Saturday, December 17, 2016

Guest Blog: Len Tyler

Aline here. I'm delighted to introduce you today to Len Tyler, Chair of the Crime Writers Association. From this seat of immense power and prestige, he oversees the famous Dagger Awards, from the Debut Dagger for unpublished writers through to the Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence and contribution to crime writing. Despite this, he remains kind and undulgent to mere members such as myself and happily agreed to be my guest blogger this week. He has won the 'Last Laugh' award twice for his comic crime novel series as well as being twice short-listed for the Edgar Allan Poe award.

Len writes:

One of the things that you are always trying to do with your work is to instill a sense of time and place. The time of year my books are set often depends on when I begin them - it’s somehow much easier writing about a fine autumn day when it is actually autumn and you’ve just come in from wading through dry leaves with the sun low in a reddening sky.

The book I’ve just turned in (Herring in the Smoke) was begun last spring and, sure enough, the opening chapter is a bright, cold day in late March (and the final chapter is is set in early autumn, roughly when it was first drafted). Christmas features quite a lot in my work however, almost regardless of the progress of the real-life year as I write. Very often it plays a symbolic part in the story. The fourth novel in my Ethelred and Elsie series is Herring on the Nile. It is set (the title is something of a give-away) in Egypt and the narrator, an author, does not have a terribly pleasant time – he is pursued by somebody who does not wish him well, kidnapped in error and almost blown up. Finally, he returns to England just before Christmas. The time of year provides a symbolic healing. He writes in the final chapter: ‘From a window I can see, a little way down Horsham Road, the lights of a Christmas tree shining on the pristine white blanket. In front of me is my computer and a pot of coffee. I’ve just started writing a new book. It’s surprising how little you need to be happy.’

Ethelred’s attitude to Christmas shows, you might say, a certain amount about his character. His agent, Elsie, by contrast, has less enthusiasm for the festivities, referring to ‘that terrifying, yawning gulf between the Queen’s Speech and the earliest that you can decently go to bed’. You can tell a lot about people by what they like and dislike.

Christmas also plays an important part in my John Grey historical series, which begins in the 1650s, when Christmas had been banned by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan regime. The lack of Christmas symbolises some of the joylessness of the period. When my narrator criticises his mother for celebrating Christmas anyway, it again tacitly comments on the respective characters of John Grey and Mistress Grey. John, though he constantly denies it, is something of a Puritan at heart and very much a child of the new regime. His mother refuses to allow Cromwell, or her son, get in the way of enjoying herself as she always has. John’s acknowledgement, at the end of the book, that it would do no harm to put up a bit of holly this year, is one indicator of how he has changed during the year.

Christmas 1657 saw a general round-up and arrest in London of anyone attending a church service on Christmas Day. That provided me with a sub-plot in the second book in the series, A Masterpiece of Corruption. John Grey, hearing of the plan, tries to warn his friends of the danger of attending church, only to be arrested himself. It proves not to be the most enjoyable Christmas he has had. One of the friends he was trying to warn does however very kindly visit him in prison to tell him what he’s missed. So, I always get Christmas in when I can. Why not? It was and is a great time of the year.

Occasionally the plot forces you to write about some other month. I am for example currently working on a book set at the time of the Great Fire of London. That was in September 1666, no getting away from it. The setting is the end of a long hot summer. Still, I can probably cover the aftermath of the fire – I can see the desolate ruins of London, the walls of the houses collapsed into heaps of now cold rubble and just the church spires left standing as strange vertical markers in a low, grey landscape. Then the white snow begins to fall, covering the grey ash, and somewhere, in the distance, from one of the churches that survived the conflagration, the bells begin to ring.

There’s symbolism there all right. Yes, I rather think that might work…

1 comment:

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Welcome to Type M, Len. Thank you for joining us. As soon as I can get out of my snow-covered Albany, NY driveway, I'll make my way to bookstore or library and look for your John Grey series. The plots sound intriguing and a perfect read for this season of the year.