You’ll never believe what happened when I wrote my first murder mystery novel.
That’s right, I couldn’t solve the murder.
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m jinxed or far too clever for my own good. All I did was set out to create a different kind of detective.
That’s what all crime writers want to do, isn’t it?
The trouble is, my detective wasn’t a detective or a police officer. I couldn’t have someone walk into his office and hire him to investigate.
As he wasn’t a police officer, he couldn’t go out and investigate a murder.
Equally, he wasn’t some older woman in a village who solves murders in between baking cakes and walking the dog.
My sleuth was an environmental health officer (EHO). It was my profession for 40 years. And in that time, I came across a few dead bodies. I don’t mean I stumbled over them while checking hygiene in a restaurant kitchen. No, I dealt with several workplace accidents where people died.
I was driving through my South Downs district, on my way to my next job, when a moment of inspiration almost took me off the road and into a ditch.
How about a murder disguised as a work accident?
Nothing new in murder being made to look like an accident, you might say. I know. I’ve watched every episode of Columbo several times.
But a work accident would be investigated by an EHO. My fictional EHO, Kent Fisher, who’d I’d invented a couple of years before, would get his first murder investigation. He wouldn’t know it was murder, of course.
But something wouldn’t be right when he examined the accident scene. Like Columbo, some of those little details wouldn’t make sense. Kent Fisher would question these details, try to make sense of them.
Maybe he’d sense a conspiracy. Or maybe he and Miles Birchill, the owner of the theme park where the accident occurred, would continue their bitter feud. Kent would suspect this guy of all kinds of health and safety failures. Birchill was the kind of employer who would cover up his mistakes.
You can imagine how the story could build from there. And it did. The harder Kent worked to prove the accident was caused by negligence or neglect, the more obstacles he faced. Birchill would cry harassment. He’d instruct his staff not to cooperate.
Kent would battle on, becoming more creative in his approach. He’d bend a few rules himself. He’d shake the tree to see what fell out. Oh, the ideas came thick and fast as he went from being a professional EHO to a sleuth, looking for any clue that would crack the case.
Eventually, he realises he’s investigating murder, not a work accident. Everything should have dropped into place and made sense.
The case had become so complex and complicated, I couldn’t solve the murder.
Somehow, I’d created the perfect murder.
I tried so hard to find a solution. I backtracked, looking for things I could change or expand or view differently. No, Kent’s progress followed a logical step as he overcame each challenge, only to face another, greater one.
I consulted one or two books I had on the craft of writing. I dismissed writer’s block. I had plenty of things I wanted to write. Trouble is, none of them solved the murder.
You can imagine my frustration.
After too many failed attempts, I set the novel aside. I didn’t forget it. I couldn’t forget it. One way of another, I’d find a solution.
When I couldn’t find one, I wrote the ending anyway. Now I had a novel in two parts that needed to be stitched together. Somewhere along the way, I thought this would be a simpler way to solve the problem.
You’re right again. It wasn’t.
Finally, I set the novel aside, admitting defeat – but only for the moment.
The moment lasted about seven years, but who’s counting?
If I told you I had to give up writing to solve the problem, would you believe me? I don’t mean I was so disappointed I threw in the towel. No, it wasn’t like that, but I’ll save the details for another post.
If I said, the answer came following a food hygiene inspection of a tearoom, would you be curious?
It wasn’t one of my inspections. I’d moved into management by then. Food businesses were being given hygiene ratings based on their standards and the way they operated. If you didn’t agree with the rating you were given, you could appeal.
Someone appealed and as the manager of the team, I had to investigate. And it led to an offer of publication from a small, independent publisher in the USA of all places. Again, it’s a story in itself that deserves its own post, so please don’t think I’m teasing here.
So, imagine my situation. An American publisher has seen the first three chapters and a synopsis of the novel. (Imagine how tricky it was to write when I couldn’t solve the murder.) He wanted to publish No Accident, subject to reading the finished novel and approving it.
Did I own up and tell him I couldn’t solve the murder?
Of course not.
Did I wing it, hoping inspiration would save the day at some point?
No, I refused to sign the contract, saying the novel needed work before it would be ready for him to read. I asked for six months, and to my surprise, he agreed.
Then I realised I’d declined the only publishing contract I’d ever been offered.
So, driven by the prospect of the publication and self-confidence I didn’t know I had, I took a long, hard look at No Accident, the first Kent Fisher murder mystery.
I was horrified. You’ve heard the old joke – there’s nothing like a good murder mystery. And this was nothing like a good murder mystery. Well it wasn’t. Whether time had distanced me enough to see the weaknesses, I don’t know.
Kent Fisher was so gung ho, he was more like Rambo than Columbo.
So, I set it to one side and rewrote it in my new author voice, which produced a more relaxed and humorous style.
I know there’s nothing funny about murder, but police officers have a wicked sense of humour. It’s how they survive the horrors they deal with.
Then I reached the part of the story where I stalled before. For a moment, I had this awful feeling I’d stumble again, never to reach the finish line. But to my surprise, the story took a different route to the ending I’d written previously.
Kent found the clues and evidence to solve the murder.
The book was published in June 2016, almost 15 years after the original idea came into my head.
But I was soon working on the next novel. At the time of writing this post, there are currently nine novels in the series, surpassing all my expectations. I’m writing the tenth now, still feeling all the doubts, concerns and fears I felt the first time around.
Writing doesn’t get any easier, especially when readers tell you each novel is better than the last. But it’s another story for another day.
For now, let’s say I persevered, kept faith in myself and my story, and found my true author voice to turn an idea into a published murder mystery novel that’s currently available for 99p/99c.
After all the years of blood, sweat and frustration that went into creating the novel, it’s a steal.