Wednesday, 20 September 2017

How I took over writing the Dick Francis Novels - by Felix Francis

L-R Felix, Mary & Dick Francis (© Felix Francis)
It was all rather unplanned, almost a mistake, but one that now seems so natural, so obvious – so inevitable.

My father and mother wrote their first novel together in 1961, when I was aged eight, and, by the end of the millennium, a further 38 bestsellers had followed. Hence I grew up living in one of the greatest fiction factories of the twentieth century.

The annual book became the focus of the whole family. My chosen profession of teaching became the basis for Twice Shy, while my brother’s racehorse transport company was the inspiration for Driving Force. Even my uncle’s wine-importing business was utilised in Proof, and my architect-cousin was depicted in Decider. My mother became a pilot for Flying Finish, a photographer for Reflex and tried her hand at oil painting for In The Frame. Holidays to South Africa, Russia and Canada became the bases for new stories.

In the year 2000, my parents decided that, after completing their 39th novel, Shattered, they would retire. My father was approaching his 80th birthday and my mother’s health had never been particularly robust since she’d contracted polio in her mid twenties. She’d also had a heart attack in 1995 and had developed Parkinson’s disease on top of her lifelong asthma. It was time to step off the yearly treadmill of delivering a new manuscript every spring – time to take a well-earned rest from the stress of everyone’s expectation.

But Shattered was well named – both my mother and father were exhausted by it and, when I flew out to their Caribbean home to collect the manuscript, it was only two-thirds written with less than a week remaining before the deadline. Hence I rolled up my sleeves and set to work, sitting at my father’s computer night and day to complete the work and deliver it to the publishers on time. But that wasn’t the only part of a Dick Francis novel that I had written. As an A-level physics student I had designed the remote-controlled bomb that destroyed a light aircraft in Rat Race, I wrote the computer program in Twice Shy, and there were plentiful other bits of science related material in numerous books that all had my DNA on them.

So Shattered would be the last Dick Francis novel, at least that is what everyone thought, and not least because my dear mother succumbed to a second heart attack less than a month after the book’s publication. It really had been one book too far.

Felix Francis (© Felix Francis)
Five years later, Andrew Hewson, my father’s literary agent, invited me to lunch where he told me we had a problem – my father’s books were going out of print. Not that the stories weren’t good enough but, with no new Dick Francis for five years, everyone was forgetting about them. What we needed, he said, was a new novel, a new hardback, to stimulate the sales of the backlist. I remember looking at him as if he were mad. My father was now in his mid-eighties and had difficulty remembering what he’d had for breakfast – hardly the degree of recall needed to write a full-length novel. And my mother had been dead for five years. There was absolutely no chance.

But Andrew was seeking my permission to ask an existing and established crime writer to write a new ‘Dick Francis Novel’.

Well, I must have had a few glasses of red wine by this stage because I simply said, “Before you ask anyone else, I’d like to have a go.” To his credit, Andrew didn’t roll his eyes and ask me why I believed that someone with no measurable writing experience could pen a novel worthy of the Dick Francis name. Instead he said that he would give me two months to write two chapters and then we would see. He probably thought that, after the two months, he would get the permission he sought.

I went home and set to work – two months to write only two chapters, surely that was easy enough.

I had grown up devouring the Dick Francis books and I reckoned I knew them as well as anyone alive, including my father. But writing one was another matter. My mother had spoken to me often about the rhythm of a sentence and how she strived to produce prose that flowed smoothly off the page. Now I had to do the same.

My first decision was to resurrect Sid Halley as my protagonist. Sid was the only recurring main character in the Dick Francis canon, making his first appearance in Odds Against in 1965, returning in Whip Hand in 1979 and then again in Come to Grief in 1995. Now he would make his fourth outing.

Next I needed a plot based around the world of horseracing, in keeping with the Dick Francis custom. At the time, race fixing was in the news with a recent arrest of several jockeys. I decided that race fixing would form the basis of my story. I even settled on a book name, continuing the tradition of Dick Francis double-meaning titles. Now I was ready to start the actual writing.

Six weeks later, I sent my chapters to Andrew Hewson. I was happy with my words but I awaited Andrew’s judgement with a degree of apprehension that I hadn’t experienced since my school-exam days.

“Get on and finish it,” Andrew told me, “and go talk to your father.” The first appeared less daunting than the second. But I gave my dad the two chapters to read and he became very keen on the project. Satisfied and relieved, I set to work completing the manuscript.

Under Orders was published in September 2006 to great fanfare from the publishers but without my name on it anywhere – a situation that was my idea. If the plan was to stimulate the backlist, then it had to be a ‘Dick Francis’ book.

It sold well, of course it did with ‘Dick Francis’ on the cover, but I waited nervously for the reviews. I fully expected them to say that Dick had finally lost his touch, but they didn’t. Quite the reverse, in fact, with most claiming the master was back in the saddle. Everyone was delighted. A book conceived only to give the backlist a boost, suddenly had a life of its own, topping the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. The publishers wanted another one, so I started writing Dead Heat. I would have been happy for it also to appear with only Dick Francis on the cover but the American publishers insisted that mine should be seen alongside his, albeit in the smallest typeface they could find.

And so it has gone on and here we are in 2017 and my twelfth novel, Pulse, is published this
September. Over the years the Dick Francis name has gradually become smaller while mine has grown so that the positions are now completely reversed. But it is my decision to keep calling the books a ‘Dick Francis Novel’ even though the man himself passed away in 2010. I consider that he and my mother are as much a part of my books as I feel a part of theirs. A ‘Dick Francis Novel’ is a brand and I suspect I will go on writing them for as long as I can and for as long as people want to read them.

And did it work?

Very much so. All the Dick Francis books are still in print and still selling strongly. They have even been reissued in new editions with new cover artwork.

Job done.

Saturday, 16 September 2017


Next month the winners of the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards will be announced in Christchurch, New Zealand, the hometown of Dame Ngaio Marsh, one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Although Dame Ngaio set most of her Inspector Alleyn tales (32 novels and several short stories) in Britain, she was ‘a Kiwi’, a colonial author from the far ends of the Empire.

So it’s only appropriate that the literary prizes for New Zealand crime, mystery, and thriller writing, which I helped establish back in 2010, bear her name and image.

From the very beginning, we’ve been proud to have an association with Shots! Magazine: columnist Mike Ripley brought his expertise to our nascent awards as one of the founding judges, and in recent years Ayo Onatade has been part of the international judging panel.

So I’m very glad to visiting Shots! blog today as part of our inaugural Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour, and sharing with you all some more information about some of our finalists.

It’s been great to see the growth in New Zealand crime writing over the past few years, with several dozen new authors joining the #yeahnoir ranks (the term for Kiwi crime writing), both debut authors and authors from other genres making a switch to the dark side.

Today, I thought I’d share a bit more about our finalists in the Best First Novel category, which celebrates the best crime writing from first-time authors. We had a record number of entrants this year, and lots of good reads didn’t make the finalist list. But here’s a closer look at our ‘final five’; all great new voices with tales that span the crime writing spectrum.

DEAD LEMONS by Finn Bell (ebook)
This powerful and fascinating tale starts with a cliff-hanger, literally. Wheelchair-bound main character Finn is hanging from the side of a cliff above roaring seas in New Zealand’s rural south. He’d moved from the big city after wrecking his marriage, then his spinal column, with his drinking. Contemplating ending it all, he muddles along thanks to a blunt counsellor, new friends, and a growing obsession to uncover what happened to a father and daughter who vanished years before from the remote cottage in which Finn now lives.  Bell really hits the ground running with his debut; he has a strong narrative voice that brings plenty of freshness. There’s a zing to his writing, and he’s unafraid to take a deep-dive into the psychological, as Finn grapples with the demons in his own mind. Is he worthless, a ‘dead lemon’ merely bringing down those around him? Or does he have something to offer?

RED HERRING by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins)
Kiwi filmmaker Cullinane blends mystery and history in this terrific debut. Readers are plunged headlong into 1950s New Zealand, where global politics are being played out in clashes between unions and business interests on the waterfront. The shadow of the Second World War, with its death and deprivation, still lingers. A growing spectre of Communism domino-ing its way down through Asia looms. New Zealand may be small and far away, but to plenty of power brokers it’s a battleground. One they want to control.  Into this murky world steps Johnny Molloy, a soldier turned private eye who leaned hard left in the past. Hired to track a supposedly dead man, he crosses paths with an ambitious reporter looking to make her mark, and the pair find themselves knee-deep in the muck. Cullinane weaves a fascinating noir tale textured by lesser-known aspects of Kiwi history. There's a muscularity and dry humour to his storytelling. A page-turner with much more.

 THE ICE SHROUD by Gordon Ell (Bush Press)
Distinguished wildlife photographer Gordon Ell brings his passion for nature to his first swing at fiction, setting this intriguing murder mystery against the backdrop of New Zealand’s spectacular Southern Lakes region. A woman’s body spotted by jet-boating tourists, half-frozen in a river canyon, is an abrupt introduction for new CIB head DS Malcolm Buchan. Especially when he recognises the woman; a fact he hides from his new colleagues.  As Buchan and his team investigate, they cross paths with powerful locals, people that feel their wealth and influence should reign, and whatever they do in private is no-one else’s business. Ell infuses his tale with a great sense of place, while also delivering with interesting characters and a fascinating storyline. A bit of a modern Kiwi take on a classic British village murder mystery, with detectives stymied by secretive locals and the wealthy elite. Full of suspects and red herrings, Ell’s debut is a heartily enjoyable read set in a gorgeous location.

THE STUDENT BODY by Simon Wyatt (Mary Egan Publishing)
Former detective Wyatt brings all his investigative experience to bear in this page-turning police procedural set on the ‘wild west coast’ of New Zealand’s biggest city, a place of beaches and bushlands on the outskirts of the high-rise CBD and its suburban sprawl.  A popular teenager is strangled at a high school camp, and newly promoted DS Nick Knight, who jettisoned his legal career to join the police, is thrust into a high-profile investigation. The crime seems sexually motivated, and there are plenty of secrets to unpick among the girl’s family, friends and school teachers, and the wider community. Fans of police procedurals that delve deeply into the inner workings of a police investigation will really enjoy this debut, as Wyatt delivers a real sense of authenticity and lots of detail about how modern police forces operate, issues they have to consider, and the challenges they face.  A fast-paced procedural set on the far side of the world.

DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS by Sue Younger (Eunoia Press)
This is an atypical crime novel, an elegant and emotional read that’s a deep character study and more about the lingering impact of criminal acts, and ongoing mysteries, rather than a traditional detective tale. It’s the kind of book that sticks with you, that days later you’ll still be pondering the choices characters make, the varying outcomes, and questions of justice.
Paediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman reluctantly returns to Auckland from London with her fiancée and teenage daughter, only to find her complicated past flaring up, threatening everything she’s carefully built. When a family refuses medical treatment for their tumour-stricken child, Claire is in the media glare, the sins of her own father resurrected.  Starting with a past crime that haunts the entire book, Younger’s debut is peppered with moments of crime and mystery, and packed with drama with a capital D. It has a lovely page-turning quality, deeply drawn characters, and a nice touch for the contemporary Auckland setting and landscapes.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Sarah Ward on The Uncomfortable Truth of the Missing

The missing hold an enduring fascination for us. As rational beings we demand explanations. When a murder takes place, we want to know who did it and why. Any evidence of the supernatural is met with a raft of scientific theories and justifications. Even the least scientific amongst us anxiously wait for explanations. Take secrets. Facebook, in particular is full of them. In any one day my timeline is full of posts recommending that we ‘watch this space’ and ‘an exciting announcement coming soon’. It prompts us to return to social media even though we know it’s eating into our writing time. Why? Partly, because we want resolution. We can’t abide the thought of the unknown. And generally, in life, very little remains completely unexplained.

The missing, however, taunt us with their absence. For those who have voluntarily disappeared, the not knowing is excruciating for their family. Near me, the relatives of teenager Andrew Gosden, who left his home in 2007, still post updates ten years later asking for information on his whereabouts. They know he made it as far as London and, after that, nothing. I can only imagine how excruciating the not knowing is for them. And, of course, not every absence is voluntary. I grew up in south Manchester and the still missing victims of the Moors murderers was an ever constant reminder to us children of how not every adult was trustworthy.

The missing are popular feature of crime novels. From Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the mystery posed by absence makes for compelling plots. For when someone’s movements are unaccounted for, the potential for criminal intent isn’t far behind.

The missing have featured in all my books. In Bitter Chill, partly influenced by those murders on Sadleworth Moor, tells the story of a young girl who goes missing in the 1970s as the devastated community close in to protect their children. In A Deadly Thaw, a husband goes missing for fifteen years until he is killed in a disused mortuary. Here, I wanted absence to cover up something far more sinister.

My latest book, A Patient Fury, also has a missing person at the heart of the story. Elizabeth Winson who in 1980 pins a note of her shop stating that she’ll be ‘back in two minutes’, is never seen again. Police are convinced that she is a victim of her controlling husband but her adult children are less sure. Elizabeth Winson was a bored wife desperate to escape the confines of a small town and a verbally abusive marriage.

The legacy of Elizabeth’s disappearance is what obsesses us most about the missing. Are they out there in the world leading a parallel life or is there or a more sinister explanation? There’s also the sense of time in suspension. We get older while that person remains perpetually frozen in time. Husbands remarry, children grow up and have their own offspring and, all the time, in the back of their minds is the question. What really happened?

My books have dual timelines. This is partly a reflection of the Peak District setting where crimes often have a long genesis. I wanted to have a contemporary disappearance to balance the devastation wrought by Elizabeth’s vanishing. This time there is no easily identifiable missing person but a shadowy figure in the background. It’s a modern take on the concept of missing. Who is the fourth presence that my detective Connie Childs can sense but not identify?

In A Patient Fury, as in all my books, I want the missing to recover their voice, however uncomfortable the truth might be. I’m clearly as bad as the next person in ultimately needing motive and enlightenment.

A Patient Fury by Sarah Ward (Faber & Faber)
When Detective Constable Connie Childs is dragged from her bed to the fire-wrecked property on Cross Farm Lane she knows as she steps from the car that this house contains death. Three bodies discovered - a family obliterated - their deaths all seem to point to one conclusion: One mother, one murderer. But D.C. Childs, determined as ever to discover the truth behind the tragedy, realises it is the fourth body - the one they cannot find - that holds the key to the mystery at Cross Farm Lane. What Connie Childs fails to spot is that her determination to unmask the real murderer might cost her more than her health - this time she could lose the thing she cares about most: her career.

Buy from SHOTS A Store.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Debt to Pay - A Q & A with Reed Farrel Coleman

Reed Farrel Coleman is an award winning author who has won a Best Novel Award from Crimespree Magazine, a Shamus Award, a Macavity Award, an Anthony Award and a Barry Award.  As part of the Debt to Pay blog tour he kindly answered my questions about writing Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone Series.

Ayo:   Whilst I have known you and have been reading your work for quite some time you are a lot more well known in the States than you are here.  How would you introduce yourself to UK readers?

Reed:  I would say I am a direct descendant of the Raymond Chandler branch of crime fiction. One of our more respected book critics on National Public Radio, Maureen Corrigan, called me a “hard-boiled poet” and I was called the “noir poet laureate” in the Huffington Post. But twenty-seven novels into my career, I would say that my current writing is more a mashup of Philip Kerr and Lawrence Block. I hope that helps.

Ayo:   How did you get involved in writing the Jesse Stone series?

Reed:  Ah, the magic question. I thought I got the gig because I had written a piece about Jesse Stone in a collection of essays entitled In Pursuit of Spenser. It was put together by Otto Penzler as a way to honour Bob Parker after his passing. I thought the estate and my editor-to-be, Chris Pepe, who had been Bob’s editor for over twenty years, read the piece and thought I understood the essence of the character. When I mentioned this to Chris during our first conversation, she confessed that she had never read the essay nor was she even aware of the collection. What it came down to was that Chris had always loved my writing, knew I was available, and thought I could handle it. The estate agreed and the rest is history. 

Ayo:   What was your first reaction?

Reed:  I said yes in about a nanosecond. I saved the panic for afterwards.

Ayo:   Were you a fan of Robert B Parker’s work before you began to continue the series and which one of his books would you consider to be your favourite and why?

Reed:  I wouldn’t say I was a devotee of Bob’s in the same way as Ace Atkins, who writes the Spenser novels, is. I liked and respected Bob’s writing. And I was fortunate to be offered the Jesse Stone series, which I preferred as a reader. It turns out that when I was researching the Jesse series for my piece in In Pursuit of Spenser, that Bob chose to write Jesse for some of the same reasons I didn’t love Spenser in the way Ace does. It seemed Bob was tired of writing what he perceived as a too-perfect character in Spenser. Jesse Stone was his attempt at writing a deeply flawed protagonist. I am all about flawed characters, being one myself.  My favourite book of Bob’s is the original Jesse Stone novel Night Passage. It shows a master author at work and at his best.

Ayo:   Debt to Pay is the third book in the Jesse Stone series that you have now written. Has it gotten any easier?

Reed:  Yes, it has. As I’m now more comfortable in my own skin as the author of the series and feel less in Bob’s considerable shadow, it comes easier for me. I am no longer so worried about fan reaction. The people who like how I do it will continue to like it. The fans who don’t have made their feelings clear. 

Ayo:   Where did the idea for the story come from and how did you go about doing your research for it?

Reed:  Last part first. I don’t generally do a whole lot of research. The juice for me is making stuff up. I did travel down to Dallas for several days to get a feel for the town. I spent time with my then agent who lives there and two close writer friends, Dan Hale and Harry Hunsicker. It was an education. And between us, I love Texas BBQ. I wrote Debt To Pay because I love a good revenge story. Who doesn’t love the revenge aspect of Moby Dick or The Count of Monte Cristo? I thought I’d try my hand at it.

Ayo:   One of the main characters that returns is the evil Mr Peepers whom we first meet in the very first Jesse Stone book you wrote Blind Spot.  What made you want to return to this character?

Reed:  Well, I sort of threatened his return at the very end of Blind Spot and thought the timing worked. Plus, I loved writing Mr. Peepers. He’s actually a very complex character and I think crime writers have a lot more fun with complex bad guys than heroes.

Ayo:   There is a sense of foreboding at the end of Debt to Pay and given the way in which Jesse Stone’s life has been and him giving up alcohol was this intentional and can we anticipate anything hopeful happening to him in the future?

Reed:  Yes, it’s damn near pitch black for Jesse at the end of Debt To Pay. I’ve taken a lot of heat from American readers for it. I wonder how UK fans will react. But Jesse needs to change. Could be that the events at the end of Debt To Pay will spark a change in him … or not.

Ayo:   If you had the opportunity to talk face to face with Robert B Parker what would you say to him?  Whilst Jesse Stone is a character what advice (if you could) would you give to him as well?

Reed:  I actually met Bob Parker once. He was gracious and attentive, though I can guarantee you he hadn’t a clue who I was. I always appreciated that in him. I’m afraid what I would say to Bob would probably bore readers. It would be writerly stuff or, as we say in the States, inside baseball. My advice to Jesse is best expressed in the next two Stone novels, Robert B. Parker’s The Hangman’s Sonnet and Robert B. Parker’s Colorblind. 

Ayo:   Whilst there is a not so happy ending what next for you and the series?

Reed:  Next for me personally is a big career and life changing project. I’ve been hired by film director Michael Mann to write the prequel novel to his magnum opus movie Heat.

In the series comes RBP’s The Hangman’s Sonnet. Imagine this, a Bob Dylan-esque singer is re-emerging after forty years in seclusion to attend a gala 75th birthday party in his honour in Paradise. He went into seclusion because the master recording tape of his greatest album, The Hangman’s Sonnet, was stolen and has never resurfaced. How does the death of an elderly Paradise woman relate to the surge of rumours that the master tape may soon reappear? Oh, and Spenser makes an appearance.   

Ayo:   One would say that the crime fiction genre (in all its connotations e.g. thrillers, detective novels, mystery) is in a very robust way. Aside from yourself which authors would you suggest people keep an eye on and read?

Reed:  Here’s a long list: Peter Spiegelman, Philip Kerr, Megan Abbott, Ken Bruen, Ingrid Thoft, Don Winslow, SJ Rozan, Peter Blauner, Daniel Woodrell …

Robert B Parker's Debt to Pay by Reed Farrel Coleman (No Exit Press)

All is quiet in Paradise, except for a spate of innocuous vandalism. Good thing, too, because Jesse Stone is preoccupied with the women in his life, both past and present. As his ex-wife, Jenn, is about to marry a Dallas real-estate tycoon, Jesse isn’t too sure his relationship with former FBI agent Diana Evans is built to last. But those concerns get put on the back burner when a major Boston crime boss is brutally murdered. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesse suspects it’s the work of Mr. Peepers, a psychotic assassin who has caused trouble for Jesse in the past.  Peepers has long promised revenge against the Mob, Jesse, and Suit for their roles in foiling one of his hits—and against Jenn as well. And though Jesse and Jenn have long parted ways, Jesse still feels responsible for her safety. Jesse and Diana head to Dallas for the wedding and, along with the tycoon’s security team, try to stop Peepers before the bill comes due. With Peepers toying with the authorities as to when and where he’ll strike, Jesse is up against the wall. Still, there’s a debt to pay and blood to be spilled to satisfy it. But whose blood, and just how much?

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