Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Interview: Crime Writer Peter Lovesey Talks About What Makes a Great Mystery

Recently, I had the great honor of interviewing Peter Lovesey, author of such excellent books as The False Inspector DewRough Cider, and Bertie and the Tinman. It is my opinion that Lovesey is one of the finest mystery novelists working today, so as you can guess, it was really quite an exciting event for me!

I’d like to thank Doug Greene and Curt Evans for helping to make this interview possible. I’d also like to thank Peter Lovesey for putting up with my questions and graciously responding each time. I loved getting the chance to do this interview, and I now present it to you for your pleasure and education.

Patrick: It’s fairly well-known that you wrote your first mystery, Wobble to Death, for a competition offered by Macmillan Publishing, where the grand prize was one thousand pounds. The book was written with a Victorian “wobble” as its background, and as you well know, it was rather successful! It became the first of a series of novels starring the Victorian detective Sergeant Cribb. So just how did you go about writing Wobble to Death? Were you already a mystery reader, or did you have to read some mysteries and figure out what the game was about? Did you look at some previous efforts in the historical-mystery department? Were you influenced by any particular novels?

Peter Lovesey: Wobble to Death had to be written in just over three months for the competition deadline and I was teaching five days a week, so I didn’t have time to look around for templates. Fortunately I knew plenty about Victorian athletics and had written a non-fiction book called The Kings of Distance, so I could work with the confidence that I could finish a book and that the “research” was all in the notebooks I had already filled at the National Newspaper Library.

As a kid, I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories and some Leslie Charteris, featuring the Saint. I think I had also read one Agatha Christie called The ABC Murders. The real mystery buff was my wife Jax, who devoured them at the rate of three or four a week, so she was a huge help. She was in hospital for most of the time and she would read through each chapter as I completed it and we’d discuss the progress of the book when I visited each evening. I can’t say I was influenced by any particular novels.

P: Did you change your approach when writing the next entries in the Cribb series? And were there any authors out there who particularly influenced and/or encouraged your writing efforts?

P.L.: Well, I kept the same policemen and stayed in the same period of about 1880 and as the series developed I explored Victorian entertainments including pugilism, the music hall, spiritualism, river trips, the seaside and photography, but I didn’t want to get locked into a formula, so I changed the point of view from which the story was told.

For example, the second book, The Detective Wore Silk Drawers, was seen largely through the eyes of a young policeman, Henry Jago, who went undercover to investigate illicit prize-fighting, and another of the books was largely about Constable Thackeray, Cribb’s loyal and exploited assistant. I was also experimenting with plot.

You asked about influences. Swing, Swing Together was my attempt to follow the river trip of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boatand writing a crime story instead. Invitation to a Dynamite Party (The Tick of Death in the US edition) was a reworking of Ian Fleming’s plot in Goldfinger. In my version, the famous golf match became a hammer-throwing competition and the raid on Fort Knox was converted into an attempt to assassinate the Prince of Wales, using a primitive submarine. In all the books I wove the plots into real events. A Case of Spirits was inspired by the famous medium, Daniel Home. Waxwork was a distillation of the trials of the women poisoners who fascinated and alarmed the Victorians.

P: So what was it that drew you so much to the Victorian era, in which you set not only your Cribb series but also the stories of “Bertie”, Prince of Wales? Among these Victorian novels, are there any that you’re particularly proud of, be it due to characters, plotting, or historical colour?

P.L.: My interest in the history of sport gave me some insight into the period. I enjoyed the earnest efforts of the Victorians in whatever pursuit they took up, so often within the restrictions of a rigid class system. There’s something endearing about the ingenuity of people in making a living in hard times, sometimes beating the system. The desire for respect was as strong as it is now, but there were perils at every turn and comfortable lives could be undermined overnight. I like to think of the Victorian gentleman reading The Times in his gracious home in front of a coal fire and suddenly realising that catastrophe has struck and his secret collection of paintings of nudes is about to be part of a police investigation.

I wouldn’t say any of the books make me proud, but I enjoyed writing them all and it pleases me if readers enjoy them too. The books featuring Bertie as an inept amateur sleuth were fun to write. The first, Bertie and the Tinman, was my shot at a Victorian Dick Francis and used the death of Fred Archer, a real Victorian jockey, as the starting point of a story of action and, I hope, some thrills. Bertie and the Crime of Passion was set in Paris, again using a real person, Sarah Bernhardt, as a main character. And Bertie and the Seven Bodies was my homage to Agatha Christie in the year of her centenary, with a plot built around a familiar rhyme that most people know. I did about as much with the character of Bertie as I could whilst being loyal to what is known of his real character. In all, I wrote eleven Victorian mysteries and several more one-off novels that I suppose you’d call historical, moving on towards World War 2.

P: It’s good that you brought those up, because I was hoping to be able to mention them! In particular, I was hoping to talk about your murder-in-retrospect novel Rough Cider, which I personally consider one of your very finest achievements. I have never read a novel that brings WWII so vividly to life through the eyes of a child. Did you draw on personal experiences for the book, and if so, how much of reality found its way into the novel?

P.L.: Rough Cider is the book that comes closest to my own life, except that I wasn’t witness to a murder. In August, 1944, when I was seven, our house was destroyed by a V1 flying bomb, or “doodlebug” as we called them. Fortunately my family all escaped, although the neighbours in the other part of our semi-detached house in suburban London were killed. Being homeless, we moved to the country and were billeted with a farming family in Cornwall, who didn’t particularly relish having three small boys in their farmhouse. So at an impressionable age I learned what it was like to be an evacuee. Later, when we returned to London to a temporary home, much kindness was shown to us by GIs from the local US army base.

Some of these memories found their way into the book.  So, also, did a later phase of my life, when I was a student at Reading University. But I have to say that the cider part was mostly learned from books on wine-making, except for one formative experience as a young airman when I drank too much rough cider. I wrote the book a long time ago, so I can’t recall if it was challenging to write. I think not. Rather more challenging for me was the Edgar nomination. It’s tough sitting through an awards dinner wondering if your book has been chosen and finally learning that it hasn’t. But I guess a nomination was better than being ignored.

P: I can only imagine the suspense! You have won several awards throughout your career, though—the most notable possibly being the Gold Dagger Award for The False Inspector Dew. Your short stories have also won some awards. Do you prefer writing novels or short stories? And in a similar vein, do you prefer writing books with a series character or the challenge of writing those one-off, non-series books? Have you ever started a book with the intention of writing another series entry but ended up doing a one-off, or vice versa?

P.L.: Short stories are such fun to write because you can take risks and experiment with the form, so, yes, if I could make a living, I’d concentrate on them. I’ve been a full-time writer since 1975, and I can make a living with a novel about once a year, but it would take a heap of short stories to keep the wolf from the door. As for the series books, I do occasionally like to break off and try something different. The title you mention, The False Inspector Dew, is probably my most successful critically, and appears in a number of those “top hundred mysteries” compilations. The one I like best didn’t win any prizes, but brings in nice letters from some of those who read it. It’s called The Reaper, and is about a village rector who murders the bishop in chapter one. As for your last question, no, I plan the books and know where they are heading, so I haven’t ever had a series book ending as a one-off. or the reverse.

P: The Reaper is an example of the ‘inverted’ murder story, made so popular by Anthony Berkeley under the name Francis Iles, though many authors ranging from C. S. Forester to R. Austin Freeman have tried their hand at it. What made you want to try your hand at such a story? Was there an element of homage in it to any one of your illustrious predecessors in this domain?

P.L.: It’s a refreshing challenge to tell the reader at once who the murderer is and I enjoy reading this kind of novel as well as writing it. I thought Malice Aforethought by Iles/Berkeley was a fine achievement and I also relished some of Patricia Highsmith’s working of the same theme. so I may have been influenced by them. My own attempts – another was On The Edge (reissued as Dead Gorgeous after a TV film was made from it) – are at a more modest level. I wouldn’t aspire to pay homage to either great writer. The Reaper encapsulated my experience of village life after living in Upper Westwood in Wiltshire for almost twenty years, but you have to believe me when I tell you that none of the characters are based on my friends and neighbours.

P: More recently, your “main” series of books is the one starring Peter Diamond, set in modern day. Why did you choose to start writing this series, whose time period is so different from the historical novels you became known for? Was it the attraction of going to a completely different time period, or did you have stories that wouldn’t have worked well in the Victorian Age? Or was it something else entirely?

P.L.: Yes, my timing wasn’t the best. I abandoned “historicals” just when everyone was buying them. I’d written a number of short stories set in the present as well as three modern novels as Peter Lear (Goldengirl, Spider Girl and The Secret of Spandau), so I felt ready to take on the challenge of writing about contemporary crime. As a career writer I couldn’t see myself spending the next thirty years writing about the Victorian era, so I created Peter Diamond, a modern police detective working in the city of Bath, which I know well. But there are still elements of history in the Diamond books. Bath has a long and colourful past and I’ve been able to weave in sub-plots featuring Jane Austen’s aunt, Mary Shelley, a Civil War battle and nineteenth century stone-mining.

P: Another piece of the past, rather recent but often very forgotten, is the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction”. You wove that into your Peter Diamond novel Bloodhounds, writing something of a tribute to such stories, in particular the “impossible crime” novels of John Dickson Carr. We also see a lot of a group of mystery aficionados who form the “Bloodhounds”, and their conversations are one of the book’s most enjoyable assets. Could you tell us a bit about writingBloodhounds? It really seems to have been a labour of love— did you enjoy writing it? Was it a challenge to invent your locked-room riddle’s solution? Do you side with any of the Bloodhounds in your views of detective fiction? And do you have any particular favourite authors/books from the Golden Age?

P.L.: I’m old enough to have been reviewed by John Dickson Carr and I met a number of the second wave of “Golden Age” writers, so I take an interest in the period. As a writer of whodunits, I must be one of an endangered species along with the polar bear and the orang-utan. The classic puzzle mystery with clues, suspects and surprises remains a joy to read and write. I once gave a talk in the crypt of St Michael’s Church in Bath, where the Bloodhounds meet in the story and this gave me the idea for the book. Then a number of influences played their part. I’ve been a reader of Geoff Bradley’s magazine CADS from its beginning and before that the Armchair Detective, Deadly Pleasures, the Drood Review and others who valued the traditional detective story.

So it’s true that I had great fun in putting the story together. Of course I reread Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (it has another title in the US [The Three Coffins—ed.) with its famous chapter on the locked room mystery, so this was a key element in the plotting. As for favourites, I must admit that I’m not a regular reader of crime fiction and have never read many of the classics. If you asked me if I preferred Christie to Sayers, I’d say I’m a Christie man. Ellery Queen rather than SS Van Dine. But I also have a strong affection for Hammett, Chandler and Charteris – which helped to fuel the debates in Bloodhounds.

P: Let’s take a brief detour now into your television career. You wrote a number of scripts for the television series Cribb, based on your stories. In fact, you collaborated on many of those scripts with your wife—was it a close collaboration? Was it strange, adapting your own work for the small screen? Did you ever watch the finished episodes for yourself, and if so, what did you think of them? Did you like the casting choices? Are there any particular favourites?

P.L.: June Wyndham Davies happened to read a good review of Waxwork in Time Magazine and persuaded Granada TV to buy the rights and make a 90min pilot episode that was broadcast at Christmas, 1979. It starred Alan Dobie as Sergeant Cribb. It was well received and a series of one-hour plays based on the other seven books in the series followed. They went out on Sunday evenings and did extremely well and grossed the highest takings of any programme put out by Granada, more than Coronation Street or World in Action.

Granada decided to commission more scripts and I was invited to write them. But they wanted them quickly, so Jax, my wife, nobly agreed to write three of the six, leaving me with the other three. Of course we knocked them into shape together and it was done in as intensive a spell of writing as I can remember. Writing directly for TV, rather than condensing book plots (I had earlier adapted my own book The Detective Wore Silk Drawers) meant that we could write stories suited to the one-hour slot.

They continued to do well and sold widely abroad. In America Cribb was chosen to launch the Mystery! programme for PBS TV and I went over to Los Angeles to publicise it there. Of course I wish now that the time slot had been longer for each episode, but I can’t complain. They were made with sensitivity and care. Marvellous actors appeared in the series. My favourite of the adaptations based on books was Wobble to Death, with a screenplay by Alan Plater. Of those written specially for TV, my favourite isSomething Old, Something New, written by Jax, and featuring a Victorian wedding.

P: You were also listed as a “story consultant” for the TV series Rosemary and Thyme. What exactly does that mean?

P.L.: That was the ideal job, advising on other people’s scripts, making suggestions and going to all the parties and meeting the actors. It was a series that tapped into two favourite themes of TV audiences: gardening and crime. With Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris as stars, and Brian Eastman (who made the long-runningPoirot series) as producer, it couldn’t help doing well.

Ultimately there are only a limited number of stories that can feature two gardeners discovering corpses in the course of their work, so it ran its course. But I’d recommend “story consultant” as a win-win job for anyone who gets the opportunity. And I did get to write a Rosemary and Thyme Christmas story for the Daily Mail.

P: Has there been any interest in bringing Peter Diamond to the screen? Would you like seeing that happen?

P.L.: The series has been optioned more than once and scripts and treatments have been written, but no one has cracked it yet. The city of Bath film office are keen to see it happen and, yes, so am I. I live in hope, but I’ve learned not to count on anything. Wobble to Death was originally optioned for a film by Carl Foreman, the writer of High Noon and Young Winston. And The False Inspector Dew was actually bought for Peter Falk for a six-figure sum, but it’s still on the shelf at Columbia Pictures.

P: To return to your novels, you recently released your brand-new Peter Diamond novel Cop to Corpse. I had the honour of reading it myself a while back and I highly enjoyed it. As you well know, it’s a novel about a serial killer murdering policemen, a classic plot device throughout mystery fiction. The two instances that come to mind right away are Ed McBain’s classic police procedural Cop Hater and Philip Macdonald’s X Vs. Rex. Did you have either of these novels in mind when you wrote your own? Was this an enjoyable book to write, or was it more on the difficult side? How did you get the idea? Did it take a long time to write?

P.L.: No, I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Cop Hater or X vs Rex. I’m afraid I don’t keep up. AfterStagestruck, set mainly inside the Theatre Royal, I wanted more of an outdoor book with some action scenes. You just need variety in the writing. Cop to Corpse was written as a whodunit with pace, and, yes, it took me about ten months to complete, rather quicker than some of the Peter Diamond series.

The serial killer idea isn’t central to the story because we come in after the third shooting and the emphasis is on the chase rather than the shock of a series of murders. Much of it is set in the woods close to where we lived for almost twenty years, allowing me the luxury of visualising the events in a vivid way. I’m glad you enjoyed it. The reviews have been encouraging.

P: So what lies in store for the future? Have you ever considered bringing back Bertie or Sergeant Cribb for another novel?

P.L.: At my age it’s good to have any future at all. The next in the Peter Diamond series, called The Tooth Tattoo, will appear next year. I’m under way with yet another Diamond novel. Cribb and Bertie have made cameo appearances in short stories, but I can’t foresee them making it into a novel-length book.

Thanks for all your interest, Patrick. I’ve enjoyed being At the Scene of the Crime.

Crossposted at the author’s personal website, “At the Scene of the Crime.” Used with permission.

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