The Friday Interview: Stevyn Colgan on the funny side of murder

stevyn-colgan-portrait-smallMy guest today, Stevyn Colgan, is writer and researcher on the popular TV programme QI. After several non-fiction books, his first novel A Murder To Die For is 92% funded and looks like hitting 100% any day now. It is expected to be published by Unbound in 2017.

Tell us a little about your background and career so far, and how you came to be crowdfunding your first novel with Unbound.

I grew up in Cornwall and had every intention of either going to art college or catering college. But then I somehow got into a drunken £50 bet with my homicide detective father that I couldn’t survive six months as a cop. Next thing I know I’ve moved to London, put on a funny hat and started pounding the beat. And I enjoyed it so much I stayed for 30 years! However, my natural curiosity and fascination with human behaviour led me to challenge certain accepted truths about policing. Eventually I ended up being part of a specialist team at New Scotland Yard exploring new and innovative ways of tackling crime and disorder – like using lollipops to quieten noisy clubbers, or wizards to bring down illegal street gamblers etc. It sounds weird but so many of these ideas were successful that I ended up on a Home Office advisory committee, and the tools and techniques we developed are now standard policing practice. I tell the story of those days in my last book Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road? As for the writing, it’s something I’ve always done as a hobby. It’s my abiding passion; the thing I always come back to. My first book, Joined-Up Thinking was published by Pan Macmillan while I was in my final years as a policeman. I’ve had two other non-fiction books published since but what I’ve always wanted to do is tell stories. I’ve actually written 18 novels but none have been published until now. So I’m using A Murder To Die For to test the waters – it’s the first fiction book from my ‘back catalogue’ that I’ve put up to a publisher. And I chose Unbound as I published my last two books with them.

You’ve written about the writing process, ‘It’s been a labour of love trying to write something as twisty-turny as an Agatha Christie plot while also throwing in some savage slapstick set pieces of the kind I love to read in other comedy novels.’ Tell us a little about how you managed to do this and the difficulty of combining these elements in a novel.

It wasn’t as difficult as it sounds. The comedy naturally emerged from the various scenarios in the story. The hardest part was writing a sufficiently complex – but plausible – murder mystery plot that could keep all of my characters (and readers) guessing until the very last chapter. You soon start to respect someone like Agatha Christie who managed to do it for some 60+ novels. One thing I did have some fun with was the ‘rules’ of writing crime fiction. Back in 1929, the British author and theologian Ronald Knox made an attempt to create a ‘Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction’ and I thoroughly enjoyed testing them. How would they square up against the reality of modern homicide investigations? You’ll have to read the book and see for yourselves! I also set myself the challenge of incorporating parts of my late father’s unfinished murder mystery novel into A Murder To Die For. Dad died cruelly young from a heart attack at the age of just 51 and just a few chapters into writing his first novel. As this year marks the 25th anniversary of his death, I decided to commemorate him by getting some of his words into print. What I did was to use his prose as the prose of the fictitious author Agnes Crabbe whose work is central to the plot. I was even able to use the general plot line of Dad’s book as an important strand in my own plot. It should look pretty seamless. And I know that he’d have loved the idea.

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What made you write a comic murder mystery novel?

I find it very hard to write anything terribly serious as I’m not a terribly serious person. I’m optimistic, gregarious and I find the humour in pretty much any situation – a welcome safety valve during some pretty hairy times when I was a cop. It also helps with writing the scripts for QI and The Museum of Curiosity of course! The idea for a comedy murder mystery grew out of a pub discussion (as all the best ideas do) with some non-police friends. I was explaining why I don’t watch cop shows – procedurally they are nonsense and their accuracy is usually appalling. Things like ‘good cop/bad cop’ during interviews for example. That breaks the rules of evidence as any information gained under threat or duress will be inadmissible at court. However, I do love murder mystery because it’s a world removed from real life. It’s generally very silly and melodramatic, like a game of Cluedo made real.  And it suddenly occurred to me that there might be a great deal of humour to be milked from throwing the two genres at each other – real policing versus murder mystery. One of my favourite TV shows is Midsomer Murders because it does just that; it straddles the two genres. It’s filmed around where I live on the South Bucks/South Oxon border so it’s fun to spot the locations. But what really attracts me to Midsomer – apart from the appalling crime rate for such a small county – is the ingenuity of the crimes. While Det Ch Insp Barnaby appears to be a modern cop investigating a homicide, the circumstances of those deaths are pure golden age murder mystery! My favourite ever is an episode called Hidden Depths where the murder is committed by a man being staked out on his croquet lawn and then being bludgeoned to death by his disabled wife firing his wine collection at him with a replica Roman trebuchet (a kind of catapult)! Or that great episode where Martine McCutcheon is crushed by a giant wheel of cheese. Or the episode where Phyllida Law is killed when a towering pile of newspapers is pushed on top of her by her dotty husband Edward Fox. Genius!

You wrote this about A Murder To Die For: ‘The subsequent clash of cultures between the procedurally-driven police (a world I know a great deal about having once been a London Police officer) and the murder mystery obsessed fans is where much of the comedy comes from.’  This could be hilarious, I can imagine. Could you attempt to define further the type of comedy in the book? (I know that’s a hard question!) Are there particular characters in your book which provide greater scope for comedy than others?

 I wanted to write a good farce. Farce is comedy that involves situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant and improbable but grounded in the real world. Think Fawlty Towers, for example. What could be more mundane than a mid-range seaside hotel? But throw in a series of misunderstandings, some decent slapstick and a cast of eccentric characters and you have comedy gold. Tom Sharpe’s books are all classic farce. I guess the most famous is Wilt – the story of mild-mannered Henry Wilt who is so dominated by his wife Eva that he acts out a fantasy of murdering her by dumping a fully clothed sex doll down a hole on a building site. Unfortunately the doll is spotted just as thousands of tons of concrete is poured on top and, with perfect bad timing, Eva goes missing. A simple drunken act degenerates into delicious farce. I’ve set A Murder To Die For at a murder mystery convention where nearly everyone is dressed as a particular fictional lady detective – including the victim, witnesses and very possibly the murderer. Throw in the fact that there is rampant rivalry between fan clubs and you ramp up the potential for comedy. And then to have them all trying to investigate the crime at the same time as the police … it almost wrote itself! The fans were great characters to play with and I had a good mix of the  obsessive and dotty and passionate. The cops too were fun and were all based on people I’ve worked with or were amalgams or several people. I have a retired cop who is laid back and does things the old-fashioned way. I have a modern, procedurally-driven and promotion-obsessed cop. And I have a lateral thinking cop who has an extraordinary way of piecing disparate facts together to discover the truth. To have these three also at loggerheads gave me even more comedy to play with. All the best comedy comes from conflict and misunderstanding.

Which writers do you most enjoy reading and which have influenced you the most, would you say?  

I am something of a magpie and a very eclectic reader. I usually have two or three on the go at once; at this moment I’m reading Andy Hamilton’s first novel The Star Witness, Jason Arnopp’s The Last Days of Jack Sparks and Laurie Winkless’s Science and the City – a comedy, a supernatural thriller and a book about the infrastructure of urban living! I do like to mix things up a bit. When it comes to influences, however, they are many. I never tire of P G Wodehouse, Douglas Adams and Tom Sharpe. They have probably been my greatest influences. I also love almost anything written by Willie Rushton, Harry Harrison, Dorothy L Sayers, Spike Milligan… the list goes on and on. I read a lot of non-fiction too and particularly love books by people like Mary Roach, John Ronson, Stephen J Dubner and David Grann. My influences extend to other media too. I listen to a lot of radio comedy and audiobooks – Kenneth Williams’s reading of Cold Comfort Farm is one of the best things ever – and I watch a great many old classic British comedies. If it was made in the 1950s and features people like Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, Alec Guinness, Joan Sims, Dennis Price, Peggy Mount, Bernard Cribbins… I can almost guarantee that I’ve seen it!

Are comedy novels less popular than they used to be do you think? Are readers less interested in reading comedy?

 I don’t think that they’re less popular. They’ve just been relegated to specific parts of the market. Most of the best comedy in recent years has ended up in two camps: sci-fi/fantasy and women’s fiction. The great humorists of the past decade or so have been people like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Jasper fforde, or like Helen Fielding, Sophie Kinsella and Jenny Colgan (and yes, we probably are related in some way as the Colgan clan is quite small). Mainstream comedy in books does seem to have died a little but that’s maybe because we’ve lost most of its brightest stars; only relatively recently we’ve said goodbye to people like Tom Sharpe, George MacDonald Fraser and David Nobbs. And, of course, Douglas and Terry, both of whom I was lucky to meet and, in Terry’s case, work with. There are still some fantastic comic novels being produced by writers like Michael Frayn, John Niven, Jonathan Coe, David Lodge and others but nowhere near as many as we used to enjoy. I think it’s time for a resurgence. The world can be a miserable place at times. A smile and a chortle on the commute to work can only be a good thing!

I’ve heard people say that comedy writing (in novel form particularly) is more difficult to sell to publishers and readers than other genres because what’s funny is inherently more subjective than say what is suspenseful or chilling. Is that true in your view?

 It is definitely true because, as you say, humour is subjective. For example, I recently started reading through the books of Nicholas Salaman. If you believe the cover blurbs and literary reviews, he’s the funniest writer who ever lived. But, while I will happily say that I enjoyed them all and they made me laugh, they didn’t make me laugh as much as books by other authors have. It may be a different story for other readers. TV comedy is the same; look at Mrs Brown’s Boys for example. Millions love it. Millions hate it. There’s no right or wrong with comedy. But it does mean that you have to find your audience. Publishers have to make money to stay afloat – especially in an age of online publishing – and so they will be naturally inclined to take on the books most likely to generate the best profits. Comedy is always a risk because it can’t be all things to all people like a thriller or a horror story can. But, in recent years, it seems that it’s been the accountants rather than the publishers who have been calling the roost. What else would explain anyone shelling out quarter of a million for the biography of the dog that won Britain’s Got Talent?

Is it harder these days for new comedy novelists to get their names known? Are publishers  less willing to take risks on them? And do you think this is a good time for new comic novelists to emerge?

 Interestingly, the first novel I pitched to Unbound was a completely different one! They liked it a lot and said ‘Let’s do it!’. However, at our first actual meeting, they asked me if it was a one off or whether it was part of a series. I told them that I saw it as part of a trilogy of books all set in the same fictitious county with certain characters appearing in two or more of them. When I described the plots of Book 2 and Book 3, the guys at Unbound said ‘We want Book 2 first!’ Their reasoning was sound – Book 2 was a comedy murder mystery and, while comedy is quite difficult to sell, murder mystery isn’t. They reckoned, therefore, that it would give me the best chance, as a new fiction author, of making some kind of impression on readers. Plus the fact that I used to be a cop helps by adding a layer of credibility. I genuinely have worked on homicide investigations. So Book 2 became Book 1 and Book 1 will now be Book 2 if Book 1 does okay. Keeping up? I think this is a good time for comedy novelists because the field is so clear. Plus, there has never been a better time to get your work snapped up by TV production companies or movie makers. There are so many TV channels now and everyone is looking for the next funny series or film. If your book is suitable for dramatisation, you stand a great chance of it happening. I’m certainly working on some pitches for the novel right now.

How far off are you now from your crowdfunding target? When will A Murder To Die For go into production?

 As of today, October 12th, I’m 88% funded so I’m nearly there. The book is written and it’s been proofread and critically read by a talented and knowledgeable bunch of friends. I’m hoping, as long as I’m fully funded before the Christmas break, that Unbound can get A Murder To Die For edited, proofed, typset, designed and printed for May 2017 to catch the Summer holiday readers market. Meanwhile, January will see me back hard at work researching and writing the new series of QI. But that’s always a joy, never a chore – rather like writing novels.


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