Tag Archives: #pulpfiction

Finding Novel Locations

We’ve been in York, searching out locations for the third William Quest novel. Interesting to walk around a city getting atmosphere for an historical thriller set in 1854. As an historical location, York is easier than most. Such a lot survives, compared to other places in Britain.

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York Minster

In the first two books The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest, my hero is mostly adventuring in London – a place which has changed a great deal since the mid-Victorian period. But the Victorian elements can still be sought out even there, though they are few and far between. I’ve spent such a lot of years studying Victorian London that it seems very familiar to me. Indeed, modern London seems strange whenever I’m there.

York is a joy. Although there has been modern development and new shop fascias, many of the streets would still be recognisable to a man from 1854. In my book, William Quest has never been to York before, so he’s lost one of the great advantages he’s had while  carrying out his often dubious activities in London – which he knows like the back of his hand.

For anyone who’s never encountered William Quest, he’s a mysterious figure, usually armed with a pistol and a swordstick, who rights wrongs, defends the weak against the strong, fights corruptions and has his own occasional vigilante methods of dealing with wrongdoers.

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Grape Lane

 

But in this book he’s having to take on the role of detective as well, solving a puzzle that has baffled the citizens of York…

And it means peril, high adventure and a sinister conspiracy….

Having spent the past couple of months writing the third Quest (no title as yet), it’s great to revisit familiar old haunts in York – though I confess to spending a lot of time in bookshops. York has some great second-hand bookshops!York October 2017 011

 

 

 

We go to York quite often and always do a lot of walking around the streets, but I felt I was at the point in the novel where I wanted to see again some of the places I’d mentioned in the chapters written so far. There is one particular street, Tanner Row, which appears in the book and which I didn’t really know at all  – an important street leading to what was once York’s original railway station. The one someone like Quest would have used in 1854.

This original railway station was within the city walls, the present station, though Victorian and magnificent is outside the walls. Much of the old station still exists, though it’s been revamped as offices for the city council.

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Tanner Row

Nearer to the Minster, we walked the streets where the mystery occurs which provides my novel with its plot – the area around Stonegate and Grape Lane. I know these streets very well, but it was valuable to stroll through them with my characters in mind. It’s the little details that make the difference when you are imagining fictional characters in a real landscape.

Most of my novels are set in real places. I often get ideas for stories by just going for a walk. The whole story-line of my 1930’s Scottish novel Balmoral Kill changed when I walked around Loch Muick in the Highlands. You could re-enact the final duel in that novel across a real landscape if you wanted.

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The Old Railway Station

I find as a writer that just going out for a walk is the greatest source of inspiration.

Some areas of York have changed since the 1850s. The streets known as the Water Lanes, down on the River Ouse, were a rookery at that time.  In the 1870s a new road, Clifford Street, was driven through and much of the rest redeveloped. It’s still Victorian and charming to walk through, but not quite the setting Quest would have known.

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On the city walls

Much the same happened in London. Jacob’s Island, where my book Deadly Quest comes to an end, was a much viler rookery than the Water Lanes. Charles Dickens used it for the ending of Oliver Twist, where it is Fagin’s final lair. Today Jacob’s Island is full of very expensive luxury apartments. If the ghosts of the poor devils who lived in the diseased original Island could come back and see it, I do wonder what they would think?

I came back from York enthused by what I’d seen. The visit spurred me on to finish the book. I hope it will be out at the turn of the year.

Though I still don’t have a title!

If you haven’t read the first two William Quest novels, there are links below. Both are available in paperback and on Kindle – and there’s a free Kindle App available for your Smartphones if you like to read on the move.

 

 

 

 

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The Holly House Mystery On Sale

Our second novella, ‘The Holly House Mystery’ is on sale at only 99 pence/cents. Offer ends on the 25th September.

“Friends, please accept this, the only intimation!”

‘The Holly House Mystery’ is set in 1931 and is the second outing for Inspector Eddie Chance of Tennysham-on-sea in Sussex.

This is our take on a classic Golden Age-style murder mystery, set at a winter country house-party. Featuring the usual suspects – including the host, the male secretary, the femme fatale, the young couple and the butler – who murdered the house-maid found in the priory ruins and why?

The setting of Holly House was loosely inspired by the real-life Michelham Priory in present-day East Sussex. (Never taken to the idea of my birth county being split). Michelham Priory is owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society and open to the public. See http://www.sussexpast.co.uk for details.

Originally an Augustinian foundation and ravaged in the Dissolution, today’s Michelham Priory is a lovely Tudor country house. The site is idyllic, a 7 acre near-island, surrounded by England’s longest medieval moat that still has water. A 14th century gatehouse and a picturesque water-mill have survived. The moat is a haven for wildlife and wild flowers and the gardens are glorious, including a medieval-style physic garden. (They also have delicious baking in the tea-room).

Places to visit in Sussex Michelham Priory

The enclosed nature of the setting inspired our homage to the popular vintage murder mystery with a limited number of suspects.

The length is 34,000+ words – ideal for a commute or a cosy couple of evenings.

We hope you enjoy – and would really appreciate any reviews as this helps all indie authors keep writing.

The next full-length Inspector Chance mystery will be out next year.

Here’s the link if you want to order a copy…

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This Gun For Hire

This Gun for Hire is Hollywood’s film noir take on Grahame Greene’s early (1936) novel A Gun For Sale, with the setting altered to America and an all American cast. (Though Alan Ladd was actually half English, his mother coming from County Durham).This Gun For Hire [DVD]

There have been several other versions, some using Greene’s original title, a 1957 rather altered remake called Short Cut to Hell (interestingly, directed by James Cagney), and a 1991 television movie with Robert Wagner.

This Gun for Hire features Alan Ladd – billed as a debut turn way down the cast – as Raven, and a terrific performance he gives.

The heroine, showgirl Ellen Graham is played by Veronica Lake, who positively oozes sultriness – the first of three film noir pairings with Ladd. Her detective boyfriend, Michael Crane, is Robert Preston – who actually gets the lead billing on this film, and terrific he is. It would have been great to see him given more hard-boiled roles. Laird Cregar plays the villain of the piece, Willard Gates, giving a performance of seedy cowardice that would have got him an Oscar in a mainstream production.

The basic tale is that the anti-hero Raven, a low-grade hitman is paid for an assassination in marked notes, which will inevitably lead to his downfall. In Greene’s novel, the victim is a government minister in Prague.

But in This Gun For Hire, the initial victim is a blackmailing chemist. Determined to get revenge for being fingered by the marked notes, Raven seeks out Willard Gates and his paymaster, an enemy-collaborating industrialist called Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall). Along the way, Raven falls in with and eventually gets help from showgirl Ellen Graham, who is working on the side for the FBI to infiltrate Brewster’s enemy-friendly organisation.

Like all films with anti-heroes (and most films noir have one) This Gun For Hire stands on our sympathy with Raven. He’s certainly a killer with a conscience, a lover of cats and a determined saviour of the threatened Ellen Graham. Alan Ladd plays him with an honesty that makes you root for him from the start, whatever he does. The film put him on the track to the stardom he deserved.

The pre-war setting of the book (a thinly-disguised Nottingham in England) is changed to wartime California, with the population rehearsing for a possible gas-attack. The wearing of gas masks gives a very sinister feel to several of the film’s best scenes.

The film ends with the obligatory shooting, very intelligently staged. But the climax is over-shadowed by the scenes in a railroad marshalling yard where the police hunt for the fleeing Raven. Scenes that are so well paced and beautifully photographed that they should be an object lesson to a new generation of movie makers.

The very intelligent screenplay was by Albert Maltz (his first screenwriting credit as such, though he’d worked on Casablanca just before) and W.R. Burnett (himself one of the best and definitely most underrated crime writers, author of classic novels such as High Sierra (see blogs passim), The Asphalt Jungle and Little Caesar, and a huge number of screenplays.

The tragedy of it all is that Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Laird Cregar all died far too young. What else might they have achieved?

I’ve seen this now several times over the years and never tire of it. I’ve put the picture up of one DVD version that’s available, though This Gun For Hire often features in film noir box sets with other classics of the genre, which are worth hunting down.

It would be interesting to know what Graham Greene (known at the time as more of a film critic than a novelist) made of this treatment of his story? He went on, of course, to considerable fame. I never met him properly, but we once exchanged “good mornings” in the delightful little old second-hand bookshop that stood under the castle walls of Totnes in Devon, as he knelt on the floor searching out books on one low shelf, while I did the same in a nearby aisle.

After he’d left, the bookseller told me it was one of Mr Greene’s regular haunts. He had good taste – there were always bargains and obscure titles to be found there.

 

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The Third William Quest Novel

I’m now writing the third book featuring my series character William Quest, which hopefully will be out at the end of the year. Quest will find himself a long way from London fighting against new enemies and even greater dangers in York, one of England’s oldest cities.

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York Minster which plays a significant part in the new Quest novel

In the London novels (see below) Quest had the advantage over his enemies of knowing every street and alley. But York is new to him, so he’s disadvantaged from the start. And it is in York’s winding medieval streets and snickets that he faces a particular and menacing foe.

As York is one of our favourite places, I’m very much enjoying setting a book there. It’s a wonderful setting for a mystery adventure.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, do please click on the links. They’re both out in paperback and on the Kindle eBook reader for your smartphone, Kindle or laptop – just download the free app when you order the books. And if you have read the books and enjoyed them, I’d really appreciate it if you would leave a quick review on the Amazon sales pages.

Leaving reviews helps all Indie Authors stay in business and keep writing. 

Please do tell your friends and fellow readers. Word of mouth is the very best form of advertising.

 

 

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The Toff at Butlin’s by John Creasey

John Creasey was a writing phenomenon, one of the most prolific authors of all time, with at least 700 titles published. Creasey was not only prolific, he was fast. He could write two or three full-length novels in a week. To read them, you would never know that they were written at speed. They are quality examples of crime fiction.

Although, Creasey is best known as a crime writer, he also wrote romances, westerns, thrillers – the cross-genre list goes on. As a crime writer, Creasey is up there with the best. Think of his creations; The Baron, The Toff, Gideon of the Yard, Inspector West, the Department Z novels – the list goes on and on.

When I was younger I used to see dozens of Creasey titles on the racks everywhere; in bookshops, railway stalls, newsagents – all with their distinctive covers. He was well regarded in his profession. The Crime Writers’ Association give awards in his honour.

I’ve been meaning to write about Creasey’s books for some time, for he is one of the masters of the craft.

His character the Hon. Richard Rollison, better known as The Toff, made his first appearance in Thriller magazine in 1933, his first book outing Introducing the Toff appearing five years later. There were about 60 Toff books published, Creasey would often write several in a year – four of the titles appeared after the author’s death.

The premise of the Toff is that well-brought up gentleman Rollison goes into the East End of London to fight crime, acquiring a reputation and the nickname. He has a calling card showing a gent complete with top hat and monocle, wearing a bow-tie and sporting a cigarette holder. He has an eye for the ladies and a rather nice flat in Gresham Street in Mayfair.

But really Rollison belongs to what the thriller writer Geoffrey Household called “Class X” – he fits in as well with the slum-dwellers of the East End as he does with posh society.

The trappings of the upper-class are present in these stories, but there is none of the dreadful snobbery you get with writers like Sapper and Wheatley. Rollison is a righter of wrongs, with friends he values right across Britain’s ridiculous class divide.

Like all good crime-fighters, the Toff has a winning supporting cast; there is his “man” Jolly, who puts on a pretence of being thoroughly miserable; Superintendent Bill Brice of Scotland Yard, who doesn’t really approve of Rollison, but welcomes his help; Bill Ebbut, who trains fighters in the East End and provides muscle to the Toff when needed. All of them delightfully drawn by the author.

Now, although I’ve been re-reading the Baron stories by Creasey, I hadn’t read the Toff for many years. Then, browsing in an antiques shop in York, while researching backgrounds for my next William Quest novel, I came across a battered copy of The Toff at Butlin’s. My copy had clearly originated at the Butlin’s Camp at Filey, for it is autographed by many of the redcoats working there during the 1954 season – including at least two who went on to become famous in the UK – the comedian Charlie Drake and the entertainer Eddie Keene, although the story is actually set at a Welsh holiday camp.

Now, for readers outside the UK, Butlin’s was and is a very famous holiday camp enterprise, set up by Billy Butlin in the late 1920s. Holidaymakers, usually on limited incomes, could come to Butlin’s for a fixed fee holiday, which included lots of entertainment provided by the famous redcoats (many British variety stars began their careers as redcoats). It was cheap, but it was very cheerful, for Billy Butlin was the complete showman in every sense of the word.

At some point, and I don’t know quite when it started, Billy Butlin approached several writers asking them to set books in one of his holiday camps. Dennis Wheatley, an arch-snob, famously turned him down. But several rather forgotten writers accepted, and two writers at least who are still highly regarded – John Creasey and Frank Richards, creator of Billy Bunter.

Now, the thought of the Hon. Richard Rollison staying at Butlin’s to investigate the disappearance of a trio of redcoats might seem strange, but it works wonderfully. Mostly, because Rollison is never portrayed as a snob and can mix with anyone.

And, by the 1950s, the Toff is rather hard up, putting out his sleuthing skills for money. He has to pay the bills so, when Billy Butlin (who makes a cameo appearance in the novel) invites him to his holiday camp at Pwllheli to investigate why redcoats keep vanishing, Rollison is quite eager to go – spurred on, it has to be said, by the photograph of a pretty girl on the cover of the Butlin’s brochure. His man, Jolly, thinks it all rather undignified and is outraged at the suggestion, but then, well, they do need the money. Some of the most amusing scenes in the novel explain Jolly’s conversion to the Butlin cause.

But what is the mystery which brings the Toff to Butlin’s? Well, I’m not going into any detail, for this is a wonderfully entertaining novel that you really should read for yourself. Sufficient to say that, along the way, there are robberies, the disposal of stolen goods, murders, and the Toff himself under threat from deadly opponents. And just who can the Toff trust? Not everyone can be trusted.

Never has a holiday camp been so menacing in a work of fiction – or so much fun. And the reaction of the campers when they discover that a celebrity like the Toff is in their midst is wittily drawn.

I would think that Sir Billy Butlin must have thought the book a hoot. It’s certainly as readable and fresh as the day it was written.

I shall certainly re-read the Toff novels as I find them. I know his agent is working very hard to make these titles more widely available. But how lovely it would be to see the paperbacks, with the original cover art, back in the bookshops.

And, I must say, I rather like this idea of setting a crime novel at Butlin’s. Sir Billy Butlin is long gone, but if anyone from Butlin’s would like to offer me a chalet for a week or two, I’ll see what I can do…

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Our Victorian Murder Mystery On Sale

A Seaside Mourning is on sale this week on Kindle for just 99 pence/cents. We thought we’d reblog this piece on the background to the novel. Please click on the link on the end of this blog to start reading or to order. It’s also available in paperback.updated-seaborough-picture-no-people

A Seaside Mourning is set in the fictional town of Seaborough, a small resort in Devon. The plan was to think hard about coming up with a suitable name. However around the same time we were researching John’s family history. When we found that one of his ancestors had the unusual first name of Seaborough, it seemed exactly right.

In the novel Seaborough is in East Devon, an area often overlooked by holiday-makers who travel to the better-known parts of the English Riviera and the South Hams. It is a timeless landscape of rounded hills, old hedgerows, meadows and heaths; villages with thatched cottages and a few quiet seaside resorts. Their railway stations and branch lines are long gone.

The unspoilt coastline has red sandstone, zig-zag cliffs gradually fading to chalk near the county border. Together with the neighbouring county of Dorset, they make up the Jurassic Coast, Britain’s first Unesco natural world heritage site. We know the area well from walking the old footpaths and exploring the villages of my forebears. One of my ancestors was a Victorian police constable, probably much like the ones in the story.

Walk through the streets of any British seaside town, trace back the architecture and you’ll most likely find the beginning was a fishing village. The rise of the seaside resort – offering buildings and entertainment designed to attract tourists – gradually began in the eighteenth century. At that time the concept of an annual holiday for the masses didn’t exist. The wealthy tended to travel abroad on the classical Grand Tour or over-winter on the Continent. Working people had neither the money nor paid leisure to explore new places.

From the mid-1700s physicians began questioning whether sea-water might have healing properties similar to those of spa water. An enterprising Sussex physician Dr. Richard Russell set up a house for patients in the fishing village of Brighthelmstone in 1753. ‘Taking the waters’ at inland spa resorts was fashionable and money was to be made from rich invalids – and hypochondriacs – so there may have been some self-interest involved!

Dr. Russell published works on the rejuvenating powers of sea-bathing and drinking salt water, claiming his treatments cured enlarged glands and all manner of ailments. As well as swimming, his patients were immersed in baths of salt water and encouraged to ‘promenade’ in the sea air. This quickly became prevalent medical opinion.

Just as today, landowners and speculative builders were quick to spot a business opportunity. Scarborough on the coast of Yorkshire had the best of both worlds. Mineral water had been discovered there in the early seventeenth century and they had a flourishing spa by the beach. Wheel out the bathing-machines and the town was well-placed to develop into England’s earliest seaside resort.

Villages along the south coast in particular offered a mild climate and an easier journey from the capital. They began to throw up lodgings suitable for well-to-do visitors. Theatres and assembly rooms were built, promenades and sea-front gardens laid out. New resorts advertised their picturesque scenery, carriage tours and health-giving benefits.

Jane Austen satirised this new enthusiasm in her last unfinished novel, Sanditon. Interestingly Reginald Hill did a witty take on Sanditon – one of his lovely literary jokes – in his Dalziel and Pascoe novel A Cure For All Diseases. Sidmouth in East Devon is a possible contender for Austen’s Sanditon, though several resorts also fit the clues. It’s most likely that Jane Austen was thinking of more than one place. The Austens enjoyed holidaying along the Channel coast. Their stays at Lyme Regis in 1803 and 04 famously inspired part of the setting of Persuasion.

Fashion played a part in putting a watering-hole on the map. When George III’s physicians recommended he try the sea cure in 1788, he chose the village of Weymouth on the Dorset coast. Liking its sheltered sandy bay, he returned many times, making Weymouth one of England’s oldest seaside resorts.

His son, later the Prince Regent, vastly preferred Brighthelmstone, nearer London. Under his patronage it expanded rapidly to cater for his younger and wilder set. It has never lost its stylish and racy reputation. The spelling changed to suit its pronunciation and a new saying became widespread. The wealthy patient often tried the cure of Doctor Brighton.

Some towns started out as the vision of a single developer. In the 1780s a wealthy merchant called Sir Richard Hotham bought up land around the Sussex fishing village of Bognor. He intended to design a purpose-built resort modestly named Hothampton and entice the King away from Weymouth, making himself a second fortune. George III never obliged and the town reverted to Bognor soon after Sir Richard’s death. He did leave the townspeople several fine terraces and a splendid park.

New resorts received a boost to their fortunes when the Napoleonic wars closed the Continent to travellers. Prosperous invalids and people living in seclusion often settled by the sea in smart new villas for the gentry. Lady Nelson came to live at Exmouth in East Devon, after Nelson’s association with Lady Emma Hamilton became public knowledge.

Hunstanton features briefly in our Inspector Abbs novella A Christmas Malice, set just after his case in Seaborough. This West Norfolk resort came about as the scheme of one man in 1846. Henry Le Strange, an architect and local landowner built a hotel on an empty headland as the flagship of his new town. A typically enthusiastic Victorian ‘entrepreneur’, he gathered investors to fund a railway line from King’s Lynn to his planned site, which was named after the nearby village of Old Hunstanton. It took another 16 years before the railway arrived and further building work began.

Many resorts can date their growth to the arrival of the railway. It became the custom for middle-class Victorian families to send their children to the seaside with nannies and nursery-maids. The first pleasure pier had been constructed at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, as early as 1814. Almost a hundred more followed, mostly in England and Wales. The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 gave workers four days off – five in Scotland. On Whit Monday and in August, railway companies laid on ‘Bank Holiday Specials’ for the day-trippers pouring into popular resorts. At last accessible for the pleasure of ordinary working people, the seaside resort as we know it today had arrived.

In A Seaside Mourning, Seaborough is expanding. It is autumn 1873 and the town has its railway branch line. New houses are going up and some businessmen are keen for a pier and other amenities to be developed.

Many of the characters are ‘on the make’, jostling for more money and social position. Some are fighting for security in a precarious society shadowed by the workhouse. Even Inspector Josiah Abbs is not safe. This was an age when policemen were not considered gentlemen. A detective was treated by the well-off as a distasteful necessity, an embarrassment who should call at the tradesmen’s entrance.

Abbs cannot summon suspects to interview if they are his social ‘betters’ and he must catch a murderer without making enemies. Dismissal without a reference is always a threat. He and his young side-kick Sergeant Ned Reeve, though very different characters, are both outsiders in Devon. They don’t quite know what to make of one another yet but they’re determined to solve the case somehow…

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My Quest Novel On Sale

My Victorian thriller Deadly Quest is on sale for Kindle readers for just 99 pence/cents until late on Monday night. Just click the link below to have a look and to start reading for free…

This is to mark the fact that I’m now writing the third book in the William Quest series – it doesn’t have a title as yet. Unlike the first two books, which were set in London and Norfolk, this one is set in the winding streets and ginnels of York.

And – as Quest has never been to York before – this puts him at a considerable disadvantage as he faces menacing new foes.

I’ll let you know how the writing goes. Hopefully, the book will be finished by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t started the series, do seek out the first two books The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest…

Enjoy the books…

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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang by Mike Ripley

Mike Ripley’s new non-fiction book is subtitled “The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed” and it makes for wonderful reading. We’ve both very much enjoyed it and thoroughly recommend it to you. Once you’ve read it right through, you’ll want to dip in and browse again and again.

I think Mr Ripley and I must be of an age, for we both seem to have enjoyed the same British thriller writers in those happy decades, the fifties to the seventies. I suspect we even had the same editions, with covers that were iconic in themselves and which still deluge me with waves of nostalgia when I see them in second-hand bookshops. (We have quite a few on our shelves).

All the great favourites are here; Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Alastair Maclean, Hammond Innes, Jack Higgins, Desmond Bagley – many still fondly remembered, and often re-read by me; plus lots of authors I’d forgotten about but enjoyed at the time. Mr Ripley’s book has made me want to seek out a host of old favourites.

Mr Ripley gives an introductory background on the golden age of the British thriller during this period, which is both witty and perceptive. He examines the indelible influence of the Second World War and Britain’s loss of Empire, weaving a fascinating look at our post-war social history.

He then looks at each author in greater detail with analysis of the giants of the genre and lesser-known writers. Anyone too young to have read these novels as they came out will find this a source of endless inspiration. And there are some fascinating insights into how thriller-writers work. If you aspire to write a thriller, this is a good place to start.

And there’s a splendid foreword by Lee Child, a writer who carries on the great tradition.

Mike Ripley’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a definitive reference book. Superbly researched with affectionate, expert commentary, this is essential reading for anyone who loves the genre.

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The Holly House Mystery

Our latest novella, ‘The Holly House Mystery’ is on sale at only 99 pence/cents. Offer ends on the 6th March (early evening British time).

Friends, please accept this, the only intimation!”

‘The Holly House Mystery’ is set in 1931 and is the second outing for Inspector Eddie Chance of Tennysham-on-sea in Sussex.

This is our take on a classic Golden Age-style murder mystery, set at a winter country house-party. Featuring the usual suspects – including the host, the male secretary, the femme fatale, the young couple and the butler – who murdered the house-maid found in the priory ruins and why?

The setting of Holly House was loosely inspired by the real-life Michelham Priory in present-day East Sussex. (Never taken to the idea of my birth county being split). Michelham Priory is owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society and open to the public. See http://www.sussexpast.co.uk for details. 

Originally an Augustinian foundation and ravaged in the Dissolution, today’s Michelham Priory is a lovely Tudor country house. The site is idyllic, a 7 acre near-island, surrounded by England’s longest medieval moat that still has water. A 14th century gatehouse and a picturesque water-mill have survived. The moat is a haven for wildlife and wild flowers and the gardens are glorious, including a medieval-style physic garden. (They also have delicious baking in the tea-room).

Places to visit in Sussex Michelham Priory

The enclosed nature of the setting inspired our homage to the popular vintage murder mystery with a limited number of suspects.

The length is 34,000+ words – ideal for a commute or a cosy couple of evenings.

We hope you enjoy – and would really appreciate any reviews as this helps all indie authors keep writing.

Here’s the link if you want to order a copy…

 

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The Return of Novels and Novelettes

‘Why did he only write a novella?’ was a comment on an otherwise favourable review we had a couple of years ago. A fair question and one we took as a back-handed compliment. We’ve been debating novellas and short novels recently, when as indie writers and avid readers, we note trends in the publishing world.

In the last few years we’ve noticed that novellas are becoming increasingly popular among indie authors. It’s interesting to think about why fashions change in publishing. A cynic might say novellas are quicker to get on sale – that’s true and an important factor – but far from the only reason.

Demand is driven partly by readers and most authors try to write books that will sell in the current market. Unfortunately, demand is also manipulated by the big publishers. For instance, in the 1960s and 70s, historical fiction was very popular. Later, it almost disappeared from the shelves with publishers not wanting to take that genre. It’s hard to believe there were some years when readers went off historical novels when you look at their resurgence today, led by authors such as Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory.

Novellas and short novels are an old literary form which is making a welcome come-back for various reasons. It’s worth taking a closer look at what is generally meant by the terms. There are no hard and fast rules. From the writing guides I’ve read, leading indie author commentators mostly suggest that 20,000 words is the starting point for a novella.

I’ve no quarrel with this, though we feel that a 30-35,000 word-count is right for us. In the two novellas we’ve published, that space was a natural length to produce a well-rounded story, neither padded nor truncated. We felt it was a length to give good value to our readers, which is important to us.

A short novel is hard to define, though it’s currently suggested that 80,000 words is the minimum length for a novel. I guess a short novel is what used in Britain to be called a ‘novelette,’ anything upwards of around 40,000 words. This is an atmospheric old word that is reappearing in indie author’s book descriptions and we’re pleased to see it back. ‘Novelette’ conjures up nostalgic thoughts of garish covers and  exciting yarns like Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar – The Saint – and hard-boiled Chandler and Hammett. Fast-moving adventure stories used to lend themselves to shorter fiction – perhaps until modern publisher-pressure.

Some authors do use the terms novella and novelette for as little as 25-30 pages.  This seems an unwise strategy. Though their work looks longer on the sales page, I’ve noticed angry reviews where readers’ expectations are misled. To pre-empt complaints of being short-changed by a short story, it’s worth making the length eye-catchingly clear in the blurb.

So, why write a novella? The main reason surely is because a writer wants to explore an idea that doesn’t lend itself to an average-length novel but is beyond the limitations of a short story. A story has its own natural length and far better to offer that to your readership than pad a plot in order to charge a higher price.

It’s natural to perceive larger goods as being better value but some of our most iconic fiction has a surprisingly short word count. Think of Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (135 pages) and The Sign of Four (154), John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps (138) and The Power-House (108), Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (180) or Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only 65 pages.

This doesn’t apply only to detective novels and thrillers. One of my favourite novels, J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country has  85 memorable pages. Ghost stories too, often work better at medium-length. Incidentally, few speak of these superb stories as novellas or even short novels. We’re simply glad we have them – and many writers intersperse shorter works between longer novels.

In the world of classic crime fiction, the majority of Agatha Christie’s novels are around 190-220 pages. Several written during or shortly after the Second World War are 160, perhaps due to paper shortage. Their quality is certainly no less, they include the much-loved The Body in the Library. Simenon’s Maigret novels are known for their slim volumes. Both writers had a high output.

A quick look along the shelf at many  crime novelists writing from about the 60s will show that their early novels were shorter. You can see this in the canon of Ruth Rendell. Fellow Rendell fans will know that she decided to incorporate themes of social ills in her later Wexford novels, doubling the length of her early titles. I loved them all and it’s a joy to know you’re getting a thick novel from a favourite writer. Yet I’ve come to think that Rendell’s early  mysteries are stronger. The plot of a murder and its detection has a natural progression which is often better for not being expanded. Another of my all-time favourite detective novelists is Emma Page. Her titles are often 180-200 pages .

Don’t get me wrong – I love to curl up with a fat novel. Two of my favourite writers are Trollope and Wilkie Collins, who average 500-700 pages. Trouble is, I rarely get time to re-read them these days and I’m not alone in that. I’ve also seen  – again in the last few years – that many new crime novels look satisfyingly thick until you open them to find an unusually large font and wide line spacing. Do the big publishers think readers won’t notice? I imagine this trend is to justify the staggeringly high price of new hardbacks – and possibly to recoup going on a table display in Waterstones’?

Readers’ expectations seem to be changing in  ways, especially relevant to indie authors who deal mainly in ebooks. We’re living in an over-worked, stressed, time-poor society. Reading – thankfully for our mental health – is as popular as ever. Maybe even more so with people who weren’t drawn to books, finding they enjoy reading on devices. Many people now want a medium-length read they can enjoy on their phone while commuting. Others want to relax with a novella over an evening or two. Sadly, fewer have the time to commit to a lengthy novel.

Another factor in the rise of novellas/novelettes is satisfying the readers who expect frequent titles. Again, this phenomenon only applies to indie authors. Traditionally, readers have expected to wait for a yearly treat from favourite authors, or even a couple or more years. Especially if they’re longing to follow a series and the author has more than one on the go or fancies writing a stand-alone.

These days in our frantic-paced culture, the received wisdom is that readers expect more than a single ebook a year from authors they like. Industry trends strongly suggest that ebook readers’ expectations have gone haywire. We’re told that standalones won’t sell well and we need to get a series on sale fast or our name will be forgotten by readers who enjoyed our first title. And we all know, some readers expect our carefully-crafted months of work to be handed over for 99p! Publishing shorts does go some way towards retaining readers’ interest.

We will always love writing novels but have really enjoyed working on two novellas so far – one for each of our main detective characters. It feels refreshing and fun between the long-haul – maybe like running a half-marathon. Many indie authors are interspersing their fiction with novellas and short stories. It can be a great way of trying out an idea for a spin-off series or exploring a secondary character in greater depth. This is something we’re considering with our historical adventures and Victorian thrillers.

And we’re not alone. In traditionally published crime fiction, famous names such as Alison Joseph and Lesley Cookman have started novella series between their novels. I’m looking forward to Lesley Cookman’s second novella in her The Alexandrians Series which is out on 31st Jan (now on pre-order). She’s had the inspired idea of taking the Nethergate seaside theatre featured in her wonderful Libby Sarjeant series and using that as an Edwardian setting.

Between all these factors, I think we’ve only seen the start of authors producing novellas and short novels. Thanks to technology, writers now have a freedom to write as they choose. An opportunity unseen since the nineteenth century when small presses abounded and individuals sold topical chap-books in the street. It’s exciting to think that indie authors are leading the way.

What do you think? Don’t be shy – we’d love to hear thoughts from other authors.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time and trouble to comment. One of the great things about the indie authors’ community is the spirit of openness – sharing experience,  helpful tips and support.

 

 

 

 

 

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