Terror and June

I told you June was going to be busy.  As well as my ‘Mervyn Stone’ and ‘Dr Who’ audios, I’m also heading to Bristol for this:

‘Crimefest’ is a splendid convention for fans of murder in all its forms.  I’ve visited both sci-fi and Crime Conventions now, as ‘Mervyn Stone’ rather clumsily straddles both genres, and the differences are quite marked.  There’s less cosplay in a Crime convention, which is a bit of a shame as I’d quite like to see a fat Moriaty duke it out with a female Sherlock Homes in a deer-stalker themed corset outside the hotel restaurant.

I’m interviewing Mark Gatiss, Sue Vertue and Steven Moffat about ‘Sherlock’ on saturday.  It’s very interesting when you think about that picture; there’ll be four people up there on that stage who started in comedy, and who somehow ended up working in crime fiction.  Start making a list of others, and you’ll be going ‘ooh!  And him/her too!’ for the rest of the day (Mark Billingham, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton…)

I don’t know about the others, but comedy and murder stories don’t seem that different to me.  I do love the fact that structure is king in both genres.  Just as there is a ‘three act tragedy’ in crime, there is also a rule of three in joke-telling.  Any gag that contains three individuals from various parts of the United Kingdom entering a pub is an excellent example of a thriller in microcosm.

There is a comfortable familiarity about the style of joke  (three stereotypes going for a drink), combined with a gag, which – hopefully – provides a surprise at the end.  Even though we know the Irishman is going to say or do something daft, we don’t know what kind of daftness it’s going to be.  It’s that tension between familiarity and surprise that makes the best kind of crime thrillers.   Take the climax of any Poirot; we know a Belgian, some Englishmen and a Policeman are going to walk into a drawing room, that much is certain, but the punchline is tickling the back of our brains, just out of reach.

And why was it you, Colonel Merryweather, who happened to walk into the drawing room wiz the crocodile under the arm?

At the moment I’m making a circuitous route to ‘proper’ crime.  I’m writing a serious thriller at the moment (my first), but up ’til now I’ve written that curious hybrid, the ‘comedy crime novel’.    I do enjoy putting those two elements together, I like that tension; the one you get in your face for trying not to laugh at funerals.

It is the ultimate irony for humorous crime-mystery fiction; the act of murder should never be shown.  Read any murder book, not just comedy crime, anything that isn’t steeped in grimness, and the murder isn’t there.  The victim walks into a room, the murderer is behind the door and…End of chapter, and five pages later someone opens up an ottoman and there’s a body.

It’s exactly like sex in a ‘Mills and Boon’ romance.  Murder/sex is the whole point of the book, the element by which, if removed, the reason the book exists disappears, yet if you actually dwelt this act too much ( like writing a chapter depicting a murder/a sexual act in graphic detail) it would destroy what you’re trying to do.  The moment the murderer gets his knife out, just like the moment the ‘Mills and Boon’ hero unsheathes his pork sword, is the moment you have to pan away quickly to a crackling log fire.

Both incredibly important things, sex and death.  Both can be the most serious things in the world, that can be wielded as the most terrible weapons against a person, and yet shine the kaleidoscope of human attitudes on top and they can both be utterly hilarious.  Just watch a fat Moriarty fight a lady Sherlock Holmes in a deerstalker corset in a hotel foyer; if fat Moriarty suddenly clutches his chest and dies, then of course it will be terrible at the time, but at the same time you will be definitely thinking ‘this is going to be the bloody best ever anecdote for me to tell for ever and ever.’

It’s quite comforting that in amongst the parts of the brain that’s bred for fight-or-flight, for survival, for cruelty, there’s an equally big chunk devoted to taking the piss.

In 1492, The Doctor sailed the TARDIS blue…

As well as ‘The Axeman Cometh’ I also have this coming out in June, as part of Doctor Who’s birthday celebrations:

There are five things ye should know about Doctor Who historicals, sire…

I like doing Doctor Who stories in history; it appeals to the lazy writer in me, to do without all that tedious process of inventing stuff.  None of those head-scratching mornings, pecking at the keys on the computer at random, trying to come up with space age character names that don’t sound like brands of suppositories.

I also love  mucking around with cliches in my stories, and your typical Doctor Who historical is full of them.  Finding cliches in a Doctor Who Historical is like shooting fish in a barrel (did you see what I did there?).  Now I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure how ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ became so ubiquitous that it entered the lexicon as a cliche; did they have massive international Piscine execution tournaments that went on for ages and ages, in huge arenas covered with splintered wood and fish guts?  I bet it was probably the national sport for about a week in the eighteenth century, before they found tobacco sponsorship on the side of the barrel, or there was a fish doping scandal, and they had to resort to snooker.

Any Doctor Who story gives you the expectation of a collection of things that’s ‘supposed’ to happen (corridors, monsters, villains, threat of oozing death), but a Doctor Who historical gives you ANOTHER set of things that are ‘supposed’ to happen, to put on top of all the other things.  The result being there are so many elements you feel you ought to put in that it’s tempting to write it like a pantomime; ticking the boxes as you go.   Over-familiar characters and set-pieces jump up and demand their voices be heard, like a strangely amorphous crowd of oddly articulate peasants.

Here are five, but there are many more…

1.  The Doctor gets pally with/threatened by a famous historical figure, who usually talk a bit like they’re from a Shakespeare play or, if it’s after the renaissance, like they’re in a Dickens novel.

‘If you insult my beard, sirrah, then mayhap you insult the whole make up department of the BBC.’

2. The Doctor says something enigmatic about the future which we as a modern audience understand, but none of the historical characters get.  This comment is directed at no-one in particular, and usually makes you want to punch him.  Yes, Doctor, you’re a time traveller.  You’d think the buzz would have worn off by now.

3. The Doctor discovers a villainous alien bent on changing history, but in a very fiddly way, like unscrewing Edison’s lightbulb or replacing Newton’s apple with an orange.  You never get the Master stopping the industrial revolution in its tracks by simply destroying the north of England, probably because the Thatcher estate would have sued for breach of intellectual copyright.

‘If we could just get George Stephenson to call his steam transportation machine ‘Thomas’, then we would create a franchise that could rule the universe.’

4. The Doctor, companion or his adversary inspires/causes a famous moment in history, which the Doctor thinks is hilarious, despite frantically stopping everyone else from mucking about with history for the other 99% of the time.

5.  The companion gets separated from the Doctor and gets locked up, usually by another faction from the ones they met when they first arrived, and always with inferior dental hygiene.

Tell me more about this thing called ‘flossing’, of which you speak, Doctor…

You only have to fiddle with one of the above to look incredibly clever, and look like you’ve re-invented the wheel, which co-incidently, is what the Master attempts in my next story, when he rips the fabric of the universe apart by telling Ug about dual suspension.

‘Trouble in Paradise’ is available here:

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/trouble-in-paradise-853