YOU COULD DIE LAUGHING

With a deadline looming for the new Bev Morriss novel, I asked a colleague from my radio days if he’d sit in my blog seat this month. So over to . . . Adrian Juste.

Hat

As someone who’s spent a lifetime writing comedy, I’ve always admired the work of the ‘serious’ scribe. A crime writer could invariably do comedy, but it’s far harder the other way round. Some of the gags I’ve committed to print over the years might be verging on the criminal, but that’s the closest I got!

When Maureen asked if I’d like to do a piece here, it got me thinking: our respective styles aren’t the polar opposites you might imagine.  Humour is a very useful tool for the crime writer: I liken it to sea fishing – you release a bit of line with a tension-busting gag, then slowly wind the reader back in again.

And repeat.

It’s that cadence that keeps them hooked.

Television too has always known about laughter in dark places: The best TV cop shows have always used it to great effect.

The Americans started the ball rolling in the ‘70s with assorted detectives in flasher Macs, overweight ones, bald ones crunching lollipops, and even one on horseback !

They certainly weren’t taking it seriously.

columbo

And of course, Peter Falk had things easy – his villains invariably nestled in the sumptuous Rodeo Drive end of Beverly Hills.

I’m sure Maureen would have loved writing for that . . .  cold-blooded murder doesn’t have quite the same resonance in a Kings Heath chippie !!

While all that was going on, back here in the UK the vaguely gritty tenor of Z-Cars was laid to rest as TV turned towards pure grit with the heightened realism of Thames’ blockbuster The Sweeney – another series tempered with comedy . . . bad-tempered comedy!

If you’re of an age, who can forget grouchy Jack Regan spitting out the classic line: Get your trousers on – you’re nicked or, We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner – both delivered with the venom-ometer set to 11.

But those tetchy barbs still provided light relief from the violent wages blags and non-stop boozing and carousing which occurred on ‘the manor’ back then.

Sweeney

The 80s proved a rather fallow period for good crime series here in Britain; but Hollywood’s hit factory was on a roll, with biggies such as Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and Cagney & Lacey.

We rolled over, countering feebly with The Bill – which turned into a soap opera, with the consequence all villains Sun Hill way kept their trousers on before being nicked.

Thankfully the 90s proved more fertile ground for the crime writer.

We were treated to David Jason balancing his distinguished comedy background against the ‘legit’ role of maverick DI Frost in A Touch Of . . .

Frost

Played for more laughs than creator Rodney Wingfield ever intended, running gags came aplenty: we had the office radiator which only worked with a well-timed kick, and the stuffed mullet on Frost’s wall (a nod to his straight-laced Superintendent of that name).

But two really amusing scenes spring to mind: the time Jason was confronted by a twelve-foot ’gator at an exotic animal dealer’s home, which saw our hero scrambling to safety atop a high fence, and getting on the radio to shout: It’s Frost! We’ve got an alligator chasing us! Get the exotic animal unit down here – and make it snappy.  Corny, but what writer would leave it out!

Or the time he was investigating a murder, the trail of which had led to a crypt. He radioed back to HQ: Tell George I’ve found a dead body in the cemetery – and when he’s stopped laughing, tell him to get down here pronto.   

 Again, it’s that well-aimed use of laughter to break the tension; a convenient emotional turntable before you start ramping the plot up again.

More recently, a series I’m ashamed to say I’ve just got into is New Tricks – with the original cast.  It started to wobble a bit for me after James Bolam and Alun Armstrong quit.

NewTricks

The writing here is wonderful. A favourite scene is where wrinkly computer whizz Brian Lane is barred from investigating a case and ordered to keep away, but his two middle-aged compatriots conspire to sneak him into the hotel just the same – as blokes do!

Their feisty boss DS Sandra Pullman discovers they’ve been smuggling bits of their breakfast into his room, and when she discovers one of the guys bringing a cup of tea in to him, erupts into Krakatoa mode. After giving them a protracted and emphatic piece of her mind about how she’s dealing with a bunch of children, she sweeps out. As she slams the door behind her, Brian Lane turns to Bolam’s character and whispers in a line timed to perfection: Did you bring any milk?

As with criminal plots, comedy works best when given an unexpected twist . . .

Maureen has always had a good eye for TV drama, and earlier this year steered me towards Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley.

Sadly I, along with many other viewers, struggled with the sound of this production, and had to really concentrate – and often replay scenes to catch what was going on. Maureen appears blessed with bat-like hearing, as she heard every word and couldn’t understand my protests.

Us lesser mortals really did struggle to keep up.

ear

But it’s an ill wind . . . so when Bev Morriss DOES make it onto TV, this new way of doing cop drama may be no bad thing.

Let’s imagine the script . . .

Bev was right, the frenzied attack HAD taken place in the East Midlands – and the main witness sitting across from her was nervous and sweaty; she’d obviously given up her Pilates membership for Lent some years back and hadn’t renewed, taking the fitness to fatness route by dialling in to the pizza and kebab programme.

The large tattoo on her upper arm glistened as the sun shone through the crack of the interview room window, beads of moisture had formed on her brow and top lip.

This was obviously the gal who’d put the Leicester in cholesterol.

Bev re-established eye contact and said: One last time, Leanne, who was with you that night? 

Well, if you must know, cozzer – it was Mmmpphhmmwrrdy . . .   

Plot lines? Character development? Why knock yourself out if no one’s able to hear it?!

Hey! Thanks to trendy TV production, crime writing just got easy . . . !

 

 

 

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WRITE ON OR WRESTLE WITH?

I’m talking words – get them right or get them down? I ask because recently I spent rather too much time playing Oscar Wilde’s Comma. You recall his dilemma?

oscar

Unlike Oscar, I tinkered with more than the odd comma. I tussled with an entire sequence.

As in . . .

I’m about halfway through writing the the next book in my Bev Morriss crime series. The deadline’s the end of June. As per, I aim to hit a daily daily word count but last month several days went by when no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the words down.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I could. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of words but not les mots justes – they just weren’t singing off the page. To misquote Eric Morecambe, it was a case of all the right words but not necessarily in the right order. Or maybe they were the wrong words in the wrong order.

Whatever, they just didn’t work.

snoopy better

I rewrote the sequence countless times, spent ages reworking, fine-tuning and still it didn’t read, look or sound right. A lot of writers do this, of course. It’s certainly the way I work but not to the extent I had to recently.  And that’s the operative phrase: had to. 

As an author, I’ve never been able to move on to the next passage, even paragraph, until I’m as happy as I can be with the one I’m writing. I know it’s down to the years I spent in TV journalism.

tv report

Every news story I covered, I had to edit, edit and edit until it was right. It had to come in at the correct length and it had to come in on time. Only then could I let it go and move on. I’ve been a fiction writer for fifteen years now and constantly editing is still the way I work.

But, is it the best way?

Since my Oscar experience, I’ve been giving it some serious thought. Was the later version of the passage I’d struggled with for hours and hours really that much sharper? Did the first version not have a fresher feel? Did it not flow equally as well, if not – whisper it – even a little better?  Had I been over-thinking, over-writing? I was certainly overwrought.

Out of interest, I asked a writer friend to cast an eye over both versions. We’re in almost daily touch and share highs and lows (meaning, keep each other sane) and she was well aware I’d been having a hard time. Anyway, I asked her verdict.

Before revealing it, here are two slightly shorter versions of the passages she read.  Bear in mind they’re both early drafts and neither will make it to the book.

 1

‘They live in Bourneville, gaffer. I’m heading out there now with, Tyler.’ Kay Henderson had barely been able to string two words together on the phone. Bev knew a face-to-face would be more effective and if her instinct was on the money, quicker in the long run. She had an inkling the Henderson girl had paid a heavy price for shooting her mouth off. The ultimate. If that was the case, they needed the mother to open up, soon as.

         Having collared Mac in the car park, she’d brought him up to speed as they walked back to the motor. She’d badly needed his chauffeuring services, so she could do some serious detecting en route via the phone. Now she’d accrued a bit more info, she’d just put Powell in the picture.

          ‘So you’re saying this Gemma bird’s got form?’ The DI sounded a tad sceptical; probably thought she was going out of her way to miss the early brief.  But when did the blond ever listen properly? 

          ‘I’m saying if it’s who I think it is she made a false accusation a few years ago that landed a guy in court.’ Bev was still waiting for Terry, a mate on the West Mercia force, to get back with confirmation of the girl’s identity. In the meantime, she was scrolling on-line newspaper reports to refresh her memory. She and Tel had discussed the case in the run-up to the trial and she was ninety per cent sure she’d heard him mention the name, Gemma.

        The Gemma in question had a habit of telling fairy stories. Quite the serial offender. Little Miss Anonymous in the media had got off lightly but the same couldn’t be said for the teacher she targeted. He’d very nearly been sent down before the truth – make that the fantasies – came to light.

2

Could rush hour traffic get any louder?

          ‘Bristol did you say, Morriss?’

          Frowning, Bev clamped the handset tighter to her ear.  ‘No, gaffer, Bourneville. It’s where the family live.’             

        Moira Henderson had barely been able to string two words together on the phone. Bev knew a face-to-face would be more productive and if her instinct was on the money, getting out there now would be a damn sight quicker in the long run. As she’d tried telling Powell – she had an inkling the daughter had paid big time for shooting her mouth off. Either way they needed to get the mother talking, soon as.

           ‘Are you saying this Gemma bird’s got form?’ Powell sounded a tad sceptical; probably thought she’d do anything to avoid the early brief. Her and Mac both. She’d collared him in the car park before he even set foot in the nick. Mac was doing the driving honours while Bev did some homework on the phone.       

          ‘I’m saying if it’s who I think it is she made a false accusation a few years ago that landed a guy in court.’

         The case had been West Mercia’s baby; Bev was still matey with one of the detectives who’d been on the inquiry. She’d messaged Tel the sixty-nine thousand dollar question, and was waiting for an answer. Tel had been well hacked off when the trial collapsed, called the girl all the names under the sun, including – if Bev recalled rightly – Gemma Henderson. 

        ‘And you’re thinking this Aiden bloke’s waited till now for payback?’ Powell sniffed. ‘Sounds pretty unlikely to me.’

          ‘You might be right, gaffer.’ Always a first time.  ‘Won’t know till we’ve checked, will we?’

    What Bev did know was that the Gemma she had in mind had a habit of telling fairy stories.  Little Miss Anonymous in the media had got off lightly considering she’d spun a web of lies. Unlike the guy she’d vilified. Apart from having his reputation shredded, Aiden Manners had very nearly lost his liberty before the truth – and fantasies – came to light.

 

So which version did my author friend prefer? The first. Her thinking? That it had the edge in pace and focus. I have to say neither version really did it for me, and I agonised a while more until feeling happy enough to move on. Still I found it an interesting experiment, hardly scientific, but it certainly made me question further the way I work.

edit

The bottom line is – I know I won’t change. Probably, can’t. Not least because other factors come into play.  I feel if a sequence is wrong it can have a knock-on effect on the next and the next and so on. Plus I’d hate to get to the end of a book knowing there are sections that aren’t right and that serious work’s needed to fix them.

Not, I hasten to add, that I’m ever completely happy with a book when it’s finished. Is any author? I fine-tooth comb the script several times, editing and tightening yet again.  But when it’s ready to go to my editor, at least I know that – as far as I can – I’ll have hit the right notes in just about the right order.

Until the edit comes back.

To finish – two of my favourite quotes on writing.

 

And as for Mr Hemingway’s words . . . I couldn’t put it better myself.

rewrite

THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT . . .

DOES SIZE MATTER?

criminal crop

Six years ago I was asked to contribute a short story to an anthology of crime fiction. The book would be sold in aid of charity and my then publisher thought it would be a good opportunity to showcase my series detective. Helping cancer research and introducing DS Bev Morriss to a wider audience? What’s not to like? I jumped at the chance.

I’d also add that having written five books in the series by then, coming up with a short story didn’t strike me as a big ask.

Don’t shoot me down in flames. I’m not suggesting for a second that short stories are easy to write.  In some ways, they need similar discipline and focus as full-length fiction. But, for me, novels are long haul not short hop. I find working on them more demanding and considerably more difficult. They need a different approach, and I have to make a bigger commitment – many months not several days.

It's what I do . . .

Not everyone sees it that way. I once had a heated debate with a woman who was absolutely adamant that short stories were harder to write and needed more skill and imagination from the author. Nothing I said budged her opinion an iota.  How much experience did she have, I hear you ask?  She’d not produced a word of fiction in her life.  I shrugged mental shoulders and moved on. Each to their own – that’s fine by me.

The anthology’s available via Amazon and here’s my offering, should you wish to read it. Before The Fall is still the only short fiction in which Bev appears.  Maybe I should rename it, Morriss Minor?

BEFORE THE FALL

‘Thank God you’re here, sarge. He’s threatening to jump.’

A line of sweat glistened above the young officer’s lean top lip; his voice held an uncharacteristic catch. Detective Sergeant Bev Morriss divined the signs. For rookie PC Daniel Rees this was a first: pavement huggers as they’re known in the trade.

‘Over my dead body,’ she muttered. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder on a patch of slightly tacky tarmac. Squinting against the fierce midday sun, Bev’s gaze followed the none-too-steady line of Rees’s finger. Her strikingly blue eyes put the azure sky in the shade. Not that she was aware of that – she’d blanked everything bar the young man hunkered on a flat roof four floors up, trainers just jutting over the edge.

‘What d’we know, Danny?’

‘Not a lot.’ Rees turned his mouth down. ‘Says he’ll take a dive if anyone goes near. He was chucking bricks a minute ago.’

Hand shielding her eyes, Bev focused on the hunched figure. Playing in her head were various ways the incident could pan out. ‘How long’s he been up there?’ She caught her breath surreptitiously. The sprint from the hastily abandoned police motor now straddling a near-distance kerb, had led her to make a mental note or three: join a gym, re-join old gym, attend any gym. Rees was fitter than a surfing whippet.

‘Not had time to ask around yet, sarge.’ The hankie he dabbed round his neck was already damp. Summer in the second city.  Constable Rees – tall and dark – was losing his cool. ‘We got the call-out ten-twelve minutes back.’

She nodded, knew that the ‘we’ included fire and ambulance crews on standby down the road. She’d clocked them as she cruised past looking for a space. The alert had gone out over the police radio, Bev happened to be in the vicinity, offered to take a look. Her partner Mac Tyler was hooking up, soon as. The turnout might be over-kill but, better safe . . .

It wouldn’t be pretty if Batboy spread his non-existent wings. The mean-looking pebbledash structure wasn’t one of Small Heath’s poxy high rises, but taking four floors without a lift wasn’t a good move.

‘One of this lot might know something.’ Rees jabbed a thumb over his epaulette. Gawpers were gathering behind a police cordon that was still being erected round the ugly squat block. Bev presumed the defunct building had housed council offices, tenant support, something of that ilk. Whatever, the show was gratis and the audience was rapt.

‘Spectator sport, Danny.’ She delved in a voluminous bag for aviator shades. ‘Free fall . . . better than the Olympics.’

Sunglasses in situ, she checked out the crowd. Several faces and craned necks were vaguely familiar. The Coppice estate – known round Highgate nick as the cop-it – was little more than an annexe to Winson Green prison. She noted a couple of uniforms mingling with the jobless, feckless and, in at least two cases, legless voyeurs. The officers were jotting names, numbers, addresses, covering the basics. Anything earth-shattering would be filtered back pronto.  Earth-shattering? Maybe not.

‘I reckon he wants his mam.’ The grating vocals emanated from behind. Bev and Rees whipped round so fast they almost collided. An old woman had slipped through the police tape and now stared skywards, scrawny arms folded tight across a faded Playgirl T-shirt.  Her rust coloured perm framed a face like a sepia doily.

‘No worries. We can sort that . . . Mrs . . .?’ Bev paused but her prompt was ignored. The old dear hadn’t wrested her glassy-eyed gaze from the roof. Bev registered fluffy mauve slippers and thick Norah Batty tights. Wrinkles must live close by, probably one of Batboy’s neighbours, which meant a squad car could whisk the mother to the scene before you could say trained negotiator.  Bev rubbed her hands. Sorted.

The old woman gave a derisive sniff.  ‘She’s gone AWOL.’

Or maybe not. She stifled a sigh. ‘I’m DS Morriss. Bev Morriss.’ She flashed her trust-me-I’m-a-detective smile. ‘And you are . . .?’

‘Six kids. And she buggers off just like that.’ Fingers clicked like snapping twigs.

A tinny Green Sleeves issued from an ice cream van; frying-onion-odour wafted in the sultry air. Bev took a calming breath. ‘Look, love,’ she said, tapping the woman’s arm. ‘If you can just give us . . .’

‘Be with some bloke.’ Dazzling dentures had come adrift. A darting worm of a tongue nudged them back in line.

Bev’s fists were balled. The clock was ticking and the Jammy Dodger wannabe was still up there. ‘If you can just give us the boy’s name, love.’ Priority. Establish communication. Forge a rapport. Police procedure. Common sense, really.

‘Cheap tart.’ The old woman could’ve been talking to herself.

‘Enough already.’ Bev stowed the sunglasses in her Guinness coloured bob. ‘Give, lady. Who’s the lad? Where’s he from? What the freak’s he playing at?’

Wrinkles blithely curled a crimped lip. Bev moved in close, recoiled at eau de old lady.  ‘Listen up, grandma. If that kid jumps . . . on your head be it.’ Rapid blink. Mental cringe. I can’t believe I said that.

‘Yeah, well, that’s one way o’ putting it.’ The flicker of a grin crossed the old girl’s lace-face. Bev’s stunning oratory had won the booby prize: Wrinkles looked as if she was about to share.

Or might have – but for a communal gasp from the crowd. Twenty plus heads angled back. The youth, now standing, teetered precariously, arms flailing, baggy combats flapping. Put Bev in mind of an octopus on heat. Like she’d know. Then a glint from a Zippo lying on the gravel caught her glance, and a pack of Embassy shot overhead. Didn’t take Sherlock. Some joker on the ground must’ve thought Batboy needed a smoke. The lighter had been lobbed first, grabbing for it had almost sent the lad over the edge. When balance was restored, the crowd’s released breath could have powered a wind farm.

‘Knock it on the head you lot,’ Bev yelled. ‘Go and have a word, Danny. You were saying, Mrs . . .?’

‘Parton. Dolly. And ’fore you ask . . . I don’t sing.’

Thank God. ‘And the kid is?’

‘Kevin Skipton. His mates call him Skippy.’ A not helpful image sprang to mind – Bev  banished it and focused on Dolly’s words. ‘Lives in one of them maisonettes on the Grove Road? Kev’s the eldest. Lad’s only fifteen, but he looks out for the little ones. Makes sure there’s food on the table, clothes on their backs.’

Yeah. Bet he’s got a tree-house in Sherwood Forest. Bev lifted a sceptical-stroke-cynical eyebrow. ‘Sounds a regular little Robin Hood.’

Dolly shrugged. ‘Okay he thieves a bit, but only to feed the kids. Mind the youngest’s just a bab. Kylie-Anne.’ An indulgent smile faded fast. ‘Sort of crap name’s that?’

‘So.’ Bev joined the dots. ‘The mother’s legged it and Kevin’s cut up? Reckons this’ll get her back?’

‘Summat like that.’

Books. For. Up. Turn. Bev had Batboy pegged as a loser, but not in the family break-up sense. Rough on the lad that. Not that topping himself was any answer. Talk about defeating the object. Empty threat then? On the other hand, if he lost his footing and fell, he’d be more than a crazy, mixed-up kid. He’d be a crazy, mixed up, dead kid.

She looked again at the boy on the roof: the hunched shoulders, pinched features, lank mousy hair and dirt-streaked face. Poor little sod. Most teenagers on the cop-it carried blades, but Skippy carried a cross the size of a cathedral. He’d had to play ma, and presumably pa, to a bunch of snotty-nosed siblings. Skippy’s skinny shoulders weren’t just hunched they were bowed. And his world had come crashing down anyway. God forbid the lad followed.

Bev cleared her throat. ‘Is there a dad in the picture, Mrs Parton?’

‘Be a team photo,’ she sneered. It figured. In this neck of the woods family values were on a par with Aldi price cuts. ‘No,’ the old woman said. ‘The mam’s not much cop – but she’s all they’ve got.’

‘Any idea where she is?’

‘Ain’t you the detective round here?’

*****

Bev did her detecting bit and within minutes patrol cars were en route to half a dozen properties across the city, addresses elicited from Dolly where the errant Sharon Skipton might be shacked up. It wouldn’t take long and no one on site was going anywhere. Least of all Kevin. In between taking and making calls and liaising with Highgate, Bev had shouted up offers of food, drink, a mobile – all in the hope of getting him to open up. Lad had barely opened his mouth let alone his heart.

‘How goes it, boss?’ Mac Tyler. For a guy the size of a grizzly, Bev’s DC was amazingly light on his feet.

‘Whoop-de-do-not.’ She brought him up to speed, asked what had taken him so long.

Mac waggled enigmatic eyebrows, took a warm KitKat from one pocket, an ice-cold coke from another and handed them over with a conspiratorial wink.

‘Ta, mate.’ She took a few glugs, pressed the can against her forehead. The goodies were from the newsagent’s on the corner. Mac wouldn’t have been shopping just for sustenance. ‘And?’ she asked.

‘The lad was banned from going in. Owner says he lifted more stock than a pick-up truck.’

Fitted with the old lady’s story. Bev frowned, glanced round. Where was Dolly?

Mac loosened his collar with a stubby finger. ‘A door at the back’s been forced.’ And he’d had time for a recce. ‘I mentioned it to the rookie. Suggested he keep an eye? The press boys are sniffing round out there.’

‘Tell me about it,’ Bev drawled. The media were chomping at the bit out front, too.

‘How we playing it, boss?’

She’d had a word with the guv. Detective Superintendent Bill Byford wanted a watching brief. No percentage forcing the issue. ‘Softly softly,’ Bev said. ‘No rush, is there?’

And then movement and a flash of colour on the roof caught her glance and everything went into overdrive.

‘Tell me that’s not what I think it is.’ She narrowed her eyes but it was still there.

A baby in a yellow romper suit was being dangled in midair. Kevin Skipton was doing a Wacko Jacko. Was it Kylie-Anne? Kev’s kid sister?  The spectators’ buzz descended into sudden absolute silence. Bev’s mind raced as fast as her heart. It was think-on-feet-time.

Then time ran out.

It seemed to happen in slow motion with a soundtrack of gasps and screams. The sickening crunch of the impact, the scarlet splatter and spray.  Blood soaking through the tiny yellow jumpsuit. Every horrified gaze was on the crumpled bundle. For what seemed an age no one moved; bodies, expressions frozen in shocked disbelief.

It took Bev several seconds to recognise the smell. Her senses were primed for blood. Not the fumes she was inhaling. Her brain needed a few seconds more to collate the data. Then she scowled, spitting feathers. It was a frigging joke. The baby gear had been wrapped round a doll and a load of paint. The lad must’ve poured it in to something flimsy, a plastic bag maybe. Why the hell…? If the tosser was just having a laugh – she had a damn sight better punch line.

‘Right. You little sod.’ But when she raised her furious gaze to the rooftop, Skippy hadn’t so much flown – as done a runner.

*****

It was more sprint than marathon. The kid must’ve realised he’d not get away. When Bev, breathing hard, arrived at the back of the building, Kevin Skipton was indeed hugging the pavement. Danny Rees, she found out later, had brought him down with a rugby tackle, but it was Dolly Parton’s slipper that was now planted across the lad’s nape.

He gave out a plaintive, muffled, ‘Let me go.’

‘Let me go please.’ Dolly pressed down with her foot.

‘Please!’

‘Never did know when to stop did you, Kevin?’ The old woman released the foothold and turned to Bev. ‘He’s not a bad lad.’

‘Scuse me while I get his knighthood.’ She tapped a Doc Marten on the gravel. Mac ambled over, helped the youth to his feet then frisked him. The only thing Kevin carried was a bit of extra weight.

‘I tried talking him out of it,’ Dolly mumbled.

‘Give, granny.’ Bev chewed her lip; arms folded. ‘Ten seconds. Or you’re both down the nick.’

Blink of an eye and she gave. ‘Ernie Watson was after a decoy. Said Kev could earn himself a bit of pocket money if he created a bit of a stir.’

Bev exchanged glances with Mac. Ernie ‘Tools’ Watson was a small-time villain with a big payroll.  He used a lot of kids in the business, made Fagin look like a child protection officer. Ernie had apprentice dealers, carriers, tea-leafs, you name it, all over south Birmingham.  The cops had been on his case for a couple of years. ‘Decoy for what? When? Five seconds, lady.’

Dolly gave a resigned sigh. ‘Hold-up at the Eight-till-Late.’

‘And?’

‘Don’t say nothing,’ Kev pleaded. ‘He’ll go ballistic.’

‘Cuff ’em, Mac.” Bev made to leave.

Dolly reached out twiggy fingers. ‘Birches Arcade. Chippie one side, hairdresser’s the other. It’s takings day.’

Not rich pickings then: it was a row of shops on the estate.  Still, gift horse, mouth and all that. First things first, though . . .

‘Danny get the cars round there,” Bev ordered. ‘And stand the emergency crews down.’ She glanced at Mac who was already on the phone to Highgate rustling up reinforcements. Hands on hips, she treated Skippy and the old woman to a glare apiece. ‘Decoy I can just about get my head round. But that freaking charade?’

‘Tools come up with the idea,’ Kevin mumbled. ‘I just had to make it convincing.’

‘Don’t hold out for an Oscar, kid. And the sob story?’ Bev glowered at Dolly. ‘That was a load of balls?’

The old woman found her slippers fascinating. ‘It just sort of came out.’

Bev sighed, shook her head. ‘Mac when you’ve finished . . .’ The troops on Sharon Skipton’s trail needed calling off. Waste of frigging time.

‘Kev is good with the kids though. We’re a close family.’

‘Oh, well. That’s all right then.’ Like she meant it. ‘Whose idea was the bloody doll?’ she snapped.

Kevin lifted a tentative hand. ‘Saw that on the box. The Bill? Casualty? Something like that. Looked good didn’t it?’

‘Not as good as your CV’s gonna look, kid. Let’s think . . . breaking and entering, criminal damage, conspiracy, wasting police time, aiding and abetting, perverting the course . . . you getting the picture?’

‘He’ll get a damn good hiding an’ all when I get him home.’

‘Home?’ Bev narrowed her eyes.

‘Shurrup, gran.’ Kevin’s trainer toed the ground; his face was puce.

‘You are joking?’

‘Course I’m his gran. Looking out for him, wasn’t I? I don’t want him getting in trouble.’

‘Glad that worked, Dolly.’ Bev groaned, pictured the paperwork. She was sorely tempted to let him walk. He was only fifteen. No previous. No weapon. No one was dead. He’d likely just get a caution. He wasn’t the sharpest knife in the canteen, but maybe he’d learn a thing or two from this fiasco.

‘Boss.’ Mac slipped his phone in a pocket, beckoned her over. ‘A word.’

She skewered Skippy and his gran with another glare.  ‘Don’t move an eyelash. Either of you.’

Mac had just spoken to Danny Rees. It was what you call a partial result.  Danny and four other officers had apprehended three goons coming out of the Eight-till-Late. Ernie Watson hadn’t shown, he’d sent his minions, but if Kevin coughed . . .

Bev sauntered across. ‘Okay Skippy. Here’s the deal.’ She didn’t actually say, Spill the beans and save your bacon, but that’s what it came down to.  His gran’s hefty two penn’orth plus dire warnings tipped the scales: Tools Watson was no match for the formidable Dolly Parton. Kevin agreed to give a detailed statement later in the afternoon and evidence during the trial.

‘Thanks, officer.’ Dolly tucked her arm affectionately into the boy’s. The warmth seemed genuine on both sides. ‘Come on, love. Let’s get home.’

Bev watched them walk away, chatting and having a laugh. The lad was lucky having Dolly to look out for him, keep him on the straight and narrow. It might all go pear-shaped, but when the case came to court, hopefully Kevin would be in the witness box not the dock.

Job done, sort of, Bev and Mac headed for their motors. She kicked a stone, apparently deep in thought.

‘Okay, boss?’

‘Nah.’ She sniffed. ‘Well pissed off.’

‘Why’s that?’ He tugged a ring pull on a can of Red Bull.

‘Missed a great line, didn’t I?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Hawaii Five-o? Rees the rookie?’ She flashed a grin. ‘Never got to say: book ’em, Danno.’

‘Lucky that. His name’s Danny.’

‘Pedant.’

KILLER HEELS . . . part two

louboutin

Avoiding SWR

It sounds like a dodgy virus or a defunct railway line. It’s neither. SWR’s short for Series Writers’ Rut and for an author trapped in one I reckon it can cripple creativity.  Let me explain . . .

More than a decade ago, a writer I know had two crime series running. The first was fairly well-established when the second started appearing in the bookshops. For several years, the series were then published more or less alternately. I remember the author telling me that starting to write a new book in the first series felt like slipping into comfy shoes. I was unpublished at the time and staggered by the remark. I didn’t understand the concept and – now that I write two series myself – I still don’t.

For me, comfy is a tad too close to cosy; cosy not far from complacent and complacent not a million miles from prose plodding along a well-worn path.

The way I see it, keeping a series fresh is anything but easy. The fact is I find it more and more difficult every time I sit down to start a new book. Not that I’m whingeing. If original inventive writing came easy – where’s the challenge?

So how to sidestep SWR . . .

A gripping new storyline goes without saying but for me the crucial key lies in a bunch of lively characters. There’s a degree of comfort (that word again) in an author knowing her/his characters well, but it’s a two-edged sword. It’s important not to get too close. There’s an old saying about familiarity and contempt. And, of course, characters – like people – change over the years.

So my detectives not only have new crimes to solve and killers to collar, they also have dramatic, often life-changing events, to deal with in every book.  They have no idea what’s coming, of course, but I’ll have planted several plot seeds earlier in the series.

Probably my best known character is DS Bev Morriss. I’ve heard readers talk about her as if she’s real and it pleases me no end. It means I’m doing my job properly. And it is a job – even though I’m the boss and get to call the shots. Unlike some authors who claim their characters have a life of their own and ‘take over’– mine definitely don’t. I decide every step Bev (and the rest of the cast) takes, every move she makes and every bon mot she utters. Given she’s been pounding the crime beat for fourteen years now and her nickname’s Motor Mouth that’s a lot of mots – bon, mal or otherwise.

Even though I write two series, I try to make each book work as a standalone. Seamlessly weaving in on-going strands from previous instalments is one of the biggest challenges. Too much would confuse, let alone infuriate, new readers, but there has to be enough continuity to keep fans of the series happy. Many readers are as interested in detectives’ personal lives and emotional baggage as they are with police procedure and intricacies of the plot. It’s little wonder crime series are almost always character-driven. Not that they’d get far without a cracking story.

And there are thousands vying for readers’ attention. According to the International Publishers’ Association, twenty new titles were released every hour in the UK last year. Yes. Every hour.  Clearly not all the titles are crime fiction, but given the genre’s popularity, go figure . . .

I reckon that unless I have a deadline looming, I read six sometimes seven books a month – mostly crime novels. I love the genre but I also think that as a practitioner, I need to keep tabs on what’s out there and what the competition’s up to. I’ve never understood authors who say they don’t read when they have a work in progress in case it influences their style or content. If a writer’s voice is strong enough and their characters are people that readers want to spend time with – it’s not going to happen.

Anyway . . . back to SWR. Years ago for a magazine article I was writing, I asked several well-known authors how they dodged it. John Connolly spoke of introducing unpredictability into the blend. Mark Billingham lets characters age. Ian Rankin said new story lines maintain freshness. Liz Evans had a novel solution: asked how she kept Brighton PI Grace Smith fresh Liz said, ‘an effective deodorant’. But then went on to talk about giving Grace new challenges in every book.

Sometimes, it’s not enough . . .

Around the same time, an author who’d just finished the sixth book in his series told me he’d write a standalone next. The reason?  He admitted he was getting bored with his characters.  I think he made the right decision. If he was bored – what hope for the poor reader?

I know I’m biased, but I still find Bev Morriss as complex, caring, cavalier, exciting and exasperating as the day she first stepped on to the page. Am I being harsh on the author who said going back to write her first series was like slipping into comfy shoes? Maybe she didn’t intend to sound smug or complacent.

Either way, I know that if the time comes when writing the Bev series – or the DI Sarah Quinn books – feels like donning cosy footwear, I’ll pull the plug on the DS, the DI and my PC.

When I start a new book, I reach for the Louboutins.

Killer heels – they keep you on your toes.