Like me, Alan Beechey was born in England and grew up in London, not far from where I lived, as it happens. He lives in the US now, and I met him at the Unicorn Writers’ Conference, where he was giving a talk on how to write crime novels. I wanted to read one of his books immediately, because he made me laugh. I know you’re thinking it’s all about that British sense of humor, but I think you’ll find his mysteries, which take place in London, refreshing and a bit off-beat. Being a person who likes to start a series at the beginning, I read his first book, An Embarrassment of Corpses, and enjoyed it so much that I’ve got the next two sitting on my electronic To Be Read pile.
And if you want a taste of his sense of humor, you could do worse than check out his blog.
GC: When did you start writing novels, and what made you choose crime as your genre?
AB: I dedicated my most recent book, This Private Plot, to my late parents, and I note there that my mother started it all by giving me The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot whodunit) when I was twelve. I reconnected with the world of crime as a college student when I read P.D. James’s Death of an Expert Witness, having heard it reviewed on the BBC. And after a couple of misguided attempts at get-rich-quick screenplays with friends, I switched my mystery-reading habit to a mystery-writing habit when I settled down to write my first novel, A Nasty Little Murder. Never heard of it? It’s crap, and it was rightly never published, despite being shunted around several British publishing houses. But it taught me what voice not to use.
GC: Do your fans love your books more for your characters and plot, or for your sense of humor?
AB: From the letters and emails I get, it’s clearly the characters, which is the way it should be. Plot and humor should flow from characters and their situations – or at least look like they do by the time you’re finished. Although I am pleased when readers note that there is, in fact, a plot, and I hope a good one. I’m writing a mystery, not a soap opera.
GC: How did you come up with the extraordinary names of your characters?
AB: I found several of them in the old four-volume London telephone directory. “Strongitharm” – presumably a contraction of “Strong in the arm” – which is the name of one of my lead characters, came from those. Ever since I was young, I’ve kept notes of good names, or words that aren’t typically names but could be – belfry, welkin, moldwarp, mormal. The last review of This Private Plot that I posted on my blog was by the magnificently named Sue Millinocket. That’s going on the list. There are also a few bad jokes shoved in (Mark Sandys-Penza? Hoo, Watt and Eidenau? I mean, come on), including a particularly filthy one in the name of the company Oliver works for in the first book. Nobody’s noticed so far. (GC: Must go back and look…)
GC: Of all the characters in all the novels, which is your favorite?
AB: Effie. They’re called the “Oliver Swithin” mysteries, but she’s almost the co-hero. Effie Strongitharm is Oliver’s girlfriend, but also a Scotland Yard detective sergeant, who works for Oliver’s uncle. I work harder on Effie, because it’s a challenge for a male writer to create a convincing female character, especially a woman working in a sexist, male-dominated environment like the police. Her appearance, especially her unruly hair, is based on that of a much-loved girlfriend from my teenage years (who tolerates her fictional incarnation), but her character is every woman I’ve ever loved, and her insecurities are probably mine.
GC: How much promotion did you have to do once your books were published? And what’s the most effective way to promote a book, in your view?
AB: How much did I do? Not enough. It’s never enough, these days. I have a blog, I contribute to other people’s blogs, I do signings and readings . . . Still not enough. I think I’m destined to be a boutique. Maybe it’s enough to have a few devoted fans. One of them even tattooed my initials on her back. (If you’re reading this, hi Rebecca!)
GC: What’s in the works? More of our hero, Oliver Swithin?
AB: I’ve started the next Oliver Swithin novel. I’ve also had a non-Swithinian short story published, one that started out as a romance, but inevitably became a mystery. But the past year has thrown up a few distractions, some good, some bad, so I don’t currently have a good chunk of writing time on my schedule. This will, of course, all change as soon as someone offers me a couple of million for the screen rights to An Embarrassment of Corpses, or the BBC decide the Swithin series is a worthy successor to “Lewis” or “Midsomer Murders.”