Have you ever written a novel?
That may be a silly question, I know, because so many people have written one. So, let’s refine the question. Have you ever published a novel? And even better, has your novel been sold abroad in a foreign translation?
That’s when the fun really starts.
Then, cultures clash and you are slap-bang in the firing-line.
We were very lucky. The first novel in our Hanno Stiffeniis series, Critique of Criminal Reason, was published in the UK by Faber & Faber and St Martins Press in the USA, before being published in over twenty foreign countries, including Italy, Germany, France, Greece, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Poland, Chinese (simple and complex), Japan, Russia, and many smaller countries, too.
Since 2006, the year that we became published authors, we’ve received many letters from all over the world from enthusiastic readers who want to know more about Hanno Stiffeniis and the Prussia in which he lived...
Lived? Here we must pause for a moment.
Hanno Stiffeniis is a literary invention. He is not a real magistrate. Indeed, we have no idea how magistrates worked in early nineteenth-century Prussia, despite all of our painstaking historical research. When Prussia was invaded by France in 1806 we have a better idea of how the law was administered, because the occupying French enforced the Napoleonic codes. Otherwise, everything ‘legal’ in our novels is pure invention.
Prussia, too, is an invention.
The country hasn’t existed since 1918, almost a century ago, when the remains of Prussia were dismantled and reassigned to Poland, Russia and Germany after the end of the First World War. At one book festival, an American lady stood up and asked us why we were so interested in Russia. Russia? She had never heard of Prussia!
Of course, the fact that a country doesn’t exist is music to a writer’s ears.
You can write what you like...
Or can you?
When Days of Atonement, the second in the series appeared, a librarian from a small town in Germany (not Bonn, though Le Carrè fans’ ears will have pricked up) wrote to complain that there had never been a Jewish pogrom in the town where he lived! As we always try to locate our stories within a real historical context, one in which facts run in parallel with fantasy, I wrote back saying that we would never have mentioned it if it hadn’t really happened, at the same time promising to find the reference. Well, weeks went by and I could not trace the source of our claim. In the end, I had to write and apologise. And of course there’s no redress for that particular reader: the book still says that it happened...
This morning brought a very nice email, asking us about the third novel in the Hanno Stiffeniis series, A Visible Darkness. The reader wanted to know whether Lotingen and Nordcopp, two places which feature in the novel, actually exist. I had to write back saying that we had invented them for the purposes of fiction.
A more serious enquiry on a similar theme came from Japan. A reader said that he was planning to tour Europe and that he “especially wanted to see the fortress of Kamenetz,” which appears in Days of Atonement. He had checked Internet and Google Maps and he couldn’t find Kamenetz anywhere. By now, I bet you’ve guessed the reason. It was pure fantasy, a Gothic-horrific representation of all that we thought was the very worst aspect of Prussian militarism!
The most contentious element in our work was, of course, the way we treated Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who lived and taught in Königsberg. This was the very beginning of our relationship with Prussia, and many people took it the wrong way, serious Kant scholars in particular. Some of them thought that we had made Immanuel Kant ridiculous, which was never our intention. We simply pondered on what may have happened as Kant grew old. Our Kant was not the Kant that myths are made of. In Critique he was no longer teaching or publishing, approaching death – indeed, he dies before the book ends, tended on his death-bed by our local family doctor from Spoleto, Danilo Gioacchini, a wonderful man and the sort of doctor that any ageing philosopher would have loved to have at his bedside as his life ebbed away.
“Why kill off your hero?” the critics asked. (They never let you get away with anything!) “Why defile the memory of an immortal philosopher?” a big Italian newspaper demanded. “Michael Gregorio got Euler’s Seven-Bridges-of-Königsberg problem wrong!” a famous mathematician proclaimed in a book.
What the critics didn’t understand was that we were playing with history. Our Kant – like the real Kant – was in the final stages of senile dementia. When he mentions Euler’s problem, he not only gets the number of bridges wrong, he also claims to have TWO solutions to a problem which, in fact, even the great mathematician, Leonard Euler, couldn’t solve!
So, what is the truth about Hanno Stiffeniis?
The truth is that Hanno and his world are an invention from beginning to end and we hope you have enjoyed reading the books as much as we enjoyed writing them.
Then again, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.
Nb. The illustration of Hanno Stiffeniis was a marvellous gift from our great friend, Enrique Breccia.
On my way to bed last night, I closed my eyes, pulled a book from my crime bookshelf, and I managed to surprise myself! Most of my serendipity finds turn out to be books that I bought and read a year or a decade ago. Last night, my fingers chanced on a book that I had read just the other week.
Which makes things easier, of course.
Or should do.
I should remember the story, the beginning, the ending, and the big chunk in the middle. Instead, I discovered something about myself – I’m getting old, my short-term memory* is fading, and it won’t be long before they put me out to grass. I could not remember a thing!
The Murder Bag (Arrow Books, 2015) by Tony Parsons was a great read, and I really enjoyed it, but I still had to check out the opening and closing chapters before I could write a word about it. One reason for this, perhaps, is that The Murder Bag is a procedural, and there are just too many police procedurals around. They all come similarly packaged, too – the hero who doesn’t quite fit in with the ‘team,’ while the ‘team’ has now boiled down to a partner cop who blindly backs the hero through thick and thin, a clever computer geek, a superior officer who wants to close the case at any cost in the name of economy, and a handful of macho rival officers who are jockeying for attention rather than hunting for the killer.
Having said that, DC Max Wolfe is a cut above most other protagonist coppers.
(I can’t stand all that DC, CI, CDI, SOCO stuff, by the way...)
The secret seems to be to find an ‘angle’ which makes your main guy a bit different. DC (?) Max Wolfe is immensely brave – even foolishly so – and daringly intuitive, but he also has a sweet tiny daughter, the family dog, and a wife who has dumped them all for a lover, yet ‘appears’ every time Max takes his dog and daughter for a walk or shopping in a supermarket. He ‘sees’ his wife in his child, and this hubby-wife relationship is a bit (a lot!) of a red herring as it doesn’t really take the tale anywhere...
(Stop grousing, Michael!)
The tale itself is a standard sort of mystery – the elimination one-by-one of the people who appear in a photograph connected with a crime committed many years before – and the identity of the killer is a bit too obvious for words, so I won’t spoil your reading experience by telling you who the guilty party is, except to say, remember the famous adage of Sherlock Holmes from The Sign Of Four: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
As a ‘Sunday Times No. 1 Bestseller’ the book has clearly captured the public’s imagination; it is both entertaining and well-written. The Excipit, the final chapter, Chapter 38, is a bit of a let-down, however. All the loose ends – except one – have been tied up: we know who killed whom, and why. So the Excipit kicks off with ‘Sunday morning...’ and we’re home with a mauled Max (his back is aching), a mauled Scout (the baby daughter, whose errant mother has decided that she hasn’t got time for the kid today), and a mauled Stan (the dog appears to be hungry, but doesn’t get any extra crunchies), and then the news comes on tv, and Max realises something (that had appeared to be the key to the killings, but isn’t), and the chapter closes with a tear-jerking finale as the little girl’s school play turns an audience of adoring parents into a bunch of wet-eyed ninnies.
I didn’t like the last chapter, I admit. Indeed, reading what I’ve just written, it sounds as though I didn’t enjoy the book. And yet, I did. I really did!
And it will be going back onto my shelves to be read again at some date in the future.
Ps: Talking of long- and short-term memory, Tony Parsons was the name of my maths teacher at De La Salle Grammar School, Liverpool, back in 1963.
We are very proud of this publication.
A special edition of a Michael Gregorio novella entitled Your Money Or Your Life was handed out free as a promotion tool by our publisher, Severn House, and Publishers Weekly at the annual Book Expo conference in New York and at the recent American Library Association conference.
It will soon be available as an e-book in the UK and the USA (Severn House).
Apologies! I've been a bit slack in the last couple of weeks. Our latest novel, Cry Wolf, has just been published in the USA thanks to Severn House, so we’ve been doing some online interviews and promotions. I have also been busy reading more recent additions to my bookshelves, notably Val McDermid’s Fever in the Bone, and Hans Fallada’s A Small Circus (Penguin), both of which I would highly recommend. Plus, as the soccer season draws to a close, there have been a lot of distracting football matches on the tv. Still, on my way to bed a week ago, I closed my eyes and pulled out Porno by Irvine Welsh from my bookshelves.
The idea is to catch up on the start of the novel, then see how it ends...
In this case, that’s a sort of Page 480 Test.
It is, indeed, a big novel, the follow-up to the unbeatable Trainspotting (Vintage paperback, 1994). Wow, is it really so long ago that this novel appeared and changed the world of so-called literature? So long ago that the film came out in 1996? And did I say unbeatable?
Porno (Vintage, 2003) is billed as the sequel to Trainspotting. The major surviving characters from the earlier book – Mark Renton and Sick Boy Williamson – are back on the Edinburgh scene. ‘Nuff said? ‘Nuff said! We know more or less what we’re in for: a helter-skelter ride on a wild, fast rollercoaster that is constantly in danger of flying off the tracks.
Many ‘crittery-litics’ seem to have judged the novel as a bit of a comedown after Trainspotting, but I reckon that they underestimate a) Irvine Welsh’s ability to develop his characters over the course of a ten year time gap, and b) they have seriously under-rated his incredible sense of humour.
I began by intending to read only the first and the last chapters, but I soon found myself so caught up in the wild machinations of Sick Boy Williamson, Rent Boy Renton, Spud Murphy and ‘Franco’ Begbie that I just had to read it again from beginning to end!
Chapter One is entitled ‘Scam #18,732,’ which brilliantly sets the tone for the entire book as we follow Simon Sick Boy Williamson’s attempts to set himself (yet again!) on the road to success. By page 480, we reach the final chapter which is entitled ‘Scam #18,753,’ and that is more or less what we have been subjected to – a sequence of scams in which the characters try to redress the wrongs which being born in Scotland at the wrong time and place has brought down on their heads.
On the way, of course, we are drawn into the world of Porno – the central story and major scam – a scheme to make a high-class sexy movie provisionally entitled “Seven Rides For Seven Brothers.” The film and its making – the ‘porno’ of the title, if you like – is probably the weakest part of the novel. This sort of sophisticated take on the porn industry – all the self-justification, ‘I’m a big girl, grown man, free to do what I want’ stuff – had already been done, and done with more panache by Terry Southern in his under-rated 1970s novel “Blue Movie,” which is very, very funny, indeed.
At the same time, the one-liners on every page of Porno make for a lot of laughs, especially coming from new characters, Terry and Nikki (wow, she is a wonderful creation!), but what impresses me most is the cultural richness of the humour. Porno is about being Scottish, rather than being about sex. My favourite character, the nutcase, Frank Begbie, is released from jail and discovers that his ex-partner in business and crime has opened a Thai restaurant. His furious reaction is hilarious. “A fuckin Chinky in Leith! A tie restaurant, eh fuckin well goes. Well nae cunt in Leith’s gaunnae come oot fir a meal n wear a tie tae a fuckin Chinky...”
The language may seem tough, but you soon get used to it.
And so we come to the Excipit...
Frank Begbie is in a hospital bed, badly injured, apparently a vegetable beyond recall. Sick Boy Williamson, tricked out of his ill-gotten gains by Smart Boy Mark Renton and the adorable Nikki, is bewailing his fate and cursing the world while writing obscene remarks on Begbie’s plaster casts, and then, suddenly...
I can’t tell you what happens. It would be a spoiler, and a nasty one.
If you want to start imagining what may just happen in the sequel to Porno, you have to read to page 484, all the way to the very last dramatic line...
You’ll enjoy it, I promise!
“If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up — if you do come up.”
Derek Raymond was an unusual man, and an unusual writer.
You would, of course, expect his books to be unusual, and so they are.
I remember being blown away when I read The Devil’s Home on Leave, which I picked up by chance one day in Maxim Jakubowski’s bookshop, Murder One, in Charing Cross Road. I didn’t know Maxim at the time, though I met him many years later, and realised that he had become, by then, the literary agent of Derek Raymond.
Having read the first noir by Derek Raymond, I soon read all the others, and I was captivated by them. So, it was with great pleasure that I slipped into my study the other night, pulled a book at random from the bookshelves and read the title: Dead Man Upright, the last of the five ‘Factory’ novels, in which an unnamed detective sergeant working out of the A14 ‘Unexplained Deaths’ department goes in search of the author of a series of hideously (un)spectacular crimes.
The style of writing is cut down to a bare minimum in which words and actions speak for themselves, tempered only by the nameless narrator’s sardonic asides. We are on the track of a serial killer, Ronald Jidney, a secretive man and a psychopath, who seduces and murders rich, middle-aged women, and the first-person narrative of the detective sergeant leads us into a dark and sordid world of perverse desires.
So far, so good, but now we come to the Excipit...
This was the last ‘Factory’ novel by Derek Raymond, and it was not, by all accounts, his greatest commercial success. The end of the book tells us why. Then again, the word ‘end’ loses meaning here. The novel is 216 pages long, while the ‘action,’ the story of the tracing and capture of a man who may have butchered as many as seventeen women, ends on page 150.
This first Excipit concludes with the arrest of the killer, and the explanation of his personality is provided by a man who had worked with him on a building-site thirty years before: “He seemed a very ordinary bloke to me and the rest of the lads... Mind you, when the question of women came up especially, then he might freak and then, if he did that, you’d want to get out of his way fast, because he’d well, then he’d go fucking mad.”
This is a perfectly adequate interpretation of what separates the killer from his fellows, a perfect ending to the hunt for a serial killer. There’s just one problem: at only 150 pages, the novel is more of a novella. Clearly, this was not enough (for Raymond, his publisher, or both of them?), and so an additional ten chapters have been tacked onto the natural exit-point of the novel.
I am not going to ‘spoil’ the drawn-out finale, except to say that you can safely skip from pages 151 to 215 without missing anything.
Now, this requires an act of faith. If you want to know exactly where the idea for the novel came from, precisely how the back-story of Ronald Jidney originates, and understand fully what Derek Raymond was attempting to portray in this bleak portrayal of a blighted man, then you MUST read pages 151 to 215, as they set out the clinical and sociopathic nature of the psychopath.
In one sense, these ten dislocated chapters are a vindication of Derek Raymond’s notion of crimes which slip beneath the radar, ‘Unexplained Crimes,’ as he calls them. Here, he lays out the tenets on which the entire ‘Factory’ series is based. It sometimes comes over as being a bit pompous, pseudo-analytical, and even presumptuous, but it tells us far more about the writer than any other work of his ever will.
Unfortunately, Derek Raymond has gone down “into the darkness,” and he won’t be coming up again. Dead Man Upright may be the closest thing to a literary testament that we bereaved readers will ever have.