Peter Lovesey – Interview by Annie Chernow
Crimespree Magazine July/August 2007
Q: I suspect you’ve been asked and have answered this question countless times in your long and honored career, but would you mind re-telling Crimespree readers of your journey from educator to published, award-winning author? How did this all begin for you?
Yes, it’s a familiar question and the answer grows in the telling. Back in 1969 when mammoths still roamed the earth I saw an advert in The Times offering £1000 as a prize for a first crime novel. Macmillan were starting a crime list and wanted to find new writers. I’d done one non-fiction book on running and my wife Jax said if I could finish one book I could surely do another. The money was good — more than my annual salary as a teacher in further education. I’d read the Sherlock Holmes stories, one Leslie Charteris and one Agatha Christie and knew nothing about contemporary crime writing, but Jax devoured mysteries. She suggested I use my interest in the history of running as a background. If nothing else, it would be different from a country house plot. I remembered reading in old newspapers about ultra-long six-day distance races known as “wobbles” in the 1880s. Wobble to Death was written in three or four months. Catchy title, unusual setting, supportive wife combined to win the prize.
Q: Thinking back to 1970 when your first Sergeant Cribb/Constable Thackeray Victorian policing novel, “Wobble to Death,” was published, did you imagine then that this would develop into an eight book series and then into a very popular long-running TV series? What were your expectations at the time?
I couldn’t imagine writing a second mystery, let alone a series. I’d played my ace, my knowledge of running. But when I went to London to the award party it was made very clear to me that a second novel was expected. So I turned to another sport — bareknuckle boxing — played safe and stayed in the Victorian period for The Detective Wore Silk Drawers. At least I knew now that I could finish a book, and was encouraged to turn to other kinds of Victorian entertainment as settings for the rest of the series: the music hall, boating, the seaside, spiritualism and photography. Expectations? I was just happy to be published. After I’d written eight of them, Waxwork won the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger and a review appeared in Time magazine. It was seen by TV producer June Wyndham-Davies and Granada made a pilot of Waxwork that led to the series.
Q: Were there any particular reasons you discontinued writing your two Victorian era series — the Cribbs after eight books and the Bertie -Albert Edward, Prince of Wales series after only three? Have you been tempted to revisit that period?
Television is a powerful medium. I was delighted by the casting of Alan Dobie as my detective, Sergeant Cribb, but in a strange way he inhabited the character so powerfully that when I came to think about further books all I could see was Alan’s face. I’d lost my original character somewhere in the process. Moreover, I used up my stock of settings to write the second series with Jax’s help. The cupboard was bare.
The case of Bertie is different. I never intended him to become a long-running series. Casting Queen Victoria’s son as an amateur detective worked for three books and some short stories, but I would have been straining the joke to do more. I’m glad the “history mystery” has become so popular since. We’re into reprints now.
Q: Do you find the modern-day British police procedurals you now write, featuring Bath’s DS Peter Diamond, to be a more or a less challenging creative experience than those earlier works?
The Victorian era was a comfort zone for me. I’d done the research and knew a lot about the way the police had to work before fingerprints and forensic science came along. So it was a long time — twenty-one years – before I dared write anything contemporary. I did several stand alone books set in the first half of the twentieth century. Only in my short stories was I writing about modern life. But you need new challenges and in 1990 I filled my study with books on current policing and forensics and sought all the help I could get from friends like the eminent pathologist Bernard Knight, who also writes crime. Out of it came The Last Detective and Peter Diamond — deliberately written as a dinosaur character at odds with modern methods. The Anthony for best novel came my way, and then The Summons and Bloodhounds won the Silver Dagger in successive years, so the incentive to continue was strong.
Q: The beautiful Georgian city of Bath seems a unique location for a crime series. Why set crime novels in Bath? How do the residents feel about how you portray their city?
I’ve always used real places, even in the historicals. It’s become a cliché to say that a city is a character in a novel, but there’s truth in it. I enjoy taking a look behind the scenes in gracious Bath. Diamond remarks somewhere on the ugliness behind the Royal Crescent, famed as one of the great buildings of Europe. I can’t say how all the residents feel about the series, but when I give talks in Bath, as I often do, there is usually a gentleman there from the Postal Museum (the world’s first postage stamp was franked in Bath) who tells the audience that thanks to Peter Lovesey the security has been improved since the break-in described in Bloodhounds.
Q: In your novel The Circle, about an eclectic writer’s group in Chichester suspected of having a serial arsonist in their midst, Peter Diamond only makes a brief cameo appearance. The feisty, cigar-smoking DCI Henrietta Mallin, who was introduced in The House Sitter, leads the official investigation. She’s a brilliant character and can we expect an expanded role for Hen in the future? Perhaps her own series?
I live in Chichester and wanted to set a book there and couldn’t contrive a way of transferring Diamond from Bath. Hen Mallin first appeared in support of Diamond in The House Sitter, a book that crossed county boundaries. She had her own mystery to solve in The Circle and I’m currently writing another. So, yes, I think she has a future.
Q: Do you find any special difficulties in writing female characters and female points of view?
I enjoy the company of women and spend more time watching them than men, so I start with an advantage. I think as long as I continue to write in the third person I should avoid problems. If I ever start writing as a woman we should all be worried.
Q: We’re delighted to see that Peter Diamond is back in great form and with a budding romance spicing up his life in the recently released, The Secret Hangman (June 2007/ US). There are some romantic scenes in this book with middle-aged lovers encountering intimate situations for the first time in a long time. Did the writing of those scenes present any particular challenges?
In confidence I can tell you it’s easier for me at my age to imagine middle-aged romance than young love. The challenge lay in convincing loyal readers that Diamond should get involved with another woman three years after his wife Steph was murdered, in Diamond Dust. Some won’t forgive me. Why did I let it happen? I felt the series was becoming too predictable and Diamond needed a life-changing experience or I wouldn’t find the inspiration to go on. Creatively, it worked for me, but I have to ask my readers how was it for you, and they’re not always complimentary.
Q: The notion of a serial killer committing murder by hanging the victims seems rather unusual. Are you aware of real cases where killers have used this method, or — is it all fiction?
The world is so wicked that I feel sure someone, some time, somewhere has tried something similar. And if not, who knows what we’ll read in the papers tomorrow?
Q: You write some of the most memorable characters in crime fiction, whether protagonists or secondary characters. I know that I still find myself wondering at times about the fate of the resourceful, social services case Ada Shaftsbury from Upon a Dark Night, and, of course, there’s the wonderfully wicked rector, Reverend Otis Joy, in The Reaper. Are any of your fictional creations based in part on real persons or actual cases? And how do you come up with your character’s names?
Most of my characters are drawn from life. They go through a process of change as the plot makes demands of them, so my friends and and enemies have never, up to now, recognized themselves (or been willing to ask). I have occasionally had plots triggered by real cases. The False Inspector Dew arose from the Dr Crippen case, by asking myself how the killer might have got away with it if he had acted differently. But I’d better make clear that Otis Joy, the Reaper, wasn’t drawn from any man of the cloth I ever met. The odd thing is that I’ve had several letters from clergymen saying how much they enjoyed the book. Maybe it was because the bishop copped it in Chapter One.
Names are important, and worth casting around for. Like ideas, they come from more sources than I could list here.
Q: You wrote three novels under the pen name Peter Lear: Goldengirl (1976), Spider Girl — republished as In Suspense (1980), and The Secret of Spandau (1986). Can you tell us a little about these books? And why the nom de plume?
The pen-name was thought necessary because I was known at the time for Victorian cozies, and these were modern and anything but cozy. About the time I gave up teaching to write full time I decided I’d better vary my output because I couldn’t see myself writing Sergeant Cribbs for ever. I returned to sport with Goldengirl, a book about a superb American athlete preparing to run in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and about the exploitation, physical, mental and commercial, she has to endure. I was lucky, because a movie was made from it, starring Susan Anton and James Coburn; and unlucky, because the Russians invaded Afghanistan and America didn’t compete in Moscow, so the movie flopped. Spider Girl was another suspense story dealing with an opposite character from Goldengirl. And The Secret of Spandau dealt with the question of the old Nazi, Rudolf Hess, and why he was imprisoned for so long when he played no part in the atrocities of the war. I was fortunate in getting inside information from Eugene Bird, the US Commandant of Spandau.
Q: About your actual writing process… When it comes to organization, are you an outliner? Do you require many drafts?
I have a dread of rewriting and have never worked in drafts. What I write each day is what will go to the printer and I must be an anal retentive because I can’t leave a page until I’m happy with it. I used to outline meticulously, but I’m more relaxed now and have only a broad idea how it will work out.
Q: Do you normally do much research? And have any of your works required significantly more library time, etc. than others?
“Research” always sounds like hard work, preparing for exams. In fact it’s the fun part. There’s real joy to be had in finding nuggets of information you can use. I surround myself with books, cuttings, photos. I use the library and the internet and talk to friends. I’m sometimes asked if I would employ a professional researcher. No chance.
The book requiring the most research was The False Inspector Dew, set almost entirely on an ocean liner in 1921. I’d never set foot on a liner. But there were numerous sources and memoirs to consult. The book won the Gold Dagger and I sold the film rights to Columbia and worked on the screenplay with Peter Falk, so the preliminary work paid off handsomely. Somehow the film never got into production, but there was a compensation. The book got me invited to a Murder Mystery weekend with an ocean-going theme at Mohonk Mountain House, ninety miles north of New York City, where I met the wittiest writer of them all, Donald E. Westlake.
Q: As to the physical process — is it quill & parchment, Smith-Corona, or computer? Please tell us how, where, and when you prefer to write.
Over the years, just about everything. I was scratching on the cave wall when I started. Now I have a white-painted garden office with all mod cons except the phone. It cost me as much as I get in an advance, but it suits me fine, and suits Jax even better because she can have Caruso and Martinelli belting out arias without disturbing me while she paints in the house. I’m slow, slow, slow, so I start early and work till late most days.
Q: Do you share any of Peter Diamond’s negative feelings and misgivings about modern technology? Are you at all like him in any other ways, do you think?
I guess there must be elements of me in all the characters. Like Diamond, I get apoplectic when technology won’t work for me. I hope I’m not quite so clumsy as Diamond and I think I get on with people better. And like him I have a cat with personality. You don’t mess with Mitzi, any more than Diamond would with Raffles.
Q: We sometimes see the comment from authors in interviews that the second book was more difficult to write than the first, the third even more challenging than the second, etc. How would you characterize your experiences in this regard?
I’ve never written one as quickly as Wobble to Death. After that, the writing used to take me a year, even when I was teaching full time and some evenings, but latterly they’ve got longer and the process takes closer to two years. I spend too much time watching the birds. Like Mitzi.
Q: If given the difficult task of having to choose a personal favorite from all your novels, for me (at least today) it might end in a virtual tie between Rough Cider and On The Edge (later produced for TV as Dead Gorgeous.) Both are set in the 1940s, either during or in the aftermath of WWII. Do you have vivid memories of those times? And what influences might those youthful recollections have had on these novels or any other of your works?
Our suburban semi was destroyed by a “flying bomb” in 1944, and I remember it vividly. Our neighbors were killed, but miraculously my family survived. My two brothers had sheltered under a cast iron Morrison table and crawled out of the rubble. We had to rely on charity for some time after, and there were only two books for me to read: one was about a famous criminal lawyer called Sir Edward Marshall Hall; the other was Alias the Saint. Two crucial books at a formative time. For some while I avoided reading the second, thinking a saint with a name like Alias must be boring. (Well, I was only nine years old). Then I discovered it was by Leslie Charteris, so I read my first crime novel, and loved it. And Rough Cider drew strongly on my memories of being billeted in a Cornish farmhouse after the bombing.
Q: You create not only novels in series and stand-alones, but you also write many wonderful short stories. Do you enjoy writing in the one form more than the other? Why?
I love doing short stories whenever I can, and I think that’s what I do best. You can take bigger risks and try new things out. I even did one called Youdunnit, in which the reader committed the murder. Believe it or not, the story was seized upon as a significant work by academics in France and I was invited to the Sorbonne to join in a debate about it. To my surprise they produced another writer, Max Dorra, who had used a similar idea. This led me to write a further story entitled Murdering Max. Absolutely true.
Q: Why do you think that short stories appear not to be as popular with some mystery and crime fans as novels are? Any ideas as to what might be done to encourage the reading of more short crime fiction?
There are bright readers who know about the short story specialist publisher Crippen & Landru and who take Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and the Alfred Hitchcock magazine. You get stories from all the great writers of today, and some reprints from the past. Our genre started with short stories by Poe, Conan Doyle, Chesterton, all of which have held up better than their novels. Nothing (well almost nothing) is more pleasurable in bed at night than starting a new story that you can finish before turning out the light.
Q: Your most recent short story that we enjoyed was in the March/April 2007 EQMM. It’s one of a trio of themed stories about elder crime. (The other contributions are by your sometimes partners-in-crime, Michael Lewin and Liza Cody.) Not elders as victims, mind you, but as perpetrators! Where did that theme originate? Is this a new ‘crime trend’ we should worry about?
When Left Coast Crime came to Bristol last year we did a panel together called The Ideas Experiment. In preparation we took a newspaper cutting and each used it in our own way as the trigger for a story. It happened that the clipping was about elderly criminals. The stories demonstrate, if nothing else, how differently writers’ minds work. I think Mike still has some copies of the booklet we produced if you care to visit his website.
Q: According to a bibliography of your works, it appears you’ve written at least one novel, or produced at least one anthology, every year since 1970. (Not counting two earlier non-fiction works.) Nowadays, it seems that there are ever-increasing demands on a writer’s time — and for other than just writing books. Touring, blogging, self-promoting, networking, (interviews!), and marketing all appear to consume many hours in a typical author’s life. Looking back, do you think, given all the considerable changes that have taken place in the publishing industry these past 37 years, that you could accomplish as much as an author if you were starting out as a new writer today? Do you feel more intrusive demands on your writing time now than in the past?
Here in Britain we aren’t nearly so busy with promotion. I don’t have a website (didn’t when I was interviewed PL) and I certainly don’t blog. I’d rather write fiction. I’ve seen the itineraries of some US writers on tour and I feel exhausted reading them. My US publisher, Soho Press, has the good sense to limit me to short tours, and I really enjoy a few days on the road. I still like meeting readers and writers at conferences and I do answer letters regularly, but I’m mainly a stop-at-home guy.
Q: When you think about the future of crime writing and the mystery novel, what do you envision as the status of the genre five or ten years down the road, considering today’s trends?
Difficult. The death of the detective story was projected long before I started. Whatever form the mystery takes there is always a structure to it and some kind of unmasking. There’s more graphic violence about than formerly (if we meet I must sing you my infamous “Autopsy Song”) and I hope there will still be room for humor like Donald E. Westlake’s in future. We need some laughs along the way.
Q: Is there a book by another mystery author from the past that you wish you’d written? one from the present?… and why?
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. And the short story collection Twisted, by Jeffery Deaver. Both are models of sharp, stark writing and brilliant plotting.
Q: Your first books in 1968/69 (The Kings of Distance and The Guide To British Track & Field Literature) were non-fiction and the subject was running and sport. Are you a runner yourself? What other sports or activities do you enjoy most when it’s time to relax?
No, I’m useless at running. It was only to keep face with the kids at school that I made myself an authority on track and field and its history. I still do a lot of that pleasurable activity, research, on the subject. I wrote the official history of our Amateur Athletic Association and did a major bibliography for the British Library a couple of years ago. Apart from that I enjoy cooking. And visiting secondhand bookshops. And after that, a teashop.
Q: I understand you are a member of The Detection Club founded in the 1920s by classic mystery writers including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, et al. The original members of the club agreed to adhere to a code of ethics in their writing, so as to give the reader a fair chance at guessing the guilty party. Can you tell us a bit more about The Club? And does the same code of ethics still apply today or have there been modifications that you can tell us about?
Recent research by Douglas Greene, the biographer of John Dickson Carr, has established beyond dispute that the club was founded in 1930. I was invited to join in 1974, the same year as Ngaio Marsh (a few years my senior) and John le Carre’. The initiation ceremony is broadly similar to what it was in the beginning, with a candle-lit procession and the candidate placing a hand on Eric the skull and making a series of promises. There may have been an element of seriousness early on about the oath but those days have long since passed. Last year I edited a short story collection by members of the club in honor of former president H.R.F.Keating’s 80th birthday and I can promise you that the likes of Len Deighton, Colin Dexter, P.D.James and Reginald Hill didn’t take themselves too seriously. With Simon Brett as our current President how could it be otherwise? We still meet and have secret ballots to decide which distinguished crime writers should be admitted, and the only criterion is excellence of their work. Whether they write thrillers, spy stories or traditional mysteries is not important. It was only ever a dining club.
Q: Imagine if loyal readers, friends, and admirers wanted to create a statue in your honor… What would it be made of, where would it be located, and what victory will it commemorate?
God forbid. Made of snow, so that it wouldn’t last. Located in my daughter’s backyard in Greenwich, Ct, so that my two American granddaughters could have fun pushing it over and stamping on it. A victory for commonsense.
Thank you so very much, Peter.