Friday, October 14, 2016

Horses of Courses

I have written a novel, The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It is available now exclusively as a e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store. This is the last exerpt for the moment; if this interests you, then why not click on the link and buy a copy?

He drew up his feet to sit cross legged on the straw bale, straightened his back and put his hands on his knees. He breathed in, deep and slow. He would have liked a book or paper to read but lights would give him away. A cigarillo would have been nice, but he had been told that smoking was strictly forbidden in the stables due to the risk of fire. Pushed back on his own resources he sank into meditation.

It was the second night waiting here. He hoped that his overnight presence had not been noticed yesterday and passed on to interested parties. If so his watch might be long and futile or, worse, short and violent.

Time passed as he sat alone with his thoughts, poised but resting. At last there was an unexpected noise from outside in the stable yard. Consciousness and alertness returned to his mind and body. He estimated that it was relatively early, not yet midnight, but racing stables, like many country establishments, ran their schedules according to the clock of the sun. The stable lads would all have been in bed for hours.

More noise, now some quiet conversation. Schneemann rose, stretched a little. His arms and ribs seemed to be healed from the damage done to them in his earlier exertions. He undid his overcoat, brushed straw from the hem. He adjusted the carnation in the buttonhole and picked up his cane. Footsteps came up to the door. From outside he could hear some words. “It’s this one.”

The door opened and two men dressed for rough work were discovered standing there in the light of their lantern. Schneemann smiled. “Good evening gentlemen. I do believe that you have opened the stable door after the horse has gone.”

“Who’re you? Where’s Gabriel’s Trumpet?”

“I am terribly sorry. The horse you are looking for has been removed.  The exact details of your scheme are somewhat complex and, turning as they do on the minutiae of the British racing and bloodstock businesses, are opaque to a foreigner such as myself. Something to do with identical appearing horses of differing abilities, racing under each others’ names to confuse handicappers and gamblers, followed up by selling an inferior horse for stud for an inflated sum? I think that may be the heart of it. However once discovered, some very wealthy people with no sense of humour when it comes to racing and their stables will become most unhappy.”

They stared at him, struck dumb. He sighed. “We know what’s up. The horse is gone. Time to quit while you’re ahead.”

The one without the lantern swung a short piece of rope threateningly. “Where’s the horse? You’ll tell me if you know what’s good for you.”

Schneemann shook his head, gestured with the cane. “Gabriel’s Trumpet is concealed amongst eight similar looking horses in a field on another farm, some miles from here, watched over by several large men who used to be rough riders in a cavalry regiment. Even if I were willing to tell you where to find him, you will not succeed in absconding with him.”

The one with the lantern nodded to his partner. “Get him.”

“Oh for pity’s sake. Listen to me. The jig’s up. Friends of mine have copies of the accounts of the gambling syndicate you are part of. If I am not in contact with them tomorrow morning they will be sent to the Jockey Club and the Police. As off-course betting is illegal in this country you will be arrested if you continue to pursue this affair.”

“What is this? What do you want?” The one with the lamp seemed to have finally got a grasp of the situation.

“I am warning you off. You stop with the scams. Make and take bets if you want, but from now on you are honest bookies. No fixing races. No shuffling identical horses. No selling nags for the price of champions.”

The one with the rope was unconvinced. “I say we beat where the ‘orse is out of him, then send ‘im back to ‘is friends as an ‘int to stay mum.”

“I don’t think that will convince them. For that matter, the police are not the only people interested in your activities. Some much nastier fellows will hear about what you’re up to.”

The one with the lantern nodded. “This ain’t the end of this mister. You’ll hear from us again.”

Schneemann smiled broadly. “Well done. I knew you wouldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth. I look forward to hearing from you anon.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

In Which I Am Wrong About Edwardian England

I have written a novel, The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It is available now exclusively as a e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store. Meanwhile here is a short piece explaining why my fictional Edwardian England is not the same as historical Edwardian England.

My version of Edwardian England is wrong.

I don’t say this because of the handful of deliberate anachronisms, or the things I’ve ignored to make a scene clearer, or the liberties I’ve taken because I thought it would be cool. I’m not even talking about the fact I am basing my novel more on the fiction of the Edwardians and late Victorians rather than the history, or (less authentically) the fiction based in that period that came later. These are the tools of a storyteller; most of the time the constraints of history and reality are part of the skeleton of a work, directing and supporting it, yet sometimes you have to ignore them for the dramatic moment, the clever twist, or even the funny punchline. A good joke at the right time can outweigh several pages of well researched description. But these are not the wrongnesses I’m talking about.

What I mean is that I have half a dozen histories and reference books for the period that I keep by me (and more that I have read or consulted) and attempting to derive or make a coherent structure from these is beyond me.

Some examples:

- The Edwardian Age was a frivolous time, obsessed with celebrity, entertainment and fashion. Led by King Edward, society was interested in image and glorious surfaces, with pleasure and enjoyment. Wearing the right clothes was more important than saying the right thing, and one could do as one wished behind closed doors so long as one said the right thing in public. Yachting, horse racing, and shooting at the top end, music hall, football and gin at the other; the start of the twentieth century was all about passing time amusingly.

- Edwardian England was a very serious time and place. While the British Empire was reaching towards its peak it had already begun to dissolve as the Dominions achieved full internal self-government. Efforts to reform the Empire as a cultural and trading bloc fell apart against the dogma of Britain as a centre of free trade. The House of Lords and the House of Commons had their final showdown, leading to the current constitutional settlement with the Commons supreme and the Lords advisory.

- The Edwardian’s were serious about money, and even more so when it intersected with their entertainment. Much time and effort was taken up with the issue of payment of players for football and cricket, with the gap between amateurs and professionals, or Gentlemen and Players, ever narrowing the more closely it was policed. Meanwhile as the Labour movement began to elect Members of Parliament, it became clear that the social bar to politicians was also an economic one; the nascent Labour Party had to pay it’s representatives so they could maintain themselves while serving their constituency.

- It was a peaceful age, the most peaceful of the Twentieth Century. It was a violent time, the Boer and Russo-Japanese wars giving poorly recognised warnings of things to come. It was an age in which citizens believed it was their duty to be soldiers, in Britain forming territorial regiments the Government barely knew what to do with, and volunteering for the Boer war in great numbers. An age when powerful warships sailed on and beneath the waves, and the first warplanes began to take to the sky.

- It was a time of great social mobility with educational possibilities available to all classes. It was a period of social unrest, with poor working men, and women too, demanding the vote. It was a great age of class divides, with new money buying into old blood so their children would be accepted into the upper crust.


My point, such as it is, is that Edwardian England cannot be summed up in a single sentence, paragraph, chapter or book. The half dozen references I note above give a bare outline of a time and place. How then can my novel, more interested in entertaining than enlightening, possibly mirror it in any meaningful way? It cannot. It is, of course, wrong.

Still, I hope that I give at least the correct flavour of the corner that I look at, as I’m pretty sure I’ve got a few things right.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Sales Pitch

I have written a novel, currently available exclusively from the Amazon Kindle Store as an e-book. This is the post in which I attempt to sell it to you. If you need no further convincing then click on the link above. If you have read it, then congratulations, and also have you considered leaving a review?[1]
Not a clickable link

The novel is called The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a surprisingly long name denoting a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It features a protagonist named Heinrich von Schneemann, gentleman adventurer, who lies, cheats, steals and generally is a complete reprobate in a generally good cause. It is clever, witty, amusing, and mostly light-hearted with a few darker touches. If you don't mind some minor spoilers, this synopsis from two years and two and a half drafts ago will tell you approximately what happens in the story. In addition I am posting two extracts this week, one on Monday and one on Friday which should give you some idea of the flavour of the book. Or you can click on the Look Inside feature on the Amazon page to see what's going on there.

Rear: Fu Manchu. Front: Not Raffles
If you need any further encouragement, then I direct your attention to the earliest review on the Amazon UK page from a completely disinterested critic[2] which claims the book "delivers like an amphetamine fueled pizza delivery boy. The protagonist Schneeman leaps from the page like the love child of Raffles the Amateur Cracksman and Fu Man Chu." (I was aiming more for the wit of Dorothy Sayer and the clever plotting of Agatha Christie, but one does what one can).

Their child would have great facial hair

It is nearly 100,000 words of period drama, convoluted crimes, entertaining characters, clever jokes, silly jokes, uncomfortable gender and class roles being poked for fun and profit, twentieth century crime tropes being given new (and old) twists, and a big old fashioned Edwardian style villain, Count Andropoff, the Russian Nobleman of the title.

If this sounds of interest to you yet an e-book from the Kindle store does not meet your needs for some reason, please let me know as I am considering other outlets.

This concludes my direct appeal for you to pay me for my work, other than to note that if you really like it, the second draft of a sequel is on my hard drive and will one day see the light of day.

[1] If you have no interest in being sold to then feel free to leave by any means you consider suitable, or possibly via this link.
[2] My brother, who has made some previous appearances on this blog.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

This Book Is Criminal

I have written a novel, The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It is available now exclusively as a e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store. There will be posts all this week with extracts, details and, like here, short essays in which I over-explain some of my foolish opinions on fiction writing. In this particular case I talk around this question:

Are There Any New Crimes?

The truth of the matter is that most crimes are petty, sordid, uninteresting. Banal even. Someone takes something out the till and takes it home. Someone snaps and punches someone else. Someone lies to get another person to give them small amounts of money.

It's not that you can't write good, exciting, even great stories from these sort of incidents. Such stories, rooted in the mundanity of life, lean heavily on character, fine description (or production values for TV and movies) and relationships. All good things, needed in every tale. Yet they may not scratch the itch for convoluted plot or clever storytelling. There simply aren't that many interesting crimes, which is why writers keep coming back to the classics.

I've written before about how Dickens describes a very detailed Ponzi scheme in Martin Chuzzlewit (38 years before Charles Ponzi was born). This is a complex crime, and not in the same way as a locked-room murder mystery or an elaborate serial killer's plan. In those cases you have a dead body and need to find out who killed them (also, sometimes, how, why, where etc.) With fraud you need to explain what has happened and how it is a crime. At one edge fraud looks a lot like incompetence, at another edge like hard bargaining. Proving that it is neither of those is not always a simple matter.

Which is not to say that such schemes don't make satisfying reading. But there's a reason I put the usual heists, murders, blackmail and weird mysteries to the fore, and cons and frauds on the sidelines of my story. If I fail to explain properly, or the reader doesn't want to bother to figure out the details, then they can still follow the clear path in the middle. Someone has done this bad thing and we will try to deal with it.

This is why, if you spend a lot of time following crime drama, you see the same ideas coming back again and again. Although there are a lot of interesting crimes to use as models, there are so many stories being written that they all get used multiple times. So they are reworked into new settings and backdrops, new characters, and new twists as they are turned inside out and upside down.

It's also why crime writers get excited when there's a new and interesting crime; see in this post where John Rogers talks about how the Leverage writing team reacted to the Wired report on the Antwerp Diamond Heist. It's worth noting that bits and pieces from that story showed up in at least half a dozen different shows I saw over the next two years.

Every time there was a new sensational report about the Hatton Garden Robbery I could imagine TV writers (especially those on American networks, churning through 22 episodes a year) rubbing their hands with glee.

None of this stops me or anyone else from reading, watching, listening and sometimes even playing in the crime backyard. Still, a genuinely new take is a rare thing, and, sadly, that's not really what I've done. But I hope that by taking modern ideas, projecting them back into the past and giving them a few subtle (and some not so subtle) twists there's at least a little novelty in my novel.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Sisterhood Of Assassination

I have written a novel, The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It is available now exclusively as a e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store. There will be posts later this week with more details. Until then please enjoy this extract, which takes place the morning after the death of Lord Allenmore at his isolated country home.


Having previously tried to stop them leaving, the constable now attempted to prevent Schneemann and Edward from re-entering the house. Before the argument got out of hand, he was distracted by the Braddocks bursting into the Entrance Hall in the middle of a high volume argument.

“I had some topics to discuss with her ladyship! I don’t see what business it is of yours.” This morning Mrs Braddock was in a black jacket and skirt, tightly tailored to show off her fashionable corseted figure. Her hair was bound up on top of her head. For once there were no diamonds on display.

Colonel Braddock’s face was red, although not quite the same shade as his tunic. “What business is it of mine? I think it is very much my business when my wife wanders the halls of a strange house in the middle of the night. What about your reputation? What about mine?”

She turned on him, eyes narrowed. “I was in the company of Lady Allenmore. If you think that she is not respectable enough for my reputation, I wonder why you thought it fit to accept her invitation.”

“It was not Lady Allenmore I was concerned...” Becoming aware of the audience, Braddock forced himself to a stop.

“Oh, Mr Allenmore,” said Mrs Braddock, taking Edward's hand. “Such a tragedy. So terrible. I don’t know what to say.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t say it then,” said the Colonel. Everyone ignored him.

“Thank you madam. Thank you. How are you, yourself? You have had an awful experience. Truly awful. Should I call the doctor?” Edward seemed to be reviving, his usual personality returning. It was not a completely positive change.

“No, no. I won’t say it wasn’t shocking. But I am a soldier’s wife. I must be able to cope with injury and death. Mustn’t let my husband down. His reputation, you know.” She gave him a sly glance from under lowered eyelashes. He seemed to be calmer now.

“Mrs Braddock, there’s something... that is to say could you tell me.... no, what I mean is...”

Schneemann stayed in the background. Edward was clearly a terrible interrogator. His blundering obviousness would let his interviewees tell whatever story they wished. So be it. He would listen to the stories and see what they added up to.

Mrs Braddock was revealing her version of events, in which she had an important, urgent and very private conversation with Lady Allenmore at one o’clock in the morning. The subject of their talk was vague – the mere mention of feminine business was enough to stop Edward from pursuing that question – and so was the length. In the end, however, it appeared that Lady Allenmore wanted to consult her husband on some matter. So the two ladies had walked through the connecting door between the dressing rooms and discovered his lordship’s dead body.

Her voice lowered and stumbled to a halt. Schneemann would have put a guinea on it being at least three parts artifice. The rest of the audience was convinced by the performance; Edward assured her she did very well, the Colonel took her hand and the constable offered her his handkerchief.

Still, in outline at least, the sequence of events was plausible. Lady Allenmore was a witness to most of them. It seemed Mrs Braddock could be removed from the list of suspects unless the two women were conspiring. But that would be completely crazed. Only an imbecile would take such a theory seriously.

There was a scream of outrage. Everyone froze. Then Lady Allenmore’s unmistakable voice again filled the house. “How dare you sir! How dare you!”

The party rushed down the corridor and into the Egyptian Room to find Inspector Osprey standing facing her ladyship. A maid – Annie, Schneemann noted in passing – stood by her mistress, shock on her face. Randall sat unnoticed in a corner, pencil flashing across his notebook.

“What’s going on here?” blustered Braddock.

“This... this person had the audacity to suggest that I killed my husband!” Lady Allenmore’s voice overwhelmed their ears, threatening to cause actual pain to the listeners. “I demand that he leave at once.”

“But this is nonsense,” said Edward. “Mrs Braddock was with you. How could you have done anything with her as a witness?”

“Please, I...” said Osprey.

“That was the most extraordinary part of his outlandish hypothesis! He claimed that we had conspired together, formed a cabal, a sisterhood of assassination. He thought that my marriage was a fraud and a sham and, and... I can hardly say it.”

It took remarkably little encouragement to get her to say it. “He said that I wished my husband dead for the inheritance! To be sole mistress of the house. Ridiculous!”

“Madam, I apologise...”

Braddock gave a disapproving frown. “What conceivable motive could there be for my wife to join you? It is arrant nonsense.”

“He thought that his lordship had insulted Mrs Braddock in some fashion. So we made common cause. Oh it is sheer madness. My husband was a gentleman.”

Mrs Braddock took her arm. The two ladies glared at Inspector Osprey, joined in their disapproval of the fantastic notion that they would plot together.