That what-if moment

From time to time I read a thriller and kick myself for not thinking up such a terrific plot. It is difficult to say what makes a plot so appealing, but you know it when you see it and it’s pure magic.

Forty-one years ago an unknown 24-year old from Montana hit the jackpot when he published his debut thriller about a CIA agent who runs for his life after his office is wiped out by rogue agents while he’s out fetching sandwiches. This is a plot many a writer would sell his or her mother for.

Six Days of the Condor is the perfect chase novel and in my opinion owes its roots to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. Although the young James Grady only mentions Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as one inspiration, it should be remembered that this film was a reworking of Buchan’s ground breaking novel. I think it is possible to make comparisons not only because it is the innocent man on the run. While Buchan set his story against the fear of an impending First World War, Grady tapped into the disenchantment felt in America after the horrors of Vietnam and Watergate.

And what a perfect hero he created in Ronald Malcolm, a bookish slob, who has the perfect job of reading books for a living for the CIA. He’s the equivalent of a literary agent for spies, looking for intriguing plots in published books which are then fed into a computer to check against CIA operations. The purpose of which is to look for possible leaks in the agency.

Admittedly any writer would make more money selling the secrets to the enemy directly than publishing a book, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good plot.

In the story Ronald Malcolm insists he’s not a spy as he has no espionage training. But while on the run and against all odds, it is his broad knowledge gained from reading books that keeps him alive. The plot even has a moral in the tale.

Yet what’s so appealing about the hero is that he’s like one of us, a reader, and is therefore easy to identify with. More excitingly, he can enter the dangerous world of espionage and survive.

So where did Grady get his brilliant idea? While he was a congressional intern in Washington he would pass every morning a mysterious looking townhouse proclaiming to be the headquarters of the American Historical Association.

But Grady says he never saw anyone enter or leave the building, and like all thriller writers he let his imagination run wild. It was the classic, what-if moment. In fact, two what-ifs in his case. What if the townhouse was a CIA front, and what if the hero returned from lunch and found everyone in the office shot dead?

After the three-month internship ended Grady went back to Montana where he did a number of manual jobs to support himself while making his first stab at writing a novel. He decided to steer clear of the James Bond superhero, and focus on analysts in the CIA.

With very little to go on he invented the structure of the agency and the mythical job of an analyst who read novels all day. So impressive was this fictional concept that in later years the Russians apparently decided that they needed to emulate such a department.

He banged out the novel on a typewriter from his kitchen table in Helena, Montana, and sent off his sample chapter to 30 publishers. After many months, he received a modest offer from a publisher and then weeks later a movie rights deal from Dino De Laurentiis.

The film, Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway was a huge success.

In many respects Pollack’s movie was an improvement on the book but this was largely due to the collaborative nature of film making. More mature heads with experience in producing thrillers somehow polished up the rough edges of a story written by a prodigious 24-year old. Grady graciously acknowledges this and believes himself to be one lucky author.

Earlier this year, Grady published Last Days of the Condor, the latest and possibly last of his hero’s adventures. Once again Ronald Malcolm is on the run from sinister forces within the US government.

The Washington Post praised Grady’s prose and style of writing, saying his talent has evolved since his debut book after years of experience producing novels and screenplays.

What more could a writer want? To be discovered at 24, have arguably one of the best thriller films ever made from a debut book, and fulfilling a life-long career in writing. All thanks to one moment when standing in front of a Washington townhouse and asking himself, what if?

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

The Godmother of Nordic Noir

Look up Maj Sjöwall or her late writing partner Per Wahlöö in Wikipedia and you’ll find only a paragraph or two dedicated to each of them. But more than half a century ago these two Swedish crime writers created a form of crime writing that we now refer today as Nordic Noir.

They wrote only 10 crime books together in the 1960s and 1970s until the death of Wahlöö at the age of 48 from cancer. But they recalibrated crime writing based on real social issues and police procedurals. Their books featured Martin Beck, a tenacious Swedish policeman and his team in homicide.

Sjöwall, who celebrates her 80th birthday next month, is hailed by writers like Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø as the Godmother of Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

She was given a standing ovation at the recent Crimefest in Bristol after being interviewed on stage by Lee Child. Sjöwall, a modest and unassuming lady, could have done without the intrusion of her privacy, but it was unavoidable as she was there to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Martin Beck novel, Roseanna. She was also followed around Bristol by a Swedish TV crew making a documentary about her work.

Sjöwall, a former Marxist, was brought up in a hotel managed by her father and as a child saw Nazis in the hotel. German soldiers travelling on leave between Norway and Germany were allowed passage through neutral Sweden – the so-called permittenttrafik. “Everything stopped in Sweden during the war,” she told Child. “The borders were closed. There was no traffic.”

When she was a teenager she saw many of her friends travelling to exciting places like Paris, but she was not allowed to go abroad. Then in the 1960s, Sweden, like other parts of Europe, saw its fair share of left wing agitation in the form of student protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam war.

To the outside world, Sweden looked a free and easy place to live, she explained but in reality the country was moving more to the right and becoming a capitalist state. Sjöwall claimed that the country’s reputation of being some sort of “idealistic” state was nothing more than a “PR exercise” that clouded the fact that the country was lurching to the right.

She met Wahlöö while he was a journalist as she needed someone to translate Father Brown stories for the publishing house she was working for. She’d already been twice divorced when she met Wahlöö who was nine years her senior and already married. But he eventually left his wife and they lived together, producing two sons and 10 crime books.

They were influenced by writers like Chandler, Hammett, and Simenon, but she said they did not want to write like someone else. The aim was not to have just a hero but a team.

Ed McBain’s police procedural style was also an influence but Sjöwall told Child that it was not true that they copied him.

Most Swedish crime novelists at that time, according to Sjöwall, were “bourgeois” and did not write about policemen but characters who happen to stumble upon crime. Wahlöö, who was also a Marxist, wanted to do something different. He was keen to show a critique of Swedish society, using the police procedural format as the vehicle.

So they planned a book and allotted each other chapters.They would sit opposite each other writing into the night, having put their kids to bed.

Roseanna, their first collaboration, sold moderately well despite crime books not being a particularly popular genre in Sweden in those days. Martin Beck was the rather typical civil servant who was boring and dutiful, she said. She admitted that it was a gamble to have such a boring character, but the point was to show how real human beings work.

They were criticised for showing the private lives of policemen, something which would today sound odd as so many crime books are about romance. But she feels that the genre has in fact gone too much in this direction as the books seem to now over dwell on the personal lives of detectives.

Their fourth book together, The Laughing Policeman, won an Edgar Award in 1971 from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel and was later adapted into a film starring Walter Matthau.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö had only planned to write 10 crime books together although they saw it as one big novel about crime split into ten stories. The last book was completed before he died.

Child asked her whether they would have continued to write more had Wahlöö lived? Her answer was yes, although it would not have been about crime but about modern warships.

Since Wahlöö’s passing 40 years ago, she has collaborated with other authors from time to time, but she admitted in recent years she does not like to sit on her own to write. “It’s too lonesome. So I write short stories or articles, poetry and texts for my friends. I write when I have an idea but I won’t be publishing again.”

When asked by Child why she thought Nordic Noir was so popular? She said, “I don’t know, it’s not that fantastic.”

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

Hitchcock’s blueprint to success

Alfred Hitchcock never took a writing credit for any of his films but his presence is evident when watching all his movies. I doubt whether there is a single cinema goer who cannot spot a Hitchcock film.

This is mainly because of the clarity he demanded from a script and his personal supervision of writers. He wanted a blueprint of the film he was about to make as there was little room for improvisation once the cameras began rolling. He hammered into the writers that they had to explain the story with vision. He once famously remarked, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.”

Hitchcock would typically choose a story where he knew he could exploit a single emotion to the max. Creating an emotion to the point that it would make the audience feel it in their guts was Hitchcock’s stock-in-trade.

The Birds based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novelette is a good example of this as the story goes nowhere, but Hitchcock manages to work his magic all the same. The story has just one concept: a massive attack by birds on a rural community. Individually, a bird is harmless but in flocks so big that they block out the sky, a new dimension of fear is created.

Hitchcock was a good friend of Du Maurier’s father and he’d already directed Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, two of her better known novels. He did not think much of Jamaica Inn as a story, and while he liked Rebecca he was not allowed a free-hand in the script because of the intervention of David O. Selznick. Luckily for the British director that Selznick did put his foot down as Rebecca won the Oscar for best picture, launching Hitchcock’s career in the US.

By the time he got to make The Birds, Hitchcock could walk on water as far as Hollywood was concerned because he had so many hit films. But he was sniffy about Du Maurier’s 1952 short story, claiming he’d only read it once and at that very quickly. He explained to François Truffaut that after reading a book he’s thinking of turning into a film, he just forgets the book and starts to create cinema.

As long as a story had a hook, he was confident that he could make something from it. Du Maurier’s story is about a poor post-war Cornish family whose cottage suddenly comes under an unexplained attack by birds. It later becomes clear that the whole of Britain is under attack, which some commentators believe was a possible reference to the emergence of the Cold War.

Hitchcock didn’t like the drab setting and swapped Cornwall for California, upgrading the main character from a disabled farm hand to the dashing Rod Taylor. There was only one challenge for Hitchcock and that was to frighten the audience with birds for 90 minutes.

He said his job was to always make the audience suffer as much as possible and that he did in the case of The Birds, using a combination of real birds and models. It should be said that Du Maurier provided plenty of horror in her short story for Hitchcock to feast upon. It didn’t matter why the birds were attacking or whether it was some metaphor. All he was interested in was to exploit our phobias and make us suffer.

The Birds is one of his best known films and I admire it because it is based on a simple what if?  Hitchcock begins the story with the purchase of two love birds and then ratchets up the tension scene by scene. Dare any film maker to remake it. Of course Steven Spielberg did in a way with Jaws, but making a scary movie with gnashing razor sharp teeth is arguably slightly less challenging than doing one about our feathery friends.

So which of his 52 films are my favourite? For me it still remains The 39 Steps, followed by Foreign Correspondent, Rebecca, The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Blackmail, Rear Window, Notorious, The Paradine Case, Torn Curtain (like the Wizard of Oz, it grows on you with every viewing), and controversially Topaz. The Leon Uris spy novel, which the latter film was based upon, is a cracker and Hitchcock takes a more conventional approach in his storytelling, something that would have been at odds with him. I have to admit I have a soft spot for the single overhead shot of Karin Dor being shot and her long flowing dress representing the spilling of her blood – the only arty Hitchcockian scene in the film and well worth the wait. It does have three endings, depending on which version you watch. Unfortunately, the critics hated the film and it was a commercial flop.

I’m not sure why the BFI in 2012 voted Vertigo the best film of all time, replacing Citizen Kane. Before going to press, I re-watched Vertigo and still think it excruciatingly slow.

It took the French critics writing for Cahiers du Cinéma in the mid-1950s to truly recognise the genius of Hitchcock. His work allowed them to put across their view that it was the director, not the producer, writer or actor, who was the true author of a film. Hitchcock was the perfect example of their theory because he controlled every element of his movies.

So many film makers have played homage to Hitchcock over the decades because of his influence in the language of modern film making.

Every so often the press and film bloggers like to play a game of naming the best half dozen films that look like a Hitchcock film but were not directed by the great master of suspense. So here are my six films that have Hitchcock qualities: Peeping Tom (Michael Powell); Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol); Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg); Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut); Misery (Rob Reiner) and Charade (Stanley Donen).

Whether Hitchcock would have chosen to make any of these films is another question and probably a far more interesting one.

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

Celebrating Agatha

Agatha Christie fans will be rubbing their hands with glee this year. Not only has a new Poirot novel been published but a whole host of events have been planned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of The Queen of Crime Writers.

A number of events are being organised during the International Agatha Christie Festival in her birthplace of Torquay in the UK this September while fans from around the world are being encouraged to post letters describing her importance to them. (http://www.125stories.com)

Next year will also see the performances of a few new adaptations of her plays while Fox is remaking the Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express. It will see the welcome return to the screen of Hercule Poirot, the fastidious Belgian detective.

Poirot, one of Christie’s best known characters, appeared in 33 of her novels, one play and in more than 50 short stories published between 1920 and 1975.

But this year saw the first Poirot book to be written since her death after the Christie family estate gave permission for a continuation novel.

The family wanted a writer who could be trusted and given a free rein. The choice of the crime writer Sophie Hannah seemed like a match made in heaven as far as the family was concerned. Hannah had read all of Christie’s books by the age of 14 and, perhaps more importantly, had become a respectful aficionado. She had already nine psychological thrillers under her belt and was considered suitably experienced enough to pull off the tricky task of reviving Poirot.

Hannah made a conscious decision not to imitate Christie at all in her new book, The Monogram Murders. Out went Captain Hastings, and his narration, along with Miss Lemon and Chief Inspector Japp. In came a new narrator, Edward Catchpool, a Scotland Yard detective.

The result got the immediate thumbs up from Mathew Prichard, Christie’s only grandson and head of the family estate. He said that The Monogram Murders was recognisably a Poirot book even though Hannah had brought her own style.

She claims to have brought all the elements of a Poirot novel: an enjoyable simple-to-read mystery with a complex puzzle to solve. Three bodies are found in separate rooms of a hotel behind locked doors. Only clue; monogrammed cufflinks found in their mouths.

Hannah says that the main difference between contemporary crime fiction and the golden age of detective fiction is that modern writers allow readers to witness events while in the past, writers relied on more overt story telling – clues are pointed out but not explained immediately.

What would Christie have thought of the concept of a new Poirot book? According to her grandson, she was against continuation stories during her lifetime, but not just for her own work, other writers too.

However, Hannah speaking at the recent Crimefest convention in Bristol defended the continuation novel on the grounds that “the whole point of the exercise is to get people back to the originals.”

The experiment has gone so swimmingly well that Mathew Prichard teased delegates with the possibility that Miss Marple could soon have her career resurrected as well.

Christie may not be everyone’s cup of tea with some critics claiming she was just a creator of puzzles. But Hannah firmly dismisses such arguments, pointing out that Christie’s novels had both “wisdom and insight.” She claims that Christie more than any other writer in her genre was always seeking to expand the boundary.

Hannah reckons that because Christie was so good at delivering pleasurable writing that some people automatically rule her books unworthy. Prichard concurs, claiming that Christie never thought of herself as a good writer and was content to tell people that she just wrote stories. She only wanted to entertain, he said.

So what is Hannah’s favourite Agatha Christie novel?

“I’ve a list of favourites. But After the Funeral is the one that struck me as the best all-rounder. Dysfunctional family, a fussy wife, and Poirot being used in a different way. Above all, it is Agatha Christie’s best example that when the solution is revealed by Poirot, everything rearranges itself and we can look back and see things differently. The perfect showcase of what Agatha Christie does best.”

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

Who kicks best ass in thrillers?

This was the deeply philosophical question posed to a panel of top British thriller writers at the recent Crimefest conference in Bristol.

Well actually, I have paraphrased the question for the sake of brevity. But basically, the panel, which included Lee Child, was asked to choose between thrillers that used brains or brawn to get their story across.

Lee Child, the British writer who created the bone-breaking ex-US Military Police hero Jack Reacher, said without hesitation that brains are what every reader likes. In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs there was no brawn, he told delegates. It was all brain provided by the incarcerated Hannibal Lecter.

The same could also be said for Sherlock Holmes, he added, even though Holmes was a great fighter who knew how to box and use a walking stick in defence. “People respond to the deductive process… and it’s brains that always wins.”

Lee Child said it is hard to come up with deductive ideas. The process is to start with a good opening scene and figure out as you go along. There is a temptation to go back and make the route a lot easier. But he said he tries not to do that. He has to solve the problem of say a highly complicated lock rather than just ditch the idea altogether.

In his forthcoming Reacher novel, which is out in September, Child raises an ethical question when his hero kills three bad guys entering the house. The woman he has just saved notices one of the men is still alive and Reacher pushes his finger hard on the artery of the neck. She asks him why he’s doing that and he replies to cut off the blood supply to the brain. The woman argues he can’t do that as the man was still alive, opening up an ethical discussion with Reacher who points out to her that it was okay when he tried to kill the man the first time, but not the second?

Zoe Sharp, author of the Charlie Fox thriller series, was a brawn supporter. She was so fed up reading about female characters being hopeless and always twisting their ankles that she created Charlie who is basically “a guy in nylons”. Charlie is a self-defence instructor from a failed military background who works in close protection.

British crime and mystery writer Chris Ewan favoured brains. He said he much preferred deductions and dilemmas in a plot as he found them exhilarating to figure out. Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Siguroardottir prefers to write “creepy stuff” and not to make anything random.

Tom Harper, the thriller writer and moderator of the discussion, pointed out that action sequences are done so well by Hollywood that it is hard for novelists to ever compete.

But Zoe Sharp disagreed that Hollywood does it better. A street fight normally only lasts 30 seconds and boxers are exhausted after two minutes, she said. Yet in films these scenes go on and on, making it hard to believe.

Lee Child said the story has to be influenced by action, but admits that Hollywood sometimes gets it wrong. “We’re all swimming in the same river, tv, films, and books. We have to use visuals correctly in writing. When writing I have a rule: write slow stuff fast and fast stuff slow. It works well.” He felt Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher movie got the balance about right with the fights as they were not overly long.

He also revealed to delegates that the trademark Reacher scene, where he is confronted with five men about to attack him, came from an incident in his childhood. Reacher reasons that if he takes out the tough one first and two others, the remaining two would run away.  This theory was based on empirical evidence, apparently. While walking home from school one day, the 10-year-old Lee Child was confronted by five kids in an alley. He decided to hit the leader hard. And guess what? The others ran away!

So the final verdict by the panel? Well it was always going to be brains before brawn.

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

Fact is stranger than fiction

Crime writers are often asked where their ideas come from. Surely a more interesting question is where do criminals get theirs?

I’m pretty sure they don’t get them from crime writers, although no doubt there have been cases where this has happened.

From time to time, criminals concoct some terribly imaginative capers that have left us gasping. The recent safe deposit heist in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district, had a filmic quality about it. Men abseiling down lift shafts and boring holes through thick concrete. Perhaps not quite as romantic as Jules Dassin’s Rififi or as magnificent as his later heist film Topkapi, but you get the picture.

Many real robberies have captured the imagination of the public, such as the 1963 Great Train Robbery in Britain, or the 1997 Dunbar Armed Robbery in the US. The Vastberga Helicopter Robbery saw a daring raid on the rooftop of a Swedish cash depot building in 2009. Yet even the most mundane robbery can grab the attention because of the amount stolen, such as the mugging in 1990 of a man’s briefcase in London containing £292m in bonds.

Insurance companies often end up paying the bill of some of these heists, but they take a sanguine view on such matters as they see it as a good advert on why companies and individuals should insure.

It’s a shame that some of these criminals don’t consider taking up fiction writing because they would have a ready-made readership for their imagination. But publishing doesn’t pay, while crime does.

Many writers are often inspired by the capers they have read in newspapers and then fictionalise them with their own characters. Just a snippet of information is enough to exercise the grey cells. A writer will often toss it around, linking it up with possible ideas he or she may have previously had. The end product may not always be absolutely correct, but why let a good idea get in the way of facts?

Ian Fleming was inspired to kill off James Bond’s love interest, Jill Masterton, in Goldfinger by painting her body in gold. No doubt he must have heard or read something that people can die if the pores of their skin are blocked. But this is absolutely not true.

In the book, it is left to Masteron’s sister to explain to Bond in a few lines how Jill died, but to the film director such dialogue would have denied the opportunity of producing pure cinematic magic. Jill’s body covered in gold on a bed remains Goldfinger’s most iconic image.

Fleming explained in the book that Goldfinger had a fetish for gold and paid women to be painted in gold before going to bed with them. But in the film, Goldfinger’s decommissioning of his once loyal personal assistant, Jill (played by Shirley Eaton), by suffocating her in gold paint, was sending another message. It was Goldfinger’s way of warning Bond to keep out of his affairs of gold smuggling.

This may sound totally bizarre and the sort of thing you’d expect in a thriller. But think again. The killing of the former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, in London through a lethal dose of polonium-210 in 2006 is no less bizarre.

Polonium isn’t cheap and in this case it left a trail that could be traced from the fourth floor of the Millenium Hotel in Mayfair, where Litvinenko drank the poisoned tea, to the aircraft that carried the poison from Russia. Not exactly, a discreet bumping off, particularly when there are more direct methods.

But the contract on Litvinenko must have stated that he was to die with radioactive poisoning as the assassins had to administer the dose not once but twice on him. No other method of dispatch would have satisfied the masters of these assassins, it would seem.

The way the Russian was poisoned seems so farfetched that I doubt it would have got passed a pernickety literary agent, let alone a publisher. Yet facts are stranger than fiction.

And while this mystery continues to intrigue us, spare a thought for poor old Can Francesco della Scala, a member of the medieval dynasty of Italy’s della Scala family, who had to wait 700 years before it could be proved he’d been poisoned.

The great Lord of Verona had taken over the city of Treviso, near Venice, on 18 July 1328 when he dropped dead four days later following serious bouts of vomiting.

Rumours about his poisoning began to circulate straight away. But it was not until this year that scientists finally discovered from his well-preserved mummified body, that he had died from foxglove poisoning.

One can’t help thinking how much easier it would be to knock off a character in a book with a hedgerow plant than a product of a Russian nuclear reactor.

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

100 years of the modern spy thriller

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, arguably the world’s first modern spy thriller.

When John Buchan wrote the book around the outbreak of the Great War, he set a template not only for today’s espionage novels but for all thrillers alike.

It was innovative for its time, with its fast and speedy style, drawing on all the latest technology of the era, such as the single-wing plane, fast cars, motorbikes, radio, telephone and probably the first reference in literature to a semi-automatic gun.

While some credit Erskine Childers’ 1903 Victorian novel The Riddle of the Sands, as the first spy thriller ever published, there are many who point to Buchan as the father of the genre because of his modern writing style that aligns him with 20th century thriller writers.

Childers’ adventure story certainly had an influence on Buchan who wrote on the same theme about the threat of a German invasion of Britain. It had become a popular storyline among many writers since the 1880s until the eventual outbreak of World War One in 1914. Buchan’s novel was in fact the last to be written on the subject.

Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, and went to Glasgow University and Oxford. He was already writing at this stage of his life, winning awards including for poetry. Despite his constant ill health, he was a barrister, MP, solder, writer and publisher.

His first success as an author was the publication of Prester John in 1910. It tells the story of a young Scotsman named David Crawfurd and his adventures in South Africa, where a Zulu uprising is tied to the medieval legend of Prester John. The hero in this story is later reincarnated as Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Buchan was looking to write a best seller as he had a good eye for book trends as a publisher. It took him only a few weeks to pen The Thirty-Nine Steps just after the outbreak of war, publishing the short novel the following year in October 1915. It was an instant hit with the solders in the trenches because not only did it take their minds off the fighting, but it was the type of book they could read in short bursts. Buchan had hit on a winning formula.

The premise of an innocent man getting accidentally caught up in international intrigue has become the bread and butter of many latter-day thriller writers. It is the classic call to adventure that makes this theme so enduring.

But the set-up used by Buchan has such a contemporary feel, providing you can put aside the anachronistic characters he describes in Edwardian Britain. Richard Hannay, a Scottish mining engineer, returns to London from Rhodesia and is so bored that he’s at the point of returning to Africa when he stumbles on a murder that could have implications to Britain’s security. Suddenly, his world is turned upside down and he’s on the run.

Buchan realised that the stakes had to be high to be put the readers on the edge of their seat. And nothing could be higher than Britain’s secret naval plans possibly falling into the hands of German spies. This at a time when his readers already understood what it felt to be at war.

Twenty years after its publication Hitchcock brought new life to the book with a comedy thriller, improving the story, and setting new standards in modern film making. Hitchcock via Buchan had established the chase thriller and then went on to re-cycle The 39 Steps in the guise of Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, and North by Northwest.

I have to confess I’m a sucker of the man-on-the-run theme and in my debut thriller, HIDER/SEEKER, I have used it in an inverse way.

My favourite type of thriller is where an ordinary man, minding his own business, is suddenly put into jeopardy. In HIDER/SEEKER, the main character, Harry Bridger, is no ordinary man, but his nightmare begins when his client goes on the run.

I remember exactly where I first read The Thirty-Nine Steps. It was while on holiday in Torridon, in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. We had rented a cottage and the landlord had left a pile of books for a rainy day. I sat down on a sofa after supper and never got up again until I’d finished the book. I can’t say that I’ve done that with many books.

The enigmatic title, which does not provide a credible pay off in the book, though Hitchcock does better, came from Buchan’s six year old daughter, Alice. She gifted him the title of his new novel while he was staying in a house in Kent with his family. It was the number of steps that went down to the beach from the house as told in the book’s finale.

Buchan was created Baron of Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and held the position of Governor-General of Canada until his death in 1940.

The British historian, G.M Trevelyan*, paid the following tribute to him. ‘I don’t think I remember anyone whose death evoked a more enviable outburst of sorrow, love and admiration.’

The book was published on 19 October 1915 by Blackwood & Sons of Edinburgh and the John Buchan Museum in Peebles, Scotland, will be celebrating its publication with a special exhibition. (See News)

* G.M Trevelyan’s work was much admired by Dr Rod Whitaker’s wife who suggested to her husband that he adopt the surname as his pseudonym, Trevanian. (See The countdown begins, 4 March 2015)

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

Ebooks conundrum

When I first bought a Kindle I was sceptical whether I would enjoy reading books on an electronic device, but I soon became a convert.

Apart from being light to carry and convenient to use, I particularly found the dictionary useful for all those difficult words or obscure references, especially when reading US novels. It particularly came in handy when reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as it had a number of American references I didn’t understand.

But despite the benefits of this relatively new delivery system for text, many in the publishing trade do not share such positive views. They fear that the various forms of digital transmission of words to readers could spell the end of the printed book being the primary medium of literature. It could ring the death knell for small independent bookstores and local libraries.

The printed book is still a wonderful possession to have in the house. But so were LPs, until CDs replaced them, and now music downloads are replacing CDs. The ebook market is still far from reaching maturity, but last year the consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers  forecast that the ebook could overtake the physical book by 2018 when the electronic market is expected to reach £1bn.

Nothing ever stands still and the prospect of a future with a permanently stable equilibrium is wishful thinking. David Lodge suggested in the Financial Times last week that the electronic era in music and TV has only helped to spur more interest in live concert and theatre performances by artists. He wonders whether the literary festivals could provide the same opportunity by providing that live connection with the reader.

In the same week the award-winning author Fay Weldon gave a different piece of advice at the Independent Bath Literature Festival to literary novelists.

She was following up on a blog she wrote last September in which she said the books that sell best in electronic form are mostly commercial fiction.

The 83-year old writer told the festival that literary novelists should swallow their pride and write two versions of their book – one with all the hard contemplative bits for print and an easier page-turning version for ebooks. Weldon says that writers can’t expect the same version of their book to serve both markets. They should consider catering for the busy ebook reader constantly on the move with little time for contemplation and reflection.

I think what she is advising elite writers to do is akin to the “film director’s cut” – the extended version of the film that represents the filmmaker’s own approved edit. Using the same analogy, the shorter theatrical release of the film would be the equivalent of the ebook. It’s anyone’s guess whether this would bolster sales for high-brow authors, some of whom tend to look down on commercial fiction, such as the mystery novel, as if it were an inferior genre.

The debate on literary vs popular fiction is an endless one. A thriller may not be art, but it can be artful. It might very well be written clumsily, but it can nevertheless be absorbing.

Good writing, according to Weldon, is “so much to do with an aesthetic, with a resonance of language which is apparent on paper but not on a screen. The e-novel is aesthetic free, resonance free, concerns itself rightly with happenings, cliff-hangers, suspense – all the crude elements the aspiring literary writer is encouraged to play down.”

Yet Weldon openly admits that she simply does not get along with ebooks. She says that she finds the electronic form tiring to read, no matter who the author is.

No doubt that screen awareness differs from person to person in the same way that people recently couldn’t agree whether a dress was white and gold or blue and black.

But ebooks are very much a boon to those readers that enjoy the flexibility of being able to read two or three books on the go, switching from one to the other with a mere tap of the screen.

However, my favourite reason for using an ebook has nothing to do with the content that I have downloaded. It has a lot to do with the sheer comfort of being able to sit on a sofa with a whisky in one hand and crisps in the other while reading the device balanced on my lap. Try doing that with a printed book.

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

The countdown begins

Having reached a very respectable age I thought it was high time to fulfil a lifelong ambition of publishing a thriller. I hope you will enjoy reading HIDER/SEEKER when it is launched as an e-book by Amazon from 29 April.

If you take a look at my home page you’ll read why it has taken me so embarrassingly long to get my act together and how I got the bug to write when I took creative writing classes with Dr Rod Whitaker in the early 1970s. He wrote under the pen name of Trevanian and was possibly best known for his debut thriller, “The Eiger Sanction,” which was turned into a film by Clint Eastwood.

I’ve paid a big tribute to the late Dr Whitaker on my web and would really like to hear from anyone who studied under him or who knew him well. He was an elusive author who baffled many people in his lifetime because of his keenness to keep his real name a secret. This led to all sorts of conspiracy theories, which I would imagine he enjoyed.

I didn’t go to his evening classes with any specific intention other than to get away from my awful bedsit and an annoying tenant. But I was captivated by the story of his first book becoming an international best seller and being turned into a film by Eastwood, a film maker I have always admired.

So he gave me the appetite to write and I did nothing about it all my life until 10 years ago when I decided it was now or never to learn how to write a thriller. I read lots of books on writing, but they didn’t mean anything to me until I wrote something that resembled a book. It’s only once you have written a novel that you understand what these books are trying to teach you.

Dr Whitaker inspired me to write, but showing me how to do it was largely down to three women who I’d like to thank in my first ever blog.

I sent my first attempt at writing a thriller to Bernie Ross, a former fiction editor and literary editor, who provided me with a 10-page critique (singled lined) blitzing my prose. There was absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, that she thought was right about the book. When I read her response I think I laughed aloud at how hopeless I was because that was all one could do. As a professional journalist, I didn’t see it as intimidating but as a perfectly good analysis of what was wrong with my writing. It was nothing personal, just business, as they say.

I took it upon myself to re-write some chapters as an academic exercise, doing it the way Bernie had suggested. And what an improvement. I’d hit upon a style of writing that suited me and I re-edited the whole book. We became friends and we have remained in touch ever since. Bernie still writes occasionally, but her great passion now is painting. (http://www.bernrossartist.com)

Now that I had written a book, I needed an agent. I was soon to discover that this would be the most depressing part of the whole writing experience. Although I never found an agent, I did receive a most encouraging telephone call from the indefatigable Betty Schwartz. She was with Futerman Rose at the time, and had previously been submissions editor at Hodder. Betty took the trouble of picking up the phone and telling me that she liked my style of writing. She helped sharpen my prose and told me not to give up. Anyone who has had the good fortune of coming into contact with Betty knows she is one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet in publishing.

The book never got published, however, and I wrote another one, which also bit the dust. My third attempt was HIDER/SEEKER, which was a reworking of a film script I wrote many years ago. This time around I think I have hit all the marks, thanks mainly to the critical eye of Hilary Johnson Authors’ Advisory Service. There is no hiding place when Hilary analyses your MS. Hilary is always at the ready to administer the castor oil when it is needed and delivers it with such charm that you feel like asking for more.

So a big thank you to these ladies who have played their part in getting me over the finishing line.

But there is a very special fourth lady I would like to praise, my wife. She has put up with all my anxieties and pushed me into completing this ambition. She is the first reader of my books, and I want to especially thank her for making me stick to the course that I had set such a long time ago.

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