Series Killers

Sometimes, I wish there were fewer books out there.

It’s not because I’m a slow reader. Far from it. I can zip through the pages like Mo Farah on his final lap of a race. It’s more a question of the amount of time available for reading. I read while I eat – breakfast and lunch each day.

If a book’s good, I can be tempted to extend lunch, but even then I only manage to read a couple of books a month, sometimes three.

Even if I extended lunch to five or seven courses, the temptation posed by the bewildering choice of authors and books would defeat me. Like many readers, I love discovering new authors, and often a series that gives me that extra magic in a story.

That extra magic

It’s usually a subject close to my heart, a plot that resonates at a deeper level, or a character that embodies similar values and beliefs to me. There’s usually a good sprinkling of humour and a distinct voice that makes the author stand out from the rest.

Must reads

I can only think of two authors whose books I have bought and read without hesitation.

Wilt Tom SharpeThe peerless Tom Sharpe had me laughing well into the night, forcing me to retreat under the covers so I didn’t wake everyone in the house. His ability to take a simple problem and escalate it to the scale of a nuclear war was unsurpassed. I wanted to write like him and make people cry with laughter.

Kinsey Millhone and I have an enduring relationship of over 30 years. It started the moment I opened A is for Alibi, the first of Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. Apart from Kinsey’s feisty attitude, her sense of humour shines through as she passes judgement on all kinds of human foibles and idiosyncrasies. There’s an intriguing backstory too.

New must reads

In recent years, I’ve discovered a few more crime authors who tick the boxes.

While I enjoyed Dead Simple by Peter James, the second in the Roy Grace series, Looking Good Dead, has captured my imagination and shown the great writing that led to him being voted top crime writer recently.

Robin Roughley, who writes the DS Lasser series, grabbed my attention in The Needle House, because of the great characterisation and realism that ran through the story. The second in the series, The Way that it Falls, confirmed what a terrific storyteller Robin is.

LJ Ross wowed me with the charismatic DCI Ryan in Holy Island, set on beautiful Lindisfarne, which still tingles in my memory from a visit there nearly ten years ago. The second story, Sycamore Gap, sits on my Kindle, waiting to be read.

And most recent of all, Rachel Amphlett grabbed me with Scared to Death and DS Kay Hunter, another strong, determined believable character with a no nonsense style. I’m looking forward to reading the second book, Will to Live.

Eat more

platterBut with all those books out there, intriguing reviews from the many bloggers I follow, and authors I’ve met through social media, I‘m constantly tempted away from the series I’d like to follow.

Maybe I’ll have to read while I’m eating my tea, or take a few more snacks during the day, maybe indulge in the occasional midnight feast …

It will mean more running to burn off the calories, but that’s a story for next time.

You can read my thoughts on most of the books mentioned in this blog on my Reviews page

Do you remember your first?

Earlier this week I had to think long and hard to remember the first crime novel I read.

Scared to Death coverAuthor, Rachel Amphlett, who writes the Kay Hunter series, posed the question in her latest email newsletter. Having just finished the first in the series, Scared to Death, I could have told her the last crime novel I’d read.

Instead, I had to travel back to my childhood when I plundered the school and local libraries in search of new fictional worlds to explore. The first books I remember reading were the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton, but they were adventure stories, not crime. So were the Secret Seven, also by Enid Blyton.

Then I remembered a conversation I had with the local librarian when I was about 11 or 12. Having exhausted the books I wanted to read in the children’s section, I stated to explore the much larger and more exciting adult library.

As a regular customer, the librarian knew me well and was willing to let me borrow from the adult library. However, she would make the final decision on whether the books I chose were suitable or not.

I’m sure she put many of my choices back on the shelves when I started, but I remember reading Ian Fleming’s James Bond books fairly soon after moving to the adult library. As I haven’t read them since, I don’t know how graphic or explicit they were to a young teenager, but I doubt if they count as crime novels.

The Murders on the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allan Poe, may well have been the first crime story I read, but a quick check on Amazon suggests it’s more short story than novel. The same could be said of Sherlock Holmes, though I read all the stories in the volumes written by Arthur Conan Doyle.

The first crime novel I know I read was Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. I was about 15 or 16 at the time, and beyond the censure of the librarian. The plot and ending stick in my mind because I thought they were clever and different.

Maybe that goes some way to explaining why I wanted to write something different in my crime fiction.

But Murder on the Orient Express doesn’t explain my interest in writing crime, specifically murder mysteries.

That accolade goes to Dick Francis, who I discovered in the 1990s. His no nonsense, direct style, often with a first person narrator, introduced me to thrillers. While I avoided his books about horse racing, the rest of his thrillers proved irresistible.

Simon Kernick then came along with his thriller, Relentless. It started at 70mph and got faster, leaving me breathless by the end. What a ride that was. And after devouring the rest of his thrillers and crime novels, I wanted to emulate him and Dick Francis.

My first attempts at writing Kent Fisher were pure Dick Francis. This is the opening paragraph to the first Kent Fisher novel I wrote, entitled Too Many Secrets.

My impulse to visit the Kubla Khan Hotel cost me my job, my marriage, and took me within inches of my life.  But I couldn’t ignore the body in the swimming pool.

But as I soon discovered, I was no Dick Francis.

Enter Sue Grafton and her Kinsey Millhone alphabet series. Her A, B and C novels were offered in a hardback volume that I bought for £1 as an introductory offer to a mail order book club. A is for Alibi had an intriguing ring about it and I soon warmed to the feisty, opinionated Californian detective, the first person narration, and gentle tone that often masked some fairly gritty themes and action.

That’s what I wanted to write – a murder mystery series with a strong, witty and opinionated central character.

It took me a while to develop the character and voice that gave rise to No Accident, but nowhere near as long as my journey from Murder on the Orient Express to the Dick Francis thrillers that made me want to write crime.

You can find out more about the Kent Fisher mysteries on my website and Amazon.

 

It’s a dog’s life

It’s late April at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. The sun’s beating down on a line of restless children, patiently waiting to meet their heroes. But there’s an adult sandwiched between Scooby Doo and Shaggy, laughing and joking with them, posing for a photograph.

Yep, that was me.

Scooby Doo Shaggy and Robert Crouch

I’ve loved Scooby Doo since he first appeared on British TV in the early 1970s. I was only 11 or 12 at the time, but I loved the adorable Great Dane that unmasked villains and never missed an opportunity for a Scooby snack.

Assisted by Shaggy, Daphne, Velma and Fred, Scooby Doo and the gang reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, updated and transposed to the USA.

The Famous Five stories were the first time I’d encountered a dog in fiction. Like many children, and adults, I’d sobbed a few tears watching Lassie struggle home, but I’d never read about a dog in a book before, certainly not one that was also a character.

Scooby DooMy love of Scooby Doo stayed with me over the years, prompting work colleagues to occasionally buy me mementos, like a Scooby Doo mug, which is filled with tea in front of me as I write this blog. I’ve also had various soft toys, pens, and a colouring book.

The Scooby with the nodding head travelled on the dashboard of my car for around four years early in the millennium, coming out on the district with me. When I had to change car, the sloping dashboard meant Scooby retired to the house, where he’s remained ever since.

Scooby even got a mention during a management training day I attended. When the tutor asked us to name our heroes and what made them special to us, I had no names to offer.

To me, heroes are the people who selflessly dedicate themselves to help the disadvantaged, out of the glare of publicity, and usually without financial reward or recognition. These are people like young carers who look after disabled parents, people who tirelessly raise funds for charities, those soup kitchens in the bitter cold of winter, or nurse injured animals through the night.

When the tutor insisted there must be someone who inspired me, I thought of Scooby Doo. ‘He’s unique, inventive, entertaining and he makes me laugh,’ I explained, characteristics I aspire to.

Harvey, our West Highland White Terrier, shares Scooby’s love of food. We met Harvey as a 10 week puppy on a farm near Arlington, about 10 miles inland from the South Coast. He was twice the size of his brother and two sisters.

We soon found out why when we got him home. He ate so fast he seemed to finish within seconds of us setting down his bowl. We’re sure he wolfed down his own food and then raided the other pups’ bowls.

harvey and trainer

Back at the farm, mother led her pups out of the barn and left along a path into the garden. Not Harvey. He turned right, exploring under a car, happy to do his own thing, ignoring the owner’s calls to join the others.

Now eleven, he’s still unique, inventive and entertaining. I’ve lost count of the times he’s made me laugh with his antics, especially his love of sleeping on top of the sofa.

harvey sleeping

I had to give him a part in the Kent Fisher mysteries, naming him Columbo after my other fictional favourite.

Columbo started as a rescue dog in No Accident the first Kent Fisher mystery. In the second, No Bodies, he plays a big part in defeating the killer. He’s an attentive listener, which means he’s the only one Kent confides in. They’re best mates, of course, but Columbo always goes where the treats are.

And his namesake, Lieutenant Columbo, had a laconic, but adorable, Bassett hound as his companion.

Why not comment below to tell me about your favourite fictional dog?


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Talking Crows

One of the more humiliating experiences of my childhood was reading aloud in class.

I’ve nothing against Shakespeare or Henry IV Part One, but at 15 I didn’t understand it. It was difficult enough, getting my head, let alone my tongue, around his rich prose, without the teacher bursting into fits of laughter.

‘Didn’t you get the joke, Crouch?’ He stared at me as if I was an imbecile. ‘Falstaff is the comic relief, the joker, and you’ve ruined most of his punchlines.’

I don’t remember any jokes. But then I didn’t get Shakespeare at the time, but that’s another story.

Since those long lost days of school, I haven’t read a story aloud in front of an audience.

Swearing an oath photoI’m not including my appearances in the witness box at the Magistrates Court when I had to swear that my evidence would be the truth etc. I should add before you wonder what offences I might have committed, that this was in connection with my enforcement work as an environmental health officer.

And I should also discount the Christmas cracker jokes I read out each year as I don’t class them as prose.

So, when I was asked to read at Eastbourne Book Festival last Saturday, memories of Henry IV Part 1 flashed through my mind.

No Accident coverFortunately, I was allowed to read from one of my novels. As I’m writing a murder mystery series, I chose to read the opening from Chapter One of my first novel, No Accident.  I wanted to show my audience how an environmental health officer could investigate murder.

Like most things in life, preparation is the key. So, a couple of days before, armed with a cup of tea, and my reading glasses, I settle into my chair and began to read. Within seconds, I stopped, realising I could have written a better first sentence. A few seconds later, I’d rewritten the first paragraph in my head.

Aware that I might end up rewriting large parts of the chapter, I ignored the revisions in my head and focused on the original script. With a steady pace and clear voice, I read aloud, warming to the task with each page turned.

It wasn’t long before I stumbled over my words.

When I wrote the ‘coarse cries of crows’, I thought it was a neat piece of alliteration. Not once did I realise what a tongue twister it could be.

I also found the occasional line that would improve the rhythm and flow if removed.  But they were nothing compared to the two long sentences that would have tested the stamina of a marathon runner.

harvey sleepingAt one point, Harvey, my West Highland White Terrier, came to listen. I don’t know whether he thought I might reward his interest with a treat, but within minutes he returned to his favourite position on the sofa and went back to sleep.

Not that he can complain.

I rarely read my work aloud, though I’m beginning to think it has some merit. On occasions, I will read dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds realistic. And I’m sure some writers like to shout that reading aloud is the best way to edit. They may well be right, of course.

After Harvey turned his back, I stopped reading and Googled breathing apparatus in case I needed help with the long sentences.

On the day, I took my copy of No Accident, my reading glasses, and headed for the reading room, hoping someone would want to listen to me. To my relief – sorry, delight – several people were already waiting.

I didn’t stumble over any words or crows. I managed to finish the long sentences without going purple and fainting. And no one interrupted me by laughing. Pity, because there were some funny one-liners in that opening.

Flushed with success, I’m now tempted to audition for voiceovers or programme announcement, citing Shakespeare in my CV. I could audition for audio book readings, cutting my teeth on my own novels. Trouble is, I’d probably have to revise some of those sentences.

No Bodies coverSo, I’ll settle for the occasional reading at a talk or event, as long as they don’t involve crows or marathons.

Reading aloud can bring your story to life and hopefully interest people in your writing. Maybe next time I’ll read from the second novel, No Bodies, which from memory doesn’t reference any crows.

There could be a ponderous procession of platitudes though.

But that’s another story …


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Being different is always the same.

 

When you go your own way there’s always a danger that no one will follow.

Fortunately, the Blog Tour for No Bodies, which finished last week, showed a lot of support and desire for something new and fresh. The positive feedback and reviews convinced me the risk was worth taking.

Yet when I started out, I had no idea of the challenges that come with doing something different. I focused on an idea, trying to refine the excitement and enthusiasm into something tangible. But it kept growing and evolving, developing a life of its own.

And that’s when I hit the first of many brick walls.

Crime fiction is packed to the rafters with police procedurals, serial killer thrillers, private detectives and psychological suspense stories. Is there any room for more of the same? Would something new be worth trying?

Inspector MorseBased on my love of Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, Columbo and Kinsey Millhone, I was looking at a traditional whodunit with a densely plotted, complex story that would keep readers guessing to the last page.

It would need a flawed central character that battled demons as well as the establishment and the baddies, and an intriguing backstory to add colour, depth and additional conflicts and challenges.

Most of all, it had to stand out from the other crime fiction out there.

But what did I know about the way the police worked or the procedures they followed? Could I describe an incident room, create realistic dialogue, incorporating the jargon they used? How did a patrol car handle? What about the hierarchies, the forms and paperwork?

As an environmental health officer (EHO), I’ve used the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), interviewed suspects under caution, taken witness statements and put together prosecutions. But these involved workplace accidents, food hygiene breaches and pollution complaints. Not murder.

It was clear I couldn’t write a police procedural to save my life.

But could an EHO investigate and solve a murder?

The idea took root. Two main challenges occupied my thoughts like squatters –

  1. How could I get an EHO to solve a murder that would be investigated by the police?
  2. What sort of character would the EHO have to be to solve a murder?

The answer to the first question was simple – don’t have a murder.

Okay, it flew in the face of most crime fiction, but I was looking for something new and fresh, unique maybe. If there’s no murder, there’s no police investigation. Another brick wall negotiated.

The second question vexed me for years. The character had to mix it with the bad guys, so I made him ex-army, even though I knew less about soldiers than police officer. He had to be a maverick, because that’s what readers like. He also had to be flawed, which proved to be an almost impossible challenge.

The world was full of crime fighters with lousy or broken marriages, problems with alcohol, and vices like gambling, drinking and smoking. Crime fighters were often bad tempered, demanding and difficult to work with, forever fighting personal battles. They ate badly, worked long and difficult hours, and inevitably bent the rules to solve the case.

My early attempts produced gung-ho characters, who took no nonsense from people or managers in pursuit of their principles.

Rambo would never walk into a restaurant kitchen, pull on a white coat and ask to see the temperature records for the fridges.

That introduced the third challenge – credibility. I couldn’t have an EHO breaking the rules, antagonising managers, colleagues and the public without some recourse. When would he find the time in his busy schedule to track down and interview witnesses or suspects? How would he record these activities on his time sheets? What would he tell his boss when she asked why he spent the whole of last Friday in a quarry?

But when I returned to the concept of having no murder, the answer was clear. What if my EHO investigated a fatal workplace accident, only to discover it’s a murder?

No AccidentNo Accident cover became the first Kent Fisher mystery, published in 2016 after many revisions and rewrites.

Along the way, Kent gained a friend who was an ex Scenes of Crime Officer, based on someone I get to know quite well. As Kent would bend rules and take liberties, I had to protect him from disciplinary action. Giving him a father, who was the local MP and a Cabinet Minister, meant managers and councillors were too scared of his father to take action against Kent.

WNo Bodies coverith nothing to stop him, Kent Fisher solved his first murder. His heroics meant he was available to solve more. This time an old friend of the family wants Kent to find his missing wife. Though the police believe she ran off with a dodgy caterer, Kent takes on the case in No Bodies.

No murder again. And caterers are bread and butter to EHOs, making it easy for Kent to investigate and follow the trail.

But it was far from an easy journey. Being different is always the same. People are cautious and reluctant to take you on. It’s difficult to assess demand and impact. But neither of these challenges is as difficult as finding a publisher that’s willing to consider something different.

But that’s another story.


If you’d like to find out more about the the Kent Fisher novels, please check out my Amazon Author page