Profile of Simon Beckett in The Bookseller

Beckett The author Simon Beckett is subject of a one-page profile in the current (29 October) issue of The Bookseller (p. 24). Beckett is author of a series of novels about Dr David Hunter, a forensic anthropologist (a fairly popular profession in crime fiction these days). Having read and enjoyed the previous three in this series, I'm glad to read that there will be a new David Hunter novel in February 2011, The Calling of the Grave (Bantam Press in the UK and Random House in Australia).

As pointed out in the profile, one distinguishing feature of the David Hunter novels is that they are all in different settings, and setting is an important component of each plot. The first, The Chemistry of Death, was set in the Norfolk fens; the sequel Written in Bone took place on a remote Scottish island; and the third, Whispers of the Dead, around the Tennessee, USA "body farm". It was this last location, apparently, that gave Beckett the idea for the Hunter series. He had written three earlier novels but failed to get a publishing deal. (The novels were eventually published by Allison and Busby.) He became a freelance journalist, during which time he went to Tennessee to shadow a group of police officers as they learned about the decomposition of human remains. From this experience, David Hunter was born. 

The new novel, The Calling of the Grave, starts eight years in the past when Hunter is part of a team investigating a body buried on Dartmoor. The main part of the novel is about the escape of the person who was responsible…. "absolutely nothing is as it seems, and Beckett skilfully engineers plot twist after plot twist interwoven with the meticulously researched forensic science." The author says that he likes to tackle new ground in each novel to provide not only "elements that people come back to, but you want a sense of development in each one." Part of this process are the gradual revelations about Hunter's past as the series progresses. 

It's quite well known that Beckett's books sell better in Germany and Scandinavia than they do in the UK, which is a pity as he certainly knocks the socks off Patricia Cornwell (who covers similar themes) and the like. He says that the series is harder to write as it goes on, which he says objectively is a good thing. "I don't want to freewheel – I think the more you put in , the more the reader can get out of it. ….If I were finding it easy then it might not be altogether a good thing…. for the books, anyway."

 Reviews of Simon Beckett's previous three novels at Euro Crime.

Author website (in English and German)

The Guardian and The Times on Simon Beckett, the "unknown crime writer". 

Archive of articles by Simon Beckett at The Guardian website.


After eighteen years

I spent the morning
Sitting in your chair
Looking at your bookcase
With all the books arranged higgledly-piggeldy
Covered in dust.

I pulled out the bookcase and Hoovered up behind it
Years of dust, fluff, hairclips and beads
A little heart-shaped box with gold and orange shapes all over it.

I put your Charlaine Harris series
Into the empty space I’d made
I wasn’t too keen on you reading those
But now the array of black
With red-lipped woman
Is what I have.

I empty the half-full jar of pesto
That sits in the door of the fridge
I wash it out
And put it in the recycling bin

Nobody to eat it now
Or the breaded fish fillets
In the freezer.
Nobody will eat those
Or the single chicken fillet
Likewise breaded.
Will they keep till December
Or shall I throw them out?

We won’t have to be quiet
In the mornings now
When we get up at 6
And make the tea.
We can even switch on
The dishwasher before we leave the house
In the morning.
That’s looking on the bright side.

The little girl across the road
Scoots along
Her mother walking beside her
The little girl chats
Lost in her fantasy
Telling her mother all the details
Of what’s in her mind.
The mother is half-listening
The other half
Watching to make sure
The girl does not fall off.

You said I could watch your West Wings
and your series 2 of House.
You've left them for me to watch
You said.

You’ve taken your space cup from
The NASA canteen.
You’ve taken your coats
So I have somewhere
To hang mine now.
That’s great.

TV series, armed birds, unpresents, writing and not blogging

A few items from the web that caught my eye, in case you missed them.

A hit in the US, the psychotherapy drama has quality acting from Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Wiest and a great script. So why are UK networks afraid to commit to the couch? Clare Birchall examines the reasons why The Treatment won't be appearing in UK TV screens on The Guardian TV and Radio blog. Pity, as it sounds a good show. Maybe it will eventually be available on DVD. There's a comment to the post that made me laugh, by someone who could try reading a book or getting out more: "As usual, UK networks underestimate the audience's desire for intelligent, quality drama. We watch stuff like Holby City or Casualty because that's mostly what's on in the evening, but it doesn't mean we love it."

If you like Improbable Research, you'll know what to expect if you check out these armed bird photos (not babes with guns). I'm nost sure if this is more silliness or welcome sanity: Scott Adams's negative Christmas (or birthday): "rather than giving gifts, you can force a family member or friend to discard one item that he or she already owns. The selected item might be a hideous shirt that you consider an abomination, or that pair of bedroom slippers that are an insult to all footwear. The idea is that the unrecipient should be better off without the item you ungift."

As is well-known, more than 90 per cent of blogs last for less than three months, many of them only ever featuring one post – a bit like the diaries I started on 1 January when a child. The New York Times recently ran a feature on this statistic, which I idly read thinking it might contain some new insight on this old (internet timescale) chestnut. It didn't – people stop blogging because nobody reads their blogs, because they don't make any money at it, because their readers get too intrusive, because they get no comments, or for other predictable reasons. You might like to read one or two of the case-histories, though, which are mildly amusing, particularly the poor mystery author who was surprised to discover that nobody read her rants against the Bush administration.

Finally, a couple of useful posts for writers. Random Jottings reviews A Seriously Useful Author's Guide to Marketing and Publicising books by Mary Cavanaugh, which sounds pretty good, in particular this excerpt provided by Elaine (the reviewer): "A bookblogger is an independent person who takes it upon themselves, for no financial reward whatsoever, to post online articles about books they have currently read, mostly on a daily basis……their reading output is amazing… well as being devoted and fanatical readers, they also review books. The biggest breaks of my literary career were made by Book Bloggers and without them I would have got very meagre coverage in any sphere". Hear hear! And Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works provides a very useful round-up of writers' forums, with a great set of comments providing feedback about these sites. Best comment (selected by Jane): "the major benefit in using writers' workshops is in the critiques you write on other people's work, not in the ones you receive.".


The dolphin man: a publishing experiment

"For the few who knew I'd left, I have arrived. Who am I? Some people call me the dolphin man. That's all you need to know for now. Where am I? That is a secret, a top secret."

So starts an account by a researcher (who dislikes the term 'scientist') who is investigating the way dolphins communicate with each other over distances of hundreds of miles of ocean. The researcher has set himself three to five years to prove the sceptics wrong — "there's just me, and this blog. I have a laptop with satellite broadband Internet…. if you are reading, please feel free to spread the word to friends but avoid snoopy academic or journalist types. And animal extremists too…….This is between you, me and the dolphins."

The experiment begins here.

Footprints in the sand.

An indigenous welcome.

My humble home.

A sacred story.

Why we neeed good subedtiors and riters

The Guardian has reproduced a strongly worded email which was sent by a senior staff member to subs and writers on the Sunday Express, pointing out mistakes in an edition of the paper. The article is priceless and should be read in full by anyone who cares about language.

"P2 – The lead begins with a name but the surname is not capped up. The stupid phrase 'ahead of' appears three times in the copy. We are then told 'fewer than one in five voters were happy with Brown's premiership'. That means none. The GCSEs story said 'almost six in 10 pupils'. So is that five or four? Voters and pupils don't come in fractions.

P3 – Why wasn't there a drop cap start to the story? Those weekly paper staples 'local residents' and a 'local fan' put in an appearance.

P4 – The splash turn says Maddie was kidnapped. Really? I thought nobody knew what happened to her.

P5 – Someone is described as an 'ex-pat'. At the very least that's amateurish. Look, let's make it really simple; if you don't know what a word means or how it's spelt, don't f***ing use it.

P6 – The caption says 'rail-soaked' instead of rain-soaked.

P9 – The conflict in Georgia provides us with some classic bollocks. What is a 'battle tank'? Does this mean wars now have referees who decide whether or not a tank is allowed to go into battle?"

And so it goes on, right up to: "P84 – Neil Hamilton writes: 'See Venice and die, the saying goes.' Er, no it f***ing doesn't, as our angry reader was quick to tell the editor. Stop writing this drivel and subs, stop letting it through."

I thank Nature's Chief Subeditor, a noble gentleman, for drawing my attention to this article.

Giles Coren has recently had some trouble with the Times subs (strangely, his frustrations erupted in The Guardian, aka The Grauniad, not in his own organ). His Downfall is here (video, but even I watched half of it, admittedly with the sound off).

Short stories about love

Reading the Times paper edition today (as is my wont) I was impressed by the six short (300-word) stories written by readers that have just won a competition held by the paper. The six winning stories are here. Last summer, I think while I was away on holiday as I seem to have missed it, the Times asked six authors (Matt Thorne, Lionel Shriver, Jilly Cooper, James Meek, Adele Parks and Tim Lott) to write a 300-word (max) story on the subject of love. The results are here.

If you like the competition winners, here are eight runners-up from among the Times readers' entries.

Twiller on Twitter

It had either passed me by, or I knew but had forgotten, that Matt Richtel has for the past two months been using Twitter to write a real-time thriller called, inevitably, Twiller. The author writes: "It’s about a man who wakes up in the mountains of Colorado, suffering from amnesia, with a haunting feeling he is a murderer. In possession of only a cellphone that lets him Twitter, he uses the phone to tell his story of self-discovery, 140 characters at a time. Think “Memento” on a mobile phone, with the occasional emoticon." If you can't face reading the novel in 140-character chunks including spaces, here's a slightly longer plot summary at Matt Richtel's blog, to allow "new followers" as he calls them, to catch up.

I don't know if this is supposed to be the actual novel, but here is Mr Richtel's Twitter account. The most recent entry reads:

 "as u no, im drivin deadmans bmw 2 dc. in glove cmpt: pink slip in name Dave Ito of DC; &, photo of Lev Kind (ME) but 10yr ago, in fatigues"

Maybe he should try FriendFeed, they give you more space per post over there.

Matt Richtel is a journalist with the New York Times and author of the previously published novel Hooked, half of which I read (in ink-on-paper, conventional bound form) a year ago but could not finish. It wasn't bad, just not my cup of tea.

Andrew Taylor on writing the opposite sex

Returning to the theme of an earlier discussion, that of the creation of female protagonists by male authors, I was led by Sharon Wheeler to this interview of Andrew Taylor at Penguin blog:

…..”if you’re a man who wants to write women characters who are even halfway plausible, you have to listen to what women say. Real women. This is true in two senses. First, and most obviously, you have to listen to how women talk among themselves, when men either aren’t there or are somehow part of scenery. At my Pilates class, for example, I am sometimes the only man among ten women. At first they were a bit wary of me, then I became a sort of token male, then a mascot like Paddington Bear, and now they don’t really notice me as long as I keep my mouth shut.”

After a slight wobble in which Mr Taylor describes an incident in which he heard three “highly intelligent women” talking about painting their toenails (if he thinks this is typical, is this insulting to the women or the toenails? 😉 )*, he makes the point that women’s conversation is in the conditional mode – making suggestions and being prepared to change position – whereas men assert to each other. (Or, as Mr Taylor puts it: “Men tend to speak only when they feel they have something to say, not that it’s always worth listening to.”)

There are further points about the difficulties of writing from the point of view of the sex opposite to the author’s, because of the parallel universes which men and women inhabit. Men written by women tend to be very sensitive, writes Mr Taylor, quoting Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers and Patricia Highsmith (he could equally well have given contemporary examples such as Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, Anne Cleeves, Karin Fossum), but men writing about women tend to focus on the external appearance. Maybe there is a bit of wish-fulfillment in both situations.

The interview is worth a read, especially for its end (who can he mean?!). Obviously, one can’t generalize about the personalities of protagonists across the board; but it is clearly a bit of a minefield for a writer not only to create a protagonist of the opposite gender, but to make that protagonist seem convincing to readers who share the gender being portrayed.

*I do not recall ever having had a conversation with other women, or indeed men, about painting toenails.

Grammar alert for The Sigil

My friend and colleague Henry Gee (End of the Pier Show blog) writes:

A draft of Scourge of Stars, Book Two of The Sigil, is available here for those who wish to comment, either here or offline (all comments gratefully received, irrespective of the means of transmission).
It’s probably full of holes and typos, but I can’t bring myself to look at it again – at least, not until I’ve had a go at the final instalment. I hope to be able to post that in a couple of weeks.
For those who missed Book One, you can download it here.
The usual parental advisories apply. If reading explicit accounts of sex, violence and religion is not to your taste, then this isn’t for you.
WARNING: May Contain Adjectives

Not waivering but drowning

Who needs an English-language lesson, Glenys Kinnock or The Times's subeditors? Mrs Kinnock wrote a letter to the Editor the other day, about the Burma tragedy. She writes:

"We must not allow our attention to waiver."

Unfortunately, this sentence had the effect of totally distracting me from the contents of Mrs K's otherwise worthy letter. We shall never know, I suppose, whether this sentence was written that way at submission, or if it was written correctly and then edited to be wrong. My interest in knowing the answer probably shall, gradually, waver.