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.

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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 . . . !

 

 

 

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.

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DEAD MEN DON’T SMILE

Is the title of the first short story I wrote nearly twenty years ago – and it still makes me happy.  Not so much its dark humour (well, I think it’s funny) but the fact it broke a long and frustrating publishing duck.

Over the previous five years, the three crime novels I’d been sending out had garnered a fine collection of rave rejections from countless publishers.  Some pretty close calls but no contracts.

Then in November 1998, the editor of The New Writer magazine threw me a career lifeline. She showed faith and published my first fiction. I’ll never forget how good that felt or how much I owe her.

new writer cover

Ahead lay a further three years of ‘thanks but no thanks’ rejections for my full-length fiction.  But throughout that time, I kept TNW open on my desk so that every morning when I sat down to work my story was there proving I could do it. Seeing it acted as a spur and helped me through the self-doubt and dark days that every writer – published or not – faces.

Persistence can pay off and success in the shape of an offer finally came in 2001. Working Girls my first crime novel was published later that year.  I didn’t know it then but it turned out to be the first title in one of two crime series that I now write.

Copy of working girls cc

Anyway, I didn’t start a blog to dish out advice or deliver lectures but, for me, the lesson I learned way back was, and is: never give up, and maybe don’t try and run before you can walk?

I look back on those eight years as my apprenticeship and on the publication of that first piece of fiction as the start of a new chapter for me as a writer. This is that story . . .

dead men

For a woman who didn’t believe in ghosts, her first book signing was fast becoming a spiritual revelation. George Cornwell – so solid a presence in her recent life – was putting in a late appearance due to his untimely death.

Claudia Connor – fake tan and false smile – was approaching the end of a painstakingly prepared spontaneous address when she looked up and spotted George in the middle of the back row. She stared mesmerised as he puckered full lips and blew a light kiss. Claudia lifted an eyebrow; he was more expansive in the afterlife than he’d ever been in this one.

She almost returned his smile until she remembered that dead men don’t. Dead men don’t do anything. Do they? She shivered despite the heat.

‘Ms Connor. Are you OK?’

The voice broke the spell. Claudia tossed big blonde hair and turned to the small bland man hovering at her side. She flashed a beam that could have powered a small continent and which had already paid for her orthodontist’s holiday in one.

‘I’m fine.’ Claudia ran a moist pink tongue over impossibly red lips.’ Perhaps a glass of water?’

The little man – whose badge said Manager – but whose manner said Uriah, scuttled off.

Claudia looked round attempting to dismiss the apparition as a temporary aberration. The place was packed and what Claudia lacked in literacy she more than made up in numeracy. A quick head count times the cost of her book equalled fair recompense for the start of her holiday.

Studiously avoiding the space George had appeared to fill, she treated her waiting fans to a full range of batting eyes and beatific sighs. Even her retinue of runners and fixers, PAs and POs was impressed, sensing previously unsuspected depths of dissembling. The adoring multitude was less sensitive, concentrating exclusively on Claudia’s physical dimensions.

For an aspiring actress it was a bravura performance. She thanked God for all those years on the catwalks and front covers. Despite the shock, she’d kept her cool. All the posing had endowed a superficial calm. Quite what it had contributed to her talent as a writer was considerably less clear.

But Roll Model: Kittens on the Catwalk was the reason Claudia Connor was standing in the middle of Waterstones, in the middle of London, in the middle of August when she should be lying on a beach, smoothing on sun cream and sipping on cocktails, not perspiring and seeing spirits.

The Scuttler returned, hand out-stretched.

‘Thank you so much.’ Claudia sipped slowly. She was in no hurry to put her theory about George to the test.  She glanced at the display table to her left. It was stacked high with copies of Roll Model. She sashayed over, her red satin sarong as tight as a second skin except for the thigh-high slit. She felt slightly unsteady on her long legs and was relieved she’d eschewed the four inch heels in favour of soft leather flats. She bent over to put down the glass, fully aware of the impact on The Droolers but not so prepared for the dizziness that came on as she lifted what felt like a very light head. All the more reason to take her time.

She’d decided to count to twenty before letting her gaze rove along the back row again. She  returned centre stage, averting her eyes until the last second.

Thank God. He’d gone.  Well, of course he had. He couldn’t have been there in the first place.

It must have been a trick of the light. Or the heat. Or something.

She switched on her brightest smile. ‘Perhaps, after that little interruption, we could do some Q and As?’ Claudia simpered. Then get down to the signing, Claudia thought. Then get the hell out of here, Claudia gloated. Felix was waiting in the penthouse; the helicopter was waiting on the roof; a St Lucia beach was waiting in the . . .

God, she couldn’t remember, but it was somewhere hot where she wouldn’t be bothered. She dragged her mind back to the dreary little people in front of her. Their contributions were ranging from the banal to the full of bull. Did anyone really give a shit about her favourite colour?

Claudia answered everything with a fixed smile and a winning manner. She couldn’t lose. Instead of punters, she saw pound signs. The session seemed to have run its course. There were no more hands in the air . Then she heard another question.

‘Do you think you’re a good writer, Ms Connor?’

The emphasis was on the adjective and the inference was on the negative. Claudia was unaware of either, she wouldn’t know an adjective from a conjunctive but she’d recognised the voice. She’d know it anywhere. She moved her gaze in its direction. No one else moved a muscle.

Couldn’t anyone see him? Had they heard? They must have. She’d have to answer. She did, but faltered.

‘I . . . I think I’m a f. f. f. fine writer.’

There was a pause and puzzled expressions. Shit! They hadn’t. Get a grip girl. She fought a wave of nausea. God. She was so hot. Her body was on fire. Sweat was seeping from her armpits and trickling between her thighs. Damn the air conditioning. The sooner she got on, the sooner she could get out. She managed a weak smile. ‘And I hope you do, too.’

The Scuttler took his cue and took Claudia by the elbow to a second table where a short line was already getting longer.  It was more of a challenge now to keep the smile in place and there was little she could do about the tremor in her hands. Her signature was barely decipherable.

By the time she’d written mind numbing messages in sixty or so books, she was beginning to relax again. The furtive glances she’d been taking suggested George had vanished.

Her thoughts – although she couldn’t place it – were in the Caribbean. Felix hot in one hand and a Pina Colada cool in the other.

And then the glass shattered.

Not the one that had been in her head; the one that had been on the table. She’d placed it there herself only a few minutes ago. No one was anywhere near it. Yet she’d just seen it rise and fall and heard the smash. Her books were showered with sharp fragments and drenched in cold water.

Scuttler raced across to investigate. ‘How on earth . . .?’

‘It’s nothing on earth,’ Claudia murmured, tight hands clutching her even tighter chest. She lifted her glance to find that the queue has dispersed. Only one figure remained.

‘What on earth are you doing here?’

Claudia didn’t bother to look at him. He could have been part of the furniture. George Cornwell was installed on the three-seater and had no intention of leaving until she’d handed over what he’d come for. He’d spent enough of the last year in this place to last him a lifetime. He had no desire to stay any longer than necessary.

Claudia moved to the drinks cabinet: all hard liquor and soft lighting. She poured a large vodka then strolled to the black leather Chesterfield opposite her uninvited guest. George wondered idly whether she’d bought the trousers to match.

‘Look, darling,’ she ran scarlet-tipped fingers around the rim of the cut crystal, ‘No hard feelings. It’s over now. Let’s put it behind us.’

George looked round for a purring cat until he realised that only he and Claudia were in the room.

‘Move on? Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve given you everything. You can’t pretend it never happened. You needed me.’

Claudia laughed. It was a mistake.

George – a man of many words – decided for once in his life that action might be louder. He covered the distance between them before Claudia had finished crossing her legs.

‘You owe me. You dumb bitch.’

‘Who’re you calling a bitch?’

George laughed. It was a mistake.

Claudia – a woman of limited vocabulary – always took decisive action. In this instance it took the shape of ramming a four-inch steel-tipped heel into George’s groin. The other found its way into his neck. The fact that it hit the jugular was pure chance. Claudia neither knew what it was or where it lay.

She knew one thing for certain: George would have to go. Six hours later, a man wearing women’s shoes in unorthodox parts of his anatomy was anguishing at the bottom of the Thames.

So why – fourteen hours after that was the same man standing in line, book in hand, waiting for her to sign?

The newspapers told a story but not The Story. The Mail was typical . . .

Claudia Connor has died during a book signing at a well known London store. Shocked bystanders desperately tried to revive the former model but she was dead on arrival at hospital. It’s believed she suffered a massive heart attack. Ms Connor (27) one of the best known faces in the world of fashion had recently turned her hand to writing. She’d cut short a holiday in the South of France to promote her first book. 

Roll Model, a racy look behind the scenes of the catwalk, has been speeding up the bestseller lists. Ms Connor, who’d been hoping to play herself in a Hollywood film version had angrily denied not having read the book let alone written it. Her publishers acknowledged the invaluable given by Mr George Cornwell. Mr Cornwell, a highly regarded writer who has ghosted work for a number of international celebrities, was not available for comment.  

Later editions carried a few lines on an inside page about a man’s body being discovered by an angler on the Thames. Police were appealing for help as there was nothing on the corpse to identify it. They were also asking the owner of a pair of gold leather stilettos to come forward. A brief description of the man was issued: five feet eight inches tall, slightly overweight, thinning grey hair; an expensive suit and handmade shirt.

A police spokesperson said, ‘He was obviously a professional gentleman who appears to have been fairly well-heeled.’

Even Claudia might have laughed.

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