When I said I was attempting a ‘Point Crime’, some asked, ‘Why are you doing this, Dennis?’ I understand their problem. Series books are seen as formula fiction, cliché-ridden, slackly written, full of venal wish-fulfilment fantasy, actually inimical to the development of good reading habits: they are published for profit and exploitation of the market; bad money drives out good and children will drown in pap – or worse. ‘So have I heard and do in part believe it.’ Or did. Now I’m not so sure.
I’m not talking about changes in the sociology of children’s books or new rules of engagement in the battle for their survival. Though I could, at length. But when my long-standing publisher Andre Deutsch sold the children’s division to Scholastic I was suddenly in the Point camp: the UK ‘Point Crime’ list was being set up together with the existing US ‘Point Horror’ list, with Fantasy, Romance and Sci-Fi. And the intriguing propostion was put to me: ‘Ruth Rendell or Colin Dexter for kids’.
Well, I regard Rendell and Dexter as among today’s finest writers – in fiction generally as well as their own sub-genre. And what a sub-genre! All new writing is within a tradition: that’s my central tenet. If you aren’t in a tradition there’s nothing to follow: nothing to rebel against. An invitation to join – in however small a way – the tradition of Poe, Wilkie Collins, Dickens himself, Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, Raymond Chandler and P D James was something to take very seriously. To check, I read previous ‘Point Crime’ titles by writers I admire – Jill Bennett, Anne Cassidy, Peter Beere, David Belbin, Malcolm Rose. These books, I thought, were no soft options. They bore the hallmarks which make crime fiction an important branch of the novel – and also important texts for young people to grapple with and interrogate.
All narrative starts with a problematic situation which, through action and formal construction, is resolved. Both author and reader have tasks in this resolution. The author plays fair, setting a track which, though concealed, can be followed. The reader attends to the text, asks it questions and reserves the right to find the answers unsatisfactory. Crime fiction, with its built-in puzzles, shows these features clearly. The ideal close for crime fiction, when the villain is unmasked, is for the reader to say two things at once: ‘That was absolutely inevitable: that was a complete surprise.’ That’s a double seldom won, always aimed for. The two reactions together mean the great satisfaction for the reader. And, of course, it is so with all narrative.
I know this satisfaction. When I was ‘Point Crime’ age myself, I read detective stories, many by names I’ve long forgotten. Oddly, though, Agatha Christie was not among them. Dorothy L Sayers was – and I still think The Nine Tailors is one of the great twentieth-century novels. Like many of my generation I found radio a huge influence – if our parents could afford television sets, what was shown was choiceless, grey patronising rubbish. But Francis Durbridge’s Paul Temple radio plays in particular held us agog – eight half-hour episodes, a murder an episode, the criminal unmasked at the end and always committing suicide before the police (never the cops or the Old Bill) came puffing up. We made bets on the school bus on the murderer’s identity, discussed plot leads, character, relationships, motive. Unconsciously, we were learning to discriminate and talk critically. This is what Charles Sarland in his Signal articles on Teenage Horrors notes children doing with their shared ‘Point Horror’ books – which Steve Rosson (I believe fatally for his case) does not (according to the November ‘94 issue of BfK).
For me, the form dropped away as I moved to other literature. But I knew detective and crime fiction had helped me become a critical reader and I still found peculiar pleasure when I read a Freeling, a Rendell, or a P D James.
Then the suggestion came. I said at once, ‘Yes, I will.’ Here was a chance to attempt a significant form to the best of my ability. I was not writing The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew (but what right have I to knock them?), nor was I indulging ‘a morbid taste for bones’. (Let us, by the way, dispose of the canard that by writing murder stories we descend into the gutter. Deaths in these books are plot-led, not gloried in for their own sakes, are punished by an in-built and rigorous system of justice. I have no patience with those who think we are writing video-nasty equivalents. And they should be careful as well – we are supposed to be on the same side.)
So I was committed. The feeling which comes after promising to deliver, by an ominously close date, a 40,000-word work of original fiction when there’s not a thought in your head is an odd mix of recklessness and despair – doubly so because this was a form I was not sure, despite writer’s bravery in the face of the editor, I could tackle adequately.
However, I started from first principles. In all fiction, the background is important: in detective fiction the need is to introduce a tight cast of characters which includes the villain because you can’t tack your solution on at the end. My first decision was quickly made. I would return to football, a lifelong passion and already the setting for novels and stories of mine. Straight away I had a potential cast-list of victims and suspects – the personnel of a football club. I had a structure – the rhythm of the football season: a match and a murder every week. The climax was obvious – it had to be at Wembley. What would happen there? As a football purist I don’t like cups and leagues decided by penalties but as a spectator I find penalty shoot-outs incredibly exciting. Was there a way, I wondered, to make a whole plot balance on the tip of the final penalty which would decide everything? That was a good challenge because it properly defined the task and gave me a title – Death Penalty.
When I reviewed progress I realised I’d done nothing different from what I always do in setting up stories. Many writers see characters first, others pose questions to answer. I recognise what C S Lewis said in On Three Ways of Writing for Children about seeing pictures and from them deducing an appropriate form. But, so far, there were no individual characters, no motive. How would I find them?
There’s only one way. Look back into what you know. My football club needed a name. I wanted it to play real clubs although it was fictional. Into my mind swam ‘Radwick Rangers’, the club at the centre of a wonderful football story in The Hotspur in the early 50s: ‘The Team That Died’. This uncannily forecast the 1958 Manchester United Munich disaster. Then came memories of a huge football bribes scandal in the 60s (that Death Penalty coincided with a new one was coincidence, not prescience), and with it the mainsprings for a revenge theme, a murderer and a motive. Good – but where was the dauntingly intricate construction of Dexter or James?
I used to think there were two sorts of writer. The first planned everything before writing: the second just wrote. I tried to be the first, failed, decided I was the second. Now, I see no difference. My first draft, bashed through quickly to see where it goes, is my plan. Only in the act of writing can I pick up the hints, make the necessary connections, experience the delight of ‘Of course!’ as the relationships and causes appear. I read my first chapter to Year 7 in a Middle School, asking them how they thought the story might progress. I was pleased: they picked up one big hint that I wanted them to but didn’t spot what I feared was a real giveaway (and no one has since, which is amazing!). Then came a little miracle. I told them the finale would be at Wembley but I needed to know more details about the place. Whereupon one boy gave me exact details of the layout of the Twin Towers while another produced a ticket for a Wembley Tour. Wonderful! So was the tour: I recommend it. And Corry and Graham found the book dedicated to them.
I sent the manuscript to Scholastic three months and five drafts later knowing this would not be the end of things. Julia Moffatt, the Point Editor, is a close and critical reader, homing in unerringly on slips, illogicalities, non-sequiturs. For these books, that’s essential. One miscalculation can make the whole edifice collapse. Julia gave me a daunting agenda of revisions, all of which tightened and improved the book, accounting for a complete extra draft.
Some odd things happened on the way. My first wish was for my murderer’s justice-cheating leap to be from Wembley’s famous Twin Towers. A telephone conversation with the Wembley press officer put paid to that! Hunting for an alternative high place I settled on a road bridge visible from our front bedroom windows. The spot now has an eerie significance for me. In reading the first manuscript, Julia showed why it’s sometimes hard for males to write football books for female editors: ‘I don’t know much about football and I’m always intrigued to find out new things, so is it some sort of initiation rite that young players are “lid-gonged”?’ I found the reference and corrected the typing slip in my first mention of Stu and his mates living in a ‘club lodging house’. Another piece of editing showed how closeness to a story can make its writer sometimes peculiarly blind. I don’t want to give too much away, but Mrs Grundy and her dead Radwick-supporting husband are not all they seem. I sent the manuscript in, quite sure there was no need to explain this. Julia conclusively demonstrated otherwise. Abashed at my myopia I stitched in a passage I now regard as one of the best, most chilling things in the book.
So there it was: my ‘Point Crime’ in the can. I wanted to repeat this invigorating experience, and resolved to make every autumn ‘Crime Time’ for as long as I can hold a pen. Deadly Music appears in November with the background of a youth orchestra on tour, playing a specially written piece. Elgar dedicated his Enigma variations to particular people. What if my composer did the same but every time the variations are played, a dedicatee is murdered? That’s a nice ‘What if?’ – I made a story out of it. Next will be a horse-racing mystery (Dick Francis, eat your heart out …) and after that I hope to fulfil a long ambition and write a medieval mystery.
That’s the beauty of writing for young people. I can write Crimes as well as other books, not instead of. I don’t want to sound teacherish, but there’s a real way in which books for young people enable them to tackle more complex and demanding texts later. When I wrote Hare’s Choice, Badger’s Fate and Hawk’s Vision, part of me said, ‘These readers one day may want to tackle Italo Calvino.’ Anyone who reads my forthcoming Spirit of the Place may be drawn to Antonia Byatt and Peter Ackroyd. So if a reader comes to Death Penalty because of the football and leaves with the start of a taste for Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter I’ll be well pleased. And if the adult Rendell-addict finds Death Penalty worth reading I’ll be equally pleased. After all, ‘in my father’s house are many mansions’ and there are just as many routes to the ideal goal of a society of discriminating and critical readers. Critics of the whole Point concept carp at their peril. Evidence from the readers is overwhelming: the testimony of its writers, not just me, should be as significant.
Dennis Hamley’s books mentioned all come from Scholastic:
Death Penalty, 0 590 55705 X, £2.99
Badger’s Fate, 0 590 54019 X, £8.99
Hawk’s Vision, 0 590 54129 3, £8.99 Hare’s Choice is out-of-print.
Spirit of the Place is published in September and Deadly Music in November.
The Charles Sarland articles in Signal are:
‘Attack of the Teenage Horrors: Theme and Meaning in Popular Series Fiction’, No. 73, January 1994
‘Revenge of the Teenage Horrors: Pleasure, Quality and Canonicity in (and out of) Popular Series Fiction’, No. 74, May 1994