It started with a simple question. It became something of a nightmare.
My first public speaking engagement as an author resulted from some welcome publicity in my local newspaper for my first novel, No Accident. Having trained food handlers as part of my day job as an environmental health officer (EHO) and spoken at seminars, I enjoyed talking to the public.
Or so I thought.
I’m given a rousing introduction by the chair person. I stand and make eye contact with the audience. They appear friendly and welcoming, listening intently to my biography. Growing confidence, I slip in some of the strange and amusing incidents I encountered as an EHO.
The audience have gathered, eagerly awaiting my words, keen to learn more about me and my novel. I’ve practised the talk a couple of times, refined the jokes till they’re word perfect.
Enjoying the laughter, I pause for a sip of water, ready to tell them about my book. I hold up a copy of the paperback, ready to explain how I got the idea and what inspired me to write the book.
A lady at the front raises her hand. “What’s your book about?”
Without hesitation, I say, “It’s about an ordinary bloke who solves murders. Complex murders like Agatha Christie.”
A librarian in the audience reminds me that Agatha Christie didn’t commit or solve murders, complex or otherwise. “She wrote books about people solving murders. Is that what you mean?”
I nod, realising I need to take more care. “I write traditional murder mysteries with lots of suspects and red herrings, like Agatha Christie, only set in today’s world.”
I glance down at my prompt notes, ready to return to my planned talk. The lady who asked the original question raises her hand once more. “But what’s your book about?”
“It’s a murder mystery.”
“That’s the type of story, the genre,” the librarian says. “You haven’t explained what the book’s about.”
I glance around the audience, hoping they want to move on, but they’re all waiting for me to respond.
The librarian continues. “To Kill a Mockingbird was about one man’s fight against racial oppression and injustice.”
Now I know I’m doomed. Comparing my writing to Agatha Christie was tempting fate, but my book can’t compete with a novel as hallowed as To Kill a Mockingbird. Whatever I say will pale against such an epic story. When I read it at the age of sixteen, it made me cry. It made me angry. It made me want to make the world better.
It made me want to write novels.
It takes me back to the time I created my central character, Kent Fisher. If he was going to solve murders, he could be a police officer, a private investigator or an amateur sleuth. Knowing only a little about police procedures and even less about being a PI, I plumped for the third alternative.
“My book’s about an environmental health officer who solves murders,” I tell my audience.
It seems to stop the rot. Most people have little idea what EHOs do. We’re known mainly for inspecting the hygiene standards in restaurants, cafés, pubs – anywhere that prepares or sells food or meals.
A woman looks up from her phone. “We had a noisy neighbour, so I called in the EHO. I could have murdered him. He kept telling us to fill in diary sheets when it was noisy. It’s always noisy, I said. The walls are paper thin.”
The amount of nodding tells me EHOs are not popular with this audience.
“If you murdered your noisy neighbour, would the environmental health officer investigate?” a man with executive glasses asks. “Is that what you’re saying?”
A discussion breaks out about neighbours who do their DIY until eleven o’clock in the evening, people who don’t clear up after their dogs, and people with tattoos. It appears I could have plots for several murder mysteries, judging by the strength of feeling in the room.
At least everyone seems to know what my book’s about. As calm returns, I return to my planned talk. “In my story, the EHO investigates a fatal work accident.”
The librarian sighs. “I thought you said it was a murder.”
“A murder disguised as a work accident.” I give her a knowing nod. “That’s why an EHO investigates, not the police.”
Noisy neighbour woman looks puzzled. “How did the EHO know the accident was a murder?”
“He didn’t. Not to start with. He thought it was a work accident, which is part of his job. If he suspected it was murder, he would have called the police.”
“You said he solved murders,” she says. “Now you’re saying he called the police.”
I draw a long, deep breath. “He didn’t work out it was murder for some time.”
The librarian chips in. “But when he did, why didn’t he call the police?”
“He didn’t have enough evidence to show it was murder.”
“Then how did he know it was murder?”
“Because it couldn’t be an accident.” I draw a breath, aware my voice is rising. “As it wasn’t suicide, that only leaves murder.”
“Or misadventure,” executive glasses man says.
Noisy neighbour woman isn’t going to be fobbed off. “So if it’s obviously murder, why didn’t he call in the police?”
“You’ll need to read the book to find out.” I take a sip of water, certain no one will buy a copy at the end of the talk. “I don’t want to spoil the plot.”
A woman with blue hair raises a finger. “If your EHO investigates the murder, wouldn’t he be in danger? It’s not like he has a stab vest or a van filled with police officers to protect him.”
“That’s what makes it more exciting,” I reply.
“Are you suggesting your EHO’s better than the police?” the librarian asks.
Noisy neighbour woman looks up once more. “The officer the police sent round when I was burgled looked like he’d just left school. He couldn’t have caught a cold.”
A few nods show some dissatisfaction with our local police force too.
“My character doesn’t think he’s better than the police. He knows the police will demand a high standard of evidence to substantiate his claims. All he has are a few discrepancies, details that don’t add up, the kind of clues Lieutenant Columbo used to latch onto. You remember him from the TV, don’t you?”
“I don’t have a TV,” the librarian replies. “If your EHO hasn’t got much evidence, how can he be sure it was murder rather than an accident?”
Someone calls out from the back. “The clue’s in the title. It’s called No Accident for a reason.”
Noisy Neighbour woman isn’t convinced. “Why isn’t it called, It’s Really Murder? Or Really Complex Murder? That’s what you said, isn’t it?”
Somehow, I find a smile. “It’s a classic whodunit.”
“Not a murder mystery then?”
After the talk, I sell one copy of No Accident. Someone’s grandmother has a birthday coming up. As people depart, the main discussion concerns people with tattoos, who breed pit bull terriers that bark all the time, especially when their owners play loud music at night.
Having learned my lesson, it’s time to make sure I don’t get caught out next time. It’s easy to think you know what your novel is about, but it’s the emotional impact it has on readers that will either make it appealing or not.
Back home, I try to tun my experience into a meaningful answer.
No Accident is about a man who risks his reputation, life and those closest to him to solve the perfect murder.
I couldn’t wait to try it out on the next audience. Unfortunately, they wanted more of my humorous environmental health anecdotes, like the one about Dr Windbreaker’s Fart Powder.
No need to ask what that was about.