A comedy detective fantasy; CSI in the land of Widergard, where fantasy has grown up a bit and Nicely Strongoak is just your average Master-detective-for-hire, if your detective happens to be a dwarf with a handy hand axe. In a city filled with drug-taking gnomes, goblins packing heat and a serious case of missing-persons, Strongoak might just be what’s needed, because this is one dwarf that is never going to leave a single cobblestone unturned.
I know that the whole history of, and reasons for, the UK’s ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ a.k.a. ‘Bonfire Night’ is something of a mystery to most of you guys in America. This is despite it having taken place in 1606 and hence it being part of a lot ‘your’ history too! Please excuse such a generalisation, but without it you guys wouldn’t even be guys at all!
The bare bones are that November 5th is commemorated here as the night when Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were thwarted in their attempt to blow up the English parliament – with gunpowder!
They wanted to kill the Protestant King James and his cronies and replace him with the Princess Elizabeth – as a Catholic queen.
Every year, certainly when I grew up, Fawkes’s capture was celebrated by a big bonfire built by the children of your street (could start that in summer!), loads of fireworks, food provided by families and of course, the burning of the guy! Other people might celebrate with the family in their own back gardens.
The guy was an effigy of the Mr Fawkes made from tatty old clothes stuffed with newspaper and conkers (they go bang); plus a bought cardboard mask supposedly in the style of Mr Fawkes. Each year one would (if allowed) push, carry or ‘guy’ the effigy around asking for a ‘Penny for the Guy!’ The money to then be spent on fireworks and/or sweets (NOTE – not candy!).
This ‘Guy’ entered into literature in books such as Tom Brown at Oxford, which described someone as ‘such an old guy in his dress’. While in 1893 in ‘The Swell’s Night Guide’ they excused themselves by saying: ‘I can’t tonight, for I am going to be seduced by a rich old Guy’. This became incorporated into US English as ‘Wise Guys’ and ‘Fall Guys’, until it was just ‘you guys!’
The importance of this very social (and potentially dangerous) family event has rather diminished in recent years in favour of public displays, but this depends on your location. Where I live in the south of England there is a proud tradition of Bonfire Boys (and Girls). Many villages hold a torch-lit procession through their streets with marching and drumming bonfire boys (and girls) from different villages in different fancy dress outfits. This is spread out over most of November! Each night culminated in Bonfires and fireworks and rather a lot of drinking (sadly not this year). It’s a truly splendid sight and sound: loads of drums! It’s slightly mad and it’s not state controlled!
Why is this still going on?
Well, perhaps strangely, the terrorist Guy Fawkes has become something of an anarchist hero. The fact that he wanted to blow up one government to replace it by another has largely been forgotten. Every generation sees Guy Fawkes slightly differently you see. Each year we burn a different politician on our bonfire – plenty to chose from.
I have recently written the ‘book’ and some of the lyrics for a new musical about Guy Fawkes, with music by the far too talented Ben Durkin. It is actually based on a Victorian novel about the man by William Ainsworth – a Bestseller at the time! To the Victorians, Fawkes was something of a romantic figure and the novel (and the theatre show hopefully) has many gothic elements beloved by audiences of that time – spirits, alchemy and magic, and explosions of course!
And so Fawkes continues still. Those anarchist masks you see at demos, they are Guy Fawkes masks adapted from the wonderful ‘V for Vendetta’ graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, which imagined a new ‘Guy Fawkes’ figure and a different totalitarian state. Guy Fawkes just won’t lie down!
So, you ‘guys’ over there in the USA – and everywhere else – ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.’
Penny for the guy, mister?
Check out the amazon Susie Dent’s book ‘Word Perfect’ for more about ‘guys’ and all sorts of other fascinating words. You can read more about the exciting new musical and hear song samples at our website.
Ever since they invented computers – well, you know what I mean – I have enjoyed playing around with pictures and photos. I was lucky enough to be involved for a while in what was then called ‘interactive multi media’. I ended up demonstrating our prototype ‘Interactive Biological Information System’ to the son of a now disgraced (and dead) genuine newspaper tycoon. He said ‘I’m the guy you have to impress’. We walked away with a cheque, I guess we impressed him.
At one time we were an Apple Development Station! I had to demo what we doing to the top Apple people in the UK on a black and white monitor (that long ago). To be honest I’m not sure they really understood what we were up to as they seemed much more interested in the pictures accompanying the demo and where I had got them.
‘I drew them,’ I said.
‘What! With a mouse?’ they said.
‘Yes, it’s easy!’
I’m not sure whether we got a cheque, but we did get use of a brand new Mac!
Of course, image production and manipulation is easier than I would ever have dreamed. Here’s some fun with the new Nicely Strongoak cover – done in two minutes from a free online site. The much-younger me would have been thrilled. The older me certainly is!
Always nice to hear Nicely’s theme song:
Published September 18th by Monkey House
Delighted to announce the cover for the new #1 Kindle Bestelling ‘Detective Strongoak’ adventure: ‘Dwarf Girls don’t Dance’. Published by Monkey Business, an imprint of Grey House in the Woods – coming soon.
“You never hear much about Dwarf women, do you? That’s because they are trouble. Real trouble.”
When Master Detective Nicely Strongoak first encounters the drop-dead gorgeous dwarfess ‘Diamond’, a fully paid up member of the Citadel Guild of Amorous Dancers and Associated Divesters, he should have known better than to leave his business card. Especially when subsequent business turns out to involve murder and the man reputed to be the Citadel’s Dark Crime Lord.
He certainly shouldn’t have gone to help Diamond beat a murder rap. Not when it involved heading back to the old Dwarf Kingdom of Skragsrealm, and the memories of a much younger Nicely and his encounter with the Nine Idlers – a group of men, elves, gnomes, dwarves and even a Warrior Princess. Oh, and the one brutal killing he had never managed to solve. Yet his alliance with the strangely attractive gobliness Detective Analyst Grundrund leads Nicely on a trail full of enchanters and lost love that might solve not just one, but three murders. That’s if the rewilded wolves and mud dragons don’t get him first.
I have always been a huge fan of robots. I adored ‘Robbie’ in Lost in Space – although I preferred him in ‘Forbidden Planet’.
Gort was great too!
He was the eight-foot robot companion of the alien Klaatu in 1958’s classic ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’. Unfortunately he lacked facial features, but was still capable of more expression than Keanu Reeve who played Klaatu in the remake. And Gort could open his visor and shoot out a death-beam, something else Keanu Reeve can’t do – yet.
Then there is Marvin – ah, Marvin! ‘Brain the size of a planet’, but he’s an android isn’t he?
And of course everybody loves Asimo, the real-life walking and running robot from Honda, who unfortunately stands a little like he might have had a minor oil leak in his metal shorts. Apparently it is a complete coincidence that his name sounds like Asimov, the surname of the SF writer who proposed the three laws of robotics. These are (and surely it’s not just us cool guys who know this?) the following:
1.A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2.A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3.A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Not bad thinking for 1942 Mr Asimov!
I think we can safely say that these laws should apply to androids too – especially Marvin.
Anyway – robots everywhere: happy birthday! You are 100 years old this year! Many congratulations!
It was in 1920 that Czech Karel Čapek published R.U.R., which stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play wasn’t actually performed until 1921, but it was from his play that the word ‘robot’ soon entered human language. It is now used to define any a machine that is programmed to move and perform certain tasks automatically.
However it is clear from this early photograph from a production of R.U.R. that they were intended to be human-like. In that, they were actually very much like androids – a term that appears in US patents as early as 1863 and, as “Androides” in Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia of 1728.
Since then robots, and androids – and cyborgs too (a name first coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline) – have given us plenty to think about when it comes to being human.
Even the Daleks have had their moments!
So, happy 100th robots everywhere! Long may you rule. Continue reading Happy 100th Birthday Robots Everywhere
Being asked to appear at a Literary Festival, especially a local one, is always a great honour. At the behest of my inspired interviewer Isabel Lloyd I delivered a ‘Magnificent 7’ of the fictional characters I love who have also inspired my writing. Here are some more words about these fabulous characters, who have meant so much to me.
There has to be some Tolkien of course. If it wasn’t for Tolkien I would never have wondered what did happen in Middle Earth when everything moved on a few thousand years, and they had an industrial revolution, and race relations and such like became important, and they even needed a dwarf detective in the first place.
But why Samwise, after all isn’t Frodo the main character of LOTR? Or maybe Aragorn, the proper heroic type? No, actually it’s Sam who is the protagonist of the book, because a protagonist is defined by change. Frodo and Aragorn are certainly heroes – but they don’t really change. Sam, bless him, goes off on his adventuring dreaming of the heroes of old, and to his amazement becomes one of those heroes.
He is the everyman and we need everymen and everywomen:
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
Raymond Chandler introduced the mostly science fiction and fantasy reading me to a whole new world, that of crime. Some say Dashiell Hammett did crime better, but Chandler did it with more class. The world-weary knight in tarnished armour, treading those ‘mean streets’ was the main inspiration for my own dwarf detective Nicely Strongoak walking his ‘mean cobbled street’. Chandler also taught me that books weren’t just about storytelling – my main passion until then – but about the language to. And what language!
‘She had the kind of figure that would make a Bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window’.
I also loved the things I didn’t even recognise: ‘Chesterfields’ and ‘Davenports’ and the ephemera of a bygone age – which it was by then for me.
And if the past is a foreign country – why not make a few things up and put them in your books too! I know I did.
Douglas Adams – who I singularly failed to meet one day in the 1980s, but I got a nice pen from Apple – was a hero. His radio series of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe’ was a huge inspiration and was responsible for the first version of Nicely being written for audio. Bit of a mistake that, looking back, as it took me twenty five years to get it into novel form as the Radio 4 producer suggested to me. Arthur Dent appeals to that part of all of us that never feels like it is completely in control of events. Even detectives are never completely in control, which is why they get hit a lot.
‘This must be Thursday. I could never get the hang of Thursdays.’
And so we come to Terry Pratchett’s DEATH. This is not Terry Pratchett’s personal death – which sadly came far too early, but his character DEATH. Finding a favourite character from Terry Pratchett was actually quite difficult. He’s not really about the characters for me, although there are many great ones, like Rincewind, Nanny Ogg and The Luggage, but he’s more about attitude – a way of looking at things. I was pretty upset when Mr Pratchett made it into print before I did – by the odd twenty five years or so – because he did so well what I originally set out to do. He deconstructed fantasy ideas and used them to address many of the foibles of – well, ‘life the universe and everything’. Thanks to Mr Pratchett I had to tighten my focus and make sure that my books became proper crime books too. There had always been a murder or two and a mystery, but now that was really something to be solved. Nicely grew up a bit and became more of his own dwarf. DEATH stands out, because he TALKS IN CAPITALS and because he is really quite a decent chap. You wouldn’t mind having a drink with DEATH, as long as his bitter didn’t go everywhere.
Two death quotes:
“And what would humans be without love?”
“RARE, said Death.”
and given the subject matter, this one:
HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
Howard the Duck
Iron Man is really so much scrap, Superman couldn’t have a sex life, Batman can’t talk properly, which makes Howard the Duck the greatest comic book ever, and one of the great film turkeys too. Certainly the worse crime against cinema committed by George Lucas.
Howard the Duck is a cynical, tough-talking, cigar champing duck, who ends up in a world of hairless apes. It wasn’t just the fish out of water aspect that appealed to me, but also that he was able to satirise and basically ‘take the piss’ out of all the Marvel comic book heroes, as well as other cultural norms, while still going along with their fun and games. An attitude I approve of and exploited in my 2005 play: ‘What do you do on the Night after you’ve Saved the Universe?’ This was a play that basically featured super-heroes sitting round and eating pizza. Had great fun with ‘C Thru Girl’ and ‘Minuscule Man’.
The great affection felt for Howard in the comic book community can be seen by the fact that he has a cameo in both ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ films.
“Hey, if I had some place to go I certainly wouldn’t be in Cleveland” – insert your least loved location.
A detective and a wizard – isn’t that a little close to comfort, Terry?
No actually – Jim Bishop’s modern day Chicago based PI shows how much fun you can have with the tropes and ideas of fantasy in a modern setting – yet be very different. This was a great relief to me when I was trying to get ‘Nicely’ published. A very different cauldron of spells.
For a start, being a wizard, Jim actually uses magic. Nicely Strongoak isn’t too sure about magic. He prefers his racing green, ’57 Dragonette convertible steam wagon, the model with the air trims and the longer foils, and a shooter instead of a staff. Nicely wears good hats. Harry doesn’t wear a hat – whatever the covers may show!
The late Philip Kerr’s WWII German detective Bernie Gunther is one of the great creations. He narrowly beat another German, Gunther Grass’s ‘Oskar Matzerath’ to my list. Like Oskar, Bernie Gunther holds up a powerful light to shine on the atrocities of WWII and the circumstances that make an essentially decent policeman do what he has to, and makes us wonder what we might do in similar circumstances.
And in Berlin of the war period Kerr also provides another world with its own furniture and slang as interesting and varied as any fantasy world can be.
“When you get a cat to catch the mice in your kitchen, you can’t expect it to ignore the rats in the cellar.”
“Looking round the room I found there were so many false eyelashes flapping at me that I was beginning to feel a draught.”
Please note: I could have cheated for the sake of political correctness and included references to private investigators ‘Kinsey Malone’, and ‘VI Paretsky’ – who I love – or female action heroes like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor – but they are mostly film and this was for a literary festival after all. And I haven’t mentioned ‘intertextuality’ at all! At the end of the day it’s all about what influenced my writing the most and these are the main people, outside of Roxy Music, David Bowie, August Darnell and Bugs Bunny.
That’s all folks!
* With thanks to Jane Triton and The Robertsbridge Arts Partnership and, of course, my intrepid interviewer, the writer and journalist, Isabel Lloyd.
Ten Reasons why I Love Books … and one extra
1) Easy travel without buying a ticket
2) Legal voyeurism
3) You can fall in love but behave outrageous and see other people too
4) A novel of the proper length enables you to support your head when lying on the floor to straighten your spine
5) Turning pages is good exercise for turning pages
6) You don’t need to share a book and you don’t get told off for it
7) You can meet such nice people
8) You don’t have to put up with the company of people you don’t like (for long)
9) Words in books help you to understand more about the world
10) I’ve never been stood up by a book
Why ‘Nicely Strongoak’? What’s that name all about? I get asked this a lot. I thought I had better sit down and explain it properly.
You have a funny relationship with your name don’t you? Well, I do anyway.
Love it or loathe it, you’re stuck with your name. Unless you do what a few people I’ve known have done and actually change it. (Hi Paige!) But frankly, I find that a bit weird. (Sorry Paige). I’m talking about first names of course, I mean doesn’t everybody change their surname at some point? (I’ve had three).
Your first name, the label that you grew up with. The name with which you were praised or admonished and which, hopefully, one day was whispered lovingly into your ear. The name that was shouted across parks at sunset to bring you home – or is that the dog?
The name that helps define you, whether you love it or loathe.
I hate my name. Terry that is. I know it’s Terence on the birth certificate but nobody ever called me that. It was always Terry.
Terry is the name of somebody who works on a fruit and veg stall at the local market. Terrys got to play second division football but rarely made it to the top of their profession. Terrys were your mates that played darts down the Red Lion on a Wednesday evening. Terrys were the bodyguards but never the one being guarded.
Terry was shorthand for a cockney likely lad. Terry was a name picked by lazy scriptwriters when they when didn’t want to develop a character.
OK – I did work on a fruit and veg stall and I did play darts down the Red Lion – but I couldn’t guard a kindergarten. I wasn’t that sort of Terry. I was surely a Karl, a Maxwell or maybe even a Sebastian!
I wore silver Lurex lady’s evening gloves, silk bomber jackets and over-the knee black suede platform stiletto boots for heaven’s sake! (It was that time).
Terrys didn’t do any of that! But of course they did. It wasn’t all about Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Enos – it was mostly Terrys doing the lurex glove wearing.
I was interesting! Terrys weren’t interesting!
So, eventually, I became Dr Tel. Well, Tel is an acceptable contraction of Terence and I was called Tel a lot as a child. I was even called Telstar for a while – how I wish that had stuck!
And, by now, I was a doctor and so Dr Tel seemed acceptable and anyway my best mate used it first. So that counts, as far as nickname creation goes.
And Dr Tel I did become and thus was I called, by students and comedy chums too. Dr Tel was interesting and he was fun, and even occasionally a little dark. He didn’t wear Lurex gloves anymore but there were a lot of dark suits and very narrow ties. Yes, Dr Tel was everything I had always aspired to be. Dr Tel was, indeed, the real me. But, you know what? Terry still hung around.
Terry who played darts and once worked on a fruit and veg stall, bless his cheery heart, was still there in the background ready to put on his slippers of an evening and talk bollocks down the local later.
And, guess what happened? I was suddenly rather glad to see him. He wasn’t too bad a bloke. After all, if as Gary Oldman said about his mate Bowie: ‘He’s Dave from Brixton and I’m Gary from New Cross’, why couldn’t I be Terry from Stevenage?
After all, if it hadn’t of been for Terry we wouldn’t have had these three marvellous songs:
For everybody who might be feeling a little jaded at this time of year, I give you a Cynical UK ’80s Xmas (no resemblance to anybody living or dead of course).
In the days before streaming, MP3s and such like – when proper music came in vinyl that they called ‘long players’, there was something called ‘Difficult Second Album Syndrome’.
An album was another name for a LP (long player), being a number of audio recordings issued as a collection, which after vinyl’s heyday was then also used for both tape cassettes and CD collections – gosh, it’s like a history lesson!
And the ‘difficult second album’ was what they called the follow-up LP a band or singer had to bring out pretty quickly after the initial success of their debut. Usually with the record label pushing them hard! The problem referenced the fact that recording artistes had, apparently, often used up all their best ideas on that impressive first record.
Now, novels having been around a lot longer than LPs (did any classical music composers have ‘that difficult second symphony syndrome’?) you would think more would have been written about ‘Second Novel Syndrome’. Of course it must exist, after all Margaret Mitchell never managed another book after ‘Gone with the Wind’. J D Salinger rather dried up after ‘Catcher in the Rye’. Maybe it’s more success related than the actual writing?
What then can be done to get over this problem? And did I ever suffer from ‘Difficult Second Novel Syndrome’ when writing ‘The King of Elfland’s Little Sister’ (KELS)? This being the second adventure of the ‘#1 Kindle Bestselling’ Master Detective Nicely Strongoak. (Not exactly ‘Gone With The Wind’ or ‘Catcher in the Rye’ fame I know!)
The answer is no. And not because I’d already published ‘The Resolution Show’ with David Alter in between, because chronologically that was actually written a lot later.
The explanation, and the way to get round ‘Difficult Second Novel Syndrome’, is to start the second novel before you finish the first! Well, that’s what I did with KELS.
What’s this all about then? Simply put, when writing Nicely’s first adventure ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf’ I found that there was a lot of material being generated that just didn’t fit in that first book. It was either connected to events, or characters, which just didn’t belong in ‘A Dead Elf’. They were too good to waste though and I put them elsewhere (in my fester box) and gradually KELS began to take shape there.
Bottom line, I had half of this book finished before I had completed Nicely’s first adventure. This meant I had none of that ‘blank page’ problem when it came to writing KELS for real. There were a lot of other problems of course, but not to do with the actual writing.
And, guess what?
While I was getting the rest of KELS together the elements of Book 3 of Nicely’s adventures were taking shape. Now, on ‘The King of Elfland’s Little Sister’ publication day, I am delighted to announce that the first draft of Book 3 is also complete. It’s called …
Sorry, you’ll have to wait for that treat, but in putting that book together the basis for Book 4 began to take shape as well. But that, as they say, is another story.