Q&A with Simon about his murder mystery series
Q: Simon, you’ve written books about psychology and spirituality, serious books.
S: But not humourless, I hope.
Q: Fair point. And you’ve done a bit of comedy in Shelf Life.
S: And perhaps combined them all – psychology, spirituality and comedy in Pippa’s Progress.
Q: Can’t comment, I’m afraid, I haven’t read it yet.
S: You and a few others.
Q: But none of all that leads anyone to imagine you’re about to dive head first into the murder mystery genre.
S: I was a bit surprised myself.
Q: So the obvious question: why?
S: It’s simply a genre I’ve always enjoyed, like a lot of people. Since starting down this path, I’ve discovered everyone has their favourite detective.
Q: And yours?
Q: Well it might be interesting to know.
S: On the screen, probably Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War. I like the understated, the courageous, the good – and Foyle represents all these for me. In these ironic times, when everything’s relative and keen to be cool, I like people with a passion for justice and a quiet fearlessness towards those with power – Foyle. I also enjoy the relationship between Lewis and Hathaway in Lewis. The partnership is a story in itself, a significant extra dimension to plot, and something I’ve tried to create in my own murder mystery series.
Q: We’ll get to that, but you haven’t told us your favourite detective writers on the page, which is, after all, the medium you work in.
S: On the page, Conan Doyle’s prose and plotting is pretty perfect in his Sherlock Holmes adventures. I also enjoy the atmospheres created by PD James in her Adam Dalgliesh stories and the medieval darkness and light of Cadfael, created by Ellis Peters. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a great whodunit though without a specific murder – more a wholeakedit in a way. Smiley is a wonderful fictional detective in the spy game and like Foyle, a bit friendless. Am I learning something about myself here?!
Q: So what is it about the murder mystery genre that appeals?
S: Apart from a cracking good story?
Q: We’ll take that as read.
S: Was that a joke?
Q: Ah! I won’t pretend I meant it.
S: To answer you, let me quote from the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. It’s an extract from her story, Zero Hour:
‘When you read the account of a murder – or, say, a fiction story based on murder – you usually begin with the murder itself. That’s all wrong. The murder begins a long time beforehand. A murder is the culmination of a lot of different circumstances, all converging at a given moment at a given point. People are brought into it from different parts of the globe and for unforeseen reasons. The murder itself is the end of the story. It’s Zero Hour.’
‘It’s Zero Hour now.’
I think that’s a brilliant description of the writer’s interest in murder, which is an event at the end point of a particular set of paths. I’m interested in the question: What brought us to this moment, this zero hour?
Q: I can see the psychological interest.
S: But I’d differ a little from the Queen of Crime when she says the murder is the end of the story. Because of course for most of the cast, the story must go on, through and beyond this crisis. How will they cope, how will they fare, can anything good emerge from the unrelenting spotlight of investigation? Those are interesting themes for me, alongside the achingly important question: ‘Whodunnit?’
Q: So your first murder mystery is called A Vicar, Crucified.
S: That’s right.
Q: Is this autobiographical?
S: No. Well, everything’s autobiographical to an extent. Every character is the writer in some way. But the story line is not autobiographical.
Q: But you were a priest.
S: I was, yes but I only had to endure verbal nails.
Q: Clergy are vulnerable, though.
S: Indeed: an easy target for the disturbed, both through opportunity and motive, attracting as they do an abnormal amount of transference.
Q: How do you mean?’
S: Well, if you’re angry with God – and many are angry, knowingly or unknowingly – you might want to take it out on the priest. Or if you were abused by a priest in your past, you may not be too choosy about which priest you punish, now you’re older and stronger. I had close dealings with a man who turned out to have violently assaulted two priests in his time, with a knife, so I’m lucky to be here.
Q: And priests do get killed.
S: Oh yes. As a matter of fact, as I was finishing the book, a priest I knew was murdered in his vicarage. We were due to meet the following day. In court it emerged that the man found guilty of the murder had wished to crucify a priest… but had forgotten the nails, so he used a knife on my friend instead. Awful and very, very sad. The story I tell is a rather different one.
Q: So introduce Abbot Peter to us, because I see it’s called An Abbot Peter Mystery.
S: Yes, he’ll feature in all of the stories and he’s a man starting again in his 60’s, someone who’s recently swapped leadership of a remote monastery in the Sinai desert for retirement in the bleak and stormy English seaside town of Stormhaven.
Q: His name rings a bell.
S: Those with a good memory, and an eclectic book collection, might remember him from my book, Desert Ascent, which chronicled some of his desert experiences. But life is change, not all of it planned and he’s now adjusting to a new way of life on England’s south coast.
Q: Which includes solving murders?
S: I won’t give too much away but yes, his life is altered by the strangest of visits to his seaside home after which a new career beckons.
Q: Starting with the local vicar, who’s discovered crucified naked in the vestry.
Q: And according to the back cover blurb, ‘Abbot Peter partners the attractive and ambitious Detective Inspector Tamsin Shah in the investigation.’
S: They’re the team I was talking about earlier and I’m going to enjoy developing their relationship, they’re rather different people. As we know, teams can be creative and they can be a complete nightmare.
Q: So what’s this team like?
S: A bit of both, probably.
Q: So give us a bit more of the blurb, words to draw us in. A crucifixion might be putting some of us off.
S: How about something like: ‘Shocked by cruel death, the church community has some adjusting to do, disturbed in the knowledge that the murderer is one of them. The curate? The bishop? The treasurer? The youth worker? As cold waves crash against the winter shoreline, suspicion replaces friendship at St Michaels where no one is safe and no one trusted. But as the ravenous press descends on the town and secrets unravel, there will be more victims and a desperate climax before the hidden truth becomes clear. ’
How was that?
Q: Stormhaven sounds a dangerous place.
S: Not all the time.
Q: But is there humour there as well as cold waves, nails and sea gulls?
S: Oh, I hope so. I started out writing comedy for radio and TV and I’m not sure I’ve ever stopped, even if my themes have become more serious.
Q: So we get to know the people of St Michaels.
S: We do, yes. I was interested in the effects of murder in a community, the effects of the zero hour, as people’s secrets are exposed and their true colours emerge a little more clearly. As Mark Hellinger said: ‘Every murder turns on a bright hot light and a lot of people have to walk out of the shadows.’
Q: And doesn’t the enneagram appear in the story?
S: It does, quite a lot. Abbot Peter believes the nine-point enneagram symbol can help the investigation.
Q: Is he right?
S: Do you really expect me to answer that?
Q: OK. Fresh line of enquiry then: you’re a crime writer now.
S: I suppose so, if you insist on labelling.
Q: It’s how the world works.
S: It’s not how I work.
Q: Well that’s tough, because as a crime writer, you have a decision to take.
S: What’s that?
Q: Will you affirm the oath written by GK Chesterton for the British Detection Club.
S: Which is?
Q: The oath is this: ‘Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow on them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?’
S: I’m not sure. Intuition, feminine or otherwise, can be important if it grows from the accurate observation of human patterns of behaviour; while happy coincidence, or luck, helps in the solving of any crime. Interestingly, both intuition and coincidence are important in Chesterton’s engaging Father Brown series.
Q: So he breaks his own oath?
S: I think we all do that. But I know what he means and I’m with him in spirit. The murder mystery writer must be honest in his dealings with the reader and not rely on absurd rabbits being drawn from the hat at the last minute.
Q: So tell me, are murderers different from the rest of us?
S: It’s the banality and normality of murder which strikes me. A killer is not a different kind of person but entirely ordinary, just someone at the end of their tether. ‘A murderer is regarded by the conventional world,’ wrote Graham Greene, ‘as something almost monstrous but a murderer to himself is only an ordinary man. It is only if the murderer is a good man that he can be regarded as monstrous.’
Q: But here’s a question: should murder be entertainment?
S: Not just entertainment, no.
Q: How do you mean?
S: Violent death, judicial or otherwise, was entertainment long before any crime writers crawled out of the woodwork. No pillory, crucifixion, witch drowning, public hanging or beheading ever lacked a crowd, because there’s a fascination here, a fascination with endings, with mortality, with the extinguishing of others’ lives from our safe seat in the house; and from that, of course, a fascination with those who cause these endings, who snuff out the light, the killers themselves.
Q: There is a ghoulish interest in them.
S: Indeed. I have a book by my bed called The Giant Book of Bad Guys, a gallery of people who did appalling things, but all in their own heads going about their ordinary life.
Q: By your bed?
S: As you say murder is entertainment. EL Doctorow even compares it to religion for its ability to stir and uplift: ‘Murders,’ he writes, ‘are exciting and lift people into a heart-beating awe as religion is supposed to do, after seeing one in the street young couples will go back to bed and make love, people will cross themselves and thank God for the gift of their stuporous lives, old folks will talk to each other over cups of hot water with lemon because murders are enlivened sermons to be analysed and considered and relished, they speak to the timid of the dangers of rebellion, murders are perceived as momentary descents of God and so provide joy and hope and righteous satisfaction to parishioners, who will talk about them for years afterward to anyone who will listen.’
Q: That’s a pretty bleak take on the matter.
S: But with enough truth to make it hurt.
Q: So to return to my previous question: what sort of writer would wish to encourage all that?
S: I don’t think the best crime writers do. In the hands of a good writer, who understands character as well as plot, murder as entertainment becomes murder as contemplation.
S: I hope in my stories there’s much more to hold the reader than just the question of whodunit? No murder mystery need be a one-trick pony.
Q: But what else is there? The detective gathers all the suspects in the front room of the country house for the great reveal and that’s it, surely?
S: Not necessarily. It’s interesting, for instance, how often Sherlock Holmes makes his own decision about the guilt or otherwise of the murderer. He doesn’t always hand them over to the police. Doyle was asking us to consider not only what people do but why they do it. The black and white nature of his stories extends only as far as the ink on the page.
Q: So do you like the murderer in A Vicar, Crucified?
S: Good question. Yes, I do and that made it hard, I was wishing for another unfolding. But that’s life. As Ruth Rendell said, the crime writer must stay confused for as long as possible, then the text starts to lead and the writer must follow.
Q: So when is this ‘entertaining if scary contemplation’ published?
S: A Vicar, Crucified was published in May 2013 and the sequel, A Psychiatrist Screams, in the autumn of 2013. So will I see you in Stormhaven?
Q: Oh, I hope so.
S: Remember to dress warm.
Q: And I’ll mind my back as well… it sounds about as safe as Midsomer.