Wednesday, 14 March 2018

An Englishman’s Home is his Cackle - Have we lost our love of a good literary laugh?

'Given that a lot of the fiction that people read is relatively new fiction, I think it’s striking that people’s choice of comic fiction is quite worn smooth by time.’ 
 - Extract from Open Book, January 12th 2012. BBC Radio 4. 

That was John Mullan, Professor of Literature at UCL, in 2012 commenting on the results of a listeners’ poll to create a list of the funniest books ever written. As he points out, it was a list dominated by older works penned by some of the late grand masters of comic fiction including the likes of P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Jerome K Jerome and Nancy Mitford.

But then Tom Sharpe, who made it onto the list, died the following year aged 85, and Sue Townsend, whose book The Secret Life of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ topped the list, died in 2014. Another year later, we lost David Nobbs. Those three authors alone produced some of the funniest books I’ve ever read and they created a chorus of memorable characters - Eva Wilt, Popeye Scruton and Reginald Perrin among them - who would turn up time and time again in sequels, TV and films. And, in the past couple of decades we’ve sadly had to say goodbye to many more of the finest comic writers that Britain has ever produced: George MacDonald Fraser, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Carla Lane, Alan Simpson, John Mortimer, Victoria Wood and many more.

But to whom has David Nobbs passed the baton? Where are the new Tom Sharpes?

A quick glance at any fiction chart will show you that, for some reason, there is very little new comedy writing about. TV still has occasional glimmers of genius – I’m thinking here of series like Detectorists, Fleabag and Catastrophe to give just three fine recent examples – but comic novels are in short supply. There is, admittedly, a healthy groundswell of RomCom out there with the likes of Sophie Kinsella, Helen Fielding, Mary Jayne Baker and others, and you’ll also find a reasonable amount of funny SciFi, fantasy and horror too; we may have lost giants like Adams and Pratchett but we have Jasper Fforde, Tom Holt, Robert Rankin, Christopher Moore, David Wong et al still in fine form. But in all of these instances, comedy plays second fiddle to the main genre (although, curiously, each genre only seems able to sustain just a couple of comedy superstars). But look in the comedy section of a bookshop these days and what do you find? It’s all comedians’ memoirs, TV panel show tie-ins, humorous travelogues, cartoons or collected newspaper columns by Clarkson. You won’t find many new novels. Modern comedy writers – people like Jonathan Coe, John Niven and Michael Frayn for example – have become a rarity.

I’m extremely vexed and puzzled by this state of affairs. When did comedy become relegated to just a sub-genre? We may not make the best cars, or produce the best footballers, or have the finest education system in the world anymore but surely the British are damned good at comedy aren’t we? We have more stand-up comedians than nurses (or so it seems some days). And we are the nation that gave the world Monty Python and Cold Comfort Farm, Blandings Castle and Fawlty Towers, Morecambe and Wise, Kenneth Williams and Nigel Molesworth. Don’t we pride ourselves on being able to laugh at ourselves? Isn’t GSOH the most prized of all personality traits on dating sites and app profiles? There was a time, not so very long ago, in the days when people read books on the commute to work instead of watching birds get angry or candy getting crushed, when you would see comedy books in abundance. These were also the days, incidentally, when you could see what people were reading - you can tell nothing from the cover of a tablet, e-reader or smartphone – and quite often my interest was piqued enough to buy or borrow the book for myself. But I digress. There was a time when people setting off for a day of work set themselves up with a smile. It was a joy to witness the occasional uncontrollable snigger among the grey and sad creatures that shared my carriage as some paragraph in the latest Leslie Thomas or Evelyn Waugh or H E Bates tickled someone’s funnybone.

My personal introduction to Tom Sharpe came when sitting on board a ‘green goddess’ riot coach with 24 tired and scared police colleagues during the Brixton Uprising of the early 1980s. In between being pelted by bricks and petrol bombs, we snacked and played cards or read. It was there that a fellow rozzer loaned me Vintage Stuff and, suddenly, I wasn’t waiting for the next call to de-bus and put my life in danger once again. I was in France in the 1970s, watching Glodstone, a Richard Hannay-obsessed public school teacher, being pelted by raw sewage as he attempted to rescue a countess who didn’t want to be rescued from international terrorists who didn’t exist. I can’t begin to tell you how cathartic it was to snort with laughter as I turned each page. It took me far away from the grim realities of the world outside.

All of which begs the question, where has all the funny gone? Surely in this depressing post-truth era of Brexit, Trump, fracking, climate change denial, North Korea and austerity, shouldn’t we be actively seeking some escape from all the horror and nastiness? Why aren’t we reaching for the tonic that is comic fiction? We love a bit of TV satire and we trip over ourselves to enjoy a little farce; like it or loathe it, Mrs Brown’s Boys was the most-watched show on TV last Christmas Day (barring the Queen) and it pulled in a clear half a million more viewers than the misery porn that is Eastenders. Sandwiched between those two extremes was the feel-good filling of Strictly and Call the Midwife, both of which have their share of laughter. It was also great to see three comedies among the Top 10 best shows of 2017 (Detectorists, Catastrophe, Peter Kay’s Car Share) as voted for by critics in a recent Radio Times poll. But the Top 10 books of 2017 show a dearth of humour except for children’s fiction with two David Walliams books and the latest in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise by Jeff Kinney. There’s a Jamie Oliver cook book, a Guinness Book of Records, a Dan Brown, a Phillip Pullman and a Lee Child. But there are no comic novels. And yet, in 2003 – just 15 years ago – when the BBC ran The Big Read and asked the British public to vote for the top 200 novels of all time, comedy was everywhere.

Douglas Adams came in at Number 4 with The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Joseph Heller (Catch 22) at 11, Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm) at 88, Jerome K Jerome (Three Men in a Boat) at 100. Sue Townsend (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾) came in at 112, and George and Weedon Grossmith (Diary of a Nobody) came in at 186. Terry Pratchett alone had no less than 13 entries in the Top 200, or 14 if you count Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, at 68. There was also a sprinkling of Dickens, such as The Pickwick Papers, some classic funny children’s books like Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh and a great many Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson books on the list. In 2003, at least, people were still enjoying a good laugh. Are we really so po-faced these days? Don’t we yearn for a good hard guffaw?

I started this extended whinge by quoting John Mullan and his suggestion that perhaps comic fiction is like a good single malt and needs to mature and accumulate some age before we look upon it kindly. That’s certainly borne out by the polls I’ve been wading through over the past week or so. But surely we can’t just draw a line in the sand under the Millennium and say that ‘all comic fiction ends here’ and expect the books written before that to be the ones that people hold up as the best. And yet, trying to get a new comedy published if you’re not a celeb and it’s not a TV tie-in is a nightmare. My agent, a chap of great skill and experience who works at one of the top five UK agencies has been pitching some of my comic novels for several years but with no success. ‘Well, maybe they’re not good enough’, I hear you say. I accept that’s a possibility but it’s not what I’m hearing from the rejections. What I’m hearing is that the books are well written, occasionally laugh out loud funny and clever. One rejection even said that Tom Sharpe would have been proud to have written one of mine. But those rejections also say, ‘I’d have difficulty in placing it on our current list’ or ‘the market isn’t much interested in comedy right now’ or even ‘if you had a bigger public profile we might risk it.’ And that’s the reality; publishers are no longer producing books they like, they’re producing books that the market dictates and the market itself is driven by supermarkets and online giants like Amazon that discount everything and aim at selling to the lowest common denominator. Find a Will Self or a Salman Rushdie in Tesco and I’ll treat you to a literary lunch. And with so many bookshops shutting down, the only outlets in many towns now are the supermarkets and places like W H Smith that only seem to stock charting books.

It's why I was so delighted to discover Unbound. They let readers decide what books they want to see published rather than some faceless accountant or supermarket chain. They're publishing books that otherwise might not have seen the light of day other than as self-published e-books. And I'm delighted to report that my first comic novel A Murder To Die For is now in shops the length and breadth of the UK. DEspite having only been out for two months it already has 50+ Five Star reviews on Amazon and over 40 Five Star ratings on Goodreads. Not bad for a book aimed at a market that 'isn't much interested in comedy right now', eh?

And now I'm crowdfunding the sequel The Diabolical Club with Unbound. If you fancy an early special edition that's nicer than the trade copies that will go into the shops (though they are nice too), then please pledge now by clicking here. You'll get your name listed in the back of the book as a patron too; your name, forever, indelibly printed in every edition for as long as books exist. That's not bad for the price of a takeaway is it? And, more importantly, you'll be helping an author make a living, helping to birth a brand new book and, hopefully, giving those commuters something to giggle at.

It would be nice not to have to wait thirty years before my books start making people laugh.

A Murder To Die For is now available in bookshops everywhere and from online bookstores.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

An Obsession to Die for

I was once at Comicon in San Diego when I overheard the following snickering duologue performed by a brace of Tim Burton-era Batmans:

‘Oh my God! It’s like he hasn’t even bothered!’ 
‘I’d be ashamed to go out of the Bat-cave dressed like that.’ 

As they bat-highfived each other, the object of their bat-bitching drew a pair of heavily-paned, dark-rimmed spectacles from his utility belt and perched them on his cowled nose. But that wasn’t what the caped crusaders were laughing at. It was the colour of the other Adam West-era Batman’s tights. Apparently, they were slightly the wrong colour.

Comicon attracts an extraordinary number of cosplayers whose attention to detail is microscopic, which is why something as petty as a shade of grey can send them into paroxysms of laughter or derision. But I love the fact that, even though the poor bloke in the ‘don’t look at the sun’ bins probably couldn’t even see his own legs, let alone the colour tights they were sporting, he’d made the effort. His passion ran that deep. I love that level of commitment.

(These five photos (c) Stevyn Colgan)

It’s all too easy to sneer at people who have a passion for a thing that you don’t. And, at times, their seriousness can seem quite comical to those of us outside of the loop. A friend of mine once alerted me to a video on YouTube called ‘Hang of this life’ by an artist called Daisy Hicks. He told me that I would love it. So I watched. And it was a well-written, well-performed, catchy pop song accompanied by footage of the lissom Ms Hicks stalking around inside an empty train carriage. When I next spoke to my friend I told him that I’d watched it and that it was okay but not really my kind of music. ‘What?’ he exclaimed. ‘Didn’t you read the comments? Oh man, read the comments!’

So I did. And I laughed. I laughed a lot. All of the comments were by train enthusiasts asking each other questions and arguing about the make and model of locos featured and about the fixtures and fittings in the carriage itself. There were pages of comments. All about the trains. It was only after a minute of scrolling that I eventually came to one that simply said, ‘Hey guys! Anyone notice there’s an attractive woman in the video?’

The person who is compelled to collect train numbers, or bottle tops, or postage stamps is an easy target. And yet, they are exhibiting the same compulsive behaviour that drove people to climb mountains, to explore new and uncharted lands, to invent a better steam engine, to do experiment after experiment until they found a cure for smallpox. Admittedly, having an encyclopaedic knowledge of Star Trek probably doesn’t add as much to the sum of human experience as, say, the life’s work of somebody studying weather patterns on Mars. But that doesn’t mean that we should immediately ridicule the effort. Any feat of memory requires study and that’s good for the brain. And, when harnessed and focussed, fanaticism – from which we get the word ‘fan’ of course – can be a driver for good. Passion is powerful and, even when it borders on obsession about some obscure or esoteric subject, it drives innovation.

For example, the reason we can enjoy seedless bananas today is because of one man’s obsession with greenhouses. Joseph Paxton, gardener to William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, designed and built ever-more elaborate structures, culminating in his Great Conservatory at Chatsworth. It provided the template and the engineering know-how for construction of the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. Meanwhile, Paxton was able to grow plants that almost nobody else could and, in the 1850s, he produced a sterile mutant form of banana plant – named the ‘Cavendish Banana’ after his employer – and these were propagated among plantations in the Far East to be grown in large numbers. And because they are bred by cuttings, as they have no seeds, it is likely that every banana you’ve ever eaten (and Brits eat five billion per year) was not only a Cavendish banana, but a clone of that first plant grown in the Peak District by a fanatic.

Paxton was operating during the heyday of the independent ‘Gentleman Scientist’ and, yes, there were many women doing extraordinary things too who are now starting to get the credit they justly deserve. These days, things are rather more controlled and governed by ruling bodies, but we still have joyous mavericks like Elon Musk and Stephen Wolfram and their ilk who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge and achievement all the time. And our museums and universities are bulging with specialists in some very particular areas of expertise. One of my best friends is a dipterist called Dr Erica McAlister. She works at the Natural History Museum and she absolutely adores flies. She is fascinated by everything about them and her enthusiasm is as infectious as some of her specimens. Her colleagues are all equally obsessed with their particular fields of study; so much so, in fact, that they are more often known by their speciality than by their given name. Erica is known to everyone as Fly Girl (it’s even part of her Twitter handle) and, elsewhere in the museum, you’ll meet Fish Boy, Moth Man and Earthworm Emma. I’d like to think that there’s also a Bat-Man who, hopefully, cares enough to wear the right colour tights to work. Most importantly, they all love what they do.

There is a dark side to passion and obsession, of course, especially when tribalism leads to bullying or violence, such as we see between rival football fans, or between different iterations of Batmans. Sci-fi and fantasy fans get more than their share of undeserved abuse and ridicule. I once saw a Vulcan on his way to a London convention and being laughed at by two guys further along the Tube carriage. They were wearing Liverpool football shirts and had their faces painted red. They looked like burns victims and their accents suggested to me that they’d never been north of the Watford Gap. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Who is the obsessive fan here?’ Was it the guy in the home-made Starfleet uniform, plastic ears and bad haircut? Or one of the guys who’d spent £50 on a replica home strip, was wearing make-up, and who probably supports a particular team because all of his mates do?

Tribalism can spread to the workplace too. My chum and fellow QI elf, Dan Schreiber – host of the award-winning podcast No Such Thing as a Fish - once told me a fantastic story about two rival groups of archaeologists who came to physical blows over the origin of the wheelbarrow. And, just recently, I was mesmerised by the story of a feud within the rarefied world of British mole-catchers that another friend, Terry Bergin, made me aware of. There are only three organisations that govern the UK trade - The British Mole-Catchers’ Register, the Guild of Traditional Mole-Catchers, and the Association of Professional Mole Catchers – but they are currently engaged in a war of words with each other about the quality of training offered to new mole-catchers. I love that. I love that they care so much.

I’ve long been fascinated by this aspect of human behaviour and always promised myself that, one day, I’d make it the central theme of a book. I finally did that with A Murder To Die For, a comic novel set at a murder-mystery festival. Fan groups descend upon the birthplace of crime fiction writer Agnes Crabbe for a weekend of events and most of them turn up dressed as her popular lady detective, Millicent Cutter. Rivalry between the many fan clubs is fierce and occasionally boils over into name-calling and mild violence. But then one of the cosplayers is murdered and an extra element of tribalism is added to the mix by involving the police. Much of the comedy in the book came from the clash of cultures between the professional and procedurally-driven police and the various clubs who refuse to work together but all want to solve the crime. It was an absolute joy to write as I am a huge fan of classic crime-fiction and, because I spent three decades working as a police officer in London, I had a good insight into how both ‘sides’ would react to events.

It’s good to be passionate about something, whether it’s a particular TV show, restoring an antique car, trimming your Chinese privet into the shapes of Disney characters, or discovering a new species of fly. That kind of obsessive behaviour is hardwired into us and it’s what makes a Pokemon fan want to catch ‘em all and a scientist want to spend the best years of their life hunched over a microscope and chasing a cure for cancer.

Fanatics, I salute you.

But please don’t laugh at me if I’m not doing the right salute.

A Murder To Die For is in the shops now and is available wherever books are sold online e.g. Amazon.

The campaign to crowdfund the sequel The Diabolical Club can be found HERE.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Quisting the Quisty Quister

As you'll know by now, if you've read A Murder To Die For, I have a character called Gavin Quisty. He's a super-smart Detective Chief Inspector with an extraordinary ability to connect facts together; he's kind of a Sherlock Holmes for the internet age - with maybe a smattering of Dirk Gently and Jonathan Creek thrown in for good measure - but quite different from all three. I can't remember how I arrived at his name. It's not, as far as I know, a real surname (although Quist is a Scandinavian surname). I just liked the fact that it had echoes of quiz and questing in it.

So imagine my delight when my good friend, the author Dr Sarah Marr, pointed this out to me yesterday (from "Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed", Gelett Burgess, 1914).

I think it works rather well, don't you? Did I read the word 'quisty' somewhere in an older book I wonder? No matter. It's mine now! 

Incidentally, I have been working on a series of Quisty short stories, all involving him and his sidekick Kim Woon solving some seemingly impossible crimes. I may release them at some point in the future.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

So many tables ...

I am humbled, excited, overjoyed at how many bookshops have chosen to display A Murder To Die For on tables. Not quite from Lands End to John O'Groats (but definitely from Edinburgh to Truro), the tables are piling up! I'm a happy bunny.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Well, it's been a cracking first week for A Murder To Die For.

Not only has it been sighted in a number of book shops but it's been seen on at least two tables. That, m'chums, is a big deal. Getting a table spot means that the shop has given prominence to the book (and how could they not with that fantastic Neil Gower cover art?) So hoorah!

Secondly, I can now reveal that there will be an audiobook version. It'll be available via Audible from all the usual outlets in May. And (fanfare) it's going to be read by the wonderful Rula Lenska. Isn't that fantastic?

When I heard the news I will happily admit that I had a tiny fan-boy flush of excitement. She's been in almost every show I love - from Doctor Who to Space 1999 and even a recent episode of Inside No.9. She was also Lintilla (or the 800,000,000,000 Lintillas) in the radio series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And not forgetting the classic Rock Follies of course.

Could I be happier with the choice of reader? Not much.

And The Diabolical Club has already reached 25% of its funding total.

There's a long way to go yet but what a great start!

Pledge here if you fancy helping to make the sequel a reality too.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Five, Four, Three, Two, One ... It's PUBLICATION DAY!

It's here at last! Publication day for A Murder To Die For. And on the birthday of such notables as Virginia Woolf, W Somerset Maughan, Etta James, John Cooper Clarke, Tobe Hooper and, of course, Robert Burns. The 25th January is also the day on which Leo Tolstoy, in 1851, wrote in his diary:

'Bought a horse which I don't need at all.'

I hope no one ever writes that about my book.

And so to my final murder-mystery countdown trivia fact ...

Countdown Fact #1: Agatha Christie was once investigated as a spy.

There are so many fascinating things to say about the Queen of Crime. We could talk about her mysterious disappearance in 1926. Or the fact that she's sold over two billion books and wrote the longest running play of all time - The Mouse Trap. Incidentally, did you know that one actor has appeared in every performance of the play since it began its run in 1952? The late Deryck Guyler can still be heard, via a recording, reading the radio news bulletin to this present day.

But the story I love is one that I discovered when working on the book Saving Bletchley Park with Dr Sue Black OBE. Here's an extract from the book:

'In November 1941, Bletchley Park experienced something of a panic. The cause, as unlikely as it sounds, was a new detective novel called N or M, written by the world’s greatest crime-novelist, Agatha Christie. In the book, her plucky heroes Tommy and Tuppence, are on the trail of Nazi spies working inside Britain. That, in itself, was hardly a problem for the staff of Station X. However, when this paragraph appeared at the end of Chapter 1, all kinds of alarms went off:

“I always introduce my guests," said Mrs Perenna, beaming determinedly at the suspicious glares of five people. "This is our new arrival, Mr Meadowes - Mrs O'Rourke." A terrifying mountain of a woman with beady eyes and a moustache gave him a beaming smile. "Major Bletchley." Major Bletchley eyed Tommy appraisingly and made a stiff inclination of the head. 

Mention of the name Bletchley in a book about spies was just too worrying a coincidence. To make matters worse, it was known that Christie was friends with Dilly Knox. MI5 immediately opened an investigation and sent agents to see Knox, suspecting that someone had perhaps been talking a little too openly about the work going on at BP. However, Knox was convinced that this was not the case and agreed to sound her out. He therefore invited Christie to his home in Naphill in Buckinghamshire and, over tea and scones, asked why she had named her character Major Bletchley. She replied, ‘Bletchley? My dear, I was stuck there on my way by train from Oxford to London and took revenge by giving the name to one of my least loveable characters'.’

Interesting, eh? As it happens, it is believed by many that Christie may also have got the name for her amateur lady sleuth from another train station - Marple, near Stockport.

So there you go, my final countdown fact. I hope you've enjoyed them.

A Murder To Die For is in the shops NOW and available to order online from all sites where books are sold.

The sequel, The Diabolical Club, is currently funding and needs your help. Please consider backing it here.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Five, Four, Three, Two ...

It's the eve of Publication Day for A Murder To Die For! So here's the fourth of five murder-mystery related trivia facts for the countdown...

Countdown Fact #2: Columbo's wife was a Starfleet captain.

Mrs Columbo got a lot of mentions during the TV series, usually because her shabby homicide detective husband mentioned her as a fan of a particular movie str, TV show or household product. But we never got to see her. Nor did she have a name; a recurring theme in the show as his name was never mentioned and even his dog was called ... dog.

However, during the 1980s Mrs Columbo got her own TV series. She drove his awful car, she referred to her husband as a lieutenant with the LAPD homicide division. And she was played by Kate Mugrew, who would achieve greater fame as Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager.

However, viewing figures were not good. And things were not helped by the fact that Peter Falk didn't endorse the show or appear in it.

And so, in effort to save it, the linkage between this Kate Columbo and the Mrs Columbo of the original television series was reduced, the name of the character was changed to Kate Callahan (after an off-screen divorce), and the series was renamed first Kate the Detective, followed by Kate Loves a Mystery. But the series still bombed.

Only 13 episodes were made.

Final fact tomorrow!

A Murder To Die For is in the shops on the 25th and available to pre-order online NOW from all sites where books are sold.

The sequel, The Diabolical Club, is currently funding and needs your help. Please consider backing it here.