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Story behind Murder by the Book by Eric Brown

I’ve been a reader of crime fiction from the age of fifteen, when I began reading novels. I’d somehow managed to avoid reading fiction before then, despite my mother’s best efforts. Then, just emigrated to Australia and bored one summer holiday, I was handed Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table and I was hooked. That novel changed my life. I read it, then went straight back to the start and read it again, and then sought out everything else Christie had written. It’s no exaggeration to say that the novel was a revelation. I find it hard to read Agatha Christie these days, but I’ll be forever grateful to her for introducing me to fiction.

In that same year – 1975 – I also discovered science fiction, thanks to Robert Silverberg. And if Christie was a revelation, you can imagine what effect Silverberg had on my innocent young mind.

After reading his Sundance and other stories, I wanted to be a science fiction writer.

Seventeen years after that, my first SF novel, Meridian Days, was published, and for the past twenty-odd years all my output, other than a few children’s books, has been in the genre.

But for over twenty years I had an idea for a crime story. It involved an embittered writer and his murderous scheme to get even with critics, colleagues and editors (and no, it isn’t autobiographical). The central conceit – which I won’t give away here – meant that it had to be set before DNA testing came into use, or the crime would have been discovered in a few hours.

About five years ago I wrote the tale as a short story, not a novel, and it sold to Pete Crowther’s excellent Postscripts magazine/anthology. A year or two later it came to me that I could expand the story into a novel.

Not much remains of that early effort, other than the core idea of an embittered author. The central character, not the embittered author but a successful writer of crime thrillers, becomes embroiled in a series of murders. Around him, fellow writers, editors and critics are being despatched one by one – and our hero Donald Langham, ably assisted by his literary agent Maria Dupré, attempts to solve the crimes.

It’s set in 1955 – because DNA testing wasn’t around then, and because the fifties is an era I find interesting. Britain was emerging from the privations of the pre-war years, and change was in the air. London was still the Smoke, and the countryside was relatively unspoilt.

I wrote the first draft in a month – about the average time I take to write a novel these days. I found writing about the nineteen-fifties, writing about the ‘real’ world, as opposed to an invented future world, incredibly liberating. I didn’t have to build the world from the ground up, or to describe things in as much detail. Readers would know of the world I was writing about, because they lived in it from day to day. I also found it liberating from a technical point of view: I could use metaphor and simile, which are literary devices often hard to use in SF. Have you ever wondered why you don’t come across many similes in SF literature? It’s because when a writer likens something to something else, the object he or she likens it to must be familiar to the reader. Now, if that object is familiar, and of this world of this time, then the hapless writer immediately undercuts the sense of futurity he or she is attempting to maintain: “A spaceship like a cigar-case entered orbit around Saturn...” is but one crass example.

I also noticed that I had more freedom in the crime novel to write about eccentric characters, which don’t crop up often in SF, for reasons that were not at first obvious to me. It’s allied to the above example of not undercutting the reader’s sense of futurity: eccentric characters are only eccentric in relation to their environment – and as SF futures might be described as ‘eccentric’ in themselves, it makes the SF writer’s job of writing eccentric characters which are eccentric to their settings very difficult. These characters can only be ‘odd’ in relation to the setting the reader knows best – ergo, the here and now... which immediately undercuts that old sense of futurity the writer is trying to maintain.

But I digress.

I let the ms of the crime novel lie for a month, and then rewrote it and sent it off to my agent, with a couple of recommendations as to where to send it. I forgot about it and concentrated on other projects – The Devil’s Nebula and Helix Wars.

Weeks elapsed, then months, and when a year had passed by without any news from the publishers, I nudged my agent (who had been nudging the publishers in turn), and heard back from Severn House. Their response was, “Haven’t got round to reading it yet, but will do soon...”

I reconciled myself to another long wait – par for the course in this line of work – and was surprised when a week later I heard from the editors. They very much liked the novel, but felt that the mystery and intrigue element could be ratcheted up in the last third of the book. I agreed, and duly rewrote the last third, and a chapter near the start, adding two new characters and ten thousand words.

Thankfully the editors were happy with the rewrite. But one sticking point remained: the title. I’d called the book The Grub Street Murders – which I thought pretty well summed up the story. However, the powers that be at Severn House considered it too abstract, and thought that the ‘grub’ in the title wouldn’t go down well in the US, where much of their market resided. We passed through a period of batting alternative titles back and forth before someone in the Severn House office came up with the excellent Murder by the Book which, while not wholly original, did fit with the content of the novel and sounded good.

So my first crime novel, Murder by the Book, came out in June this year, the opening volume of what I hope will be a series of ‘Langham and Dupré’ mysteries. I’ve just about completed the second book, tentatively entitled Lampard’s Chase – but no doubt that will be changed, too, if Severn House take the book.

Next on the cards, it’s back to SF with a steampunk novel for Solaris set in India in 1910 – and it will be the very first steampunk novel I’ve written, after years of reading and enjoying the sub-genre. (And, because of the type of SF it is, I will be able to employ simile and eccentric characters). And after that...

I have the vague, first stirrings of the third Langham and Dupré mystery niggling away in my back-brain.


Eric Brown
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