As a founder member of Mystery Women in 1997, promoting Crime Fiction has always been my passion.
Following the closure of Mystery Women, a new group was formed on 30th January 2012 promoting crime fiction.
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L C (or Len if you’re offering to buy him a drink) Tyler first appeared
on the crime fiction scene about ten years ago and immediately began to make an
impression. His series of comic crime novels, featuring not especially successful
crime writer Ethelred Tressider and his opinionated chocoholic agent Elsie
Thirkettle, have won awards and been nominated for others, and last year he was
afforded one of the greatest honours of the crime writing world: the chair of
the Crime Writers’ Association.
Now a full-time writer after a busy and varied life
which included travel over three continents and being chief executive of the
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, he recently turned his attention
to historical crime fiction featuring 17th century lawyer John Grey,
and claims that the Stuarts will turn out to be far more fun than the Tudors
when his characters finally emerge from the rather more dour Cromwell era.
Lynne: Len, I’m sure a lot
of people will be intrigued to know why you decided to change direction a
couple of years ago. Ethelred and Elsie had gained quite a following; where did
John Grey come from?
Len: I was trying to think of a new direction in which to go. I had an
idea for a plot in which everyone in the story knew who the murderer was except
the narrator. Then I had to ask myself under what circumstances that might
happen – the narrator had to be an outsider of some sort or, now I came to
think of it, somebody who had lived in the place but had been away for some
time and was no longer trusted for some reason. The narrator had to be clever
enough to solve the puzzle but naïve enough to be taken in at first. And I was
keen to write some historical fiction. Thus it was that I came up with John
Grey, just returned to his village after studying law at Cambridge, only to
find that things have changed in a way he can’t quite put his finger on …
Lynne: Research must play
a large part in historical fiction, and written records of the 17th
century can’t be prolific. How do you go about making the background real and
getting the details right?
Len: I knew the period a bit anyway. I knew something about the
architecture and the costumes and the music and the politics. But there was no
substitute for many days spent in the British Library researching every detail
of seventeenth century. There is actually an amazing amount of contemporary
stuff out there that gives you a flavour of what was going on – for example,
letters to exiled royalists from their families in England, the extensive
archive of John Thurloe, Cromwell’s spymaster and of course Pepys’s diaries.
The big picture is usually clear enough – it’s the small details that can trip
you up. Did people normally eat breakfast in 1665, for example? Pepys rarely
mentions it (he takes his ‘morning draught’, which was probably alcoholic) but
was that just the way Pepys did things? Or did he usually eat breakfast but not
think it was worth mentioning? Would small children have eaten breakfast, even
if adults didn’t? Sometimes you just have to cross your fingers and make an
Lynne: Humour is very much
your thing on the page, but it’s notoriously personal, and hard to get right;
what makes one person laugh simply doesn’t do it for another. Is there a knack
to it? Or do you have a sounding board: maybe a group of people you try things
out on? Or... what’s your secret?
Len: It’s very difficult to analyse humour. As you say, it is so much a
matter of personal taste. It sometimes surprises me which bits of a book people
like and don’t like. I’ve had lines enthusiastically quoted back at me that I
thought were rather ordinary and lines that I thought were inspired that nobody
seems to have noticed. In the end my benchmark is that if it makes me laugh
then it may make somebody else laugh. Interestingly the humour seems to
translate quite well into French, but not for some reason into German.
Lynne: Your first
protagonist, Ethelred Tressider, always had ambitions beyond popular fiction,
and saw himself as the author of a more serious kind of book altogether. What
was L C Tyler aiming at when he first took up his pen? Booker Prize, or Last
Len: It was my intention to settle for nothing less than the Nobel
Prize for Literature.
Lynne: Quite right too!
And there’s still plenty of time – especially now you’re writing more or less
Your early career as a
senior civil servant took you all over the world and into some pretty
high-powered company. Where did the writing come from? Was it always there in
the background, or were you a late starter?
Len: It was always there. I wrote one novel at university (about
somebody at university) and one when I was in Africa (about somebody in
Africa). I’m rather pleased now that neither was published. It may have been my
time as cultural attaché in Copenhagen that that inspired me to have another
shot at it. Colin Dexter, Robert Goddard, Nick Hornby, Helen Dunmore, Romesh
Gunesekera and A L Kennedy all visited. When I returned from Copenhagen I
started The Herring Seller’s Apprentice, but
it took me some years to finish it.
Lynne: If the ‘Herring’
series was ever picked up for TV, who would you like to see playing Ethelred
Len: Excellent question! I’d have answered differently at different
times, but I did wonder recently whether David Tennant wouldn’t make a very
good Ethelred. Maybe Rebecca Front as Elsie?
Front would be perfect. And David Tennant would certainly do wonders for the
remember the moment when your advance copies of your first-ever book arrived –
a real book, not just a computer file or a pile of manuscript? Did it feel
familiar – or completely different from the work you initially sent out? Did
you re-read it?
Len: It was wonderful. I placed on copy of it on the bookshelves next
to Mark Twain and just stood there admiring it. What was really strange wasn’t
the transformation from manuscript to book, but the fact that people were
talking to me about these characters that for years only I had known about. I’m
not actually that keen on re-reading my books – you always spot mistakes or
things that you could have written better.
Lynne: Who do
you write for? Was there a reader in your mind when you set out to write
about Ethelred and Elsie? Are you aiming the John Grey series at the same
Len: I set out to write the sort of book that I enjoy reading. But it’s
not as simple as just writing for myself. I include all sorts of obscure jokes
for friends. In The Herring Seller’s Apprentice, for example, there are
various references to oral surgeons, of whom I know a few. In A Masterpiece
of Corruption one of the characters bears the (only slightly altered) name
of a prominent crime writer. I hadn’t really thought whether I was aiming John
Grey at a different audience but people who like one series tend to like the
Lynne: What is your
working strategy? Are you highly organized, plotting it all out in methodical
detail, with timelines and storyboards? Or do you just plunge
in and let the characters get on with it?
And how does a
new book start in your mind?
Len: It various so much from book to book. In The Herring Seller’s Apprentice, I honestly didn’t know from one
chapter to the next what the characters would do. With A Masterpiece of Corruption, I knew more or less where the plot was
going from the beginning. But I rarely do detailed planning more than half a
dozen chapters in advance. A new book often starts with a fairly simple premise
– such as the one I quote for A
Masterpiece of Corruption – and grows from there. My Herring books all have
Christie-esque titles, but only Herring
on the Nile actually set out to mirror a Christie plot in any way (and then
only a bit).
Lynne: Like many comic crime novels, your books have been
described as ‘cosy’ crime: sex scenes and graphic violence happen off the page
if they happen at all. Are you uncomfortable with the modern trend towards gory
descriptions? Is there anything you wouldn’t write?
Len: As I say, I write the sort of thing I like
reading, and I’m not that keen on gore. My victims tend to die with a neat
bullet hole through the head or from a quick acting poison (even though, as I
point out in one of my books, most deaths from poison aren’t remotely as fast
as you’d like). My stories are in that sense very much traditional mysteries,
which focus on detection rather than the crime itself. I’m not sure I’d rule
out anything, but if I wrote gore, I’d probably do it under another name. You
can’t play fast and loose with your readers’ expectations.
Lynne: And finally – what’s next? A Masterpiece of Corruption,
the second in the John Grey series, is just out. Is there another in the
pipeline? Or can we look forward to another change of direction?
Len: There’s another book in the Ethelred and
Elsie series out next month – Cat Among the Herrings. I’m currently
working on the third book in the John Grey series, set during the Great Plague
and provisionally entitled The Plague Road.
L C Tyler is the author of the Ethelred
and Elsie series, published by Allison & Busby:
The Herring Seller's
Apprentice Ten Little Herrings The Herring in the Library The Herring on The Nile Crooked Herring The Herring in the Libary Cat Among the Herrings
and the John Grey series, published by Constable:
A Cruel Necessity
A Masterpiece of Corruption
and alsoA Very
Persistent Illusion, published by Pan
and described as ‘a hilarious, hugely inventive and thought-provoking novel
about love, madness and reality.’
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen,
and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but
never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher
for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now
burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with
books, about half of them crime fiction.