Full throttle

Given my obvious love of things Czech, it is no surprise that my favourite piece of music is Czech, and I’ve just been listening to (and watching) a performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass at the first night of the BBC Proms. And what a treat it was!

You don’t get many performances of this piece because it’s fiendishly difficult for anyone who isn’t a professional. It baffles me that tenors manage to survive a performance without bursting a blood vessel; they spend much of the evening singing fortissimo and there are a couple of wicked high Bs in the Creed, the first of them only the fourth note he has to sing. Tonight Ladislav Elgr nailed it, while I don’t think I’ve ever heard a soprano sing the piece better than Asmik Grigorian performed tonight. Add in some spirited conducting by the wonderful Karina Canellakis and it was music in which to luxuriate.

Let me add that the BBC Singers made a good fist of the text, which is a curious version of Old Church Slavonic with changes to some vowels and a gentle trashing of some of the grammar, as a result of which the average Westerner has trouble getting their tongue around some phrases.

All in all, a delight, and well worth seeking out on the BBC iPlayer or BBC Sounds app if the opportunity arises. Slonský has no interest in music but he would have been proud to think that a Czech composer’s music got such a reception as was given tonight. That calls for a beer or two.

Arduous research

I recently returned from a trip to Prague where I busied myself in libraries, archives and museums swotting up material for future Slonský adventures.

There may also have been the occasional glass of local hop-based product and a sausage or two.

It’s been a few years since I was last there and there have been some changes, but that’s one reason why the Slonský stories are set in 2006-2010 – I don’t have to try to keep up to date so long as I’m true to that time.

I had my notes for Slonský 6 with me and I also found a setting and opening for Slonský 7, which was an added (and unexpected) bonus.

Thanks to all those who have left reviews of my books. I live by word of mouth, so please keep telling your friends how good my books are until they weaken and buy their own.


Women in peril

Occasionally someone complains that young women are disproportionately the victims in crime fiction. I’ve never stopped to count, but it may well be so. In any event, it gave me pause to consider how I represent women in my books and do a quick body count.

It would obviously be unrealistic never to have young women as victims. At the time of writing one-third of my victims have been women. On the other hand, I hate the trope you see in movies which begins with the news that a violent stalker is in the neighbourhood, at which point one of the young women strips down to her underwear and walks past an uncurtained window.

This leads me to a couple of rules I have fashioned for myself. So far as possible, violence takes place off screen. It is discovered, rarely witnessed. And I try not to have the women do anything that contributes to what happens to them. They do not, for example, taunt men about their relationships or lack of them.

I think it’s also important that the police force contains some women detectives and that these women are clearly ordinary women with ordinary lives and dreams. Their male colleagues can be eccentric but I hope the women aren’t.

I can’t say that none of my female characters will ever decide to walk home drunk down a dark lane late at night, but I can promise that if it happens I will have thought long and hard about whether the story could develop in another way.

Book clubs, festivals, fairs and fun

I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to address a couple of book clubs. I hope those who attended enjoyed them; I certainly did, because I get to do most of the talking and it’s all about me, me, me.

Well, actually it isn’t. It’s about Slonský, who isn’t me. No, the books are in no way autobiographical. I share his partiality for beer and sausages, but that’s about where the resemblance ends.

Mercurius is a little more like me, or at least me as I was when I was his age; but I’m not a priest and I don’t teach (or know much about) moral philosophy.

Anyway, if you want me to give you an interview, blog, appearance or speak to your club, please ask. If I can fit it in I’d love to meet you. I manage my own diary, which is to say that I ask my wife what I’ve already promised to do and she puts me right.

An acknowledgement due

Every author writes and then has to edit. It’s a painful process. Whole sentences that were lovingly selected have to go. Some of my funniest lines have been cast into the outer darkness during this culling.

Not only must the writing be polished, but the plot must be rigorously tested, and this is where I pay tribute to my brother. My books are subjected to a two-way test upon completion. My wife reads them (but she’s far too nice to say anything very critical) and then my brother is let loose. He is nice too, but that won’t stop him sending a sheaf of suggested changes, notes of solecisms and plot deficiencies.

I must be improving because he had about 125 for my first Mercurius book and he only had forty-something for the latest. But he’s good – really good!

He spotted, for example, that on page 113 I said something that appeared to contradict something at the foot of page 48. He was right. He noticed that a character spoke to Mercurius on page 70 as if Mercurius does not know who he is, whereas around page 25 he is directly addressed by someone to whom Mercurius is speaking. I don’t slavishly adopt all his ideas – I am not sure of his soundness on the implications of the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, for example, so I left my text alone – but every writer needs someone like him, that trusted person who will tell them what they really think.

It makes editing much less lonely, and much more successful. So, thank you, Ian, once again.

The Uninvited Guest

I have remarked in the past that my characters don’t always do what I planned when we actually get to writing the text out. One example, which will only mean something when people have read Slonský 3, is how Slonský rescues Navrátil when Navrátil is detected while sneaking up from behind on some bad people. I will say no more, but it surprised me.

However, Slonský 4 has produced a whole new level of intrusion in the form of Major Rajka. I will not describe him in detail, except to say that he was nowhere to be found in the synopsis and I’m not quite sure what he thinks he’s doing in the book in progress, but he turned up uninvited on Saturday and has refused any requests to leave.

Rajka has an interesting back story but his presence cannot be justified on the strength of that alone. I watched as he described what he intends to do, and then suddenly realised that this resolved a problem three chapters ahead that I’d been puzzling about without ever answering satisfactorily.

Students of the writing art may have a view on this. Was it serendipity writ large? Was it my subconscious suddenly erupting with the answer to my question? Who knows? But the difficulty I face is how to persuade him that he is no longer needed. I have a feeling that, like Klinger of the fraud squad, Rajka is planning to insinuate himself into the regular cast of characters. He will need careful handling or he may start to demand storylines of his own.

All about No. 5

No, it’s not a Chanel advert. I’ve just completed the first draft of my fifth book, Mercurius 2 (it’ll get a proper title later, though I’ve had a working title throughout).

The next step is to put it aside for a week or so before I start editing. The difficulty with editing at once is that I can’t forget what’s coming, so I don’t read it in the same way as a reader coming fresh to it would. I might know, for example, that character X is actually secretly married to Y, or that A and B are half-brothers, but if I leave it a little while I can go back and read it as if it’s new to me.

I’m fortunate in having a couple of family members who will also read it and comment. There hasn’t been a time when those comments didn’t improve what I’d written.

That doesn’t mean all work stops, but writing takes a back seat for a few days to things like painting the dining room, packing up old books and talking to my wife.

Then it’s full steam ahead on Slonský 4!