Showing posts with label Neil Schofield. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Neil Schofield. Show all posts

09 May 2012

Presidential (S)elections


by Neil Schofield

I haven't been having a cold like Leigh, or trouble with my leg like Rob, but what I've been having is like a combination of the worst aspects of both. I've been having a presidential election. I say 'I', but I really mean 'they', because although I'm in France, I'm not altogether of it, if you catch my drift. I can vote in local and regional elections being a European, but for any Rosbif who tries to muscle in on the choosing of the Head Grenouille, the shrift he gets is decidedly on the short side.

It's been a bad-tempered campaign, often peevish and at times verging on the distinctly shirty.
So to get away from this parliament of crows and the not unfrenzied activity which has surrounded it, I decided to catch up with my reading. Our town library now boasts a vast(ish) English language section with a high proportion of crime/mystery novels. From Block,Connelly, Coben and Cornwell  all the way to Westlake. Wodehouse is also there to ease the fractious mind.

My selection this last month has largely consisted of books I should have read long ago, but have inexplicably failed to. So it's been Catch-Up time. But you can't ever really catch-up, can you? And my reading has been interfered with by the thought that people will say incredulously "You haven't read that? But everybody's read that. Years ago!"

Well, okay. We can't all be perfect and I don't get out much. But three of this month's books have made for a fine distraction from the worritsome Gallic punch-up. What I like in a book is  (of course) a good story well told, but I also love to learn about something new to me. And these three have all taught me something new, told me about something of which I was completely ignorant. Coincidentally, all three concern America, but I don't mind that.




The first is The Given Day by Dennis Lehane. This is a very good book indeed. I've now stopped classing D. Lehane as a great crime writer and started thinking of him as a great writer full stop. And what fascinated me was the back-drop of Boston in 1919. I had never heard of the Boston police strike and most of all, I had never heard of the Boston Molasses Disaster. If anyone had spoken to me about it before I came across the book, I would have assumed they were talking about a Monty Python sketch. But the horrid reality was anything but funny. And the fact that it has Babe Ruth as a sort of Greek Chorus turning up throughout the narrative is a clever added bonus.

My second selection is The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. I am always a little wary about detective novels written about actual historical figures, but this is an exception. I didn't know about Sigmund Freud's visit to New York in 1909, and his fractious relationship with Carl Jung, so here again I learned something new. The (fictional) murder plot which takes place during the visit  and with which Freud becomes involved is well constructed but again, it was the back-drop that entertained me the most. The New York of 1909, with its towering nineteen-floor (gasp) skyscrapers, the Manhatten Bridge as yet unbuilt, the social New York of the Four Hundred Families - all beautifully drawn.

Third and not least, I read this.

And it frightened the bejasus out of me.

After 'No Country For Old Men', I had to amend my List Of People To Be Really, Really Scared Of, to include Anton Chigurh, but nothing prepared me for this. Why on earth hadn't I read this before? It is one of the strangest, most terrible, most terrifying things I have ever read. I kept having to stop during one of McCarthy's long hair-raising paragraphs, to take a few deep breaths and tell myself it was only a book. But it isn't only a book. One review (the NYT, I think) called it a journey 'through a hell without purpose'. And that it is and then some. There is no salvation in this book, no redemption for anyone. The end is as terrible as the beginning. It is dark, bloody and pitiless.

And what I didn't know about was John Joel Glanton , his band of scalphunters and their horrid, bloody work in 1849. And worst of all, I didn't know about Glanton's appalling second-in-command, the dreadful Judge Holden. And now I know, I'm not sure I wasn't better off not.

What mesmerises is McCarthy's English which is like no English language anyone one has written or  read before. It isn't simply the repetitive use of 'and', nor the lack of quotes around the dialogue. It is the way he drifts into near-Biblical  or quasi-mediaeval mode, his use of the archaic word, the outmoded phrase when he is describing the indescriptible which raised the hair on my neck. I am going to have to read it again to make sure I had it right the first time. But not just yet. I have to read some P.G.Wodehouse to settle my nerves.

France has elected a new President.

And I have elected Judge Holden to head my List of People To Be Really Really Scared Of, which now reads:
1. Judge Holden
2. Anton Chigurh
3. Roy Batty
4 Keyser Sose

They just keep on coming.

11 April 2012

Close - But No Spring Roll


by Neil Schofield

A few years ago, round about the time when I was flirting with the gilded chimera of Hollywood, just at the same time in fact, I was seduced by another chimera from the other side of the world. Out of the blue I was contacted by a young person who offered herself up as my agent to sell my stories in mainland China. This young person had been instrumental in introducing EQMM to China, and her credentials seemed tip-top.
"Hmm," I said to Mimi, "China. Just what we've been needing."
So, to cut it short, I parcelled  and disked up a load of my oeuvre and bunged it off to the young person, mostly my published stuff but including one or two stories that had been rejected. Hah! That would teach 'em.
Well, the young person came up trumps. Not long after, she announced that she had found a publisher who was willing to publish two - not one, mind - collections of stories. I read the letter with trembling eyes.
"What is this hectic flush that is suffusing your dear face, beloved one?" asked Mimi. I gave her the glad news, and she suffused along with me.
I received two contracts -one for each collection, and all was tickety-boo. The publisher was - still is, for that matter - Qun Zhong in Beijing.
I rummaged around on the Net and managed to Google Qun Zhong. When Google had translated the publisher's pages for me, I found it wasn't half bad. This was the same publisher who had on its list James Patterson, Clark Howard, lots of Sherlock Holmes, Robert Brainard ( not inaccurate as translations go). They had the first Spenser novel, billed as 'The Gude Fu Handscroll', which is close enough. And they had Philip Margolin, otherwise known as Philip Ma Gaolong.
"Well," I thought, "I'll gaolong with that."
I received a smallish advance for each collection and that was that for a year and a half. The young person taking umbrage at a fairly innocent remark I made in an e-mail, scuttled off into the undergrowth never to be heard of again and I was left along with Qun Zhong or rather with Ms Zhang Rong, who was the editor in charge.
That hectic flush came and went several times in those eighteen months. Sometimes I looked like a set of traffic lights as I did the arithmetic. One billion, six hundred milion people in China, I reminded myself. Now say, just one-tenth of one percent bought a copy of just one collection - no it was too much, the brain refused to cope with the maths.
Nobody ever asked questions about the translations. They were just getting on with it, I supposed. But I did wonder how they were coping witht sentences like the one in 'Mine Hostage', one of my first EQMM stories, when a character says: "We've been stitched up. Done up like a kipper, we've been."
But I supposed they knew their business.
And after eighteen months, I had a bulky parcel through the post. Six copies of each. The first looked exactly like this:

And the second was pretty much like this:


They were what I suppose we would call Trade Paper Backs, but like no TPB I'd seen. The covers were beautifully produced, and the paper, well, the paper had nothing to do with paperbacks. It was almost silky to the touch, not that rough stuff we're used to.
It was beautiful work. The only hiccup being that although I'd written every word - well, ideogram, I guess - in these two gems, I couldn't make head nor tail of them. Never mind, I could show them to people, and people said: "Lovely. What does it say?" " Never mind that," I said, " look at the workmanship." " Lovely," they said again. Ah well. Somewhere in China I told myself, people were handling these jewels, and were actually reading the words.
Some were, in fact, but not quite enough. When Rong ( and that's something you've got to get used to - the first name comes last) sent me the first accountings, the numbers were lowish, about 3,500 copies of each sold. And the royalties had been munched up by the advance. So another chimera bit the dust. But not quite. I've still got six copies of each preserved in a jewelled reliquary, and the knowledge that on the other side of the world bookcases in apartments and houses hold copies of these two things.

They're still on the Qun Zhong list, these two collections. I occasionally peep at them, just to make sure. The blurb is interesting.
It goes like this: "Neil Schofield is one of Britain's famous suspense novelist, reporter origin, known as the "devil" writer."
And there's more:
"The reader not only his treacherous plot attracted but also because of its mysterious ending and cannot help laughing and then to appreciate the complexity of human nature and survival of the sinister."
Well, Google. You know.
But I love that 'survival of the sinister,' bit. That's poetry, that is.

In case anyone wants to become a devil writer like me, here's Rong's e-mail address.


 An enquiry can't hurt, can it? And you never know. Life is full of surprises.

14 March 2012

Me, Hitch and Hollywood


by Neil Schofield

I was cock-a-hoop last month, well, two weeks ago, when Rob and John and everyone else was celebrating Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, because I realised I have an anniversary in February. February 2001 in fact, which was when my very first story appeared in AHMM. Actually it was a dead heat because I also had a story in EQMM that month but that's by the way and neither here nor there. 2001 was a good year for me: I had six stories published including my only ever cover story. I know how Rob feels. I was tickled to bits, and wanted to kiss the postwoman, but I didn't because you never know where that sort of thing is going to lead.

The editor then was Cathleen Jordan, whom I never really got to talk to because she died tragically and too soon. I did get an e-mail from her with a rare rejection of one story. She made it clear that she was onto me, had seen the end coming a mile off, but that she like the 'particularly good title'. I still have that title which is waiting for the particularly good story to come along to fit it. I was in Short Crime Fiction Heaven, happily getting used to the ferlap of a contract coming through the door or the flump of the complimentary copies hitting the deck.

Another anniversary comes along this month. In March 2004, I had a story in AHMM. A little story actually, no more than 4500 words. I had originally sent it to Zoetrope, who returned it with a nice handwritten note saying very enjoyable, but not for them. So, I mucked it around a little, changed the title and sent it to Linda Landrigan for her to have a butcher's. And it duly appeared in the March number in 2004.

A week later - no more - I had a phone call. From a Hollywood producer. It was a Sunday night, and Mimi was out - doing something, I don't quite know what. I never quite know what. When she finally hove up alongside me I told her I had one word to say to her and the word was Hollywood.

Tell you what, though, the paramedics are quick off the mark in France. When Mimi had been pronounced out of danger, I filled her in: a female Hollywood producer wanted to option the story with a view to making it into a feature-length film. You can imagine how the champagne flowed that night. You can imagine it if you like, but the sad truth is we didn't have any in the house and it was too late to buy any.

Anyway, the following week all sorts of negotiations went on, and to my boyish delight I was involved in long-range early morning discussions about option payments and percentages of net receipts. I had conversations with the amiable Scott Lais in Contracts and Permissions at Dell, and from him I learned that there was another production company in the frame, for whom my producer had worked.

"We're in a bitter bidding war," I said to Mimi. I had to translate and explain and that took the shine off a bit.

I spoke to the second production company and they seemed lukewarm, so I decided that all things being equal I would go with the original candidate.

A contract came, and was signed and was sent back. A three-year renewable option with staged payments. I thought I had died and gone to paradise.

The first cheque bounced.

It was then I realised that there is Hollywood and there is Hollywood.

That hiccup was sorted out after a fashion after a while. But the pattern or something like it was repeated: getting the instalments of money out of Ms Producer was like pulling teeth. Still, I stuck grimly to it, telling myself that even hotshot Hollywood producers can have little administrative problems. I invented an Accounts Person called Marsha who was the bane of everyone's life and who hated signing cheques would do anything not to sign a cheque even when she was ordered to and her job, livelihood and two-bedroom apartment depended on it.

We carried on like this, me in my fantasy world, and Ms Producer in hers, into 2005, when Ms Producer up and announced that she would be going down to the Cannes Film Festival to sell her film wares, and wouldn't it be great if, while she was traversing Paris, we could lunch. Her treat. My choice of restaurant.

I was now going through mental contortions such as only the most feeble of minds can produce. Suddenly Ms Producer was back on the A-List, the problems with the cheques had been simple Marsha-based aberrations. I resolved that I would ask - no, demand - a new clause in my contract under which Marsha would be told to hit the highway. I think I was in what psychiatrists call a fugue state. Elizabeth might be able to help me out here.

I had chosen the Closerie des Lilas, on the corner of the Boulevard Montparnasse and just round the corner from where Hemingway lived. In fact the Closerie was one of his favourite watering holes, and today it is very posh. I sat at the bar with before me a small brass plaque which told me I was in the very seat where Hem used to park it on his frequent visits. I could imagine Hemingway nailing the plaque to the bar with his very own hands.

Ms Producer made it on time, and lunch ensued. A superb lunch, needless to say, outside on the terrasse, in the sunshine. Sunshine without and sunshine within. I was being lunched by a Hollywood producer. Ms P talked about her plans, showed me the press pack - the press pack! -for the film, including a mock-up of the poster. Wine was taken, casting was discussed: names were bandied about and I remember that Hugh Jackman was the principal bandyee. I bandied for all I was worth. Ms P told me that the South Koreans were interested in the project.

"What, all of them?" I quipped, up for for anything and eager to promote my sardonic Brit humour.

"No, just the ones that matter." said Ms P tersely.

Apparently, down in Cannes, she had hired a hospitality suite, had wined and dined various film coves. And covesses, I suppose. She presented me with a bottle of her specially-labelled champagne. And, remember, all this for a fourteen page short story turned down by Zoetrope.

Ms P produced plastic, we collected our personal belongings and parted on good terms, me with my press pack and bottle of champagne and the feeling that we were that close, Ms P with her high hopes.

And it finished there; more or less. The tooth-pulling recommenced in the autumn, and as the effects of a Closerie lunch slowly wore off, the option slowly expired. There was some loose talk about renewing it, but I knew by then what anyone else would have known from the start: that I was in the hands of a wannabe who wasn't gonnabe. I knew that we weren't that close, we were that far away.

Ms Producer, when I Google her name today, is flogging wine and dating services on the Net. In a spirit of nostalgia, I Google the name of the story sometimes, and up pops Ms Producer's company site, with embedded somewhere in it the mock-up poster of a film that was not to be.

So what did I get out of all this? Quite a lot, actually.

I got several thousand bucks - however hardly won - about twelve times what I had been paid for the original story.

I got a great lunch.

And for two or three years, I had the warm winds of Hollywood fanning my cheeks and ruffling my hair.

Which is a lot, I say.

And all that because AHMM published a little story of mine. Life is full of surprises, my mother used to say. And in this, as in most things, she was right.

I haven't given the real name of Ms P. A gentleman doesn't. And in any case, one day, who knows? Life is full of surprises.

Vive AHMM. And all who sail in her.

08 February 2012

Polar Readings


by Neil Schofield

I bin ill. For almost the whole of last month. January largely passed in a sort of blur. So apart from anything else my Sleuthreading has been pretty patchy. I just caught the end of the David Dean celebrations, but didn't have the wit or the time to add my Congratulations David!
I knew that story was a winner when I first read it last June.

I'm no good at being ill. It happens very very rarely, despite the fact that I lack a spleen, mine having been confiscated following a multi-car road accident in the 80's. Spleens are apparently supposed to produce the cells that fight infections. Where are all the spleens when you need one?
When I was young, being ill was frowned on. The traditional remedy was for my nearest and daftest to gather round my bed and intone the age-old Yorkshire incantation: "Gerrup out of that, yer lazy, leadswinging little whelp". This worked like a charm, which I suppose it was.
So I'm not one for being cossetted. I prefer the old dog method: retire to a corner, lick your wounds and if you don't die, then that means you're better.
I have a feeling that it was catching, too, because days after I went down, my printer-scanner went belly-up, and the toaster exploded. Let me tell you that a crumb of baguette has the stopping power of a 9mm round.

Cossetting is out, but I do need comforts, and my favorite is Comfort Reading. I mean reading familiar books that you know and love and which require little or no effort from a spinning brain. This month I turned to the French for comfort.

The French Have a Word For It

And the word is 'Polar' which is a short form of 'Roman Policier', and covers all crime fiction, detective fiction and mystery fiction which makes it a useful word. We have no equivalent it seems to me. Polar covers everything up to the Thriller category, which the French maddeningly call un Thriller.

The French are pretty good at crime fiction. When I was first in France, to acquire and expand a vocabulary I read everything I could get my hands on. I read the seven volumes of Les Rois Maudits which tells from a French perspective the story behind the Hundred Years' War, although stopping well short of admitting that, really, France today is rightfully part of England.
And then I started on crime fiction. The first man I read was an interesting character called Leo Mallet. Mallet was a surrealist and anarchist, and engaged in the usual series of bizarre jobs, before he was invited to go to Germany in 1941 to becomes a slave labourer. He quickly accepted because the invitation was delivered by a Sturmbannfuhrer backed up by a couple of Schmeissers. When he came back to Paris, he re-started writing. Pre-war he had enjoyed parodying Anglo-Saxon crime fiction and in 1942 he turned out his first crime fiction, 120, Rue de la Gare. After the war, he continued, and, according to some critics, helpd to  transform French crime fiction. His main character, Nestor Burma, was a private detective, disabused and cynical, with a secretary called Helène and a sidekick/helper called Zavatter who burgles on the side. Oh yes, and there's a peppery police commissaire called Florimond Faroux. The set-up sounds familiar, don't it, but it was a breath of fresh air to the French. He went on to write a long series of novels around Nestor Burma all set in the mean streets of Paris, including a sub-series calle Les Nouvelles Mystères de Paris, where each novel centres on a different arrondissement of Paris.

I'm afraid that Nestor Burma was never translated, but the stories are worth learning French for. For me, it's almost as good as re-reading Sherlock Holmes: I know the destination, but I know I'm going to enjoy the journey.

My other favorite has been translated and then some.
Sebastien Japrisot, (which is an anagram of his real monicker, Jean-Baptiste Rossi) started in the early 60s as a translator, of Hopalong Cassidy stories oddly enough. He also translated The Catcher in the Rye and The Trouble With Harry.  His change of direction, along with a change of name came with a murder mystery called Compartiment Tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murders in the English version). The film adaptation of this book  was Cost-Gavras's first film and starred Yves Montand. His best book, at least to my mind, was his third,  La Dame Dans L'Auto Avec Des Lunettes Et Un Fusil - The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun, for which Japrisot trousered a Golden Dagger in 1966. If you can get hold of a copy, read it. It's one of the best-made crime novels I've read. The plot is beautifully constructed, flawless and diabolic.

Japrisot's ouput over 40 years was not enormous. He wrote a number of screenplays (a couple of which ended up starring Charles Bronson) and a handful of novels, but he is one of the best and most literate French crime writers I've ever come across. His last novel was set in the 1914-18 war and is a love story which turns into a detective story. It became the film A Very Long Engagement which collared the 2005 Edgar for Best Screenplay.
You can find his novels in translation on Amazon. Used copies cost pennies. Highly recommended.

Snow has now fallen, the whole country is in chaos, and I'm going out now to chop some logs for the fire. So I must be better, mustn't I.

11 January 2012

New Year's Irresolution


by Neil Schofield

I have no Mayan blood in me. Not unless my mother was keeping something from me during all those years. Or my father come to that. Thinking back today, I'm pretty sure that while I was growing up in West Yorkshire, Mayans were fairly thin on the ground. Though we always regarded people from Leeds as Other, a bit weird.

So, I am not genetically predisposed to believe that 2012 will see the End Of Days. I can march into the New Year with confidence, unlike the Mayans, not many of whom I suppose offered boxed sets of Downton Abbey or The Wire as Christmas presents.

Anyway, as we all know, 21 Dec 2012 simply marks the end of a b'ak'tun cycle of 144,00 days and the beginning of another. And since it's only the 13th, as b'ak'tuns go, it's not especially top-notch. Now, if it were the 20th, we might be forgiven for jumping at loud noises and scanning the skies for signs of the Mayan Cosmic Gronk Squad.

I have explained all this to Mimi, without success. I found her rummaging in the desk drawer where we keep Stuff That Really Ought To Be Thrown Out When We Have The Time. I told her that the Mayans didn't sell their calendars door-to-door like the garbage collection men, or the firemen, especially not in this neck of the woods. But Mimi is French and therefore Cartesian. She wants logic and proof. I sometimes suspect her of having been secretly born in Missouri but the physical evidence says not.

So that was my first hurdle sorted out. I can make some resolutions. But which ones Oh Lord, which ones? There are so many out there. I know I am already going to walk more, smoke less, drink less. Not that I drink a lot: I usually spill most of it.

I ned something with more meat on it. I was attracted strangely by Leigh's resolutions for the paranoid, because I go along with Gore Vidal when he said that the man who is not paranoid is a man who is not in full possession of the facts. But no, something doesn't fit the kindly, though sometimes gruff soul I am pleased to think is me.

Then I read Jan Grape's generous article and that struck several chords. The fact is I too haven't been writing enough. I've been procrastinating too much. It's been a case of : Never put something off till tomorrow that you can put off until the day after. Always with a perfect excuse, that goes without saying.

So, in 2012, I am going to follow Garson Kanin's (paraphrased) dictum: Apply seat of pants to chair and don't get up until finished. I am going to write more and I'm going to write better. I am going to send out one story a month and the first went out last week.

Another resolution: I am going to read more and read better. This occurred to me over Christmas. I haven't been reading enough, and I haven't been reading well. I had settled down one evening with a glass of the true, the blushful, to read one of my Christmas presents: a collection of Kurt Wallander novellas by Henning Mankell.


I hadn't read them before, and since one of them first appeared in EQMM in 2003, I was sure I was onto a good thing. But something happened. I got bored. The writing seemed leaden - in English English we might say plonking.

Now usually I get on well with Mankell, and indeed with all the Scandinavian crime writers. But something was up.

It's interesting that Dixon Hill and John Floyd have both written recent articles on 'flat' and 'dull' writing. They were a great help as I tried to analyse the problem, looking for the usual suspects: passive verbs, too many adverbs and so on. It wasn't anything that obvious. The sentences were perfectly well written, but something about the way they were put together didn't feel right. After ten days I still didn't know what the problem was. It might have had something to do with the fact that in the narrative sequences, nearly all the sentences are about the same length, which gives a diddly-dum diddly-dee sort of rhythm.

No, I decided, the problem lies not with the writer, or the translator, but with the reader. I have now been back and read the stories again, while this time acknowledging that I wasn't reading Robert B Parker, or John D Macdonald, but a writer from another country where they do things differently, where they think differently and speak differently. And Henning Mankell is great at providing that Sense of Place which I admire and envy.

Well, it seemed to work well enough. On the second reading, because I was reading perhaps more carefully, more generously, the plonkingness seemed to fade.

So, I am going to try to become a more active and generous reader, and try harder to keep my part of the contract that always exists between writer and reader. I think as a reader, I sometimes forget that that contract does exist.

Well, these resolutions might not seem much but I figure it's enough to be getting on with. I might have re-think around mid-term.

Speaking of the End of Days which I was at the beginning if you recall, I think something much more sinister is going on. On Christmas Day, my daughter Kate who is a theatre stage manager and working on a pantomime in the north of Englnd told me that the day before, on Christmas Eve, the management had sacked Cinderella for Gross Misconduct. Apparently, misconduct is okay, but hers had been grosser than the permitted level. Nothing to do with mice and a pumpkin, just an everyday story of drunken three-o'clock-in-the morning joyriding. Natually the local press had her for breakfast - 'Cinders Fired' - that sort of thing.

Cinderella sacked on Christmas Eve. I am starting to suspect that the Long Hadron Collider is at work here, creating a parallel universe bit by bit. I said it would, ask anyone.

Happily, it seems to be a parallel universe in which Leigh Lundin is still the Supreme Leader and Guide, so not much change there then.

A Happy New Year to everybody.

Oh, and if things turn out right, a Happy New B'ak'tun.

14 December 2011

A Little Sound Advice


by Neil Schofield

I have chosen this winter scene to begin with, because I am nothing if not obvious, but also for two other - interconnected - reasons. The first is that it was painted by Claude Monet about 130 years ago and about 10 miles from where I live in Normandy. I know this road near Honfleur and it hasn't changed that much. Today, you'd be likely to see an abandoned Renault Five in the foreground and - given the season - a UPS truck fighting its way up the road. Seriously, do we really entrust our precious, fragile belongings to a carrier whose name looks suspiciously like Oops!?

The second reason is that as, you can just perhaps see, it is a Christmas card. More pertinently, it is a card I received some years ago from Dell Magazines. Within are kind messages from Janet and Linda. It is a seasonal and constant reminder of how lucky I have been. Without the help of those redoutable ladies, I wouldn't be here now.
So a painting by Monet finds its way onto a Christmas card which in turn finds its way back to where it was painted. Is that synchronicity or co-incidence? Or simply a proof of the interconnectedness of all things? Whichever it is, it still pleases me.
Christmas is now ten days away, and grizzled and grumpy though I may have become, I still feel that same anticipatory prickling in the soles of my feet as the 25th approaches.

France is another country and they do things differently there. For instance, the celebration and heavyweight eating happen on Christmas Eve. Turkey is becoming more and more popular but the dish of choice has always been a leg of lamb - the Christmas gigot. So since living in France, I have had to change my habits a bit. For example, the Queen's speech on Christmas Day is not the same here. For one thing, the President of France speaks very little English. Perhaps that's because he is very little.

One habit I have never changed, and never will. What I shall be doing on Christmas Eve afternoon, is listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols  from King's College Chapel in Cambridge. And this via BBC Radio. Phew, made it.
Radio is what I really wanted to talk about. I am a radio man, and always have been. Very often, I prefer it to television. As that legendary small boy once said, "On radio, the pictures are better." And in the BBC's case, the small boy was right on the money.
The BBC - or "the Beeb" as we sometimes call it, or "Auntie" as we used to call it, has many different stations, both television and radio. I want to tell you about Radio 4 which is the station of the spoken word, or more particularly about Radio 4 Extra, its offspring, which is devoted to comedy and drama. Especially drama, and readings.
Here are some of the things I have listened to in the past several months on Radio 4 Extra. This is not an exhaustive list.
  • The Complete Smiley - all eight books featuring George Smiley, dramatised and serialised with Simon Russell Beale superb as Smiley
  • The Philip Marlowe Novels - with Toby Stephens - the megaheavy in 'Die Another Day' - as Philip Marlowe. Included, interestingly, 'Poodle Springs'.
  • The Tom Ripley novels - also dramatised and serialised.
  • Rogue Male read by Michael Jayston - who was Peter Guillam to Alec Guinness's George Smiley
  • Busman's Honeymoon
  • A Margery Allingham Albert Campion novel, again beautifully dramatised
  • Deadlock by Sara Paretsky, with the amazing Kathleen Turner as a convincing Vic Warshawski
  • The House of Silk by Antony Horovitz - the only new Sherlock Holmes novel to be authorised by the Conan Doyle Estate
  • The Return of Inspector Steine - a comedy crime series by Lynne Truss (the very same)
I have also heard two  excellent series of short stories called 'Pulp Fiction' which included 'A Candle for a Bag Lady' (Lawrence Block), 'Forever After' (Jim Thompson) 'A Really Nice Guy'(William F Nolan) and 'So Fair, SoYoung, So Dead(John Lutz) All read by Peter Marinker who is a superbly talented American reader. I have more recently been listening to short stories by Bradbury and Colin Dexter.

Dear oh dear, how I am wittering  on. I know a list would lead to trouble.
What I really wanted to say to you is that you can dip into this trove anytime on

www.bbc.co.uk/radio4extra

Its extremely easy to find your way through the site. Just bring up the day's schedule, click on whatever takes your fancy and the player will pop up. (I think you will have to download the player but that's easy; the guidance is excellent)
If you're a born listener like me and like to read with your ears, I'm sure you'll find something to suit your criminous tastes.

So that, my beloved 'earers, is my Christmas present to you. If you already knew all about it, then pass it on to a friend.
That's the end of the radio commercial. We're handing you back now to your regular programme schedule.

And a very, very happy Christmas to all of you.

09 November 2011

Digitally Yours


by Neil Schofield

I am a child of the digital age. Or at least the digital age grew up around and alongside me. But, alas, I never grew up with it. I remain but a tiny, tiny child.
And when I read a few weeks ago that a third of British children under ten have a mobile phone, a sixth have a laptop and a twelfth have a social network account, the horrid dimensions of my infantilism became clear.
Witness, I thank you, the unedifying porridge I made of my first attempt to contribute to this blog.

All can be summed up in a Groucho Marx line, as can so many things in life:

Groucho: (reading a document) Why, a five-year-old child would understand this. (beat) Someone run out and find me a five-year-old child, I can't make head nor tail of it.

As a non-grown-up in this vertiginously adult world, what I am doing now is typing, not writing. I still feel it is cheating to stare at a screen on which the pixies are forming my words. (I know, I know, everyone calls them pixels, but I know The Truth. They are the pixies, and they are fractious, fickle little blighters whom it is best not to vex lest evil befall.)

'Digital' to me means you do it with your fingers. Writing is something you do with a pencil and a piece of paper.
When long ago I began writing scripts for cash money, up there on the Writers' Floor we wrote in pencil (or pen - the rules were not set in stone) on an A4 pad, and our scripts were typed  by a proper typist called Camilla. When changes had to me made because the Suits demanded it, cut and paste meant precisely that. Camilla typed out the offending passages, cut them out and pasted them into the master script. Consequently, copies of the script sometimes contained pages on which sections of dialogue were ver so slightly skewed with lines round them like a bad collage. (Mind you, I've nothing against collage. Picasso dabbled in it, during what I believe is now known as his Glue period. And even Ernest Hemingway once famously said: "When I hear the word collage, I reach for my gum.")

Our first computer, a DEC I think, was, in fact, a room. Its capacity was shared with Accounts, so that very often production of a script would be held back because Accounts were doing big sums. I suppose that the capacity of all that wheezing, throbbing metalware was a tiny fraction of that of the tiny machine on which I work now. And we were frightened of it. We called it HAL.
(Incidentally, here's a thing. Arthur C. Clarke was a cunning bloke. If you take the name HAL and take a step forward in the alphabet for each letter, what do you get? All right, everybody knew that.)

It wasn't until the 90's that I was brought face to face with the computer as a personal tool. But I still held on to my yellow HB pencil and my spiral-bound notebook. I still do. All my published stories were written first by hand. Some of my happiest hours have been spent unfurling the Big Parasol, furling a cigarette (yes I know, Dixon, I would have been useless in the US Special Forces) pouring out a Little Something and settling down with pencil and notebook to see what my wandering brain will drag in. I never know what it will be - my brain has a mind of its own.
I've still got my notebooks from ten years ago. And it amazes me that these spiderish scrawls ever found their way into print. Among all the stuttering and stammering and crossings-out and balloons and arrows, there are little notes. Sometimes a one-word plot idea, sometimes just a title. I've  got some knock-out titles. Titles for which the story never turned up, but might one day, who knows?
Life down here among the pencilleros will forever be associated with the wonderful taste of cellulose and the gritty feel of graphite betwen my teeth. Apart from anything else, an HB pencil smells good. And by golly, mother, it tastes good too. What's more, an HB pencil doesn't stare moronically at you and deny, hand on its traitorous little heart, that you ever, ever wrote a story called 'Detour'. Faced with that mulish stupidity, even the old Yorkshire trick of weeping and pleading  cuts no ice. I've tried it.

Once I have done my typing, it still isn't finished. I have this thing about reading a wodge of typescript. I can read it and understand it, but I can't take it in as a whole. I have a problem in comparing and contrasting this scene with that scene ten pages before. At the end I know whether it works or not. But that isn't the whole story. Is everything working well down in the bowels of the thing? Because, you understand, for me, never mind your novels, every single story is an aircraft carrier.
What I have to do is the following: physically lay out the story page by page on the dining-table. (If it's a novella, which has happened once or twice, I have to pull out both leaves of the table. What I am going to do when the Book is licked into shape is anyone's guess. Mimi might have a word or two to say about a forty-foot refectory table sticking out into the garden through a hole roughly hacked through the wall. But I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.)
When it's all laid out, I sit high up on the back of a chair and look down on the whole work. Like that, I can see everything. I can see what works and what doesn't. I have been known to talk during this bit: "You must be mad. That bit doesn't belong there. It's too early." or: "That bit's too long and lumpy. Why don't you break it up with some back story from that bit over there."
People who walk in during this process usually make an excuse and go hurriedly about their business.

After that I have to edit, using the hated C&P. But even then, it isn't finished. I put it in an envelope and place it on the table by the door. There it sits, sometimes for a week or more, until I know I am really happy with that last line, or until Mimi threatens to put it into the recycling bag. Nobody ever reads my stories except me and the editor. Mimi doesn't read English very well, and because I'm bad at oral storytelling, trying to tell and explain a story to her is like trying to explain the leg-before-wicket rule to a young owl.
So, all in all, writing chez nous is a bit of a cottage industry. I keep expecting tourist groups from Osaka and Wichita Falls to wander through and take photographs. I also feel that, at the same time, Mimi should be stitching together little linen bags of lavender, or fashioning litle pottery animals. I haven't suggested this : I may be mad, but I'm not yet suicidal.

My fervent hope is, that perhaps, just perhaps, contributing to Sleuthsayers is going to force me to join the grown-ups.
But, to prove that I am on the way to becoming a Big Person, I have to get this piece on the blog. This may take some time. First I have to run out and find a five-year-old child.

12 October 2011

First Faltering Steps


by Neil Schofield

My name is Neil Schofield, and it’s been that way for longer than I can remember. I am an Englishman born in Yorkshire. For the past eighteen years or so, I have been living in Normandy, France, with Mimi, my partner and live-in French person. France, incidentally, is just off the English coast. (A headline from the 1940’s: “Thick Fog In Channel: Europe Isolated”) That tells you something about our thought processes.

What else? – oh yes, I write short stories.

Neil Schofield
This is me. Snapped in holiday mood in the summer, which I seem to remember happened this year on July 17. The truculent smirk I am modeling means, unless I miss my guess, that we were approaching l’heure de l’apero: Time for a Little Something, time to put up the Big Parasol, watch the garden tick over and sip a little white wine. A Muscadet, probably, because a Muscadet helps you work, rest and play.

I come to Sleuthsayers as a complete baby. I have –had– been for the 4½ years of its existence, an avid follower of Criminal Brief. Never a contributor, more a professional lurker. What interested me, and astonished me every day, was the seemingly endless stream of ideas. Who were these people who could turn out a column every week, week after week?

The invitation from Leigh and Rob to join SleuthSayers came as something of a shock: I had to be helped from the room. I have been writing crime/mystery fiction for a little over ten years. What could I have to say that might interest anyone? How was I going to manage among all these heavyweights? Although the idea of writing just one piece a month didn’t seem too difficult, the cons seemed to mount up.
  • I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of crime and mystery fiction. I’ve read a lot and I remember almost all of it, but as an authority I would lack a certain something.
  • I haven’t published a book – not even come near yet.
  • I don’t have an enormous library of reference works to call on and plunge into.
  • I’m a Brit, and I live in France, what’s more. I might be the object of derision and opprobrium.
But then I read the list of contributors, and read the first articles/posts, it occurred to me that I had a little more in common with some of the senior partners than I had at first thought.

Rob Lopresti, of course, I know. I am an enormous fan of Rob’s stories. (Well, I say enormous – I’m six foot, and 160 pounds, which isn’t really enormous, but never mind). Rob and I have conversed digitally, and sometimes bizarrely, on diverse subjects, for some time. What is more, we share a birthday, September 19. Which seems a little unfair. I’d like to have had one of my own. It was also Rob who revealed to me that 19 September is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I tried it here, with predictable results. The French don’t seem to have the right sort of soft palate you need to say ‘Aarrgh’ properly.

Then comes Dale Andrews with whom (entre autres) I shared the same Barry Award shortlist in 2008; Dale for his Ellery Queen story “The Book Case”, and I for “Murder: a User’s Guide”.

A previous Barry Award shortlist - in 2005 - I had shared with Melody Johnson Howe. But that was another story. So what’s to worry about, I said to myself. You’ve already rubbed shoulders with the great. Go and rub a few more.

What has also secretly pleased me about the Sleuthsayers, is that, reading the contributions over the past two weeks or so, I have realized that I am not the only late starter in the frame. Because ‘late starter’ is putting it mildly, in my case.

My crime/mystery (somebody tell me what to call it!) career began a scant ten years ago. Before that, in other lives, I had spent ten years in theatre lighting, first as a production electrician and touring chief, and then edging into lighting design. From that, I morphed, seamlessly and without apparent effort, into becoming a writer and producer of what Americans liked to call Industrial Theatre: conventions, sales conferences, product launches, et al. I was usually at the loopy end of the spectrum, when the client –the Suits– would accept a series of comedy sketches or even a daft two-act play as a vehicle for The Corporate Message. In the 1990s I graduated to writing ‘Tourist Rides’ for attractions around the world in France, Singapore, Australia, Berlin, and so on. Even London.

But in 2000, now living in France, (I think I was attracted by the smell of cheese) I started to write the stories that had been stacking up in my brain for years. My very first stories, to my amazement, were accepted by Cathleen Jordan and Janet Hutchings. And it still astonishes me whenever I have a story accepted by EQMM or AHMM. In the decade since, I have sold thirty stories to these two extraordinary magazines. (The current score is EQMM 17; AHMM 13, I don’t know why. I must do something about evening up the numbers) Without Ellery and Alfred, (Mimi insists on fondly referring to them though they were two members of her already extensive family) I wouldn’t be writing these words now. And whenever I was on some shortlist, or quite simply published, I would look at the names with whom I was rubbing shoulders, keeping company. And I would find it hard to believe. I still do.

I’ve never met any of my fellow-writers. I’ve never been to Bouchercon (and incidentally, it was Elmore Leonard in an interview on the BBC who taught me quite recently that it’s pronounced Bowchercon. For years I’ve been giving it a French pronunciation) I was once invited, as a Reader’s Award Finalist, to a Dell Magazines bunfight, and near as dammit went, but family matters intervened. So I never got to rub actual shoulders with anybody.

So I am very happy and proud to be rubbing shoulders with this company. And I hope– even as a once-a-month junior partner– I’m going to be able to step up occasionally and say something that interests SleuthReaders. Anyway, I’ll do my best.

Talk to you soon.