Launching September 1 from Grey Cells Press, a detective novel by John Bayliss : Five and a Half Tons : “not so much film noir as seaside gris.”
A special launch is taking place online, elsewhere on the ether, as after weeks and months of preparation, we stand ready to reveal the book cover – from a few rough sketches, through Photoshop colour testers, and various experiments (often reducing all concerned to clasping ice-packs to their heads and sitting in dark corners) to a cover that all felt represented most closely the actual story and its atmosphere, here is ….:
“The year is 1962, and Westerby-on-Sea is slumbering through its drab off-season. Life is quiet for J.F. Springer, Private Detective – and, although he dreams of emulating Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and Sexton Blake, quiet is pretty much how he likes it.
Springer finally gets the chance to be a real detective when he is called in to find a missing woman. At first it seems pretty straightforward, and he has high hopes of solving the case and getting paid in double-quick time. But for Springer, life is never so simple. Soon he’s embroiled in an affair that involves housebreaking, missing diamonds, threats to his life, an apparent suicide, and a pigeon-fancier who suspects Springer has amorous designs on his daughter. When the police take an interest, first it’s to arrest Springer, then to warn him to stay out of their business, and finally to use him as bait in a trap. And, to further complicate Springer’s life, there’s Jim Tarbet, the local wideboy, who is determined to make Springer repay a trifling debt…
Like one of his famous predecessors, Springer tries to be taller, but all around there are too many goons and not enough brains.
Five and a Half Tons – not so much film noir as seaside gris.”
In the footsteps of Sexton Blake, Philip Marlowe (and very much tripping over the heels of Sherlock Holmes), J.F.Springer is ready to be unleashed on the world.
There’s only one question : is the world ready for him ?
Along the way, John managed to find time to talk about Springer, Westerby and detective heroes among other things; (the 2nd part of the interview is on the Newsletter) :
Red Herrings, Donkeys and Seaside Gris: Interview with John Bayliss :
Do you have a favourite fictional detective? And what do you think is their best ‘case’ ?
I was going to say Philip Marlowe – but actually I think it is Chandler’s narrative voice that I enjoy so much rather than Marlowe himself. I think of contemporary detectives, my favourite would be John Rebus. From the ‘Golden Age’ it would be Hercule Poirot. Poirot’s best case, in my opinion, is ‘Evil Under the Sun.’ Many of the characters are particularly unpleasant but at the same time oddly fascinating. (I’ve even visited the island off the coast of Devon that originally inspired the story.)
She does collect together quite a gaggle of nastiness embodied; there is a short story, I think it’s called Rhodes Triangle, with a similar opening – but very different ending. Never the same trick twice with Agatha! What did you think of the island – did it tie in with the book, or did you find it totally unbelievable as a location for a murder mystery?***
The island was much smaller than I was expecting—I think I walked right around it in less than ten minutes. The biggest disappointment, however, was that the hotel was closed for renovation, so I didn’t get even a peek of its famous Art Deco interiors. But the little shingle coves, where someone might choose to sunbathe in seclusion, were certainly exactly as I imagined them.
As a photographer, do you find its visual approach helpful/influential with the creative process of writing? Have you written something that was inspired by one of your own photographs ?
Most of my stories do start with images rather than words: I see images in my mind’s eye and then find the words to describe them. For Five and a Half Tons I imagined Springer cowering behind a wall whilst bullets ricocheted from the pavement around him. I’ve never actually used one of my own photographs as inspiration, however. The act of making a photograph is a different sort of creative process, in a way. A photograph is a two-dimensional representation of a single instance of time; a story represents something that unfolds gradually over days or weeks or even longer.
What other fiction genres interest you ?
In the main, I am interested in stories where the imagination takes priority. The greatest joy to me in writing is making things up – creating characters who are not real, places that don’t exist, even creating whole nations, cultures and civilisations, if the story demands it. I believe that if you write a novel that’s set in a specific time and place in the real world, then – however brilliant or important it is – it is only really applicable to that particular time and place (there are exceptions, I know). A novel that’s set in a wholly imagined world can become universal, applicable to any time or place.
The genres that allow the greatest scope for the imagination to run riot (in a good way) are of course Fantasy and Science Fiction. I feel myself drawn to those genres not because I am particularly fans of either genre, but because they allow me to give my imagination free rein.
Though of course, with that freedom comes responsibility. In Science Fiction, you shouldn’t invent a brand new technology just to get your hero out of a tricky corner. You need to set the rules of what you can and cannot do and then stick with them.
I have to admit that I don’t actually read much crime fiction! (Sacrilege!) Though I have read most of Raymond Chandler’s novels, and Five and a Half Tons is something of an ironic response to those novels.
Amongst science fiction writers that have influenced me are John Wyndham, M. John Harrison and Iain M. Banks. For fantasy, I would name Mervyn Peake and Robert Holdstock. I could also mention Ursula Le Guin, who falls into both categories.
Tolkien evidently left a lasting impression on you from childhood ((links will be shortened)http://johnbaylissnovelist.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/making-magic-a-childhood-memory/) – is there another author who has left a more recent, lasting impression?
One big influence on me is James Joyce. Mention his name and almost everyone immediately thinks of his more experimental work like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, but his earlier work is eminently readable. The short story collection Dubliners contains some of the finest writing in the English language, in my opinion. Many of my influences are actually ‘lit-fic’ authors rather than genre authors: people such as Julian Barnes, Iain McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Would you say there were big differences between fantasy and sci-fi in structure, plot and character development ? What appeals to you as a reader or writer about these?
I’d say that they were so similar as to be virtually identical – it’s only the ‘magic’ they use that’s different: supernatural in the case of fantasy, and technological in the case of science fiction. In the average fantasy/science fiction novel, our hero (or heroine) faces up to a difficult challenge and using the resources available, either overcomes it or fails magnificently in the attempt. (Now I think of it, that could be the plot for almost any story in any genre.)
In the best fantasy and sci fi, such things as structure and character development shouldn’t be any different to structure and character development in conventional novels. Irrespective of genre, all novels are predominantly about people and the interactions between people. It shouldn’t really make any difference whether those people wear crinolines or space suits. (Incidentally, in science fiction the aliens are people, too.)
In 5 and ½ Tons , is Springer loosely inspired by fictional detectives like Phillp Marlowe/Dick Barton or by real people or a combination of both?
Five and a Half Tons is something of a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Chandler and the ‘hard-boiled’ detective genre. I’m kind of paying homage to and sending up the genre at the same time. Springer isn’t based on anyone in particular, either fictional or real – although there is a passage in Raymond Chandler’s essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ in which he describes the character of the perfect pulp-fiction hero. It starts ‘down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean…’ That’s Springer—though Springer’s perhaps not quite as brave or fearless as Chandler’s hero, he does share the same moral outlook on life—‘a man of honour,’ as Chandler said…
‘He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks—that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. ’
… that’s Springer—or what he’d like to be, anyway.
(You can find out more about him here: Who is J.F.Springer? )
Who is your favourite character in 5 and ½ Tons (after Springer?)
I have a soft spot for Inspector Willis. He’s dealing with a very tricky situation – the outcome could make or break his career in the police force – but everywhere he turns this damn amateur detective Springer gets in his way. Also (this is only hinted at in Five and a Half Tons) Willis and Springer have ‘history’. This is something that I hope to explore in future Springer books, and I also hope to develop Willis’s character as well to show that there’s rather more to him than just an angry policeman. I can see Springer and Willis developing something of an ‘odd couple’ relationship, always being a little suspicious but learning to rely upon one another.
What did you most enjoy about writing the book?
I don’t know if it’s normal for a novelist to chuckle at their own jokes as they write the novel, but that was something that I found myself doing.
Can you tell us something more about Westerby – the place that isn’t quite real? Perhaps a typical view or something not immediately visible? ( http://johnbaylissnovelist.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/where-is-westerby/)
A detective needs crimes to solve, and (despite what you might have been lead to believe from reading whodunnits from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction) there are very few murders committed in upper-middle-class country houses. I was originally going to set Five and a Half Tons in a fairly nondescript inner city area, but Robert Peet, my editor from Grey Cells Press, said ‘Why don’t you set the book where you are living now?’ Now, I happen to live in a traditional British seaside town (complete with donkeys on the beach), and it didn’t take me long to realise that seaside towns do have something of a double personality – the cheerful, donkeys on the beach, bucket and spade personality and at the same time something a little seedy and rather more sinister lurking just underneath. That, I realised, was the perfect place for Springer to work.
(This probably won’t be the last time that I’ll be thanking Robert for a brilliant suggestion.)
What was the original inspiration for the theme of the book(s)?
I was thinking about the traditional detective novel, and wondered if it was essential that the detective-hero had to be so super intelligent, always a couple of steps ahead of the reader and often even more steps ahead of the police. I wondered to myself: would it be possible to write a crime novel in which the detective wasn’t so clever? Not exactly stupid, but perhaps as human as the rest of us, someone who sometimes misses clues, gets side-tracked by red herrings, and at some point is forced to admit that he doesn’t have the faintest idea who the villain is. Would that still work as a novel? Would the detective still manage to muddle through somehow and still solve the crime?
The only way to answer that question was to have a go at writing it myself…
Do you have any favourite quotes from 5 & ½ tons?
I have many, though I wonder just a little how entertaining they are when taken out of context. One of my favourites comes when (in the middle of breaking into a house, no less) Yvonne tells Springer that he has no sense of humour. Springer replies: ‘I can laugh as loudly as the next man, but not when I’m committing a felony.’
There is a point where Willis really is at the end of his tether and finally tells Springer exactly what he thinks about him:
‘It was you who did that, Springer. All on your own. An operation that involved hundreds of officers on two continents rendered totally ineffective by the intervention of one, bumbling, third rate, so-called private detective!’
That nasty, accusatory silence returned, and this time it bought a friend in the form of the look of total contempt that Inspector Willis was directing at me. Then I made the mistake of looking at Sergeant Powell—he was smiling again. I looked away quickly.
I knew that I should really be doing something to defend myself, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of what it could be.
The final sentence kind of sums up Springer’s reactions to most of tricky situations he finds himself in.
Is there anything you can share about your character(s) that doesn’t appear in the book?
Well, there is quite a lot that is going to come out in future stories, so I don’t really want to give it away now. Springer and Willis certainly encountered one another in the past, and have particularly good reasons to dislike one another – hopefully you won’t have to wait too long to find out why. I have decided (fairly arbitrarily) that Springer was going to have an interest in Jazz music, and as I don’t know a lot about Jazz myself I think some research may be required. Oh, and there are a few other skeletons in Springer’s cupboard that are likely to be revealed in future episodes. Springer’s late father is mentioned briefly, too. He was a big influence on Springer and on the sort of person he has become, and that is something else that I hope to explore in a future story.
Some of Springer’s predecessors – I wonder what they would have made of his methods ….