Decisions, decisions – First or Third

Authors are often advised to plan novels in a sequence, and if they manage that the books are then sub-titled after the main character, often a police officer: Inspector Bates #1, Inspector Bates #2, and so on. And this is good advice if you can take it.

My forthcoming paperback, Interleaved Lives, features Douglas Hunter, once a police officer, now a private detective.  The book is a first-person narrative, Douglas Hunter narrating. But when I began a sequel I found this a problem. If a character is telling the story one question always needs a clear answer – when describing events where he or she was not present, how does the narrator know what happened? The answer does not always need to be spelled out, as long as the author knows what it is and the reader can figure it out if he/she is so inclined.

Finding there were too many occasions when I couldn’t answer this question satisfactorily, I rewrote Interleaved Lives in the third person and began the sequel a second time. But I didn’t care for the result, abandoned the draft and reverted to the first-person version of the original. One reason for this was that I find writing in the first person more relaxing. Speaking rather than writing.

So rewriting the book in the third person was a waste of time and effort, but I consoled myself with the thought that Count Tolstoy began a novel on Peter 1 thirty-three times before giving up on the idea. (I am indebted to Elizabeth for this information, gleaned from her excellent blog https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/).

More recently, Patricia Cornwell has written some books in her Kay Scarpetta series in the first person and others in the third. But she is licensed to fly a helicopter and is high profile enough to get away with it. And there is also the case of John Irving who, on the advice of his wife, translated his novel Until I find You, from the first to the third. Given the great length of this book, a mammoth task.

However, as far as continuity goes, I can claim to have a fall-back position. A main character in Interleaved Lives, DS Maureen MacNeil, appears in a previous book, Time to Talk, as does Douglas Hunter, though in a more minor role. So perhaps I can claim that the present title is itself a sequel. Sneaky, right?

Published by Eventispress, this title is now live:

mybook.to/InterleavedLives

The Thursday Murder Club

This is the title of a book by Richard Osman. For those of you who might not know, Osman is a TV Personality, appearing in UK game shows such as Pointless.

Here is the publisher’s description of the book.

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet weekly in the Jigsaw Room to discuss unsolved crimes; together they call themselves the Thursday Murder Club.

When a local developer is found dead with a mysterious photograph left next to the body, the Thursday Murder Club suddenly find themselves in the middle of their first live case.

As the bodies begin to pile up, can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer, before it’s too late?

This post is a review, but only up to a point since I have another angle here. The book has already sold in large numbers, so my comments will not affect its success in any way. Be that as it may, having read about a third of it I put it aside for several weeks. I found the crime elements over-complicated and uninvolving – I didn’t really care who had murdered whom or whether our four golden oldies would figure it out in the end. But where it scored was in its portrayal of the retired individuals who were trying to make sense of it all. We are given them in the third person, save only for Joyce, a retired nurse who keeps a diary from the pages of which she addresses us directly as if engaging us in conversation. For me, the real centre of interest lies in the characters rather than the plot, which is surely preferably to an ingenious plot carried forward by cardboard characters.

Osman is to be congratulated on noticing, before reaching an age where he can experience it for himself, that older people still have emotions. Some authors have achieved this in the past, Ring Lardner for example. Remember him, I hope so? But Osman does it very well. Another area where he excels is reading the signs of the times. Not all old people could afford to live in Coopers Chase, a retirement complex specifically intended for the relatively well-to-do. But in conveying the details of this complex and its residents, the narrative can become a bit too whimsical for my taste, though an excellent source for social scientists.

The development is situated in the grounds of an old convent, which leads to one of the murders.

The old convent dominates Coopers Chase, with three modern residential developments spiralling out from this central point. For over a hundred years the convent was a hushed building, filled with the dry bustle of habits and the quiet certainty of prayers offered and answered. Tapping along its dark corridors you would have found some women comfortable in their serenity, some women frightened of a speeding world, some women hiding, some women proving a vague, long-forgotten point and some women taking joy in serving a higher purpose.

And because of this, the ground contains a graveyard where departed sisters have been laid to rest.

And then one day you would take the short trip up the hill, through the tunnel of trees, to the Garden of Eternal Rest – the iron gates and low stone walls of the Garden looking over the convent and the endless beauty of the Kentish High Weald beyond, your body in another single bed, under a simple stone, alongside the Sister Margarets and Sister Marys of the generations before you. If you had once had dreams they could now play over the green hills, and if you had secrets then they were kept safe inside.

As might be expected, the developer wants to ‘develop’ the entire site, graveyard included. This raises certain questions, from the simple – do we really want to dig up dead nuns for housing? – to heavy theological questions relating to the resurrection of the flesh which, not wishing to fry what’s left of my brain, I will neatly side-step. But be it noted, the developer who intends this desecration is duly bumped off before he can bring it about.

The reason I find this storyline so interesting is that my wife and I, in real life, live in the grounds of an old convent. The order in question has gone under various related names but I will refer to them as the Poor Clares. I still remember the days when they sold eggs at the convent gate.

Since the sisters who lived here suffered the same fate as those in the book, our site also contains a graveyard.

But as in the book, the developer wanted to build on this ground too, and was supported by the arch-diocese, which proposed to go along with this plan, presumably to further swell their coffers. This caused outrage at the time. Fortunately, the City Council took legal action to protect the departed sisters both from the developer and their dubious co-religionists.

Little note. In reading up about the Poor Clares I constanly found their places of residence referred to as monasteries, which I had thought were inhabited by monks rather than nuns. But since everyone round here has used the word ‘convent’ for decades I am sticking with what I am accustomed to. And, as Mrs Slocombe used to say, I am unanimous in that.

All is Revealed

You can’t tell a book by it’s cover. This well-known saying is sometimes true, but not always. I dimly remember scenes from an old film where a passenger in a railway carriage, male of course, concealed the pornography he was looking at behind a worthy cover. The Bible perhaps. But publishers would prefer that you could tell a book from its cover since they want to market their titles and knowing what genre a book is helps them in this.

Writers have complete control of the text, but unless they are artists as well their publishers may come up with cover designs they don’t care for but can’t do much about. To avoid this, they might commission artwork directly.

My first attempt at recruitiing a designer produced a cover for Interleaved Lives which completely ignored every word of the brief (shown in a previous post), so I tried a second designer who did his level best to fulfil it.


I liked what he had come up with, but while the publisher felt that his design had its good points they also felt it was not effective for the genre in question, namely crime. So after a week or two I found myself looking at a cover design they supplied.

And I could see what they meant. The publisher’s cover clearly shows that the book is in the crime genre and gives an indication of the content. Even more surprising to me, the artist explained his design by referring to the text. Since keeping an eye on a suspect from a car was not referred to in the blurb or the synopsis, he had actually read it!

So this is the cover I’m going with.

Cast Iron Alibis

I haven’t looked it up, but assume this phrase comes from the fact that cast iron is very strong and therefore hard to break.

Having had many encounters with cast iron over the years I can confirm that it is strong, but also that it rusts over the years. In the case of gutters, many proud house owners will paint the exterior and seen from the ground they look great! But as a rule they will not check the interior, invisible from the ground, where the water flows and also where it stands for long periods. Why does it do this? Sometimes the gutter is not completely horizontal on its way to the downpipe, other times it faces obstacles such as autumn leaves or, very often, grass and other plants finding a wet gutter offers a happy home.

It’s when things go wrong that we discover how hard/impossible cast iron is to work with. There is absolutely no give in it and it is also brittle and easy to break if you try too hard. It can be cut with an angle grinder, thoough. The most I have ever been able to do is patch it, provided the hole made by the rust is not too large.

A case in point. On my way to visit my daughter I pass a house with a cast iron problem. As may easily be seen most of the water does not make it all the way down the pipe, and the wall won’t like that. On a rainy day, neither will passers by.

Cast Iron 1But even if it did make it all the way to the ground, it hits another problem.

Cast Iron 2How did this pipe end up in such a bad condition? I don’t know, of course, but I can guess. It may have been where it is now since 1897 and age has taken its toll. (Know the feeling!) Another possibility is that the drain is entirely or partially  blocked below ground level. This will mean water filling the downpipe for hours, days , weeks, because it can’t run away. And this will lead to rust.

For this here pipe there is no hope. And if you’ve just bumped off your husband or wife, the same will be true of your cast iron alibi.

As for cast iron guarantees . . .

Filming Books

Books have been adapted for film and television for decades with varying degrees of success. Genres such as fantasy and crime have been popular: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and recently His Dark Materials. On the crime front, we have had multiple versions of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, the Wallander novels of Henning Mankel, (two in Swedish and one in English), and one of the Montalbano books of Andrea Camilleri (in Italian).

Classics have been popular for the treatment too, from Jane Austen, through George Eliot, Thackeray and Dickens, to EM Forster, John Irving and many others. Adaptations of solid books like these provide welcome opportunities for acting talent (Helena Bonham Carter, for example) who usually do very well by them. And it may be that film and TV versions provide the only exposure to these books for some.

But the question will often arise, How faithful is the adaptation to the original?  Because there are purists out there who will contest any departure from the books they hold dear even if the change might result in a possible improvement or be necessary to render it in visual terms at all.

Here in the UK, we have recently had yet another version of The War of the Worlds, by HG Wells. Those who study such things report that the script has taken significant liberties with the text. Why would anyone do this? Suggestions include making the original appear more relevant to the present day, and to spice things up with ‘love interest’ where there was none before.

Changes like these are probably not be unusual. Think of the fun a post-graduate student could have watching all those films and TV series then comparing them to the books on which they’re based. If I were younger than I am today . . . I still wouldn’t consider it. The task would take years and life is too short.

But what if, instead of taking liberties, the film or TV version is completely faithful to the text, surely that will be enough to guarantee success? I think this will depend on several things. Is the text worth being faithful to in the first place? The recent TV version of His Dark Materials is a genuine attempt to put across the original and much labour has clearly been expended on it. Yet I failed to find it involving – exactly the same reaction I had to the book. (I expect to be in a minority here and shot down in flames by a talking bear or a squadron of witch-archers flying overhead with bows and arrows.)

At the other end of the scale (for me) is Italian TV’s version of my Brilliant Friend. This, too, is exceptionally faithful to the book, required an astonishing amount of hard graft but works very well in conveying not just the characters, of which there are many, but the place where it all happens. Naples.

To end with a tricky one. Where much of the effect a book has on the reader is due to its prose style we will have a serious problem adapting it for the screen. If the narration is first person then much of the flowing prose may still be supplied –  by members of the cast, sometimes in person so to speak, more frequently through voice-over. But if the original is written in the third person there is no obvious solution.

Fortunately, there is no obvious problem either, because it is not compulsory to adapt a novel for the screen. Leaving well alone is always an option.

 

 

The Ears of a Cat

This novel was due to come out on January 28th, 2020, but the publisher stole a march on me big time by bringing forward the date to November 28th, 2019 then publishing it even ahead of that. A planned launch during the first week of February has therefore been abandoned. The paperback is on sale through the websites of Amazon, plus those of major UK retailers such as Waterstone’s and Blackwells (who are offering it for sale at a discount of £1). Physical copies are already available in Blackwells Cambridge and Edinburgh stores.

While all this is good, I have been badly caught on the hop with respect to reviews, so if anyone out there would like to review it, I will do what I can to help. For example, I could have the publisher send a paperback to your preferred address. The eBook is readily available for any reader/reviewer outwith the UK.

To give a flavour of what to expect, here is the publisher’s press release. Apart from the “dizzying pace” it is pretty accurate.

Press Release

With buckets of black humour and a dizzying pace that pulls the reader to the final page, Roderick Hart’s latest novel is set in the near-future in a world very like our own where population expansion has become a serious issue…

To the well-meaning people of Future World the problem is obvious: too many people. However, so is the solution: eliminate as many of their fellow human beings as they can – though for Catherine Cooper, Cindy Horváth and Gina Saito, this is easier said than done… at least until they get their hands on a bird flu virus made lethal in the lab.

But as they work out how to use it to the most devastating effect, the German security service gets wind of their intention, as does an unscrupulous freelance agent from the United States. Following a succession of bizarre events, including a conversation with a cat, a fractured penis and the testimony of a Japanese sex doll, only the last woman standing, fish-whisperer Gina Saito, can hope to bring it off. Yet she knows full well this will lead to an agonizing death on foreign soil.

The underlying issue in the book, no matter how comedic Roderick has made the novel, is one that is a real concern to him. “My ‘inspiration’ was a deep-seated pessimism about the way the human race is going,” he states. “I approached this through a narrative involving people feeling the same way but who, unlike me, actually try to do something about it, to improve on the current situation by bumping off as many people as possible. After all, the easiest way to reduce carbon footprints is to reduce the number of feet.”

Set in Berlin, Los Angeles, England and Japan, the unfolding events show that having a plan isn’t enough: good intentions can lead to ludicrous results and, ultimately, death.

RELEASE DATE: 28 November 2019

ISBN: 9781838591441 Price: £ 8.99

Author Bios

I have some trouble with these. They are usually in the third person, yet we know they have been written by the author. It feels a bit false to me, writing about yourself as if a third party is doing it,

Why is this a concern?  I’m putting the finishing touches to a crime novel and realized my previous bio wouldn’t do. I have drafted a new one in the first person. Can I get away with this, or is the word on the literary street that I should  convert to the third?

Just wondering.

________________________________________________________

I have traveled through Afghanistan, made bubble gum in Philadelphia and published poetry, some of it anthologized. Several years ago I turned to fiction, finding it a natural fit for a comic sense of life. I live with my wife in a old farmhouse gradually being surrounded by developers who take no account of the needs of wildlife. Since that includes me, I’ve turned to crime.

Technology in Fiction

Technology exists. Writing a novel without referring to it can be done but isn’t easy. I have just completed the first draft of a novel which could be classified as crime fiction and there was no evading it.

In those chapters involving mobile phones, computers, tracking devices and so on, I went into far too much detail.  Why? I was making sure that what I was describing would work. For my own reassurance, I had to follow through on all the moves.

But technology in itself is tedious. (I have sometimes found this in novels by Patricia Cornwell and others.)  The real interest in narrative fiction lies in what people do and why they do it. So now that I have begun revising, I find I am paring down technology references to the bare essentials to avoid falling into a deep sleep.

This may be what I should have done in the first place – it would have saved me a lot of work – but I had to know that what I was describing was possible and found an amazingly inefficient way to do it.

And what is true for technology may well be true of other areas as well – including the amount of detail devoted to post postmortems and the exact specifications of the handguns, rifles, bazookas and crossbows which caused the body to be on the slab in the first place.

So why do some authors do this? Not to reassure themselves but to convince the reader of their expertise. And also to give an authentic feel to the story – this is exactly the way it was. And if their readers like it, who could quarrel with that?