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Saturday, 23 July 2016

Tom Kirk on Mastermind

It has been a long time since I updated this blog or indeed that I have given any sign of life.  To those of you who even noticed, or care, my apologies.

The truth is that the novel writing has had to take a bit of a back seat as I focus on my main business career.  So lots of jotting down ideas and about three different ideas (of which only one is a Tom Kirk novel) in various phases of development.  But not actively writing anything right now I'm sorry to say.  I will come back to it - impossible to stay away - just can't say when.  

That said I did want to mention something.

To quote Wikipedia, Mastermind is "a British Quiz show well known for its challenging questions, intimidating setting and air of seriousness."

As well as a general knowledge round, contestants have to answer questions on a specialist subject of their choosing.  Typical topics include "The Life of Martin Luther King", "Post Socratic Philosophy" and The Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

And now a new edition to the Mastermind cannon - "The Tom Kirk novels by James Twining". See the adjacent screen shot if you don't believe me.

I can tell you that there is something a little surreal to sitting down to watch one of your favourite shows and then, with no prior warning, discovering that it is about your own books.  One less thing to tick off my bucket list, certainly!

Congratulations to Richard Tring, who made his way all the way to the final.

And yes, before you ask, he did get more right than me.  Twelve points to my ten! I my need to mug up a little next time...

Monday, 26 July 2010

Harrogate Rehab

Harrogate 2010, done. And a fine festival it was too, if the bags under my eyes and still slightly shaky hands are anything to go by. Well done Stuart, Sharon and festival team.


I arrived Friday lunchtime and after a short detour via TKMaxx to buy a pair of sunglasses (£5 from the women's section if you must know, and very fetching they are too) arrived at the Crown hotel to find everything in full swing. Actually that's a lie. I arrived to find everyone staggering blinking into the sunlight, still recovering from the night before.

Dinner at the
Courtyard restaurant followed, hosted by those lovely people at Harper Collins (Rachel R, Alice, Amy, Emad) for myself and Stephanie Merritt / SJ Parris.

Quick review:
Food - variable. Decor - smart but a little clinical. Service - willing but disorganised. Overall rating: five stars out of five.

Why the high score given the distinctly average overall experience? Simples. When we ordered the wine the waitress, in what may have been on reflection an inspired stroke of genius, asked whether, before we ordered, she could just check what ages we all were. Aged 37 and they carded me! OK, so the question may have been directed more at Emad who looks about 12, but coming on the back of last week's
rant about buying a Volvo, I wasn't about to split hairs. I have therefore no hesitation in declaring the Courtyard to be the best restaurant in Harrogate, and quite possibly, the world.

Feeling suitably youthful, we headed back to the hotel bar, rounded up some other lost souls, and headed out into the mean streets of down-town Harrogate. You think I'm joking but behind the "stunning parks and gardens which testify to Harrogate's status as England's floral town", beneath the thin veneer of "Harrogate's reputation as an antique hotspot attracting people keen to find a bargain" lurks a hard-core party scene. As we discovered.

First place we hit was a small club called Rehab. Within five minutes of walking in a black bra landed at my feet. I looked up and saw that a young lady was, how shall I put it, "dancing in a state of partial undress". Dancing rather too energetically for her safety or for those within striking distance, if you catch my drift. England's floral town indeed. Luckily at that moment her boyfriend, or someone whom I rather naively assumed to be the girl's boyfriend, appeared behind her and reached around to cover the offending items and preserve her modesty. Or so we thought, until we realised that he seemed to have mistaken her for a car, his hands rubbing in small circles as if he was trying to buff up a front wing. We drank up and left, trying not to stare.

Next stop, The Viper Room. Now some of you may have thought that the original
Viper Room of River Phoenix notoriety was in LA. And having visited the Harrogate version, I can confirm that you are right. Music was quite good I have to admit - especially a 30 minute late 90s set which brought the memories flooding back - but it had the feel of a school disco, with more make-up and bigger hair (which considering I left school in 1991 is saying something.) I headed back to bed around two, leaving some of my companions to sample the local flora and fauna, and was in bed for 2:30, pausing only to see Kevin Wignall standing in exactly the same spot I had left him in 4 hours earlier...


Three nurofen washed down with black coffee kick-started my day - an early one, given that
Joe Finder and I had to be at the BBC studios in Harrogate for 8:30 for our Today radio slot. Only problem was that when we got there the doors were locked and no sign of anyone. A few frantic phone calls later and someone appeared from round the back ("didn't anyone tell you?" Er no.) and rushed us into the studio only for the microphones to stop working. Cue furious scrabbling around with dials and switches by the onsite technician and barked instructions from the producer in London who was on the verge of suggesting they call us on our mobiles when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the technician flinch and then surreptitiously flick a small switch on. "Oh it suddenly seems to have started working," he lied.

I won't recount the nature of the conversation Joe and I had. You can listen to it
here. Suffice it to say I won...well, that's my story!

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. Lunch at Cafe Rouge with Wignall,
Sarah Pinborough, Rachel R, Agent Phil, Simon Kernick and Stephanie Merritt; getting my eyesight tested; buying a 1950s Longines military watch from a junk shop for what seemed like a good price - we'll see what the repair bill is!; catching up with various people in the bar again. And then preparing for my panel.

And what preparation. A few years ago I did a James Bond panel and have forever regretted not going up on stage wearing a dinner jacket. This time there was to be no such mistake. Courtesy of
Union Jack Wear I pulled on union jack boxers, tie, socks and lapel pin, all set off nicely by a pair of union jack trousers concealed under my jeans. A quick word in the ear of panel chair NJ Cooper engaged a willing accomplice and at the pre-agreed time she asked me: "James, when you strip British crime writing down to its core, what do you see?" My answer: "Let me show you!"

I've never pulled my trousers down in front of 100 people before - probably never will
again. But it was a fun moment, only partially spoilt by my suddenly earthing myself on the floor and releasing the massive static electricity charge the 100% polyester trousers had built up in my groin area...) As to the panel, I would say an honourable draw and my fellow panelists - Joe Finder,
Chris Carter and Michael Robotham, were true gents and answered far more thoughtfully than me and I wish them every success.

Then out to dinner at Hotel du Vin where I had two courses with the Harper Collins crew and dessert with my
Curtis Brown brethren, with other guests including the lovely Jeff Deaver who had all sorts of interesting things to say about his forthcoming Bond book and the very smart lady in charge of the books side of the Fleming estate, whom I tried to convince should consider commissioning a highly talented but less well known author (great PR value in that!) with a passionate interest in 007 and who had deliberately referenced sections of his debut novel to From Russia With Love and who first became interested in art crime because of a scene from Dr No. - i.e. Moi! Poor woman must get idiots like me suggesting themselves all the time. But I could do it and it would be great.

After that, bar, drinks, bed. You may notice a pattern evolving...


By now I was feeling pretty broken through lack of sleep and excess of booze. My memories come in small bursts, like flashbacks, but the gist of it was three hours of extended goodbyes and promises to write (like the last day at
Mallory Towers) and then a train home, eyes screwed shut, my forehead pressed to the glass in the hope that it will help stop my head pounding.

Roll on next year...

P.S. Thank-you Ali for the photos

Friday, 23 July 2010

Today Tomorrow

Arrived in a blissfully sunny Harrogate for the Theakston's Crime Writing Festival to be greeted by the news that Joe Finder and myself will be on the Today radio programme tomorrow morning between 8:15 and 8:45 BST to rehearse our upcoming epic and hugely anticipated (well someone's got to big it up) festival slot on whether Britannia Rules the Page. (5pm on Saturday 23rd July for those of you who can make it, although it maybe a rather one sided debate...)

Have to say as someone who grew up with John Humphreys and Brian Hanrahan (listening to, not living with them, that is) and the Shipping Forecast (where is Dogger and German Bight anyway?) I'm very excited. My mother, who would have Radio 4 chemically injected if it were possible, is ecstatic.

So see you there - all the details of frequencies / listening online are here.

P.S. Also just want to mention a band that I cam across just outside the station here -
Kasiuss. Now I'm not much of a live music buff, but quite apart from the obvious link to arch-villain and Tom Kirk nemsis Cassius, I thought they were brilliant. Check them out on iTunes

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Old before my time

So that's it then. I am officially old. No denying it any longer.

Of course the symptoms have been there for a while. Hair growing from strange places on my ears; people looking at me as I reminsice about how great Live Aid was with the same blank expression I used to look at my father with when he spoke about the excitement of watching the moon landings; complaining at my local corner shop about how expensive everything is and reminding the hapless shopkeeper that when I was at school a packet of Polo's used to cost 10p...

But the final nail in the coffin of my youth came last week. I bought a Volvo.

Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "Don't worry James. R-Patz drives one in the Twilight films. That's vampire chic. You're hip. You're cool. They're the thinking man's Maserati. The 2010 answer to the Audi Quattro"

But all I can remember is that scene from Crazy People (We miss you Dudley) when Volvos are described as being "Boxy but Good". I don't want a boxy car. In fact that's exactly two letters short of what I want in a car.

What's more, and I think this is the killer for me, my dad used to have one. Now that's nothing against my father - if I end up being half the person he is I will have achieved more than most - but I never liked that car. It was so bloody safe and practical. It had all these compartments for putting things in and roll-bars and automatic fuel shut-offs and lights that beeped if you didn't put your seat-belt on. Worst of all - and this is still true today - were the running lights which led to people flashing you all the time because they thought you were driving around all day with your headlights on. (Note to Volvo: this may be useful in a country where you have 2 hours daylight but in the real world, it's just a pain)

Where's the danger? Where's the romance of never quite knowing if you were going to make it home in one piece every time you switched on the engine? Where's the lost art of balancing a coffee between your knees as you drive because there was no cup-holder?

And the worst thing? I like my new Volvo. I like it's sleek looks, its brushed chrome interior, its soft leather seats, its pimped-out darkened rear windows, its folding tailgate and the headrest TVs. Damn you Volvo. Damn you to hell.

My misery was then compounded was I was informed by a friend a few days ago today (or rather the day he sent me the mail) was the day that Marty McFly had arrived in the future after hitting 88mph in his DeLorean in 1985. Talk about kicking a man when he is down. I remember watching that film when it came out. It was called Back the the Future for a reason, I railed. Otherwise they would have called it Back to the Present. And to add insult to injury, no sign of a hoverboard anywhere!

Luckily, and I believe for the first time in my life, The Daily Telegraph came to my rescue. I had been the victim, it seemed of an elaborate hoax. The actual date that Marty and Dr Brown travelled to is October 21st 2015. That means I won't be old for at least another five years.

By the way, did I mention that R-Patz also drives a Volvo...
P.S. I meant to focus this post on my forthcoming appearance at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival but lost my way somewhere along the line. In case you wish to see me get insulted by former colonials and convicts, I'm on stage at 5pm this Saturday 24th to argue that "Britannia Rules the Page". Still looking for material...

Friday, 25 June 2010

Shamed into action

In the end, it was the shame that broke me. Pure shame.

Six months after my last post, I had almost come to ignore the itching sore that my guilt at not updating my blog had become. Then a journalist researching an article for The Times asked to interview me about my blog - why I had started it, what it was about, what advice I had for other blog writers ...

Advice for other blog writers? Hmm, let's see. Well, I guess they should start with actually writing a blog. Unlike me! Anyway, here I am.

I'm a believer in the broken windows theory of blog writing. That is once you miss a post you need to quickly get back in the saddle or the rot sets in and the whole bloody roof will come down on top of you. I've mixed about 5 different metaphors there but you know what I mean.

So this is me jumping back on the horse - not that anyone had noticed I had even fallen off apart from my mum. This decision has of course nothing to do with me needing to drum up publicity in advance of my forthcoming appearances at the ARCA conference (Art Crime Research Association) on 10 July in Amelia, Italy, and at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival between 23rd and 25th July.

Harrogate has been the scene of many a public humilation over the years and there is the prospect of more of the same this time round! My panel is at 5pm on Saturday the 24th on the subject of Britannia Rules the Page:

From Wilkie Collins to Arthur Conan Doyle, from Agatha Christie to Ian Fleming, from Dorothy L. Sayers to Reginald Hill, the lineage of great crime writing is indisputably British. Isn’t it? Crime’s own English rose NJ Cooper promises to remain impartial as U.S citizen Joseph Finder, Aussie Michael Robotham and Brazilian born Chris Carter make the case for their countries own literary pedigrees. Maintaining a stiff upper lip on behalf of the Brits is James Twining.

In other words, I stand up and everyone else chucks grenades at me for an hour. Never mind a stiff upper lip, I'll need a stiff drink. Give me strength. Or better still, someone feed me a few good gags I can lob back.

Anyway, that is all for another day. For now I leave you with the words of advice I volunteered in my interview for any would-be blogger:

"A blog is for life, not just for Christmas."

How. True.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

A Sting in the tale

Sting. Where did that come from? I mean Reg Dwight becoming Elton John I sort of get. At least it's a proper name, although someone once warned me never to trust a man with two first names (Rory Stewart take note).

But how in all of God's fair creation did Gordon Sumner morph into Sting?
Is it just me, or is there something just a little
prétentieux about giving yourself one name. Like Jesus or something. I mean even Elvis had two names and he was the king. Maybe that's why "Sting" always looks so bloody "smug"? Bono's just as bad, although much more annoying - his whole save the world routine is really begining to grate (you're a pop singer you daft ejit). As as for The Edge - what the fek? Get over yourself.

Can't fault the man's music though - Every Breath you Take remains genius. Nor can I question his views on the X Factor where he recently argued, rather eloquently, that the show
encourages contestants to "conform to stereotypes" whereby they are either Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston or Boyzone and as such "are not encouraged to create any real unique signature or fingerprint."

He goes on to suggest that the X Factor judges themselves have no recognisable talent apart from self-promotion and advising them what to wear and how to look. In short, he says it "has put music back decades."

Which rather got me thinking. Is the book industry any different? After all, you can't write a thriller these days without being better, like, or worse (heaven forbid) than Dan Brown. And if you write an even vaguely successful spy novel, you're by definition the new Le Carr
é or Fleming. Children's fiction? You know the answer as well as me. The publishers are at it too, pushing "the new Martina Cole" or claiming that someone is like Andy McNabb, except that this writer actually writes his books.

Which rather begs the question, if the book industry is like the X Factor, then who are the judges? Well my vote (ba-da-boom) is with the book retailers. After all, they pretty much call the shots these days. They can make or break a name. And you certainly don't want to cross them.

So who's who?

- Sharon Osborne = Woolworths - no longer with us but remembered fondly
- Louis Walsh = WH Smith - fallen on hard times recently but comeing back strongly
- Danni Minogue = Asda - friendly, if rather overshadowed by older sibling (Wall-Mart)
- Sheryl Cole = Amazon - people's favourite and the one all the other judges / retailers secretly want to be like

- And Simon?
Tesco of course. At the end of the day, their opinion is the one that really counts. And they have a terrible 1980's haircut / logo.

The supermarkets / judges have always been very kind to me so I can't complain. Maybe I'm part of the generation that has seen the book industry go back decades, although I don't see anyone else doing what I do? You tell me.

Gordon, either way, I'm with you. (Although I still can't forgive you for mangling the role of Feyd-Rautha in Dune..)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

How to write the perfect thriller

Had a very interesting chat with fellow thriller writer Anna Blundy a few days ago, which led to the following article, originally published in The Browser. God knows if we're right - what do you think?

How to write a thriller by Anna Blundy

For the past ten years I’ve been sitting at home trying to write thrillers. I try not to read them while I’m writing them so that I don’t a) get demoralised because someone’s doing it better than me or b) start stealing someone else’s devices. For five books my heroine was Faith Zanetti, a war correspondent based loosely on myself, my father (who really was a war correspondent – killed 20 years ago in El Salvador) and the kinds of people I sat with in seedy Jerusalem bars when I was little, wishing my dad would take me back to the hotel.

The logo on the front of my first Faith book, The Bad News Bible, was ‘Courage Without Equal. Truth Without Bullshit. Vodka Without Tonic.’ The covers were kind of 70s and James Bond-ish and I thought of Faith as a female James Bond, hiding her complexity with grit. My editor for the Faith books, Rosie de Courcy told me that the secret to a good character is that he or she should represent the writer’s fantasy self so that you end up writing a fantasy autobiography. The art of good thriller writing, she said, was to let the reader know that an axe is hanging over our hero’s head but not to tell them when it’s going to fall. She says you have to ‘show not tell’ and that your hero or heroine can be as vile as you like as long as there’s one undeniably good thing about them – Scarlett O’Hara, Rosie points out, loved her mother and father.

I tried to follow Rosie’s advice but I do always get led astray by my characters and drawn into their inner lives and motivations, wrapped up in the psychological drama. My Faith books always have a big emotional event around which the plot is constructed – the death of a close friend, falling in love, an ex-lover on the prowl, a resurrected relative, the safety of a child. But then I read a Dan Brown book and see that his success lies in entirely ignoring characterisation for a tight plot constructed around an inanimate object.

This week, for The Browser, I interviewed thriller writer James Twining and he had five key rules that he felt must be followed to come up with the perfect thriller – Dan Brown’s core concept is one of them. If only I’d known…

First, Twining says, you’ve got to have a fantastic central character, like James Bond: ‘What Fleming does is he has a central character who’s totally compelling – a fantasy figure who men want to be like and women want to sleep with. He’s sophisticated and charming with a slight brutality. It dates a bit now some of that, the language and the racial depictions perhaps don’t work so well. But you’d have to struggle to look at literary fiction over the past 50 years and come up with a character who has really inhabited the popular consciousness.’ Another classic character is Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon. You can’t think about Sam Spade without thinking of Humphrey Bogard, Twining reminded me.

Ian Fleming, of course, has an immediately recognisable writing style and this is obviously fairly key and perhaps the most difficult thing for anyone considering writing a thriller to achieve. In some ways you either have a good writing style or you don’t. This might not be something that can be learnt.

You also, as noted above, need the action to revolve round an inanimate object that provides motivation for the human characters. Twining again: ‘The Maltese Falcon itself is this artefact covered in jewels that has been painted black to disguise it, but it’s a complete mcguffin! It doesn’t actually matter at all, except to provide motivation for the characters. I’ve used this device in my new book about the illicit trade in antiquities – I’ve used an ivory mask that really was found in London and had been dug up in Italy. I mean, think of Pulp Fiction. We never do find out what’s in the bloody briefcase. You could say it’s a cop out, but it’s no more of a cop out than your best friend dying and having to find out who the murderer is.You need something to get the story in motion.’

Another thing that Twining suggests is key is to have some element of reality in your novel so that readers can think; ‘Ooh, I never knew that.’ ‘I think Dan Brown’s books are often like a lecture embedded in a chase story,’ Twining told me. Another example of this is Frederick Forsyth’s Day of The Jackal: ‘This has a real historical character, General Charles De Gaulle. It’s an amazing trick really because we all know De Gaulle wasn’t assassinated, but the whole way along we’re thinking: ‘Shit! Is he going to die!’ ‘Silence of the Lambs also has elements of reality in it. Thomas Harris has based Lector on Ed Gein, a serial killer who robbed graves and killed woman in order to flay the corpses for their skins. Greene was also the basis for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Norman Bates in Psycho. He also uses the real murderer Garry Ridgeway who dumped women’s bodies with objects inside them.’

In Day of the Jackal Forsyth uses another of the devices that Twining recognises as key in that he actually breaks a news story. Forsyth in this book exposed the practise of applying for passports in the name of dead children. ‘People would go to graveyards and look for the graves of children. The government actually had to change the law on the basis of his research,’ Twining said. Thomas Harris does the same in Silence of the Lambs: ‘Like Forsyth in Day of the Jackal, Harris breaks a story in that he popularised or exposed the workings of the FBI’s criminal profiling unit. He put them on the map. Nowadays they are always in any crime drama.’

So, James Twining and I concluded between us that to write a good thriller you need: a brilliant central character, a recognisable writing style (Fleming has his distinctive short sentences and muscularity), some link to reality like a real event, character or detailed research, an inanimate object around which the human story revolves, and a news story that breaks as a result of the novel. Easy.