Questions by Harriet
Harriet: Martin, although you have been a solicitor all your working life, it’s probably true to say that until recently you have been best known for your crime novels – the Harry Devlin series and more recently the Lake District books. Readers of your blog, will have been aware of your interest in Golden Age crime, and of course you have been editing the very successful British Library Crime Classics series. But this year, in addition to editing Truly Criminal, a collection of essays on true crime, you’ve published your story of the beginnings of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder. [Review here].
So the first question is, how did your interest in this era of crime writing first begin, and what attracted you to it?
Martin: I tell the full story in the introduction to The Golden Age of Murder, but briefly, I discovered Agatha Christie shortly before my ninth birthday, and fell in love with the idea of the elaborate mystery. Even at that age, I had the idea that I wanted to become a storyteller of some kind, and Christie fired my interest in becoming a detective novelist. Although my novels are, with one exception called Dancing for the Hangman, very much contemporary stories, I’ve never lost my love of detective fiction from the past, including Sherlock Holmes (I’ve written an ebook of Holmes stories, The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes) and Christie and her contemporaries. I continue to enjoy the puzzles, and also the sly social comments in the best classic novels, which are so often overlooked by the critics, perhaps because they are not laboured or preachy.
Harriet: As the consultant for the BL Crime Classics, you must have been responsible for choosing the full length novels and short stories in their current and forthcoming catalogues. How have you gone about the selection process?
Martin: Not all the choices are mine, by any means. I make suggestions – lots of them! – and the BL do their own research as well. Many factors affect which titles are chosen, including the availability of rights. Among the books I’m glad to have picked are a couple by Freeman Wills Crofts, and Death of an Airman, and there are some excellent books in the pipeline. My choices are driven always by the quality, variety and ambition of the story-telling. With the anthologies, Capital Crimes and Resorting to Murder, I make the story choices, subject to availability of rights (and there will be at least three more BL anthologies edited by me.) I pick stories that seem to me to reflect a wide range of takes on the central theme, with a view to achieving variety and interest. I also like to include a few stories that even Golden Age fans are unlikely to have come across, I’ve been taken aback by the stunning success of the BL Crime Classics; it’s absolutely wonderful that these books are not only available again, but also being read in very large numbers. Five years ago, nobody would have predicted it, not even me.
Harriet: The Golden Age of Murder is a full-length non-fiction book. How did writing it compare with your more usual fiction? And as it’s a relatively long book with quite a complex structure, could you comment on how you arrived at this? And perhaps you can tell us something about the process of research and writing that went into it?
Martin: In fact, my first books were non-fiction – legal books with exciting titles like Understanding Computer Contracts, and How to Get the Best Deal From Your Employer! Although I always wanted to be a novelist, I hit on the idea of publishing on legal subjects as a way of experiencing what it is like to be published. I tried to write accurately, but also readably – that was important to me, even if the subject was dull. There are far too many badly written legal books, and I care very much about my writing, whatever the subject. I always want to improve as a writer. My experience with legal books was definitely helpful, indirectly, when writing draft after draft of The Golden Age of Murder. I have striven to present a variety of perhaps controversial arguments in a fair and balanced way, in the hope that readers who have preconceived ideas about Golden Age mysteries may be tempted to think again. One cannot tell people what to think, and one should not try, but I have tried to make my case as persuasively as I can!
I wanted to write a book that was “different”, and as original as it could be, given that countless people have written about crime fiction over the years. So as well as hunting down and reading hundreds of novels many of them obscure, I tried to think about them from the authors’ perspective – wondering what lay behind some of the stray passing comments, for instance. I also tracked down family members of the authors, and mined their memories.
The structure of the book is certainly complex, and not especially obvious on a casual, quick reading. The narrative hook is the setting-up of the Detection Club, and the lives and work of the prime movers in the Club. There are four key elements – the writers, their books, the true crimes that inspired them, and what was happening in the world at large – and various sub-plots, if I can call them that. The book’s structure is broadly chronological, but each chapter has a particular guiding theme – sometimes concerned with an individual, sometimes linked to a topic such as film and broadcasting, education, religion, and so on. As for the end notes, there I have smuggled in, alongside notes on sources, all sorts of facts and trivia that appeal to me, and which range far and wide around Golden Age writers who were not in the Detection Club. My hope is that people who find the story interesting will also find they are rewarded for the effort they put in to reading it with plenty of unexpected bonuses.
Harriet: Your most recent Lake District novel, The Frozen Shroud, was published a year ago. Can we expect another in the series before too long? Any hints about the setting or the themes you feel like giving away?
Martin: The Dungeon House will be published in the UK and US in September. This is a book I’m rather excited by; my own feeling is that it’s the best in the series so far, but who knows what readers will think? It is set in and around Ravenglass, and one of the subjects that it tackles is that of the so-called “family annihilator”, those terrible cases where someone, usually a man, takes it upon himself to wipe out his entire family, and then himself. I find this crime appalling and almost inexplicable. So I tried to look into the mind of a man who behaves in such a way, and to try to understand him. But not, I hasten to add, to excuse him.
Harriet: Our readers always like to hear about the actual process of someone’s writing – when and where do you do it, whether you write in longhand or on a computer, and so on. In your case, it’s hard to imagine how you fit it in at all, considering that you also have a day job! Please satisfy our curiosity.
Martin: I write on a computer, at home, and spend quite a bit of time wishing in vain that I was more technologically competent. I struggle with laptops, for some reason. I’m an owl, not a lark, so I write late in the day, very often. Never in the early morning!
Harriet: Finally, what’s next on your crowded agenda? Any plans for a follow up to the Golden Age?
Martin: I am thrilled by the reaction of reviewers and readers to The Golden Age of Murder, so as well as writing another novel, I definitely contemplating writing another book about the crime genre. Perhaps more than one! But I will do something very different. This book is unrepeatable; it is really the product of a lifetime’s reading and thinking– but it was also, very much, a labour of love.
Many thanks, Martin!
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.