You know how it is. The bright lights are shining in your eyes. The interrogation has been relentless for almost an hour. You’ve told them all you know – and more. But still it goes on. You take a sip of tepid water and hope that they’ll give you a break – but, no …
“I think,” says the chairman, “that we’ve got time for just one more question from the audience. Yes, you sir, at the back – the gentleman with the crazed expression and straw in his hair.” “Could the panel tell us,” says the voice from out of the gloom, “which other writers have influenced them and how?”
Should be a pretty easy one that. A chance to plug one or two of your mates, who hopefully will return the compliment at the next panel. Failing that, no audience of crime readers has ever shot anyone for saying they liked Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler. I tend to cite Christie, Allingham and Sayers as my influences in the crime field. As for non-crime, I carefully judge the credulity of my audience and then go in ascending order for Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau and Marcel Proust (in the original French, obviously). And up to a point that’s true. Bien sûr.
Writing is, though, a funny business. Few writers of fiction (and e fortiori, I suspect, of crime fiction) have any formal training as authors. It’s not like being a musician, or an artist or a doctor. There’s no framed certificate on my wall to say that, having satisfied the examiners of my duplicity, lust for blood and deviousness, I am now a Fellow of the Crime Writers Association. You learn for the most part by reading other people, and so the individuals who have influenced you are important.
I have therefore had to give this some serious thought – who has actually changed the way I write – rather than merely written something I enjoyed or admired? What emerges at the end, isn’t quite the list I usually quote.
Forget Christie, for a start. It’s true I have read her since the age of 11 and still read her. But my style is nothing like hers and I make no pretence of matching the fiendish (and sometimes rather unlikely) complexity of her plots. Ditto Allingham. Ditto Sayers. I love Calvino and Queneau, but I didn’t read either until after I had published my first book, so they can’t have been as influential as all that. I write comic crime and, rereading my novels, I see more influence from humorists than from crime writers. I eventually came up with the following list.
1 Alan Coren – When I was very much younger than I am now, I would be sent down to the newsagents on Sunday morning to pick up the Sunday paper and my father’s copy of Punch. I’d have read Alan Coren’s piece for that week before I got back home. Coren was a comic genius. Sadly he never wrote a novel, but he produced a great deal of very good journalism and wrote a lot of parodies. When writing my first book, The Herring Seller’s Apprentice, I found myself including a number of parodies, and it will surprise nobody who has read Alan Coren that two of the writers I parodied were Hemingway and AA Milne. Both parodies were, with hindsight, at least as much a homage to Coren as they were to their nominal models.
2 PG Wodehouse – Another writer that I discovered early on. Wodehouse had the ability to make his writing appear as if it had flowed effortlessly from his pen – an effortlessness that you later discover requires twenty or thirty drafts. He taught me that, even when you are writing humour, you still have to work at it to find the precise word every time. Wodehouse did not venture into detective fiction (unlike AA Milne) but he has one splendid line that I would have loved to have opened a crime novel with: “The thing that poisons life for gunmen and sometimes makes them wonder whether it is worth while going on is the tendency of the outside public to butt in at inconvenient moments”. Hmm, maybe I can still work that one in.
3 Evelyn Waugh – Probably my favourite writer. When I started writing I had a theory that all books had a few dull pages. Waugh showed me that this was not necessarily so. He also showed me how much about a character could be conveyed through dialogue rather than description. Prose of that quality remains the lofty target at which I aim. Waugh too wrote a good first line for a crime novel: “Almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression”. Classy.
4 Edward Osmotherly – You will look in vain on Amazon for Edward Osmotherly, though he was the author of an important document – the Osmotherly Rules, governing evidence to Select Committees. He belongs in this list as my boss for my first year in the Civil Service. As such he introduced me to Ernest Gowers’ Plain Words – still the best book I have come across on the business of writing clearly and understandably. Additionally however, for the year I shared an office with him, he spent many patient hours proof-reading and correcting the drafts of ministerial letters, speeches and answers to Parliamentary Questions that it was my job to write. He instilled in me the idea that most muddled writing is the result of muddled thinking and that you should get your ideas clear in your head before you set pen to paper (as we did in those far off pre-electronic days). Most of what I write has been composed and revised many times in my head before I touch the keyboard.
So, there you are. I love reading crime, and the Golden Age in particular, but most of my influences seem to come from elsewhere. I hope that the gentleman at the back of the room is happy with that answer? Sorry? You do shoot people round here for liking Agatha Christie? I’d forgotten I was addressing the Margery Allingham Society. But ask the same question next week and I’ll probably give you a different answer. Influences are slippery things and another person’s style or way of plotting may creep into your own work insidiously, without your realising. And with that worrying thought, I’ll take my leave. You’ve been a great audience, even the gentleman at the back with the crazed expression and the Walther PPK in his hand, and I do look forward to meeting you all again at next year’s conference.
L C Tyler’s latest book, The Herring in the Library (the third in the Ethelred and Elsie series) is published by Macmillan on 6 August.