A Killer Story
Author Stevyn Colgan’s new detective novel A Murder To Die For came out the end of January and Tripwire’s editor-in-chief JOEL MEADOWS spoke to him to find out more about this book and its follow-up, The Diabolical Club, currently being funded on Unbound…
TW. How much of your 30 year career in the police force helped you to write this book?
SC: The first and most obvious way is that I’ve been at real crime scenes and been involved in investigations into serious crime including homicide. It means that I know how cops operate (or, at least, how they operated up until eight years ago when I retired). Saying that, like most TV cop shows or novels, you have to bend the truth slightly to stoke up the action. Real investigation work can be quite dull – endless house to house enquiries or days of stake outs – so that sort of realism was kept to a minimum. Where my career helped most though was in creating the characters. There are five main police characters in the book and they are all based on people I once worked with or, like DI Blount, they are a kind of Frankenstein’s monster made from the worst personality traits of several people. Also, there’s a lifetime of funny stories and extraordinary experiences inside my 56 year old head and many of them have found their way onto the page.
TW: Which writers were the biggest influence on this book?
SC: The book is essentially a comedy based around a murder-mystery so it’s mostly comedy writers like P G Wodehouse, David Nobbs, George MacDonald Fraser, Sue Townsend, John Mortimer and Tom Sharpe that exerted the greatest influence. We seem to have lost the art of writing comic fiction in the past ten years – notably because we’ve lost many of our best comic writers. The deaths of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, the above-named writers and so many more has left a void that no one seems to have filled. I’d like to see people once again chuckling on their commute to work rather than reading misery memoirs and grip-lit.
TW: You have been working on novels for many years but this is the first one to actually get published. What was it about A Murder To Die For that got it out there on the shelves?
SC: Like any skill, fiction writing takes time to learn and to do well. Very occasionally someone produces a first novel that is a work of genius. It’s rare that they are able to follow-up with anything quite as good (although some obviously do), and it’s often the case that someone’s first, brilliant novel isn’t their first at all – it’s just the first that was published. That was the case with me. I’ve written 14 novels but it wasn’t until the 10th that I thought they were good enough. So then I decided it was time to have a go. Until then, all of my published work was non-fiction. And, to my delight, both my agent and publisher loved the book.
TW: Can you give us a one line description of the book itself?
SC: The chaos that ensues when a murder happens at a murder-mystery festival where the victim, the witnesses and probably the suspect are all cosplaying as a famous lady detective.
TW: This is your fourth book through Unbound. What is it about them as a publisher that connects with you as a writer?
SC: I loved the idea of Unbound from the start. Many traditional publishers have become so risk-averse that they won’t take a punt on an unknown author and they tend to stick to books by celebs or TV/film tie-ins etc. What Unbound does so well is give the power to decide which books get published to readers, rather than some faceless accountant. They’ve resurrected an old model – Dr Johnson crowdfunded his dictionary and Dickens published by public subscription – and brought it into the internet age. It’s made publishing more democratic and the books are always beautifully produced. Apart from the crowdfunding element, the service you get from Unbound is the same as you’d get from any other publisher: professional guidance, structural editing, copy editing, design, typesetting, publication, distribution, marketing and promotion etc. The only difference is that you raise the money for it by getting people to support the book – essentially pre-paying – rather than Unbound shelling out for it. Because they’re not gambling their finances they can make the books that they, and more importantly the public, want to read.
TW: What are the pros and cons of writing a book that will be published through a crowdfunding platform like Unbound?
SC: The obvious Pro is that Unbound has a catalogue that is wonderfully diverse and not just about celebs. That said, some major players have now done books with them including Jonathan Coe, Raymond Briggs, Terry Jones and even Dave Hill of Slade. Meanwhile, Unbound books that other publishers turned away have gone on to be bestsellers. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake was a Man Booker Prize Long Lister and has had the film rights scooped up by Mark Rylance. Rose Bretécher’s Pure is going to be a Channel 4 TV series. Many other Unbound books have won awards. They’ve also scooped ‘Book of the Year’ with The Good Immigrant. The Cons? The main one is the hateful drudgery of crowdfunding. It feels like pulling teeth at times and it’s soul-destroying when you see newer projects go whizzing by because that particular author has a good fan base. But once the crowdfunding phase is over, things switch back to traditional publishing and the fun begins again!
TW: How much is Millicent Cutter your version of Miss Marple?
SC: Millicent Cutter is the heroine of a series of books written by Agnes Crabbe – the fictional murder-mystery author around whom the plot of A Murder To Die For revolves. Although Cutter lives in the same era as Marple, she’s quite different. She’s younger, more risk-taking and is no stranger to the occasional romp with a swarthy spy or a lusty farmhand. She has a love/hate and occasionally physical relationship with her Nemesis, the Belgian superspy Florian Belfrage. Her fans – who make up the majority of the characters in the book – call themselves ‘Millies’ (the male fans are called ‘Manlies’) and many of them see Miss Cutter as a strong feminist icon and someone who lived the kind of exciting and occasionally racy life that they all wish they might have had. So, not very Marple-like.
TW: You have started to fund a new detective book, The Diabolical Club, which is a follow-up to A Murder To Die For. Do you see this as a series of books?
SC: There will be a series of books, all set in my fictional county of South Herewardshire, and they will all be comic novels. They won’t all be murder-mysteries; one involves a siege on an old people’s home and one is about a circus, for example. Four are written already and a fifth is plotted out and some characters will drift between books. I just love the idea of creating my own small universe, rather like the way that Tom Sharpe and P G Wodehouse did with their books. Characters from Sharpe’s Ancestral Vices get mentions in Grantchester Grind, and Wodehouse’s Psmith meets people from the Blandings Castle stories and is a member of Bertie Wooster’s beloved Drones Club. I love that.
TW: How much can you tell us about this new book?
SC: It’s 31% funded at time of this chat and the total is growing. I still need a lot more pledges though. It picks up on a loose strand from the first book – namely rumours of a ‘lost’ and unpublished Agnes Crabbe book – and builds a plot around it that takes in a philandering MP, the murder of a secretary from a prestigious girls’ boarding school, a mythical monster, an ancient secret society, a blindfolded skeleton, some inept animal rights activists and a dogging club. Expect the same mix of black humour and occasional slapstick.
TW: You worked on QI for the BBC for a number of years. How useful was that experience for you as a writer?
SC: QI was a very different discipline to writing a novel but great for sharpening my creativity and careful use of words. What I was employed to do was find interesting facts and then turn them into questions that gave the panel something to riff on. For example, we discovered that ostriches have a kind of natural radiator to keep them from overheating when running in the African sun. They hold water in their crops and rapidly pant. The water cools the blood in the lining of their mouth and throat and the brain just above. But you can’t just ask the question ‘How do ostriches keep cool when running?’ because the panel won’t have much to play with; they don’t get pre-loaded with the questions on QI like they do on some panel shows and it’s all improvised in real time. The question I came up with was ‘When is it cool to wet your pants?’ That gave them a lot more room to swing a funny story or a gag or two. But the main thing I’ve got from QI, apart from a much better idea of how TV is made, is hanging out with Britain’s best comedians and learning from them. I also worked on QI’s sister show The Museum of Curiosity for BBC Radio 4 and that, in many ways, was even more useful because the panellists weren’t just comedians. We had authors like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Clive James, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Jon Ronson on the show along with inspirational people like Daniel Tammet, Brian Eno, David Frost and even Buzz Aldrin. Talking to a guy who’s walked on the moon can’t help but broaden your horizons and inspire you to achieve the goals you set yourself.
A Murder To Die For is available now to order from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B072NZ1VR1/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 and in bookshops everywhere
The Diabolical Club is being funded now on Unbound: https://unbound.com/books/the-diabolical-club/