The Campaign for Shorter Crime Novels

A pile of slim crime novels.

Crime novels, current wisdom dictates, should be around 80,000 words long. That’s enough to fill 300-400 pages and so feel like good value to a contemporary reader. The problem is, that’s too long.

Most of my favourite crime novelists wrote short and lean. Ed McBain, Georges Simenon, Gladys Mitchell, Ruth Rendell, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Sjöwall & Wahlöö… All of these writers produced classics at around 150-220 pages, or 50-60,000 words.

Here are estimated word counts based on various sources including MetaFilter, readinglength.com and howlongtoread.com:

  • Chandler, The Big Sleep – 57,000
  • McBain, Sadie When She Died – 55,000
  • Rendell, A Judgement in Stone, 59,000
  • Sjöwall & Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman – 60,000
  • Simenon, The Yellow Dog – 40,000

When I’m deciding what to read, I’m often drawn to slim paperbacks – the kind that fit in your inside pocket. It’s partly about time and patience, of course, but that tight page count also signals efficient writing.

Maybe longer crime novels are better

Perhaps the fact that crime novels have grown longer is good news. Perhaps it means they’re deeper and more complex. Well, not in my experience.

Last year, I made a point of reading a stack of recently published books to help me improve the commercial prospects of my own work-in-progress. While I enjoyed most of what I read, and even recommended some of those books to other people, I did notice quite a bit of what felt like padding.

For example, one character spent a lot of time in Waitrose browsing ready meals. Then unpacking her shopping. Then cooking per the instructions given on the packaging. Then eating while pondering an office romance.

The protagonist of another book undertook renovation work on a flat. This had nothing to do with the plot; it did not reveal anything much about the character other than that they weren’t very good at DIY; and slowed the story down when it should have been accelerating.

You might say diversions like the above add realism and make characters more relatable but I can’t help thinking that if the target word count had been 60,000 words, these would have been the first sections lost to the red pen of a surgical editor. Or, at least, condensed to a single line: ‘She spent too long at the supermarket choosing what to eat for dinner, ate alone, and fell asleep on the sofa.’

I’m a slasher… of words

The first draft of my current project is finished at just over 70,000 words. The voice of the industry is telling me to flog it to 80,000 words, somehow – perhaps by introducing an aimless sub-plot or two, a prologue that will probably annoy people, or some extended moping and brooding by my protagonist.

But my own instinct is in the other direction. I want to hack away at descriptions, get characters from A to B faster and make the dialogue more sparse. If I follow that urge, I reckon I’ll be left with – hey, fancy that! – about 60,000 words.

General writing advice agrees: kill your darlings, remove filler words, combine or remove characters, make sure every scene moves the plot forward or develops your characters, and so on.

I think I’ve decided that I want to write a tight, economical crime novel of the type I like to read. That might well reduce its already slim chances of getting published – “Yeah, thanks for sending us half a book – are you planning to write the rest of it at some point?” – but it will feel right to me.

Although evidence seems to suggest that readers are hungry for long books, I’m hopeful the tide might turn. There’s certainly a growing backlash against films that don’t earn running times of more than two hours and I’m certainly drawn to anything at 90 minutes or less.

Why you should read Simenon’s Maigret novels

Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels aren’t cosy mysteries. They’re not hardboiled pulp. Nor are they flat period dramas, per ITV. They are intense doses of atmosphere and place presided over by a central character as solid as Paris limestone.

Between 1931 and 1972, Simenon, a Belgian, wrote 75 compact novels about Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris CID. The first ten appeared in a rush in 1931 with seven more in 1932 and a steady flow thereafter.

The plots tend to be mechanically simple but psychologically complex. Typically, it’s something like this:

  • a body is found
  • there are a handful of suspects, perhaps even only one
  • Maigret gets to know the family, village or town
  • he doggedly pursues the case
  • tensions mounts
  • someone cracks
  • Maigret presses things home to a sad end

It’s rare to reach the end of a Maigret novel and feel surprised at the outcome. It is, however, quite common to feel bereft at leaving a place and a community in which you’ve spent a week – even when the book has only taken two hours to read, and even if that place was greasy, seedy and flyblown.

Most of the novels have a specific location. Sometimes, it’s a neighbourhood in Paris – Montmartre, Saint-Cloud, the Marais. Often, Maigret is called to some insular settlement, such as the waterside community around Lock 14 on the Marne Canal, or the seaside town of Concarneau. Maigret is also a tourist, his investigations taking him to Bremen, Liege, Delfzijl and even New York.

At times, it almost feels as if Simenon is writing for the screen, limiting the action to a single set, or a handful of locations. The Shadow in the Courtyard, AKA Maigret Mystified, from 1931, could be performed on stage with a few tweaks, the story taking place almost entirely in an apartment block overlooking a courtyard and a small chemical laboratory. Maigret at Piccrat’s revolves around a seedy strip club where the detective spends hours just drinking, talking and observing.

Simenon’s writing is lean verging on skeletal, more Hemingway than Chandler. Somehow, though, he sketches the spaces – the light, the haze, the smell of onion soup, the silence between buses passing on the road beyond a wall – and the faces: “Old Mathilde’s eyes, grey-green as jellyfish…”

What most interests Simenon, and his avatar, Maigret, are desperate people. Bigamists, gamblers, jealous wives, junkie heirs, alcoholic countesses, petty psychopaths, blackmailers, vagrants… Anyone who has lost control of their life, who is spiralling downward and outward, will find Maigret trudging beside them, infuriatingly patient, pipe rattling between his teeth. He makes them sweat. He gets too close and stays there.

Where to start

The first Maigret novel to be published was Peter the Lett, AKA Pietr the Latvian, so that’s an obvious place to begin. I’d suggest skipping it, though, and starting with a stronger later entry in the series.

The sidekicks change, Maigret ages a little, and France changes a lot, but each is a self-contained piece so you certainly don’t need to fret about reading them in order.

I haven’t read every Maigret novel yet, unlike a former colleague who always had one in his pocket in case of emergencies, but some I’ve particularly enjoyed, and would recommend, are:

  • The Yellow Dog, 1931
  • The Carter of the Providence, AKA The Crime at Lock 14, 1931
  • Maigret at Piccrat’s, AKA The Strangled Stripper, 1950

The recent Penguin editions with more accurate titles and translations are good and helpfully numbered for those who do like to do things in order. There’s something special about reading a tatty paperback from the 1950s or 60s, though, and as these books were bestsellers, you can still find them at reasonable prices.

Modern Buildings in Wessex by Stewart Brayne, 1968

Modern Buildings in Wessex.

Here’s the story: I like rummaging through boxes of ephemera in bookshops and antiques markets, which is how I came across my original copy of the 1968 booklet Modern Buildings in Wessex by the architectural critic Stewart Brayne.

I bought it for 50p because of my interest in post-war buildings but soon discovered that there’s a lot more to it than that.

Here’s a scan:

Among notes on schools and civic centres, there are entries concerning the work of émigré architect Hälmar Pölzig who built extensively in Wessex:

Gordon House Higher Brent, nr. Tonborough Hälmar Pölzig, 1957 The first of the nine and by no means a great work. A domestic house built on commission for the Scottish artist Cecil Gordon, it must have felt like a relic when new, its suntrap roof, white rendering and banded windows speak of Mitteleuropa between the wars more than Britain Today! as the newsreels used to call it. There are distinctive touches, however, such as the abstract stained glass dividers that break up the single large room on the ground floor. Designed by Pölzig himself, they cast colourful, moving shadows that play thrilling tricks on the eyes. If you can stand in that room at sunset without spinning on your heels to see who’s standing behind you, you’re a better man than I.

And that’s just the start…

* * *

I really do like ephemera.

UK Atomic Energy pamphlets from the 1970s

And I really do like post-war buildings, especially as described by Ian Nairn.

Nairn’s London from 1966 is one of my very favourite books, especially this entry:

I also love the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, Universal horror films, folk horror and all that eerie Scarred for Life TV from the 1970s and 80s.

I first wrote a version of this story 15 or more years ago, with a character inspired by Nikolaus Pevsner exploring the buildings of a backwater Somerset town. It was a rewrite of ‘Shadows over Innsmouth’, essentially, and didn’t quite click.

Somehow, though, it must have been locked away in the back of my brain, evolving and ripening, until a few weeks ago, I suddenly thought, oh, yeah, that’s how to do it.

It’s not just a short story – it’s an object, a work of pastiche.

I’m really happy with how it’s turned out, from the typography (like Nairn’s London, the body copy is set in Plantin) to the photos to the cover design.

I’ve only had 50 copies printed because, honestly, when you draw a Venn diagram of people who like Ian Nairn and those who like creeping horror, I don’t think the overlap is huge.

If you want a copy, get in touch. It’s got 20 pages and costs £5 delivered. Email me (raymondnewman@gmail.com) or DM via Twitter (@MrRayNewman) to sort out payment and postage.

Reading 1959: The Tin Drum

The Tin Drum -- original cover design by Grass.

The final book for this year’s reading project is a suitably dense full stop of a novel that forced me to attempt a revival of long-dormant skills of critical interpretation.

Günter Grass’s magic-realist historical epic was published in German in 1959 and in English in 1961. Grass, born in 1927, served in the Waffen-SS as a conscripted child soldier at the end of World War II. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

A very brief summary: Oskar Matzerath is born in Danzig, a city both German and Polish, in 1921; at the age of three, he decides to stop growing, and so remains a child throughout the rise of Nazism; he expresses himself through compulsive drumming and, every now and then, by smashing glass with his scream. Oskar’s family evolves, dissolves and reconstitutes as he falls into the orbit of one character after another, from Bebra the Nazi propaganda dwarf to the bedridden jazz musician Klepp. The war ends, Danzig becomes Gdansk, Oskar decides to give up his drum and grow, at last, before washing up in Düsseldorf and, finally, a madhouse.

You could, I suppose, take it at face value as a macabre fantasy story about a man-child with supernatural powers. As a Stephen King novel with extra eels, however, it’s a failure, being episodic, rambling and bewildering for long stretches.

No, it’s obviously about Germany and the madness of the 20th century. The reader’s job is to unpick more specific meaning from the rock-slide of imagery and symbolism.

Let’s start with the easy stuff, then: Oskar, who cannot say for sure whether his father is the German Matzerath or the Pole Bronski, represents Danzig-Gdansk, or Prussia more generally. Both he and the city exist in a state of permanent, unsustainable tension.

What about the horse’s skull crawling with eels the sight of which makes Oskar’s mother vomit before driving her to commit slow suicide by gorging on fish? This feels like a pivotal moment and suggests war, holocaust and the destabilisation of Europe through its infestation by nationalism. But it’s also about the human body – we all rot, we’re all meat and slime and bone.

The erotics of disgust are a constant theme throughout the book. Bullying children make Oskar eat a ‘stew’ of bodily fluids; the smell beneath his grandmother’s skirts reminds him of mushrooms; his first lover eats a particularly stomach-churning mixture of Oskar’s spit and sweet ‘fizz powder’; he fondles the beautiful scars that cover the back of a pugnacious acquaintance; another lover wallows, unwashed, in a filthy bed; Oskar pickles the severed finger of an almost-lover retrieved by a rented dog from a field of tall grass; and so on.

Oskar, the deformed, malevolent pervert, stands for Germany, a deformed, perverted nation.

It’s hard not to see Oskar’s reluctant decision to abandon his drum and start the agonising business of accelerated growth after the war as a reference to West Germany’s apparent overnight conversion into a modern, prosperous nation. Oskar almost seems to become respectable, self-sufficient and productive but the veneer is thin: at night, he’s still capable of crawling naked into a hallway and writhing on the coconut matting in a kind of sexual fit.

I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time, I suspect, and dipping back in to enjoy, if that’s the right word, specific episodes.

The account of a post-war Düsseldorf nightclub where people peel overpriced onions and join in bouts of collective crying, for example, or Oskar’s tour of the concrete fortresses along the Normandy coast as part of a wartime cabaret troupe, both work as unsettling short stories.

What does it tell us about 1959? Nothing new, perhaps, but it underlines the dominance at this precise moment of the twin topics of sex and war. If processing the war was difficult for American and British writers, it was altogether more intense for Germans, forced to contend with guilt, the redrawing of borders and the snapping from existence of entire cities.

Reading 1959: 13 Days, The Manchurian Candidate, The Vodi

Three books from 1959.

The three most recent books in my #reading1959 project were Thirteen Days by Ian Jefferies,The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon,  and The Vodi by John Braine. They fit together oddly well.

One common theme emerging in many of the books from 1959 I’ve read this year is the legacy of war – PTSD, institutionalisation, lives arrested or derailed, and a sense of the world recovering from a nervous breakdown.

The Manchurian Candidate takes the Korean War as its starting point, telling a wonderfully compelling story of paranoia and brainwashing. The 1962 film is better known than the book and perhaps rightly so: the book was essentially written as a movie pitch and is far less subtle or convincing. In fact, it’s positively baroque.

Sergeant Raymond Shaw is an unlikable man, unpopular with his platoon. He is identified by a Chinese-Soviet brainwashing project as the perfect candidate to be programmed as an assassin, not least because of his privileged upbringing as the stepson of a rapidly rising American politician.

The early chapters, set in Korea and depicting the brainwashing in progress, are the best. Shaw’s cold-blooded murder of his comrades, under hypnosis and in front of an audience of Communist dignitaries, is chilling.

There’s also something grimly fascinating in Shaw’s uneasy friendship with his former commanding officer, Ben Marco, each having been forced to like the other through hypnotism. There’s material enough there for an entire extra novel.

Shaw’s mother is the other standout character – a controlling, social climbing psychopath who nailed a puppy’s feet to the floor as a child and maintains her perky attitude with shots of heroin between embassy balls. She both uses her son for political gain – the Chinese fix it so that he is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, making him a valuable PR tool – and (just when you think it can’t ramp any higher) seduces him while he’s hypnotised.

What makes the book difficult to enjoy in 2019 is exactly that hysterical, over-the-top tone, which carries through into the writing style. It’s part wannabe beat prose, part Mickey Spillane, all pure ham:

There is an immutable phrase at large in the languages of the world that places fabulous ransom on every word in it: The love of a good woman. It means what it says and no matter what the perspective of or stains of the person who speaks it, the phrase defies devaluing. The bitter and the kind can chase each other around it, this mulberry bush of truth and consequence, and the kind may convert the bitter and the biter may emasculate the kind but neither can change its meaning because the love of a good woman does not give way to arbitrage.

The typically pulpy attitude to women doesn’t help, either. We’re supposed to like Marco and root for him, for example, but he uses women and even occasionally hits them if they won’t do what he wants, the latter being presented as evidence of his impressive virility. No thanks. Otherwise, women are mad bitches (see above), sexy angels (Marco’s fiance) or plot devices to move forward the stories of Important and Vigorous Men.

***

Thirteen Days (or 13 Days in some printings) is also about foreign wars and the madness they encourage in otherwise ordinary men.

Set in Palestine in 1948, it presents another Sergeant, Sergeant Craig of the Royal Engineers, who has embraced the chaos and corruption of the Middle East and lives a maverick life of arms smuggling and artful skiving.

A characteristic moment is his admission that, building a vital water storage tank for a far-flung British Army base, he made up for a lack of concrete by using boulders in the foundations, only because of a lack of boulders he actually used dead donkeys: “What with the heat and everything they must have swelled. But anyway, the foundations cracked…”

Something about him brings to mind Len Deighton’s unnamed insubordinate spy, christened Harry Palmer on film, but Craig also has something in common with the protagonist of Absolute Beginners – a young man who’s not quite as hard or impervious as he likes to think.

When idealism surfaces, unexpectedly, he becomes allied to the Jewish cause, falls in love with a beautiful young woman who works as a driver for a paramilitary group and ultimately has his heart broken when all this proves to be more than a game.

The details of Army life and of the landscape are well drawn, clearly based on the author’s own first-hand experience (Ian Jefferies is a pseudonym), as is the sense of detachment and unreality triggered by being forced to live so far from home, with so little purpose.

Thirteen Days is an interesting book but hard to latch onto: is it supposed to satire, or a straight-up thriller? (Check out the cover, above, which suggests Doctor in the House.) It succeeds best when it settles on the latter and gives us a stretch of suspenseful action into the finale.

***

John Braine’s The Vodi is a peculiar and rather brilliant book, up to a point.

Dick Corvey is recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitarium in the north of England from where he reflects on his life and misfortunes, battling the onset of bitterness as much as TB.

Structurally, there are echoes of Free Fall, All in a Lifetime and No Love For Johnnie, with memory and The Now intermingled throughout.

What gives the book its interest is the bleakness of tone – the north here is all shadows, decay and drizzle – and, of course, the Vodi. The Vodi is an organised crime gang made up of goblin-like minions under the control of the monstrously fat Nelly. The Vodi controls the district, torturing and ruining the lives of its victims, primarily out of spite. There’s a hint of Arthur Machen in it but also of Cruella De Vil.

Dick and his best friend Tom invent the Vodi as boys but Dick persists in clinging to the idea as a luckless adult. A key moment in the book, the point at which Dick and Tom diverge, is when Tom disavows the existence of the Vodi immediately after his first sexual experience with a girl. Tom goes on to take control of his own destiny, embrace risk, and eventually finds success; Dick bounces from Army to clerical job to sanitarium to sanitarium job, passive and pathetic.

And that’s Braine’s argument, in the end: that you have to fight, strive and desire. Only when Dick falls in love with a nurse, Evelyn, do things change for him. Evelyn loves him but becomes engaged to another man because she can’t bring herself to shackle herself to a sad case like Dick. Tempted as he is to blame the Vodi and surrender, his passion for her prompts him to discover the inner resources he needs to overcome the disease and make the bold decisions necessary to become a full personality.

***

War, the maddening power of institutions, sinister controlling forces, the struggle to work out what being a man really means… As the final stretch of #reading1959 begins, a thesis is certainly beginning to form.

And though this wasn’t the plan when I started out, it’s all proving very handy for my current writing project, a crime novel based on a true story and set in the late 1950s. Surface detail is easy but I feel as if I’ve really got into the psychology of the time.

Reading 1959: Starving artists and haunted boarding schools

Mademoiselle B... and The Unspeakable Skipton

In search of obscurities from 1959, I decided to look through book review columns from that year in the newspaper archives.

It was The Times that threw up The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson and Mademoiselle B… by Nancy Pearson.

The former has gone into my top ten discoveries from this year. Pitched as a satire, it’s actually dreadfully sad, telling the story of a lonely, poverty-stricken English writer living in Bruges, pushing away anyone who might care for him.

A pompous, pretentious snob, Daniel Skipton regards himself as a Great Writer, having had limited success with a literary novel a decade or so earlier. He writes around 240 words a day of his new novel, filling the rest of his time with scrounging, petty con artistry and a little pimping.

The atmosphere is close to Highsmith’s Ripley novels or perhaps Simenon – oily canals, brown cafes, drab brothels and decaying aristocratic houses.

Though not a crime novel, it might be considered a story of suspense.

The book covers a few weeks during which a party of English tourists is in town. They’re drawn together because he hopes to exploit them, taking them to live sex shows and restaurants, while they find him amusing. Meanwhile, a wild card is in play – an Italian count who might or might not be what he seems.

I spent the last 50 pages fretting over whether Skipton’s rather pathetic Big Score would come together – as his guts growl and health fails, will he be able to afford to eat, or be sent back to scavenging in bins?

He’s not likeable, that’s the point, except that, as the book wears on, a grudging respect forms: he really is committed to being an artist and his constant hustling is in service of that ideal.

And the stream of spite is preemptive and defensive – he hates himself more than anyone else could possibly hate him.

And it turns out it’s still in print, so not obscure at all – I’m just ignorant.

What does it tell us about 1959? In some ways, it feels as if it could have been written in the 1930s, except that objects, attitudes and acts which might have been kept off stage two decades earlier are proudly out on display.

* * *

Mademoiselle B… is less brilliant but still deserves to be better known. Or at least know at all – Goodreads doesn’t even list it, as far as I can see.

It’s a short book, barely a novel, that seems to have been sold as a titillating tale of forbidden lesbian love.

In fact, it’s a gentle, melancholy story of a schoolgirl’s fascination with a young teacher who is either mad, or haunted, or a little of both.

The setting, a boarding school in France, is depicted in perfect detail, from the rotten stink of the canteen to the sinister presence of ever watchful, elderly surveillants. There is always discordant, hesitant piano music somewhere in the far distance.

Boredom and seclusion breed tension and send everyone slightly insane, turning petty disagreements into soap opera and crushes into great passions. When the narrator leaves the school to convalesce on the coast, and has the company of other young people in less Gothic surroundings, she all but forgets Mademoiselle B.

What I didn’t expect, but enjoyed enormously, was the supernatural element which gave a flavour of the Tanzschule from Argento’s Suspiria or one of those ‘women running away from a mansion at night’ paperbacks.

The girls all believe the school is haunted by its past residents, whose portraits hang on the walls, and Mademoiselle B seems especially sensitive to this idea. She feels their hands holding hers in the dark, they whisper her name, and one particular attentive ghost comes to her room at night.

At the great end-of-term ball with which the book climaxes, it’s strongly hinted that she might be right, as mysterious, uncanny masked figures mingle with pupils in fancy dress

Its relevance to 1959? The faint Hammer Horror vibe, perhaps? It’s certainly an interesting book to read alongside A Separate Peaceanother tale of gay love (no it isn’t, or is it?) in a boarding school environment published in the same year.

He’s a creep, he’s a weirdo

A figure in an alleyway.

In writing The Grave Digger’s Boy, I didn’t want to take a detective character off the peg and so created Ben Hodge – a loner, but not in a cool way; and, frankly, a bit odd.

Having grown up with Inspector Morse, on TV and in print, and later graduating to Scandinavian crime writing, from the earliest books I wrote (unpublished) I’ve tried to avoid the obvious tropes.

I just didn’t feel there was room for another middle-aged police officer struggling with personal relationships, drinking too much, driving a vintage car and obsessing over one genre of music or another.

And then, of course, there’s Monkfish:

My first attempts to break free of cliche didn’t really work.

I tried writing detectives who were professional, didn’t drink to excess and had functional families. An interesting exercise in realism but a recipe for boredom: Detective Inspector Graham Beige.

Next, I thought about what a 35-year-old detective might actually do in their spare time in the 21st century and came up with a character who sat in the dark playing video games.

Do you know what? This almost worked. But… It’s not very sexy, is it? (Sorry, gamers.)

In recent years, I worked on multiple versions of multiple novels about an uptight careerist struggling to make connections with his colleagues partly because he doesn’t drink.

This was better, and I still hold out hope for pulling this together in a meaningful way, but in writing a cold character unsure of his identity, I ended up with one lacking personality.

In recent years, there’s been a trend for distinguishing otherwise generic detective characters by giving them mental health conditions: uncontrollable rage, multiple personality disorder, psychotic delusions, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder…

I played with this a little, too: one detective was maintaining an imaginary dialogue with a dead colleague via voicemail; another was haunted by a manifestation of the persona he’d inhabited while undercover – a sort of partner who existed only in his head.

Again, these were interesting ideas, but didn’t quite cohere as I hoped.

In Ben, it feels as if it all came together.

That’s partly because I started with a character in a moment and let the story grow from there.

At points in constructing the plot of The Grave Digger’s Boy, I would find Ben pulling to do things I didn’t want him to do, that didn’t work for the story as I’d envisioned it.

But I couldn’t stop him, could I? The character had an internal power source of its own and would go where it wanted to go.

So, Ben behaves compulsively, inappropriately and badly at times. He’s awkward, emotionally stunted and not terribly likeable, at least on the surface.

What should happen, what I gather from reviews is happening, is that Ben grows on people. Or, at least, they come to understand him, even if they wouldn’t particularly want him to be their new flatmate.

And he does ‘grow’, as the cliche goes. His adolescent fascination with Esther Garrett, and the way it manifests, is a reflection of immaturity – of a childhood disrupted and interrupted.

Lots of young men are a bit like Ben when we’re young – I certainly was, which of course helped me write him. But we learn through life, university, work and relationships how to function.

Ben is a person who lacked those opportunities, or failed to seize them, and so is only half there when the novel begins. At the end, he’s whole, for better or worse.

You can buy the book via Amazon UK or Amazon US. If you’ve already read it, please rate it and/or leave a review either there or at Goodreads.

Publication day reflections

The Grave Digger's Boy

I’ve been waiting a long time for this and now it’s here, it feels… weird. Good. But weird.

It’s one thing to daydream about being a writer but quite another to know that people are actually downloading something you’ve written and reading it.

I’m as nervous about family reading it as I am about strangers. I feel exposed altogether.

I’ve done everything I can. I had the idea. I wrote the book. I rewrote the book. I rewrote the book. I rewrote the book.

It’s as good as I can make it, and I’m proud of it.

But will readers like it?

The reviews so far are good, which is encouraging.

(If you have time to leave an honest rating and/or review, by the way, that would be great.)

But there’s a lot riding on it, for me at least: if this book is successful, however you choose to measure that, it increases the likelihood that I’ll get to write another, which I so badly want to do.

I’ve got the next idea in mind – something set in post-war Bristol – and have started plotting and researching.

Anyway, publication day. Here it is. There the book goes, out of my control, no longer mine to own.

The Grave Digger’s Boy is available via Amazon in the UK and US and is best enjoyed as an eBook, though a paperback is also available.

Start with a corpse

Start with a corpse.

Ed McBain, author of the long-running series of 87th Precinct police procedurals, was once asked how he devised plots. His answer was: “I usually start with a corpse.”

McBain (a pseudonym for Evan Hunter) was talking about the seed of a story rather than literally about how to structure a book but, still, pick up ten crime novels and look at the first pages and the chances are most of them will contain either a dead body, or the promise of one.

Devouring crime fiction as a teenager, and reading how-to manuals such as Hillary Waugh’s On Crime Writing, I’d absorbed this rule and stuck to it throughout the first few (unpublished) detective stories I wrote.

But The Grave Digger’s Boy, which is out in a few weeks, doesn’t start with a corpse – it begins with the absence of one.

In fact, this is the second novel I’ve written with that as the seed. The other, a manuscript that lurks in a virtual desk drawer, was called Fears Grow for Missing Sam and had an entirely different plot, setting and cast of characters to The Grave Digger’s Boy.

What both share, though, is a grim fascination with the idea that without a body, those left behind are stuck in a kind of purgatory, unable to move on. Sometimes, this awful suspension last for decades.

All murders are sad. Murders that never resolve, that hang in the air, are the saddest of all. The fuel for much of the best crime writing is, I think, the probing of these emotions.

One tangential influence on my novel – though influences are hard to pin down in the memory – is the ongoing subplot which runs through the series of books Arnaldur Indriðason’s wrote about the Icelandic detective Erlendur. Over the course of several novels, we learn that Erlendur’s brother disappeared in the snow as a child, leaving Erlendur obsessed not only with that case but also disappearances more generally.

In the real world, I find myself haunted by the disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh, whose parents died without knowing what had become of her. News coverage of that story ran at intervals throughout my childhood and every now and then her face appears on TV or in the papers when some new lead emerges and, inevitably, dwindles. Another search was carried out just a few weeks ago and new witnesses occasionally come forward.

There’s also the case of Helen McCourt whose disappearance in 1984 led to a notable example of a murder conviction in the absence of a body. Her murderer, Ian Simms, was convicted using DNA and to this day refuses to reveal where or how he disposed of her remains.

And, of course, it’s hard not to think of 12-year-old Keith Bennett, who was killed by the moors murderers in 1964, and is yet to be found. Or, rather, whose whereabouts has been concealed out of pure malice.

It’s unlikely anyone reading The Grave Digger’s Boy would guess these or the other real criminal cases I had in mind because by the time they’ve been through the blender of my brain, all that’s left is a sort of essence – the mood rather than details.

Crime writers, awful carrion creatures that we are, are drawn to these cases, yes, by the sheer emotional power they hold, but also because of the complexity they instantly bring to the plot of a novel.

After all, stories that start with a missing body provide two mysteries for the price of one – a whodunnit, and a where-is-it.

Or is it three? With no body, it’s hard to say for sure whether a character was actually murdered. Or maybe it’s four: can we even say for sure they’re really dead?

Reading 1959: Schooldays, Regency, Cold War

Covers of the three books.

One thing I’m keen to do in exploring novels from 1959 is to read widely – not just the most critically acclaimed books, those reckoned to be in The Canon, but also genre fiction, popular writing and books which have fallen out of fashion. This set, which I read on holiday, contributes to that aim.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles is considered a classic in the US and is, I gather, widely read in schools but I first heard of it in January this year.

It is set in a boys boarding school in New England during World War II and revolves around the intense friendship between the charismatic, athletic Phineas and the academically-minded, sour-witted Gene.

According to some readings, they are in love, though that is never made explicit and was denied by the author. Either way, the closeness of their relationship tips over into hatred for a brief, mad moment and the rest of the book deals with the fallout, against a backdrop of the end of childhood and the threat of conscription.

The landscape, the school, its culture and personalities are beautifully depicted. When Knowles described thawing snow, you feel it; when he writes about the stink of a locker room, your nose curls.

There’s also something startling in the reality of the human relationships the book depicts – of the fine line between affection and animosity, and the constant shifting of allegiance and the balance of power within groups of friends.

On Twitter, I described it as a cross between Brideshead Revisited and Lord of the Flies and, having thought on it for a week, still think that’s about right, flippant as it sounds.

How does it fit into 1959? Well, it’s another example of processing the experience of World War II; and, despite Knowles’s denial of the gay subtext, it also feels like part of an increasing honesty in writing about sex and relationships.

* * *

Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax is a funny thing – Jane Austen fan fiction, essentially, but more broadly-drawn than the model. If I say that if Hammer Films had fancied branching out into romance, they might have done it justice, does that hint at the tone?

The plot is a good one: the irascible Lord Darracott is reluctantly forced to acknowledge an estranged heir after his son and grandson are killed in a boating accident – Major Hugo Darracott, a giant, uncouth Yorkshireman who has been serving in the Napoleonic wars.

He is not made welcome by the family, especially the independent-minded Anthea, who is expected by her grandfather, his lordship, to marry the Major to keep control of the family fortune in trusted hands.

Hugo, of course, wins them over with his good nature and resourcefulness. After much gothic melodrama around smugglers, ghosts and hidden passageways, there is a twist that most readers will have seen coming from about page ten, but is no less satisfying when it arrives.

At times, it feels like being battered with a dictionary of slang. Having taken the trouble to research the speech and dialect of the Regency, Heyer seems determined to use every nugget, so hardly a line of dialogue is without one or two examples: wet-goose, widgeon, mushroom, once-a-week beaux, and so on. She also likes exclamation marks! In imitation of 18th and early 19th century writers, no doubt, but too much for modern readers!

Heyer is regarded as faintly ridiculous these days, although she remains very much in print, and invented a genre. Unfortunately, I can see why – anyone submitting this manuscript to a publisher in 2019 would be told it was lacking subtlety, riddled with cliches and too derivative. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like The Unknown Ajax, though: it is fun, highly digestible and rich in period detail. And I’ve just bought my Mum a copy.

What marks this out as a product of 1959? The camp quality, perhaps, and the fact that Hugo Darracott is yet another war veteran protagonist, albeit from the wrong war.

* * *

Alistair MacLean is one of those writers whose books I recall being everywhere when I was growing up – a whole shelf at the library, on the revolving racks at the Read-and-Return, cluttering the bargain bins in secondhand bookshops, and then overwhelming charity shops in the 1990s.

His most famous novels, thanks to their film adaptations, are probably Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra and The Guns of Navarone. His 1959 effort, The Last Frontier, is less well-known, though it too was adapted for the screen, as The Secret Ways starring Richard Widmark, in 1961.

There’s a certain pleasure in reading even bad thrillers. Between coshings, shootings, chases and bouts of torture, there’s rarely time to catch breath and think about the quality of the writing. Unfortunately, this book comes with long stretches of tedious expository dialogue which leave the mind free to reflect on the terrible prose and creaking plot mechanics.

It is set in Hungary in the years immediately following the 1956 uprising and concerns a British agent, Reynolds, who is sent behind the iron curtain to extract a kidnapped scientist with the help of the anti-communist underground.

Reynolds is at first presented as a machine – as a man so perfectly trained that nothing can sway him from his mission, who doesn’t ask questions, who reacts rather than thinks. A whole novel of that would have been interesting to read but, unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for Reynolds to become careless, sentimental, and lovelorn.

At various points, we are expected to believe in disguises so good that they can fool someone who knows both the person being impersonated and the impersonator in extended conversation at close quarters.

We are supposed to accept that the Hungarian secret service, the AVO, is run by a bunch of sinister oddballs who can be fooled by a bit of unsophisticated fibbing.

And chemical torture, it turns out, can be resisted if you try really hard.

All of this would be bearable if the book wasn’t so earnest – if it accepted itself as a bit of fun rather than a serious exposé of the evils of totalitarianism and a treatise on world peace.

Here’s the thing: Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, for all their problems, are ageing well as literature; and if you want dourness without silliness, Le Carre is your man. I just can’t see what MacLean brings to the party. I’d rather read John Gardner.

The 1959 factor? The Cold War in general, and a fear of brainwashing in particular. (I’ve got The Manchurian Candidate, also from 1959, on my to-read pile.)