Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Crime series: the second generation

This is my 200th blog post in 202 days - a statistic that reminds me that one of the challenges of writing is to keep up the momentum. All the more so when writing a series. Readers who like a particular detective like a regular diet of his or her mysteries. This is one of the reasons why publishers get nervous when their authors try to do something different.

In the days of Poirot and Marple, fictional detectives tended not to ‘grow’ much as characters. But Dorothy L. Sayers was perhaps the most notable early pioneer of the series in which the hero does develop as the years pass. And now it’s commonplace for readers to follow their favourite detective’s private life with as much enthusiasm as they follow his or her cases.

So what do you do when you come back to a series after a long gap? This was the central challenge for me when writing Waterloo Sunset. Should I ignore the passage of time or confront it head on. I decided on the latter course. In this I was encouraged by a conversation with Andrew Taylor. Andrew is a wonderful writer, now receiving the acclaim he has long deserved. I have happy memories of appearing on a panel with him at St Hilda’s, Oxford, and our joint event at the now sadly defunct Mysterious Bookshop in London, when we were both published by Hodder. He sets a very good example for others by varying what he writes and, having produced about half a dozen titles in his Lydmouth series, featuring that excellent 1950s cop Richard Thornhill, he moved on to other projects for a while. But when he returned to Lydmouth, it seemed to me that the new books were even stronger than their predecessors. He told me that he thought of these as a ‘second generation’ of the Lydmouth series, and this concept stuck in my mind.

In applying it to the Harry Devlin series, I focused on two things. First, the changes in his home city of Liverpool. These have been quite remarkable in recent years. The city has long been stereotyped (usually by people who don’t know it well) as a faded relic of Britain’s maritime past. But it’s always retained a strong and appealing character, and although areas of deprivation remain, the city’s history and traditions are deeply impressive. Now, though, regeneration has meant that some parts of the city, especially close to the waterfront, are quite dazzling, and it’s hard to believe that it’s still Liverpool.

I wanted to capture the ambivalent reactions of a middle-aged native of the city to massive change and upheaval both in his environment and in his personal life. Harry and Liverpool have come a long way since the days of Eleanor Rigby (see the photo) and his first adventure, All the Lonely People. The more I focused on these ideas as the thematic heart of the book, the more excited I became...

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