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.
Continue reading Dr Tel’s Magnificent Seven