so This was a sign, I thought, and grabbed the second-hand paperback off the shelf before anyone else suddenly took a fancy to it.

The well-worn book in my hands of Rebecca was published by Pan Books in 1978 under a fourth print run. Daphne du Maurier’s classic suspense story was first published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz and became an instant bestseller. It has never been out of print and according to the publishers Virago it still sells around 4,000 a month.

I’d seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca many times and was curious to know why Hitchcock didn’t think much of his movie that brought him his first fame in Hollywood. I was rather hoping by reading the book it might shed some light on why he had taken this harsh attitude towards his movie.

The 1940 film was Hitchcock’s first in Hollywood and the only one to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Hitchcock was a close friend of Du Maurier’s father and wanted to make Rebecca several years earlier, but was unable to afford the rights to the novel. He’d already turned her novel Jamaica Inn into a film and would later direct her short story The Birds into one of his best known movies.

It got off to a bad start when the producer David O. Selznick rejected the script Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville had worked on. Selznick who was busy producing Gone With the Wind at the time was renowned for loving and understanding books. He’d insisted that the film faithfully adapted the plot of the book, including scenes and dialogues.

Here was a monumental clash of artistic differences – the producer seeking a literal approach versus the director’s visceral approach. It led to extensive re-writes, but Selznick got his movie and won Best Picture for the second year in a row after winning the same award for Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The black and white photography also won an Oscar and was put to good effect to convey the darkness of the book.

It might not have been the film that Hitchcock wanted to make but without Selznick’s interference some commentators doubt that it would have been so successful as Selznick brought a solid structure to the story, something that Hitchcock would eventually adopt in his later works.

Adapting the gothic melodrama to screen no doubt helped Hitchcock expand his repertoire from his trademark of sharp shocks to more moodier themes which eventually established him as an all-time great film director.

Hitchcock captures well the shy girl (Joan Fontaine) who suddenly enters the rich world of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and Manderley, his beautiful mansion by the sea. Mr de Winter’s immature bride acts at first passively towards the large household of servants led by the pernicious housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), who instils the idea that she is not worthy of replacing Rebecca, the late Mrs de Winter. From that moment on she is tormented by the ghost of Rebecca until she grows up to confront her demon and learn the truth about her death.

Du Maurier’s novel is a study of a new wife’s jealousy of her husband’s first wife who eventually goes on to discover that everything she had built up in her head is completely wrong. Echoes of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, possibly, but as Du Maurier admitted it was a story about a fairly common theme. In reality, it was based on her own marital experience.

Both the book and Hitchcock’s film were well received by the public. The toxic combination of jealousy and suspense has led to several versions of the story reaching the stage, television, radio, Bollywood, and even the opera.

The book is apparently read and re-read by fans the world over with many of them seeing something different in the characters each time. It is easy to understand its popularity just by reading the first opening sentence, one of the most memorable in classic fiction. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’

 

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

My favourite gumshoe

When it comes to detective stories there is only one writer, and one book, for that matter, that hits all the buttons. The writer is Dashiell Hammett, and his book, The Maltese Falcon.

As a teenager I enjoyed Raymond Chandler and his wisecracking PI, Philip Marlowe. Nothing could surpass him, I thought at the time, for enjoyment in detective fiction. But that all changed when in later life I read Hammett’s The Thin Man, and then the mother of all detective fiction, The Maltese Falcon.

Up to that point, I didn’t think Chandler could ever be possibly dethroned in my head. But after casting my eyes over The Thin Man, considered a lightweight novel, compared to Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, I realised how wrong I was.

The Thin Man, which was the last of his five published novels, also happened to be a very thin book indeed. But that is the beauty of his writing. He was so efficient in his prose that the story revolves around a few characters in walking distance of each other. There is humour and a general ease in style that makes it effortless to read again and again and again. The husband and wife team of Nick and Nora Charles and their witty banter led to a spate of films and set a blueprint for comedy between the sexes ever since.

And when I thought it couldn’t get any better I browsed The Maltese Falcon in a small London bookshop during a lunch break and forgot to return to the office. These are the most cherished moments in finding that right book that fits you. Time just seems to stand still when they get into your hands.

The Maltese Falcon marked a step-change in detective fiction. Its hardboiled style and darker approach to crime, dragged readers away from the cosy upper-class detectives created by mystery writers from the Golden Age. The British whodunits were being passed over for the grittier American urban crime thriller where the hero was working class.

Hammett’s Sam Spade, the dry-witted gumshoe, would a decade later turn into the more defined Philip Marlowe created by Chandler. Both characters would become the template for all future pulp fiction private detectives until they were eventually replaced by cops in police procedural thrillers.

The Maltese Falcon had the requisite MacGuffin, a femme fatale, crooked chancers, and of course a hero with his own code of ethics straight from the Knights of the Round Table. The plot is linear and not overly complicated, unlike those of Chandler’s, and there is humour too. But it is the directness of his writing, using a third person point-of-view, which allows the action to speak.

Of course, Hammett had one advantage over Chandler in that he had been a real detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, although not much is known about his job there. Hammett, certainly had a harder upbringing than Chandler, having to leave school at 13. Both were born in the US with unreliable fathers, but Chandler thanks to his Irish mother was classically educated at Dulwich College in London, a private school whose pupils included the authors P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forester.

Chandler published his first novel The Big Sleep in 1939, introducing Philip Marlowe some nine years after Hammett’s Sam Spade. But the detective’s first person narration brought more immediacy in his story as well as more scope for humour and style.

Farewell, My Lovely followed a year later and soon Marlowe was hitting the big time on the silver screen. It was not long before Chandler turned his hand to scriptwriting, just as Hammett had done many years earlier.

His self-styled similes became his stock-in-trade as a writer and brought him much admiration in the literary world, something that was less apparent in the UK with regards to Hammett’s work.

The British-based Crime Writers’ Association ranked The Maltese Falcon at No.10 out of the top 100 crime books, while placing Chandler’s The Big Sleep at No.2 and Farewell, My Lovely at No.7. But the Mystery Writers of America ranked The Maltese Falcon as the best of all time mysteries, ahead of Chandler. Over the years, the US association has ranked Hammett’s book at No.1 or No.2.

Hammett’s influence is everywhere from Chandler to Le Carré, to Elmore Leonard and even Len Deighton. While he may not have been the first writer to create a hard-boiled detective, he was innovative and original, justifying his classic status.

My only gripe with Hammett was that he gave Sam Spade only one outing in full-length fiction. That was a very mean thing to do in my book.

 

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

It’s no laughing matter

One of the main gripes of the author behind the popular ITV detective series, Grantchester, is that the producers take out all of the jokes from the novels on which the show is based upon.

James Runcie, son of Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is the author of Grantchester Mysteries, six novels about a crime-fighting vicar, stretching over a twenty-year period starting from the 1950s.The novels have been adapted for television, starring James Norton and Robson Green.

The author told an audience at the recent Crimefest in Bristol that the jokes are stripped from the novels by producers because they are trying to get a varied tone on the television show. “It needs to be truncated to fit the allotted time, and the jokes come out,” he explained.

Runcie made his remarks during a panel session to illustrate the current plight of the comic crime fiction writer.

The sad fact of the matter is that there is no money in comic fiction writing in Britain, forcing writers to quit the subgenre altogether.

Runcie said that writers get paid more for scaring people than making them laugh. Yet there is black humour when crime goes wrong, he pointed out. “Even at funerals when families come together they say the wrong thing at the wrong time, but there is a loving humanity about it,” he said. However, a novel with no humour would probably be less sympathetic to the subject, in his opinion.

“Comedy is always considered flippant, but it’s harder to be funny than sombre,” he went on to tell the audience. “A world without humour is not worth living.”

The television and radio comedy writer, Nev Fountain, who has recently moved into serious thriller writing with his new book Painkiller, agrees that there is humour in every aspect of tragedy, sometimes involuntary.

“Spike Milligan’s war diaries are dark and the funniest parts are when the soldiers are together and talking about death,” he told the audience. “Humour shows intelligence. It’s not difficult to switch to writing serious books because when you write dialogue, you just leave the jokes out.”

Fountain maintains that while it is easy to write revulsion and horror, it is far more difficult to write comedy banter. The only must in such writing, he says, is to take death seriously, and making sure it does not turn into a pantomime.

While there appears to be only room for a few comic fiction writers in the market, there seems to be no limit to the number of writers in serious crime fiction, he says.

Ruth Dudley Edwards, whose satirical crime novels targets academia, the civil service, the House of Lords and the Church of England, says the lot of a funny writer, is not funny. She agrees there is no money to be made in comic fiction, which she thinks is strange when there is demand for the genre.

She asked the audience why readers didn’t want to pay for it. Clearly, the audience did want to pay for it, judging by their positive response. Their only problem is that they can’t find it in the bookshops.

At least that seems the experience in Britain, because in the US it is not too difficult to find crime fiction and TV crime shows with sprinklings of comic relief.

American writers of detective novels are given licence to crack jokes and have punch lines. They seem to have no reservations about mixing death and comedy.

British agents and publishers are wary of taking on manuscripts with a sliver of humour as they think it is risky because humour is open to interpretation.

Cosy mysteries series from the UK in fact do well in the US, and the jokes on shows like Vera are understood on the other side of the pond.

Humour can also be used to great effect to offset the grimness in many books. In fact, a hilarious dialogue can sometimes save a book or a film. And who doesn’t like film noir with wise-cracks? The trouble is finding the right balance.

British humour is renowned the world over and travels well like its rock music. It’s virtually a brand that tells its audience to prepare for rib-cracking laughter.

One of the major stumbling blocks about comic books, it is argued, is that written comedy is difficult to translate well. But in an increasingly English-speaking world, cultural references present translators with less problems than in the past, and one only has to look at the acceptance of Woody Allen in France to realise the divide is not so great.

That’s not to say there aren’t limits to how faithful a translator can be to the original text to get a chuckle. To cater for the humour-challenged Germans, the publishers of the German edition of James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries decided to tackle the problem head-on. Over a span of 20 pages it spelt out fully why his book should make them laugh. Now that’s hilarious, isn’t it?

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

Time catching up with Rebus

The gruff –boozy Scottish detective, John Rebus, will return in his 21st novel this November, but be prepared to see some changes in Ian Rankin’s much loved character.

Rather Be the Devil will see the retired cantankerous investigator drawn into a cold case from the 1970s involving a female socialite who died in an Edinburgh hotel.

Ian Rankin read the first chapter, still in its first draft form, to a very attentive audience at the recent Crimefest in Bristol, where he was the featured guest author. The opening chapter made it clear that the drinking and smoking over the years had finally caught up with the aging Rebus.

Could we be witnessing the final curtains of the popular detective? Rankin lets on that Rebus has a serious illness after decades of over indulgence, something the writer’s wife nagged him to do because in real life you couldn’t drink and smoke to that degree without having to pay for it at some point.

Rankin clearly is thinking what to do next with Rebus. Having retired him off, he inveigled him into another investigation in Standing in Another Man’s Grave in 2013, only after Police Scotland, raised the mandatory age of retirement, providing him with the perfect excuse to bring him back into the fold.

Then followed Even Dogs in the Wild, out in paperback next month, where he helps former colleague Siobhan Clarke solve a murky murder.

Rankin knew his detective would have to be retired when he hit 60 in the 2007 novel, Exit Music, the news of which prompted one Scottish MP to stand up in the Scottish Parliament to ask whether the retirement age for police could be raised so that Rebus could be kept on. Years later Police Scotland obliged, and rebus was back.

One of the problems about writing a crime series is time. Many writers allow their fictional detectives to remain forever young over the passing decades. But Rankin decided Rebus would live in the real world and get old, researching the newspaper archives to always provide an authentic backdrop. Although he has factored in Rebus’ age, he has also fiddled about with it as well. He didn’t exactly stop the clock, but he did manage to slow down the passage of time. In the current series, Rebus is in his mid-60s, but in real time he would be an old man of 70.

As Rankin explained to the audience, the problem with finding Rebus a new role was that he was too old to become a PI, and PIs aren’t particularly believable characters in the UK. Moreover, real retired cops tend to work for solicitors, taking down statements from witnesses in court cases. Besides, he couldn’t envisage Rebus opening a B&B or going travelling either, because all he wants to do is to be a detective.

Would Rankin ever consider retiring?

“I could imagine a time when I’m not publishing, but would still be writing,” he told the audience, adding that he’s tried film script writing and used to produce comic books. In fact, one of his old novellas was cannibalised into a Rebus book.

Oddly enough when he started writing he didn’t think he would become a crime writer at all because at that time there was no tradition of crime writing about Edinburgh where he lived. There had been only one crime writer from the city before, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but he set Sherlock Holmes in London. While Glasgow was seeing gritty writing, Rankin figured why not in Edinburgh too where there were real living problems too despite it being a popular tourist destination.

There were times that he doubted he would ever make it as a crime writer. After his first Rebus novel in 1987, Knots and Crosses, he feared he might be dropped as a mid-list writer, where books just breakeven. He’d written four or five Rebus books by then with no breakthrough in sales, and he thought he would not cut it as a crime writer.

Then he published the highly acclaimed Black and Blue in 1997, which proved to be the turning point after strong reviews. He said he managed to channel much of his anger into that novel after learning that his younger son, Kit, had been diagnosed with Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic condition characterised by severe learning difficulties. As a consequence Black and Blue became a bigger and more questioning book than his previous stories and was the first to sell in any quantities.

Fife-born Rankin became the first Scottish writer to pass the £50m sales mark and his novels are claimed to account for between 10% and 20% of all crime fiction sold in the UK. The rebus series has been translated into around 36 languages and has won numerous crime-writing awards.

He’s written new instalments almost every year, with two issued in 1992, alongside short stories, standalone novels that do not feature Rebus. But in 2013 Rankin surprised everyone when he announced he would be taking a year off to recharge his batteries and rediscover his passion for writing. His time away had also been prompted by the death of two close friends, including the novelist Iain Banks.

Age is not only catching up with Rebus but with Rankin too, he admits. But if Rebus is coming to his end, Rankin seemed uncertain by the suggestion of ever doing a prequel to the series. When the time comes to say farewell to his fictitious friend, he no doubt will miss him because he’s enjoyed hiding behind Rebus all these years as a writer. He says Rebus has helped him to become introspective, allowing him to wrap it up in his stories.

However, he doubts whether his creation would have much time for him if they were ever to meet in a pub. They might chat about music over a pint, but Rebus wouldn’t understand a wishy-washy graduate like Rankin, he claims.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

It’s all in the genres

The London Book Fair closed the other week in a bullish mood with reports of some eye-watering deals for a number of thriller writers. It seems that the good times are back, judging by the number of publishers bidding at auctions for big titles and the frenetic activity in selling the rights for these books across the continent of Europe.

There was quite rightly a lot of attention on thrillers at the fair and one debut writer in particular appears to have hit the jackpot after giving up her job last summer to take the Faber Academy writing course.

Chloé Esposito looks set to become the next big thriller author after receiving over £2m in advances from UK publisher Michael Joseph and foreign rights sales, according to reports at the London Book Fair. There is also talk of Hollywood being interested in her Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know trilogy.

Pitched as “a heady mix of sex, lies, twists and murder,” it’s a story of sibling rivalry where the protagonist is described as “Bridget Jones gone bad.” There is apparently a nod in the direction of anti-heroes, Amy Dunne and Tom Ripley.

The first of the trilogy, Mad, is due to be published in June 2017 and looks set to become a hit like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.

Esposito says it is her first novel, although she had previously written “hundreds” of unfinished books. Her agent, Simon Trewin at WME, claims that it is “a thriller with a high concept,” and went on to describe it as the “American Psycho for the Gone Girl generation.”

No doubt this high concept thriller will lead to a round of similar novels reaching the market in the years to come, possibly adding another subgenre to thrillers.

In recent years, the domestic noir genre has grown in increasing popularity. Publishers and agents have been scouring female writers to come up with more domestic noir, which was grafted on the back of the classic detective genre by turning romantic women’s themes into darker stories.

Ian Rankin, the bestselling crime author who created the Rebus series, made the point recently that publishers are no longer just focused on publishing the next big book or author, but an entire genre. He claims that British writers are facing more competition than ever as publishers are turning their sights on finding the next success to Scandinavian noir.

More publishers are trawling their nets in foreign waters hoping to come up with a new cultural setting for crime readers to enjoy. Suddenly, there are more thrillers being stacked on the shelves of bookshops from around the world. This may be a good time to be a translator, but perhaps not a British thriller writer.

The majority of today’s crime novels are far from the roots of the classic thriller of the last century as they are filled with violence, horror, torture, misogyny, and sadomasochism.

Ann Cleeves, the crime writer, believes that publishers have encouraged such writing in a bid to keep up with the success of Scandinavian noir.

But she believes readers have tired of such genres, and supports her view with the recent trend towards traditional crime novels, citing the success of the British Library’s classic crime series, which reprints books from the 1930s with iconic covers from the golden age of thrillers.

While she admits that some of these books are beyond their sell-by date in entertainment value, publishers should be taking note what the readers are saying through their purchases.

That may be true, but given that Esposito’s new book promises “loads of sex and violence,” don’t expect any sea change soon.

Ian Rankin and Ann Cleeves will be speaking at Crimefest in Bristol, 19-22 May 2016. http://www.crimefest.com

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk