Leigh Russell in conversation with L.C.Tyler
L.C. Tyler writes the brilliant and witty ‘Herring’ series featuring crime writer Ethelred and his agent Elsie. He was raised in Essex and studied Geography at Jesus College Oxford, before going on to study systems analysis at City University in London. Subsequently he worked for the British Council in Malaysia, Sudan, Thailand and Denmark, before becoming Chief Executive of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, then turned to full-time writing. His books were nominated for Edgar Awards in 2010 and 2011, and The Herring in the Library won the coveted Last Laugh Award in 2011. This year has seen Tyler’s books published in the US and translated into French. In addition to a busy writing career, L.C. Tyler finds time to appear at many literary festivals. He is a member of The Crime Writers’ Association committee, and a judge for the CWA Short Story Dagger Award.
Q What originally attracted you to writing light hearted crime fiction?
A I stumbled quite accidentally into crime. I’d intended to write literary fiction, a bit like that Sartre guy, but then the bodies started piling up from chapter two onwards. Once you’ve been labelled a comic crime writer it’s difficult to go straight.
Q At first sight, crime and humour might seem an incongruous mixture, yet they work so well in your books. How do you account for this, and for the popularity of crime fiction in general?
A Thank you. I get asked a lot how you can make crime funny - and the answer is of course that you can’t. Crime is human nature with everything good extracted. It’s greed, envy, lust, pride, wrath, gluttony, sloth and, quite possibly, sock-puppetry, all in one neat package. What you can make jokes about is the detection of crime. That’s largely what I do. I don’t know why crime fiction is so popular - except that it always has been, pretty much from its inception. The traditional crime novel is, when you think about it, an elaborate puzzle that just happens to revolve around a murder. I think it’s the intellectual challenge that appeals to most readers, though obviously that's not the whole story. On the whole I’m just pleased that people do still want to buy the sort of novels that I write.
Q The genre is so popular that readers are familiar with its conventions. Authors can exploit this to raise expectations that are later fulfilled or confounded. To what extent are your own plot twists suggested by conventions in the genre?
A. Oh, quite a lot. In The Herring Seller’s Apprentice, the narrator explains many of the devices that he uses as a crime writer, allowing the reader to pick up on these comments as possible clues in the story. The Herring in the Library toys with the conventions of the locked room mystery (without necessarily claiming to be one). In Ten Little Herrings, all of the suspects are made to assemble in the hotel lounge, though things do not then go quite the way they usually do for Poirot. Herring on the Nile mirrors to a certain extent the plot of Death on the Nile, but again with a very different outcome. Intelligent readers (and all my readers are, by definition, intelligent) seem to enjoy this type of thing.
Q Tell us how you work out your plots.
A I’ve never had anything I could describe as a method. The Herring Seller’s Apprentice came to me bit by bit as I wrote it. I started with a narrator admitting to having committed a crime and wrote the book to find out what he had done. The end was as much a surprise to me as anyone else. With the later books I had generally worked out - and indeed written - the last chapter quite early on. It was the middle sections that were the problem. For The Herring Seller’s Apprentice I did no research and made no notes of any sort. For some of the others, conversely, I have copious jottings showing how the plot changed as the book progressed, together with notes on firearms or poisons or whatever I needed to kill off my characters. When John Curran published Agatha Christie’s notebooks, I was delighted to see that hers were as chaotic as mine, and that we both kept records of books we had read and had jotted down the occasional shopping list in between plot outlines.
Q The CWA describe my books as ‘Agatha Christie with a darker plot line’ and The Times describes your work as ‘a darkly funny tribute to Agatha Christie and the golden age of crime fiction.’ Are you a fan of Agatha Christie, and how would you account for the enduring appeal of her books?
A I think the first crime book I ever read was an Agatha Christie - The Body in the Library. I still have it, though it is now falling apart, having travelled with me as I moved around the world. The high humidity of Kuala Lumpur followed by the hot desert air of Khartoum finished off a lot of my paperbacks - only the very toughest crime novels survived. I know plenty of Christie fans who have read everything she wrote. I guess I’ve read about half. She was never that good on characterisation and you can pick holes in most of her plots, but she was a great story-teller and hasn’t dated half as much as some of her contemporaries.
Q Do you think there really was a ‘golden age of crime fiction’?
A Back in the seventies, Colin Watson examined the Golden Age in his book Snobbery with Violence, and concluded that it was golden only in terms of quantity. Most of the best selling names from the 20s and 30s are largely forgotten now. There’s a danger of judging it on the basis of the undoubtedly fine output of Christie and Sayers and Allingham and ignoring how much rubbish was produced alongside it. In terms of the quality and variety of crime fiction, I’d say we were in the middle of a golden age right now.
Q. Your books are not only humorous, they are also quintessentially English. Do you think this poses a particular challenge for a translator? Were you pleased with Étrange suicide dans une Fiat rouge a faible kilometrage as the French title for The Herring Seller’s Apprentice?
A I’ve been very impressed by everything about my French publisher, Sonatine Editions. I love the simplicity of the red, white and black cover. In one sense, it’s difficult to judge the translation itself, because humour tends to lie in subtle nuances that I could easily miss in the French version. Reviews have started to come in however and are, so far, very favourable - so I guess the translator (Julie Sibony) might be said to have risen to the challenge very well! The title is brilliant. I so wish I’d thought of it myself.
Q What impact do you think the rise in e-book sales might have on books set in a ‘bygone era’.
A My books are, with the exception of a few flashbacks and excerpts from Ethelred’s own writing, set in the present day. It is one of my two narrators who is stuck in the past - August 1959 or thereabouts. Ethelred would dearly love to live in a world with no mobile phones or internet and a maximum of two television channels. Thinking about it, though a writer himself, he has never mentioned e-books. He may be completely unaware of them. My other narrator, Elsie, is an agent and is very interested in the impact of anything on sales - but again, I have never heard her pronounce on e-books. As for me, I’m not sure I understand where publishing is going any better than anyone else does. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the rise of e-books will affect the genres we read, though it may impact a lot on format - e.g. there is no reason why an e-book has to be any particular length and we will be able to buy sagas, novellas or single short stories with equal ease. That would be good.
Q How would you answer Elsie’s charge that “producing sequels is the sure sign of the second rate author”?
A If that’s what Elsie claims, then it must be right. As Ethelred says “to tell the truth, I rarely contradict Elsie on anything these days”.
Q Can you tell us about what you are currently writing?
A No. Like a lot of authors I am slightly superstitious about talking about what I am working on now. It’s not another Ethelred and Elsie though …
Books in the Ethelred and Elsie series are:
The Herring Seller’s Apprentice (2007) Ten Little Herrings (2009)
The Herring in the Library (2010) Herring on the Nile (2011)
This interview was first published in Mystery People ezine