Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Past Master

Britain’s Andrew Taylor has seen more than 20 of his crime novels published on both sides of the Atlantic. His very first book, Caroline Minuscule (1982), picked up the John Creasey Memorial Award (now the New Blood Dagger) from the Crime Writers’ Association, and he’s been nominated for the Gold Dagger and Edgar awards. Earlier this evening, Taylor was given the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for his “lifetime achievement” in crime-writing.

Nobody can say he hasn’t made a name for himself.

Taylor’s works include the Lydmouth Series and the Roth Trilogy (the latter of which was filmed for British television as Fallen Angel, broadcast in 2007). A writer of significant depth and exceptional quality, he is the only author who has twice been awarded the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, for The Office of the Dead (2000) and The American Boy (2003). The American Boy was released to great acclaim in the United States in 2004 as An Unpardonable Crime. Its story is set in 19th-century London and features the character of Edgar Allan Poe as a child, exploring a little-known aspect of his early life.

In mid-March, we were fortunate enough to participate, with Taylor, in A Qualcuno Piace Giallo, the ninth crime-writing festival to be held in Brescia, Italy. We seized on that opportunity to ask him a few questions about his latest novel, his approach to penning historical mysteries, and whether his accumulation of prizes has made his life easier or more challenging.

Michael Gregorio: You have been writing full-time since 1981. Where does your inspiration tend to come from? Do you start with a character and a situation, or do the plot and its resolution provide the driving force for your invention?

Andrew Taylor: I never have much idea about plot beforehand, let alone its resolution. The books generally start with two or three ideas I want to explore further--which may be setting, character, theme, or even a title that seems bursting with possibilities.

MG: Are you thinking of a particular title?

AT: Well, for example, the Roth Trilogy began with the title of the first book, The Four Last Things [1997]. At once it gave me a sense of the sort of novel it would be--both its atmosphere and the religious motif running through it. And then came the idea that it would be three novels, not one, and that the overall storyline would move backwards in time. (Plots that move forward are so yesterday).

MG: You have specialized to a great extent in historical mystery and historical crime-writing, placing your novels in different eras and locations. Why are you so drawn to stories set in the past?

AT: Most of my early books are set in the present, but many of my more recent ones are set in the past (if only in the 1950s). It’s partly because I have an abiding interest in history, so the research is fun; partly because I think the past reveals a great deal about the present, often in unexpected ways; and partly because the past is paradoxically liberating--you don’t have to tie yourself down to rigorous modern police procedures, for example, or bear in mind the impact of genetic fingerprinting or mobile phones on your storyline.

MG: What sort of a relationship do you have with technology?

AT: I find it can be constricting in fiction--not least because it so rapidly goes out of date. (Think of all those antiquated computers and mobile phones in early series of The Wire.) Also, readers of novels tend to be more interested in people than machines. But I do find technology provides many wonderful excuses to avoid work, and I am completely devoted to my iMac. I put together a little promotional video for Bleeding Heart Square, for example, and could pretend that I was working.

MG: Could you tell us about that book, Bleeding Heart Square, which was released by Hyperion in the States last month? It’s set in the 1930s. Did you develop the story before you began researching the period, or did you make a conscious choice to set the tale in a historical and social context which already interested you?

AT: Bleeding Heart Square had three starting points for me: the real-life Moat Farm Murder of 1899, a classic late-Victorian case which my granny told me about when I was 12. She and her sister used to play at the farm where the murder later took place, and her uncle and granny sold it to the killer and his victim. I wanted to examine the case in fictional terms, especially from the woman victim’s viewpoint. I chose to relocate it to the 1930s, because I had been research­ing the British Union of Fascists, and become amazed by how significant they were in the 1930s; we Brits have tended to airbrush many inconvenient details from the record. The third factor was a publishing lunch (see--they do have a vital role to play!) in a [London] restaurant in (the real) Bleeding Heart Yard. It’s a place with many legends and stories attached to it, mentioned in Dickens, on the site of a lost medieval palace--in other words, it seemed the perfect setting for the sort of crime novel that I wanted to write, and it even provided the title. I made it a “square” rather than “yard” to give myself more room to maneuver in terms of the geography.

MG: Books like The American Boy have been amazingly well-received. But which one of your historical crime novels are you most happy with? And why do you like it particularly?

AT: The American Boy was perhaps the most absorbing to write, as I tried to write in a pastiche of early 19th-century English. But my Lydmouth Series tries to develop a picture of the 1950s in provincial England/Wales, and after eight books I feel I could go on exploring that surprisingly strange time and place forever. And then the 1930s were fascinating too.

MG: What do you see as the essential ingredients of a “good read”?

AT: In a single word? Narrative. If you can hook the reader’s attention, you can take him/her anywhere and do anything.

MG: And what does Andrew Taylor read when he isn’t writing?

AT: Well, a lot of my reading has to do with reviewing--I’m The Spectator’s crime-fiction reviewer, and I also review for The Independent. Recently I’ve enjoyed All the Dead Voices, by Declan Hughes, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take.

For pleasure, I’m currently reading an early Dickens novel, Barnaby Rudge, which I’d never read before, and which is turning out to be much better than (for some reason) I expected it to be. It’s set in 1780s at the time of the Gordon Riots. And of course there are plenty of crimes, including murder. Before that it was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which was brilliant.

MG: After twice winning the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, you’re now the recipient of the Cartier Diamond Dagger. How did you react to winning that latest prize? And will it make it easier or harder for you to write in the future?

AT: Prizes do make thing harder in one sense, because they raise expectations--your own and other people’s. My first novel, Caroline Minuscule, was lucky enough to win a prize, and I remember thinking, How can I ever better that? As for the Diamond Dagger, wonderful though it is, it is billed as a lifetime award, so perhaps it’s downhill from now on. But since I was selected for the award by fellow crime writers, it is also a hugely encouraging professional vote of confidence ... But whether the writing is easier or harder as a result, I do know that the writing will continue.

MG: What are you working at the moment?

AT: At present I’m stuck in 1786 with a book called The Anatomy of Ghosts, which is set in Cambridge University and features a ghost and several corpses. Unfortunately I haven’t found the emergency exit yet. But I am still looking!

(Author photo by Caroline Silverwood Taylor.)

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