Zonya and her Big Knickers

T-bar sandals, stretchy hairband and an anorak – my outfit screams the Swinging Sixties!

This is an old post that I am re-sharing today. In fact it’s a life writing piece, based on my memories of my ‘auntie’ Zonya. So it’s not a fictional piece, though I might not be remembering it exactly! When we look back on a memory we add layers of our accumulated experience onto the memory, and of course the passage of time means that all too often we look back and remember the colours far brighter, the events far happier than they perhaps really were.

But Auntie Zonya was a unique and wonderful lady. Her real name was Doris, but she had been, many years earlier, a dancer and had changed her name to sound more in keeping with her exotic stage life. I only knew that later. At the time–we’re talking about 1964 or so until around 1974, I knew her only as Auntie Zonya. She was tiny, she was plump, she had the reddest of red hair–again only later did I realise this was not a natural red, but out of a bottle.

A Georgian house, similar to ours in the street where we used to live.

She turned up living in a room across the corridor from my mum and me where we lived in a lovely old Georgian villa that had been converted into cheap bedsits. She was older than my mum by about thirty years, so she kind of became a big sister/surrogate mum to my mum, and a very loving aunt to me.

Anyway, one day she was ‘babysitting’ me and we went shopping. For knickers. Here’s what happened:

Thinking back to when I was a child, I remember once being in a department store, in Tunbridge Wells, England, in the mid-1960s. I can picture the scene as if I were an onlooker.

I’m buying big knickers with Auntie Zonya. It’s a lesson in economy versus quality. I am wearing a skirt my mother made me and a jumper. My hair is in a long dark-brown plait down my back as always, and I’m probably wearing either a frock my mother made me or stretchy leggings and a home-knitted jumper.

I mean, they’re huge, right? And making a comeback!

They look the same—same size, shape, style and colour, yet these knickers are less than half the price of those others. I’m learning the difference between branded goods and their cheaper, store’s own label counterparts. Zonya, in other ways so stylish and chic for an older woman, favoured the larger undie. Knickers built like modern cycle shorts—up to the waist, down to the knees—and incredibly, sometimes even with a pocket in the waistband. Crimson, stretchy cotton with a little line of black lace trim at the waist and knee.

I can’t imagine wearing anything so huge. By comparison, my underwear at age six or seven or whatever I am is really quite skimpy and small.

We are in BHS or somewhere like that, comparing their own brand of cheap-and-cheerfuls with a far more expensive generic brand-name knicker. Seeing my doubtful looks, she assures me these are warm, comfortable and very, very durable. I’m not convinced. Maybe they will swallow me whole. And the colour! Red like holly berries or Zonya’s lipstick or red like a London bus or a pillar box. Really, really red.

We snap the elastic a few times experimentally. It seems sufficiently sturdy and reliable and so economy wins out and the cheapy knickers are purchased.

I remember it as a fun, ordinary outing, one of the few memories I have of shopping when I was small. I realise now never did ask her how she got on with them.

Sorry it’s a bit grainy. This is Zonya and I at London Zoo, 1965.

If you want to read more about Auntie Zonya, here’s another short piece:

***

Writing Genre Fiction – part two

Famously NOT adhering to generic conventions…

Three weeks ago, I wrote in part one of Writing Genre Fiction that all genres, including my favourite genre of cosy mysteries, have conventions. And what is a convention? The Oxford English Dictionary defines convention as: ‘a) general agreement, esp agreement on social behaviour etc by implicit consent of the majority; or b) a custom or customary practice, esp an artificial or formal one.’

Here is a quick recap of the main conventions of books in the cosy mystery genre:

  • No excessive gore or violence, no realistic trauma, bad language is mild, no sex scenes.
  • Usually feature a small cast of characters in an idealised setting, often a country house or a village.
  • There must be clues and red herrings.
  • The emphasis is on the puzzle of the crime and readers solving that alongside the sleuth.
  • The sleuth is usually an amateur, not a police professional, and is often female. Though of course, not always.
  • The ending is (generally) cut-and-dried and is often resolved with a gathering of all the main suspects and other players of the story so that the sleuth can reveal the truth behind the crime(s). There may be ongoing storylines that are not resolved, but the crime itself should be resolved at the end of the book.

(I’d be the first to say, my own books don’t always adhere to these guidelines. Sorry.)

Very often authors will strive to write something ‘new’ and may feel that it has all been done before, or that the conventions are ‘old hat’. But for readers who enjoy reading mysteries, doing something different just for the sake of it is not always a good way to win their approval – they love the conventions and expect the author to stick by them at least to a greater extent.

Readers have certain expectations

No reader will be happy if you kill off someone’s pet. And it goes without saying that if you bump off your main character’s love interest or a close relation or friend, you will be vilified forever. Likewise if you allow your character to – well – act out of character, readers will notice and be unhappy. Reader expectations are high once you have set out to create a series, and you absolutely have to do what you can to respect the reader’s investment of emotion as well as time and money into your work.

But in actual fact, the range of options available to the author is limited, because as we know, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:9! See, I can do research!) and also, ‘Is there a case where one can say, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us.’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:10)

And if it had already all been done in Biblical times…

But just because you are constrained by generic convention does not mean you can’t be creative or original. This is where the twists and turns of the plot become the essential ingredient to muddy the waters and cover your tracks . Sorry about the mixed metaphors.

Writing unique or ‘different’ genre fiction can seem difficult – you only have 26 letters to play with, and everyone uses them, right? And if all these conventions and tropes have been used before, if there’s nothing new under the sun, how can we find our unique voice? How can we say something new or fresh? Again this is where plot twists and devices and your own unique way of using those 26 letters comes into play.

He’s about to sing, the Lament of the Trope

Like writing, music is another creative art that has genres and stylistic conventions. And whilst I am not a musician, I am passionate about music. And guess what? Composers of music can be every bit in need of all their ingenuity as writers when it comes to creating something fresh and ‘original’. Just to give you an extremely simple illustration: all these songs are in the key of C Major.

Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers

Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin

Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley

Bad Romance by Lady Gaga

But they are not the same, are they? I was actually a teeny bit surprised to realise they are all in the same key. And of course, there are other keys than just C Major – and all the keys are made up of notes, which when combined in conventional ways, create chords. Chords are grouped together one after the other (called progression, ie moving forward) to create a tune. (Or for the writer, these would compare to scenes or chapters). Here’s another set of examples:

These four songs all heavily feature the same chord progressions. It is the I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F known as the Optimistic chord progression for its uplifting sound. (I think these chords are for guitar – sorry, now I am really revealing my technical ignorance.)

No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley

Right Here Waiting by Richard Marx

Run by Snow Patrol

Let It Be by The Beatles

But again, they are so different, aren’t they? I could go on: these are G Major works:

Another One Bites The Dust by Queen

Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day

Brown-Eyed Girl by Van Morrison

You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC

Or other chord progressions. If the previous ones are termed the ‘optimistic’ progression, these are the ‘pessimistic’ chord progressions: these are the same chords, just reshuffled to give a different effect. The I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F becomes vi-VI-I-V or Am-F-C-G, and these can create a sense of sadness that ranges from the merely plaintive to downright Throwing Myself Off A Cliff:

The Sun Always Shines On TV by A-Ha (a bit plaintive here and there)

Hurt by Johnny Cash (definitely a cliff moment… but sad songs can be beautiful, and uplifting too – giving catharsis.)

Angels by Robbie Williams

or one of my favourites, Wake Me Up by Avicii

Can you see how different these are though they are using, at least in part, the same conventions?

Coming back to writing, with a small cast of characters, it can be really hard to conceal the guilty party from the avid reader who will often have read hundreds of mystery books and have an excellent working knowledge of the generic style. Enter the trope – a recognisable kind of set plot idea that is often in use in certain genres. In romance, you have tropes such as ‘fake romance’, where the main couple pretend to be in love, often to appease persistent match-making relatives and end up falling in love for real; or you can have ‘enemies to lovers’ (think Elizabeth and Mr Darcy) where the couple begin by hating the very sight of one another but end up by loving the person once they get to know one another better.

In cosy mystery writing, a common trope might be the country house mystery – a closed community, a small number of suspects, a specific set of relationships, and the stage is set for murder in a kind of extremely popular notion but very idealised version of a pre-WWII English country house. The country house could be something other than a country house. For example your story could be set, not in a house but on a train, in a submarine, on a space station, on an island, in a bomb shelter. almost anywhere, in fact, so long as the setting is enclosed in some way. Or you might use any one of the countless other tropes,  the locked room trope, or you might use the disappearing corpse trope, or the gaslighting/I think I’m going insane trope…

Just because you are bound by conventions, doesn’t mean you can’t find your own voice, and your own style, and using the generic conventions means you can increase the readers pleasure as they can anticipate and understand what you are doing. If anything, sticking to the rules of your genre can give you greater freedom with a good, solid framework to build upon.

‘The Author, in the music room, with the typewriter…’

***

 

Some small happy things – people watching again!

These days it’s quite hard to find something positive in the world. Life is tough. Even 2020 and the onset of covid is enough to fill me with a gentle nostalgia, those seem like fun times compared to right now. But kindness and goodness is not dead and gone, no matter what we read in the media or see on TV. If your mental health is at an all-time low, as many of us are finding, just look around you and you will find small things to make you smile.

Today I saw:

An elderly man ask a young mum struggling with a screaming toddler if she was okay. He wasn’t complaining about the noise. He wasn’t telling her how she should raise her kid. He just asked if she was okay. She said she was, thank you, and told him that her child had just been vaccinated and was crying because of that. But the man’s simple kindness made me happy. Because sometimes we just need someone to ask, right?

And as I was waiting for my other half, a woman–a total stranger–asked me about something I was holding – bird food (as usual!). ‘Is that stuff any good?’ she asked me. ‘Because my sister-in-law bought some and it’s like sawdust. The birds won’t touch it.’

I told her the birds that come to my garden wolf it down like crazy. ‘I’ll get some,’ she said, so I told her where I got mine.

‘It’s a bit pricey, ‘ I warned her.

‘That doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘My dad’s 96, and watching the birds gives him so much pleasure, it’s worth it just to make him happy.’

Aww. Obviously that small encounter warmed my heart too.

As my mum used to say, good things come in threes–when we got back to our car, the rain had started, and everyone was in a rush to leave. A young dad and very small girl cute in her school uniform, arrived to get into the car next to ours, and the dad said to the little one, ‘We’ve got to get home quick, I’ve put the washing out!’

I smiled. he wasn’t too worried, the child wasn’t being hurried or pushed along, they were just taking life in their stride, calm, relaxed, happy. As I said, small things, nothing earth-shattering, but the mundane minutiae of everyday life. That’s what makes me smile.

Actually there were more than three–the cafe owner where we went stayed back a few more minutes after closing to make a cup of tea for a late customer, an elderly woman. The staff in the shops I visited were cheerful and friendly.

So that was a good day. I had a lovely chatty  lunch with my family, the sun shone (briefly) and I saw at first hand some simple things that showed me that there are good people in the world, and not everything is horrible. And I thought I would tell you.

Next week, I promise, it will be more about writing genre fiction.

***

 

Writing Genre Fiction – part one

Please don’t let your detective cat smoke. Or Vape. It’s not good for them and ruins their fur.

I enjoy writing in a number of different styles and genres, but I’m a cosy mystery gal through and through. Even when I try writing a different genre, at some point my murderous instincts take over and drown out any other attempt to jump generic ship.  Maybe I’ve written myself into a plot-corner and I’m not sure what to do; or I’m bored with the sweet romance I’m writing; or things are going all too easily for one character or another in my family saga; or my hologram’s new spacecraft is too fast, too shiny, everything is just soooooo perfect out there in the nebula, and there’s nothing for it: someone has to die.

I think it was Raymond Chandler who said (my paraphrase) ‘If in doubt, bring in someone with a gun’.

But there are so many sub-categories within all the main genres these days, and the Crime/Thriller genre is no exception.

For cosy mystery novels, some of the many subgenres include: international mystery, private investigators, women detectives, medical, legal, police procedural, technothrillers, and hard-boiled. The hard-boiled mystery, for example, is what is often referred to as Noir, or gum-shoe crime. They have evolved from the classics of the 40s and 50s and tend to be more graphic, violent, and unconventional. The detective is usually an anti-hero, with all kinds of issues, anything goes, and the grittier and grislier the book is, the better. The dialogue is bitty and abbreviated. There is a lot of swearing, shouting and people get ‘whacked’ or ‘rubbed out’. Often the end of the hard-boiled mystery is less cut-and-dried, leaving loose ends and a sense of a hollow victory, or a kind of ‘I’ll get you next time! On the upside, the men often wear nice hats. Like a Fedora or maybe a Trilby.

The cosy mystery genre is a world apart from the hard-boiled mystery. The cosy is a type of traditional murder mystery with it roots in the Golden Age of mystery writing as penned by Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth and many, many more. (If you fancy reading a bit more about that, please take a look at this article, or this one, both from guest author Elizabeth Roy recently.)

The plot of a cosy often revolves around social situations, perhaps a house party or dinner, as cosies commonly feature the wealthier classes at play, with undercurrents of malice lurking discreetly behind curtains or across the bridge-table. The relationships represented tend to be of a conventional, traditional type, and the novels are usually set in the present or the recent past. The hard-boiled or noir can be more experimental, and is well-suited to futuristic, non-traditional and even non-earth settings.

Cosy means exactly that, these books are pure entertainment, with nothing too terrifying, nothing too realistic or traumatising. It’s more of an intellectual puzzle than a brawl. In the cosy, the story is all about unravelling the central mystery, to find out whodunit by solving clues and working alongside the story’s detective to find out the truth behind a crime, nearly always a murder*. Cosies will feature good believable characters without a great deal of introspection and issues. Usually there are only one or two main characters, and a host of minor characters, individualised to a greater or lesser extent. There will be a twisty, ingenious plot, and a keep-‘em-guessing array of clues and red herrings. Readers are expected to read between the lines in every conversations and to observe character behaviour minutely and with suspicion.

The cosy does not feature gory murder scenes or long descriptions of stomach-clenching forensic information. The cosy does not include explicit sex or stronger bad language. There may be some saucy shenanigans but nothing too graphic happens ‘on-stage’, any ‘filth’ is conducted behind carefully closed doors, even if someone is listening at the keyhole or watching from the tree outside the window. Life lessons are not usually part of the cosy mystery, nor should you expect comments on social issues or deeply moving emotional scenes. Life is pretty good in the cosy mystery–for everyone except the perpetrator and the victim of course. Here again, in the cosy, the victim is not likely to suffer agonies or torture; death is usually contrived in a quick and often ingenious manner.

You must always be on the alert for clues and red herrings

Usually, though not always, the main protagonist is the sleuth who is going to solve the mystery for us, or should I say, with us. They will likely–though not always–be an amateur detective, often someone involved on the periphery of the murder and they will feel compelled to find out the ‘truth’, either from standpoint of moral outrage, or more likely, out of sheer nosiness. Of late, it has become the trend to write themed cosies centred around a hobby or service. For example, a lot of stories are set in book shops, craft groups or cookery schools, and hotels, or they might involve pet-sitters, mediums, hairdressers, gardeners, wedding planners, or interior decorators. Sometimes the detective has a dog or cat who ‘helps’ them solve the mystery. Sometimes the detective IS a dog or cat. This allows the author to introduce a range of situations and characters, which is a great way to produce a detective and a series that will turn readers into avid fans and keep them coming back time and again.

The cosy is all about solving a puzzle, and reestablishing the status quo. The book should leave readers feeling ‘Ahh,’ at the end, not ‘OMG OMG!’ The reader should definitely be able to pat themselves on the back for an armchair- detective job well done. The cosy is intended purely for escapist fun, which is another reason why the author needs to write plenty of them–readers will close one book and immediately reach for the next.

*please note: other crimes are available! But a lot less entertaining.

Cosy mysteries should be more feel-good and with a sense of all is well at the end.

***

 

Dear whom (insert name of muse here)

The Muse is ‘In’.

This week, during a conversation with a nice marketing expert,  I was asked what or who was my target demographic. In other words, who do I imagine is reading my books, who am I aiming to reach? My initial reaction was probably the same as most writers: Everyone!

After all, we writers want to reach as many people as possible, don’t we?

It puts me in mind of board games where it says on the side of the box “fun for the whole family: aged 8 to 80”. (Sorry all you 81-year-olds, this game is not for you!) And that’s kind of how I feel about my books: I hope they will be enjoyed by people older than me and younger, and those who are my (approximate) age.

We want to reach as many as we can with our work, and are reluctant to rule anyone out. After all, we know that not all fantasy is read by young people, that not all family saga is read by older people. There are always plenty of people who don’t fit into marketing stereotypes. Lots of readers read a wide variety of genres and styles, from westerns to techno-thrillers, or from romance to locked room mysteries. We are reluctant to disregard them just because they are a bit different to what it says on the box.

But it would be naive of me to pretend that my books–much as I’d like them to–appeal to everyone. As I’ve thought about this carefully I’ve realised that probably 80% of my readers are over 45 years of age, female and prefer not to read anything too gory, full of explicit sexy shenanigans,  or are depressingly similar to real life. In fact, they are rather like me. (I’m sadly over 45. Way over. Way, way, WAY over. In fact, it would be nice to be 55 again. Heck, I’d kill to be 60 again…)

Find that perfect reader and tell them your story!

I’ve read several times this week about the importance of having in your mind an image of your perfect, or some might say, average reader, and of writing your book as if you are writing for that one person alone. The idea is that it makes it easier to keep your book focused, and to maintain consistency of POV (point of view) and tense.

I’d go a step further. Use a real person. Most of us have are lucky enough to have that one person we talk to about our writing, or one or two people. Most of us run ideas past them for feedback, let them read the messy first drafts, and sob on their shoulders when we get a stinking review. These are–hopefully–the people who can look us in the eye and say “Sweetie-pie, I love you but in all honesty, this book sucks. Write something else.” Let’s face it, you already know this person so well, you know what they like, what they don’t like, their favourite colour, and their beverage of choice. It’s simply good sense to use them as a sounding board during the writing process, not just after it.

Picture your muse when writing your story

Stephen King famously writes for his wife as she always reads his work before anyone else. In fact, quite a few writers give their work to a relative or close friend as ‘first contact’ or as writers usually call them, alpha readers.

BUT… If you don’t have someone in your life like that, you can create a mental image of a perfect reader in the same way as you create the rest of your book and people its pages with characters. Okay, so they won’t buy you a G & T or a giant, airport-duty-free-sized Toblerone (all donations gratefully received) when you’re feeling down, but they can still be useful. Give your person a name and an identity, with the quirks and foibles of real people. See them in your mind and address them as if they were real and present in the room with you. Speak to them directly as you write–tell them your story. If it helps you could even put at the top of the first page of your rough draft, “Dear (insert name here!), I am writing to tell you the story of…”

Just don’t forget to remove this bit later! 😀 

It doesn’t matter if your perfect reader is real or pretend, so long as they act as your creative muse, encouraging you to find your voice and get writing. You will be surprised at how much easier it is to focus on getting the framework of your story together with your new ‘audience’.

Not long now!

***

First, create your setting

An Art Deco style house, rather like a ship, I think

When writing any fictional work, the author has to create a setting. Even if all the action takes place in one room, the author needs to make the room appear real and convincing. And usually, a setting is much larger than one single room, whether it is a grand country house, a quaint village, a ship in the middle of the ocean or a space station located in a distant nebula. The physical space ascribed to a story is essential for the characters to exist: without a setting, the story just wouldn’t come alive in the imagination of the reader.

But as authors, we have a dilemma: is it better to use a fictional setting, or to set a story in a ‘real’ place?

Some authors love to set their works in a real place. In times past, when the average person didn’t travel afield very far, books set in foreign lands were exotic and almost as exciting as taking a trip yourself. The author could conjure the sights and smells, slipping in cultural references such as language, mannerisms, behaviours, and traditions, then adding layer upon layer of experience for the reader by including descriptions of places and geographical features they might never see. You could find yourself in a desert, or on a mountain-top, at the bottom of the sea with Jules Verne or travelling by mule to an isolated archeological dig in an Agatha Christie novel.

Not all country gardens include a summer house or gazebo

For the author, there are advantages to using a real location for a book. To begin with, it makes the surroundings easier to describe, if you only have to look out of your door, or bring up images on the Internet. It’s easier to keep track of your characters, especially in a crime story where you have to create alibis and where there is a need to account for a character’s movements or whereabouts at any given time. And because the author is describing a real place, it’s easier for them to keep their details accurate, and therefore they seem all the more convincing, giving the reader a sense of being in a ‘real’ place.

But there are disadvantages to this too.

To begin with, the real geography or setting might not work with your story, and if you include things that don’t exist, your readers will not be happy. And trust me, they will notice! Equally, real towns or country houses are vulnerable to change—once again change might mean that your story no longer works, or is less convincing, or just doesn’t interest the reader as much.

Another problem is the rise of Literary Tourism, or as I call it, the ‘Morse’ effect—this is where readers love a setting so much they want to go there and see it for themselves, and sometimes do this is large numbers, like tourists visiting the city of Oxford to follow in the steps of Colin Dexter’s creation, Inspector Morse. As we all know, a little tourism is a good thing—it boosts local economy and provides jobs, not to mention selling books or TV shows and making everyone happy. But a lot of tourism can breed resentment in a locality if it causes inconvenience, or even environmental damage. Visitors may throng about a particular spot that features in a book and this can be unacceptable for a number of reasons. And what if the author is highly critical or disparaging about a particular real place? I don’t see that book, or its enthusiasts being welcomed with open arms.

Be careful when featuring real inhabitants in fiction

For me, the setting is a useful, nice-to-have but not essential part of my books. The main emphasis is on character and events. So do forgive me if my settings a sometimes a bit ‘samey’. In this way, I sometimes build my fictional country house as an amalgamation of all the other, real-life country houses I’ve visited, not faithful at all to one specific building.

I personally prefer this ‘Midsomer Murders’ approach—have a fictional area within a real part of the country. This is the glorious middle ground, where you loosely build your story on what is actually there, but do the typical author thing of ‘changing the names to protect, etc, etc’. This way you can create the sense of a real place with all the quirks and characteristics of that place, but which is as flexible as the author needs it to be. You can incorporate any number of variations to fit your future works as well as the one you have on the go at the moment. And best of all—no one will ever be able to say, ‘In chapter four, you have the car park at the end of the road by the pier, but in fact it’s actually at the opposite end of the town.’

All you need to do is remember where all the features of your fictional town are. I suggest drawing a map. Otherwise, the same reader will be able to say, ‘In chapter four, the car park is at the end of the road by the pier, but in chapter seven, you’ve put it at the other end of the town.’ And by the time you get to this stage, it probably would have been easier to use a real place, after all.

I definitely need to set a book in Norway–no doubt I’ll have to travel there for research purposes. Sigh. Life’s tough.

***

A Clue of Detectives

One of Christie’s most controversial works!

I don’t know what the collective noun is for a bunch/murder/flock of detectives, but ‘clue’ has a nice and appropriate ring to it, I thought. Last week, a friend of mine, author Elizabeth Roy told us a bit about the Detection Club – a famous where successful authors collaborated together and compared notes. How I would have loved to be there at one of their meetings! Here is another snippet from Elizabeth about the Club.

The Detection Club was first founded in 1930 but it’s still going strong today. Many famous names are among the ranks of both members and club presidents, including: G K Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Julian Symons, H R F Keating, Simon Brett, Len Deighton, Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Peter Lovesey, Peter James, Martin Edwards, and Michael Ridpath. You might wonder why Arthur Conan Doyle was not included, but in fact he was invited to become the club’s first chairman, but had to decline due to his poor health, and sadly he died later in 1930, leaving G K Chesterton to preside over the creation of the club as its first president.

One of the most important functions of the club was to educate, compare notes and generally discuss crime writing as an academic pursuit, and to attempt to create guidelines, or ‘fair play’ rules for the best quality of crime writing. the famous oath only really scratched the surface of these guidelines:

“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

Member Ronald Knox is now, mainly, I would suggest, known for his Commandments, also referred to as the Knox Decalogue which went as follows:

A A Milne

The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

No Chinaman must figure in the story.

No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

The detective himself must not commit the crime.

The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.”

Of course the great thing about rules is that they are made to be broken, and I’m glad to say that many of the members and even–gasp!–the presidents–have broken at least one of these rules in their writing, whilst many others have been removed or altered.

Rule 1, for example, is akin to the common writing instruction that if a gun or some similar attention-catching object is mentioned at the beginning of a story or novel, it should be used by the end of the novel or story.

Rule 5 has more to do with the fact that in the 1930s, inscrutable, mysterious Chinamen were seen as figures involved in Chinese tongs and the drug trade. Because of those associations and stereotypical beliefs about Chinese culture, readers could be counted on to believe that a Chinese person would know mysterious, nearly undetectable ways to murder people through the use of martial arts, drugs, or even the occult. In any case, it was sadly all too common in both books and movies in the early twentieth century to automatically apportion blame to anyone seen as an outsider or to a person of different ethnicity. I’d like to think those days are well and truly behind us now.

Ngaio Marsh

As far as rule 9 goes, Watson was a competent medical doctor, hardly unintelligent. His brain may not work the way Sherlock Holmes brain does, but whose brain does work the way Holmes’s brain does? So, the Watson doesn’t have to be unintelligent. That character just needs to be someone who needs the detective character to explain his or her reasoning. We need them to perhaps just explain to us the detectives reasoning in a straightforward, logical manner.

All in all, lovers of all subgenres of crime fiction owe members of the detection club a huge debt of gratitude. Without them and their huge array of works, our lives would be infinitely poorer.

Further reading:

The Detection Club. Wikipedia.org.

Knox’s commandments

The Detection Club and ‘fair play’

At agathachristie.com

Dorothy L Sayers news article

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Discovering the Detection Club

This week I’m handing the reins over to author Elizabeth Roy for the first of a short series of posts about the famous Detection Club: Thanks Elizabeth, over to you…

You may know of the Detection Club which was founded in 1930. If you don’t, you will know many of its members, both past and present. The earliest members represent some of the best-known detective fiction writers from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Initiation into The Detection Club:

Evidence within the initiation ceremony and surrounding the administration of the Club’s membership oath allows us to deduce that fostering a golden age of murder mystery writing was among the members’ goals.

The famous oath was: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them, and not placing reliance on, nor making use of, Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

Most prospective members had written at least two successful pieces of detective fiction, with only A. A. Milne as an exception. Milne had published The Red House Mystery in 1922, but his next mystery didn’t appear until 1933. However, he was a prolific writer in other genres, most famously of course, his work for children. Prospective members also had to be sponsored by at least two members. The vote to accept or deny the new member was held in secret.

Agatha Christie

During the initiation ceremony, each new member was asked to name a thing he or she held in particular sanctity. Increased sales were substituted if the prospective member could not think of any sacred thing. Then, if the new member ever broke the oath just taken, he or she was “cursed” with the threats of lawsuits for libel, misprints, being cheated in contracts with publishers, and constantly dwindling sales.

Detection Club Meetings

At the dinner party meetings, the founding members enjoyed the company of other mystery writers and assisted each other with technical questions that they encountered as they wrote. While current members meet less frequently, in the early days, members regularly travelled to London to meet at the Café Royal and other locations.

At the meetings, the members sometimes agreed to collaborate on a novel or an anthology of novellas in round-robin style with each collaborator contributing one or more chapters.

Freeman Wills Crofts

For the collaboration on The Floating Admiral, the members agreed to rules that reduced the possibility of collaborators creating unlikely or impossible complications to the plot without showing that the contributor had a plan for reaching a reasonable plot resolution. Each collaborator had to include a sealed resolution to the plot he or she envisioned based on his or her contribution plus the chapters previously provided by others. These resolutions were published with the novel.

The founding members:

The founding members included: Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ronald Knox, (who created Knox’s Commandments, also known as The Knox Decalogue, the ten fair-play rules that all members were to use as guidelines when writing their mysteries, and that are still used as guidelines today for the writing of murder mysteries of the traditional type. The famous initiation oath was based on these statutes.) G K Chesterton, who served as the first president of The Detection Club, Freeman Wills Crofts, Arthur Morrison, Hugh Walpole, John Rhode, Jessie Rickard, Baroness Emma Orczy, R Austin Freeman, G D H Cole, Margaret Cole, E C Bentley, Henry Wade, Constance Lindsay Taylor, H C Bailey and Anthony Berkeley.

These men and women represented some of the finest and most meticulous authors of mystery fiction–and non-fiction, and most of them are still widely read and greatly admired today.

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Peril in Persia by Judith Cranswick: the new Aunt Jessica adventure lands tomorrow!

This week I am delighted to talk to Judith Cranswick about her brand new book, Peril in Persia, which comes out on Monday 31st January. This will be the third book in the cosy mystery series Aunt Jessica adventures. For those of you who are new to Judith’s series, Aunt Judith is a historian and noted lecturer on art and cultural history who is in great demand on tourist trips to add that extra special something to the tour. She brings along her favourite nephew, Harry, and the pair of them always seem to get into scrapes and fall amongst ne’er-do-wells.

Judith also has another notable series, the Fiona Mason mysteries which are similar to the Aunt Jessica books in that Fiona Mason is a tour guide who accompanies groups on their trips with Super sun Holidays. Fiona has solved her own large share of mysterious murders and dastardly deeds. There are also a number of stand-alone novels, short story collections and even creative writing prompts to help authors to harness inspiration and put pen to paper.

About Peril in Persia: Aunt Jessica mysteries book 3

A forty-year-old conspiracy leads to murder and more lives are threatened.
When a fellow passenger is killed on the first day of their tour of Iran, Harry believes it was no accident. But who would want him dead and why? The murdered man was clearly no tourist so why was he on the tour? What is the link with the hotel manager? The questions keep coming. Harry becomes suspicious of several of his fellow passengers who he is convinced are not what they claim to be. He will need Aunt Jessica’s steadying hand to stop him rushing into danger to solve the mystery.
Revel in the magnificent setting as you take a tour of ancient Persia, exploring the glories of Darius the Great’s magnificent palace at Persepolis, the mud-brick desert cities from the 13th century, the palaces and gardens, to the peak of architectural splendour in Shah Abbas 17th century capital of Isfahan. But be prepared for treachery and deceit as the past demands revenge.
A whodunit with plenty of unexpected twists with a touch of humour. It will keep you guessing until the end.
What readers are saying: –

‘The thing I love about Judith Cranswick’s books is that you are transported to another world. The writing is so vivid, you can see the magnificent sights – the rich colours of the mosques, the sparkle of the palaces – hear the throng of the busy marketplaces and smell the perfumes of the lush Persian gardens.

‘Well researched. I never realised that Iran had such a rich history and the stories associated with the last Shah’s family were fascinating.’

‘Another unputdownable gem in a great series.

Click here to buy Peril in Persia: Aunt Jessica mysteries book 3

Like her protagonists, Judith also gives talks on a wide range of topics when she is on-board ship, helping holidaymakers to get more out of their trip.

Judith was kind enough to answer a few questions for me this week when I nabbed her in a dark corner, stole her passport and wouldn’t let her leave. (Not really.)

Caron: Many of your books are set on a holiday tour, are they all based on trips you’ve made personally?

Judith: All my travel mysteries are based on holidays I’ve taken. That is always my starting point. The trip comes first. The itinerary in the book is the same one I followed. Many of the things that happen on our journey end up in the novel. For example, I slipped down the last couple of stairs and twisted my ankle on the way to the Rhine Valley. I was able to use that idea in ‘Blood in the Wine’ to further the plot. Similarly, when we were in the Galapagos, we saw a sea lion with a tuna fish in its jaws batting it from side to side. I remember thinking, ‘What if that were a human arm?’ It was one of the things that inspired ‘A Death too Far’. Places can also give rise to ideas. The Hilton Hotel in Berlin has an impressive atrium which inspired the idea of hoisting someone over the balcony on the third floor for ‘Blood Hits the Wall’.

Caron: Have you ever had any odd encounters on your tours that you’ve thought would be perfect for a book, or perhaps even too unbelievable even for a novel?

Judith: After our tiger watching holiday in India, I came back with a complete plot. Our party included a successful Australian businesswoman who was partially deaf. She had paid for her young assistant to come with her. They were both drinking gin at breakfast which didn’t go down too well with everyone else. To make matters worse, the two fell out bigtime, so much so that one night the assistant went out of the compound where we were staying in the middle of the tiger reserve. A tiger had killed a man from one of the villages in the reserve only the week before and the guards were prohibited from going out once the gates were shut. In the end, one of the passengers went out on foot to bring her back. Our guide then had no choice but to go after him in a jeep to help find her. All three managed to get back safely, but the friction that followed would have made an excellent plot. Bar an actual murder, I had all the material – characters, subplots and fantastic wildlife and scenery – for ‘Tiger, Tiger’ another psychological suspense. Sadly, I’ve never had time to write it.

Caron: When is your next Fiona Mason book coming out? Any hints as to location? 

Judith: The next Fiona Mason Mystery will be set in Paris. I’d like to think that it will be ready by the end of the year, but I have a lecture cruise coming up at the end of March so I shall be busy putting together my presentations for the Canary Islands until after Easter. We also have a holiday planned for October when we’ll be doing a Nile Cruise. I’m hoping that will give me enough ideas for the next Aunt Jessica and Harry Mystery.

Caron: Are your characters based on people you meet on your travels? What about your sleuths? Are you the real Aunt Jessica or Fiona Mason?

Judith: My characters are always my own creations. Like many writers they take on a life of their own even doing things that surprise me. I’ve had a couple who point-blank refused to be the murderer and Peter Montgomery-Jones, who I only ever intended to be a minor character in the first Fiona novel ‘Blood on the Bulb Fields’, insisted not only on a bigger role but on coming back in all the later books in the series. It makes the novels considerably harder to plot. Not only do I have to find an additional terrorist/political mission for him to be involved in, but also tie it together with Fiona’s investigation at the end of the novel.

Although the idea of Aunt Jessica came from the Islamic specialist who came with us on our trips to Morocco and Persia, Jessica is nothing like Diana though they both work in the British Museum.

My characters may be totally from my imagination, but my locations are not. I need to picture them exactly. Hotels, flats or kitchens might not be in the places I say they are, but they are real. I had to make a special trip into Swindon to find a café in the right part of town, even sit in the same seat at a table in the window as my protagonist, before I could write the scene.

Many thanks to Judith for those wonderful insights.

You can find Judith on the following social media – do follow her for updates and other exciting stuff!

Website: www.judithnew.cranswick.org.uk

Facebook – author page: Judith Cranswick – crime writer

Twitter: @CranswickJudith

Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/author/show/ 7211080.Judith_Cranswick

My review:

Join Jessica and her nephew Harry on a new journey to discover art and cultural history in their latest adventure, Peril in Persia.

Jessica has been invited to host a series of lectures on an exclusive tour of Iran, presenting the holidaymakers with insight into the wonderful landscape of what is a trip of a lifetime for most. For some it’s the last trip they will make.

It doesn’t take long for Jessica and Harry’s seasoned eyes to work out that some members of the group have got something to hide, and still others are clearly not as unfamiliar with the area as they claimed. For a group of strangers, some of them certainly seem to know a lot about one another, too! As the group travels from site of interest to site of interest, soon the masks begin to slip and old animosities surface, with devastating consequences.

Fans of traditional cosy mysteries are in for a treat with book 3 in this series, as the clues begin to mount up and Jessica and Harry begin to figure out what’s really going on.

As always in Judith Cranswick’s books, the setting is a huge part of the enjoyment of the mystery, lending its own unique features as a backdrop to murder and intrigue. Like the Fiona Mason mysteries, the Aunt Jessica and Harry mysteries are perfect for both he armchair tourist and the armchair sleuth. Highly enjoyable!

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An apology. And (finally) The Killer Speaks

Since this whole covid thing hit, I’ve noticed I’ve become quite–erm–well, doolally is what my mother would have called it. I’ve gone a bit forgetful and dopey. And the most recent example of this is when, two weeks ago, I posted a blog entitled ‘More killer words’, and I actually said:

‘I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks.’

Well it’s taken me until last weekend to figure out where I said that, and it was in my subscriber newsletter – so no, I never did start that conversation here on my blog. On the blog we had the sequel but not the prequel, if you see what I mean. Sorry about that! So now, without further ado, I bring you the original (horribly long, feel free to completely ignore it) The Killer Speaks:

You know how, at the end of a murder mystery, they assemble all the suspects, and the police, and the investigator—whether an official officer of the law or an amateur sleuth, or even a paid private eye—tells everyone how the crime was done? I love that bit.

On the one hand, it bugs me that it’s done at all in fiction, because clearly, in real life the police don’t bring all the suspects to Great Aunt Madge’s house and, when everyone is sitting comfortably, begin to recount the case from the very beginning, filling in each step with a bit of evidence or some superhuman deductive reasoning. And usually I hate it when things in books aren’t done ‘right’.

But I love that big reveal, and the complacency of the investigator, having everyone there to listen to his/her theories. I love the ego of it, the pomp, the ‘you will all listen to me’ arrogance, and so even though I strive to make my own stories more or less believable, I sometimes just give in and go with that wonderful sense of occasion.

I’m not an expert on the Golden Age of murder mystery writing, but I am very familiar with some of the well-known authors of that time, notably Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth, and I have read quite a bit by some of their contemporaries: Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer. And I’m pretty sure it was this bunch who created the concept of this kind of finale. Or perhaps if we go a little further back, we will find Sherlock Holmes setting this up as the ultimate in wrap-ups, or Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff. I’m not clear where it began. I just know I love it.

We so often read of Poirot standing in front of a group of rather irritable, seated suspects whilst he expounds, his manner a cross between hectoring and lecturing. Miss Marple, by dint of her age, is usually seated, sometimes knitting, and has a far more hesitant, apologetic style, and is so self-deprecating. Both Poirot and Marple suffer from moral outrage: a murder is an affront and will not be tolerated mainly on the grounds of moral integrity rather than the unbiased basis of the law.

I enjoy ‘listening’ as they bring their case. But then comes the point I love the most.

The killer speaks.

Because this is the reason we hang onto Poirot’s thoughts for so long. We want to hear (read, I mean really) the killer say in her or his own words, WHY they did it. Yes, we do need to know how. And where, and with what weapon, we want to know about motives and alibis, but oh so often, the abiding desire in us is to know WHY. Why did they do such a terrible, irremediable thing?

We are often told that anyone could kill given the right circumstances and sufficient motive. Many of us doubtless would say, ‘No, I would never, could never kill. I can’t even bring myself to kill a woodlouse or a spider.’

I have asked myself if I could kill. I have killed bugs and beasties, generally by accident or out of sheer clumsiness. But I’ve never—as far as I’m aware—killed anything bigger than a bee. Unless you count calling the rat man. That I suppose is more like being an accessory, or conspiring to kill… From the rat’s point of view, they’d probably say I was a murderer. To me it’s different. I suppose murderers always say that.

But if it was a case of happening upon a person who was deliberately harming someone else, and I saw a way to stop it, what would I do? I’d like to think I’d never turn my back on someone in desperate need. But how far would I go?

So I think that’s why we—all of us avid crime fiction fans—enjoy getting to the pinnacle of a mystery, following the clues, deducing and pondering, and hanging onto every word to find out ‘the who’ and ‘the why’ behind the whole thing. As the killer shifts in his or her seat, the spotlight shifts to them, and this is their big moment. The chance to explain their WHY. We hold our breath, not daring to make a sound in case we miss a word. They lean forward, look us in the eye, they clear their throat, and they speak…

Which book finale have you read which gave you the biggest buzz? Do you prefer your killer to go down denying and fighting, or do you prefer your books to end with a kind of proud and well-bred admission of the truth?

Get in touch! Let me know what you think!

In the meantime, in case you haven’t read it–you won’t need to now you know who the killer is–you can click here to go to one of my own ‘big moments’ when the killer speaks. This is taken from my novel The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 4. And it absolutely does contain a ton of SPOILERS.

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