Christie, as you know, grew to loathe Poirot, and Conan Doyle tried to kill Sherlock, but how many modern crime writers, I wonder, face the prospect of turning out yet another book in their series with a sigh you can hear in the room next door (where sits the all too understanding partner who has heard that sigh so many times before). “Just write the thing,” responds their partner. “Before the deadline,” the publisher appends.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” Bill Clinton said. No matter how much writers want to break out and write something entirely different, they can’t avoid the fact that the money’s in the series. They know that. Everyone tells them that. It’s a fact of life.
Or is it? Agatha varied her diet by adding Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence, and a few stand-alones including – what was its name again? – that play that has been running in the West End ever since 1952. Were you even alive when that thing started? Conan Doyle made his name and money with Sherlock, but could have eked out a pleasant enough literary life with his other series (Brigadier Gerard, Professor Challenger, etc.). Dorothy L Sayers may have claimed to be in love with Lord Peter and, in her detective novels, had only one brief dalliance away from him (The Documents in the Case), but she did have a number of one-night stands with a commercial traveller called Montague Egg and (to her, much more importantly) she stretched her ladylike limbs around Jesus Christ in a set of radio dramas (The Man Born To Be King) and Dante, whose Inferno she translated (very readably, I might add).
Ngaio Marsh wrote travel books, Michael Innes wrote critical tomes such as Eight Modern Writers, writers from Raymond Chandler to Elmore Leonard wrote How To Write books, while G K Chesterton and Edgar Wallace seemed able to turn their pens to anything you could name (and some you wished they hadn’t thought of). Keith Miles cum Edward Marston wrote The Archers for some years, and a typed-up list of radio works written or produced by Simon Brett would come out longer than the average crime novel.
It can be done. It used to be. But where are the tangential oeuvres of our current writers? The big names of British crime writing are highly intelligent and highly literate; a University Challenge team comprising Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham and Val McDermid would take a lot of beating. They know their subjects, they are PhD level brains. But where are their breakout books? As my school reports said: could do better.
Their publishers won’t let them. That’s what they’ll tell you. But really? Does anyone seriously believe that if any of them (and not just those three) chose to take a year out from the dreaded series and write something entirely different, their publishers would cancel their contracts and let them sail away?
Now, I can see the flaw in my argument – from the publishers’ viewpoint. “It’s the economy, stupid,” and the money’s in the series. Yes, if you really must, you can change the detective (as McDermid has) but you must write crime. Nothing else will earn that money. But – and here’s a 20th century question for a 21st century writer – do you really need that cash? As a top writer you’ve earned big money already; your old titles will live on and earn you more. Besides, no one is saying you should give up on crime entirely; merely give yourself a break. You’re rich, aren’t you (you are, compared to me) you can afford to sacrifice a little extra cash in order to free yourself to do what you’d really like to do. (Otherwise what’s the point of having all that money?)
But what do I know? I’m not a top-selling writer. Yet, bizarrely, I can and do do what they hold back from doing. I am, let’s face it, in the twilight of my career; I may have published 25 books but I no longer have publishers screaming at me to make the deadline; I can write what I like, to my own schedule, and I do. In the last few years I have written a pseudo celebrity bio of an early 20th century chanteuse, a 1960s diary of a murderous doctor, a collection of Victorian romances, a novel involving the Pre-Raphaelites, a full-length story apparently dictated into an iPhone and, for 2018 and just out, a novel about forbidden love in the Victorian Church, all alongside several works of non-fiction. It doesn’t matter whether these topics appeal to you, because frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. I have stretched myself, I’ve shown what I can do – and I’m going to go on doing it. (I am also building a new set of fans which, in some ways, is more pleasing than mere money.)
But in all seriousness, I look to our top-selling crime writers and I challenge them – no, it’s not a challenge, it’s an invitation: take a year out (to hell with your publishers), write something different, something you want to write; surprise us, go on, surprise yourself. I know you can do it. You do too.
Give yourself a break.
When making my point in ‘Give Yourself A Break’ about extending oneself, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Mark Billingham were both good and bad examples for me to choose – good in that they are top-of-the-tree British crime writers who are also formidably bright and well-read, but bad in that, despite what I suggested in my hastily written piece, they have indeed stretched themselves well beyond ‘mere’ crime writing. As fans rushed to tell me, Ian Rankin not only ‘retired’ Rebus for a 5-year absence but also wrote a 200-page supernatural graphic novel, an opera libretto and various other song lyrics – plus all that journalism – while Val organises top-level writing symposiums and events, she broadcasts regularly and has extended her writing to include non-fiction, non-crime short stories and a prize-winning children’s book. And who can forget Mark Billingham’s hilarious book, “Great Lost Albums”, his Young Adult strand (of three books, I think), the play he wrote and his 2016 Americana album and tour of “The Other Half” with the country duo “My Darling Clementine”. Who can forget? Well, me perhaps, for one.
And quite a few of my readers. Which makes a somewhat sadder point than I intended, that we all like to categorise and we all do that too simply. I’m sure that, a century or so ago, I could have been as guilty as many in criticising the very able Doctor Conan Doyle for confining himself to detective stories. “What of my historical novels, my Brigadier Gerard and Professor Challenger novels, my investigations into psychic phenomena?” he might have asked (glossing over the fairies) – and he’d have been right: he was far more than the creator of the world’s most famous fictional detective. So the real point seems to be that we are all guilty (myself included) of being unable to see beyond one dimension, of giving people a single label and insisting that that’s the sum total of who they are. Rather wonderfully, we find that we’re all a damned sight more complex. Celebrity may work in one dimension, but real people do not.
In years to come which label, I wonder, will we apply to the person we once knew as Meghan Markle?