What’s my Crime?

Farewell My Lovely 001I don’t remember the first crime novel I ever read – probably something by Enid Blyton – but I do recall vividly the first one to make an impression. It was Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, a dog-eared Penguin edition which I bought for 75p in one of Dublin‘s many second-hand bookshops.

It seems it wasn’t to the taste of its previous owner Miranda Arkwright – the kind of name you might find belongs to the unfortunate dame in Act One who had her head staved in by a shillelagh – but it lit a torch for me.

The writing was sharp and witty and I didn’t want to put it down; for the first time I realised that crime writing could be good writing. Not just penny thrillers. I was an English Literature student so undoubtedly a bit of a pompous twat when it came to literary criticism. But Chandler knocked Sterne into a pail of shandy.

The Dulwich College boy opened my eyes to the possibilities that lay within the crime fiction genre, his one-liners to die for: “…he looked as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”  on the opening page remains one of my favourites.

Not only did it encourage me to go beyond the world of Philip Marlowe to read the entire works of Dashiel Hammet and James M Cain but, on a less fortunate note, it also prompted me to adopt the trench coat and trilby look and take up smoking.

The cigarettes didn’t last long. The Majors had credibility but I couldn’t be doing with coughing my lungs up every ten minutes. And once I realised that the girls in 1980s Dublin didn’t really go for the private eye look, I quietly reverted to jeans and chunky sweater.

That was back in 1984. I have read whole libraries of crime since then, I have even knocked about with a few crime writers but only once, in the late 1980s when I was living in north London, did I try and write any crime fiction; a comic novel called Fletcher and Gumball, the names of the two private detectives who operated from a small office two doors down from the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley.

I got several chapters in and thought it was hilarious. My landlady was less amused when the rent failed to materialise one month; she tossed the notebooks on to a bonfire in our back garden – she was Cypriot and prone to unpredictable actions which in others might be considered a sign of psychotic lunacy. Maybe she would make a decent villain but ultimately she may have got this one right.

Matthew Hall, creator of Bristol-based coroner Jenny Cooper
William Ryan, whose Captain Korolev tiptoes through the Stalinist system to find justice in 1930s Soviet Union

Over the years, I have received plenty of encouragement from the likes of the Greece-based Paul Johnston, Declan Hughes – one of those that was happy to talk Chandler during those Dublin years – and more recently Billy Ryan whose Korolev novels are quietly burning their way into the public consciousness.

And it was Billy’s idea that I come along to a crime-writing workshop that he was running in London last week alongside Matthew Hall, who writes under the monicker MR Hall, and is very possibly the only crime-writer with a haircut sharper than a Wilkinson blade.

Fifteen of us crammed into the specialist crime bookshop Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court, a 9-6 women-men split. Three, maybe four, had made a serious stab at crime writing; the rest of us were there in hope rather than expectation.

What can you gain from a one-day workshop? Well, not the ability to write. That is up to you. Nor even a fresh and original plot. That, sadly, must also come from the would-be author.

What you can get, though, and what Ryan and Hall managed to lay out in front of us, is a roadmap, a basic method of structuring and signposting when the plot twists, when the characters turn and how the various strands segue into a pulsating climax on the top deck of the Shard. Or the Phoenix Cinema.

It was billed as a workshop and work is what we did, three groups of five stretching our grey cells to come up with an investigator, the lovely Scots lassie Loona McIlroy (the US Masters was on at the time), the biographer victim and various sub-characters; a crime scene; a second murder; a gay transvestite found stabbed in the eyeball, a Royal Opera House ticket stub stuffed up his nose.

And the great denouement? You know we didn’t really get all the detail of the plot together in time but I can tell you that it was the transvestite who committed the first murder and then it was the victim’s lesbian lover, the Chinese-Welsh Ying Evans – a world-renowned expert on the Triads who spends her spare time singing Welsh rugby songs in the boozer – who polished off the unfortunate transvestite. Oh, I have a feeling Loona may have had a water phobia from her childhood and the climax, needless to say, was played out on a speedboat on the Thames.

The scene of the crime

Matthew and Billy were kind about our efforts, each group having used the characters to come up with a different story. It was certainly enjoyable but none of us were under any illusions; crime-writing is a tough business, something that was highlighted by Goldsboro owner David Headley who explained the role of the agent and the real business side of writing.

The statistics are, of course, deeply depressing; one in about 25 million writers ever gets a book published. And there’s no money in it. Frankly, we would all be better off using any creative talent we have to repaint the bathroom. But in spite of that, there was one glorious ray of sunshine.

If your book is well-written and a thumping good yarn someone will want to publish it. And the public will want to read it. If it is crap, then it will go in the bin. Or on the bonfire.

So all it takes is to write a decent book. First plan the novel, then set about the writing. That can wait for tomorrow I think. In the meantime, it is good to get in some homework.

“It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet… “

©Barney Spender 2013