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|‘Where Do You Find Your Ideas? and other crime stories,’ is a collection of 27 short stories written over the past ten years by Martin Edwards and published in a wide range of magazines and anthologies in Britain and overseas.
Edwards explains why he’s been so prolific, “I’ve used the short form to experiment as a writer, and to expand my range as far as possible, by exploring a wide range of themes and settings.” To demonstrate the width of his range, the book contains nine stories with historical settings, including two ‘Sherlockian’ pastiches, ten (including the title story) are tales of psychological suspense and eight feature Harry Devlin, the ‘hero’of Edwards’ books, a hapless Liverpool solicitor with an unfortunate ability to stumble upon murder.
The Harry Devlin series began in 1991 with All The Lonely People. Firmly set in Liverpool, as hinted at by the evocative Beatles echo in the title, Harry’s ex-wife Liz, with whom he is still infatuated, turns up at his dockside flat. Sadly, she is not there to kiss and make-up - but is very frightened. Harry wants to help, but the next day Liz disappears and it appears that she was right to be frightened. When Liz is found brutally murdered, the police come looking for Harry. He sets out to find out the truth, while still coming to the terms with the fact that his ex-wife is dead. Loneliness is a key theme to this story - indeed Devlin is a lonely man. Even when he does finally discover the truth about his ex-wife’s death, he is still very much alone.
The novel was nominated for the CWA John Creasey Memorial Award for best first crime novel of the year - the winner was Walter Mosley with Devil In A Blue Dress. Heady stuff though, even to be nominated.
So why fiction? And in particular, what made Martin Edwards, a respectable lawyer, turn to crime?
“I’d written legal books. All told, I’ve published half a dozen, as well as four or five hundred articles and that gave me experience of dealing with editors and writing professionally. But I had always dreamed, ever since I was a small boy, of publishing a novel. Not just any old novel, specifically a crime novel. The genre has always fascinated me. It still does. Its possibilities seem to me to be almost infinite and yet there is an element of structural discipline which, thoughtfully applied, can be enormously attractive, to writers as well as to readers.”
If you combine the author’s passion for crime fiction and working as a Liverpool solicitor, perhaps Harry Devlin’s conception was inevitable - although Harry is not, Edwards is quite adamant about this, in any way a self portrait. They have one or two things in common, but there it ends. Not least the number of dead bodies they encounter. Which one would hope, would be considerably less in Edwards’ case.
There are difficulties of course, when using a series character, in keeping the body count plausible. Edwards is philosophical about this.
"It’s often said that there isn’t so much scope nowadays for the amateur detective, except possibly for the amateur who may have professional connections with the world of crime such as a lawyer, a journalist or an insurance investigator. Fictional sleuths are, at least in this country, more and more likely to be professional police officers. But I tend to think that this trend has emerged mainly because many of our best crime writers - Rendell, James, Dexter, Hill, Rankin and so on - simply happen to have policeman as their heroes. In reality, it’s not much more likely that one chief inspector would keep stumbling over mysterious murders in his own backyard than an inquisitive amateur like Harry.”
With the success of his first book, a second followed and Suspicious Minds was born. A music lover, Edwards takes each of his titles from pop songs which give significant clues to the themes of his books. It’s a wonder Harry is able to sleep at night in this book, as first, a client’s wife goes missing, then his daughter and her boyfriend. At the same time, a sex attacker is terrorising the neighbourhood. What’s a man to do? Solve it all, if your name’s Harry Devlin. But it’s never that easy and when brutal murder is involved, Harry’s suspicions lead to inevitable disaster and a clash of personal and professional loyalties.
The second book has a more complex structure than Harry’s first, in which the murder was very close to his heart, so there was more emotional involvement for him. It’s often said that the second novel is harder for authors to write than their first, I asked Edwards how he felt about this.
“At the time, I was very happy with the book and my publisher gave it a rapturous reception. All very exciting. With hindsight, though, I’d like to have developed the character of the culprit in more detail. It’s a common feature of the detective novel - as opposed to a work of psychological suspense - that the killer’s motivation is sketched in quite lightly, so as not to give the game away too early in the narrative. As I’ve gained in experience, I’ve devoted more and more attention to characterisation. Yet I’ve tried to avoid sacrificing strength of plot. It does seem to me that the literary quality of crime novels is, in general, higher today than ever. But there are plenty of well written suspense novels that aren’t quite as suspenseful as they might be, because of a tendency to neglect plot. The best crime novelists - again I think of the likes of Ruth Rendell - are skilled not only at delineation of character but also at composition of plot.”
In his third book, I Remember You, Edwards continues with the interweaving of plots, definitely not at the expense of character, as the appearance of the colourful tattooist, Finbar Rogan, can testify. Someone seems to want to harm Finbar, first his studio is destroyed in a fire and then a bomb is planted under his car. The fire provides a dramatic, and gripping opening to the book. “Flames licked at the building, greedy as the tongues of teenage lovers.” And once again Harry is drawn into a tangled web of secrets and deceit. I asked Edwards for his thoughts on the novel.
“In this book, memories - Harry’s, the killer’s and the principal victim’s - play a key part in the story. There is also a sub-plot connected with Harry’s legal work. Readers often point out that he doesn’t spend as much time working in the office as he should - but who can blame him?”
To a certain extent, Edwards stayed with a memory theme with his next book, Yesterday’s Papers. This time, Harry finds himself looking into an incident which occurred thirty years previously, when an amateur criminologist tries to persuade him there was a miscarriage of justice. When Harry begins investigating and another death occurs, it appears that someone out there is frightened of what might be uncovered.
An atmospheric book, Edwards admits he enjoyed writing this book enormously.
“The plot is multi-layered, it concerns a strangling back in the sixties and I had the opportunity to dig into Liverpool’s past and the Mersey Beat era. Great fun. The Sunday Times ranked it as one of the paperbacks of the year, which was wonderful and would have been even more wonderful if it had prompted the publishers to get a few more copies into the shops!”
That said, limited distribution certainly didn’t prevent his next book, Eve of Destruction, reaching the shelves. Edwards says, “In all my books, I like to touch on aspects of society that intrigue me and this is no exception. Voyeurism for example, is a key element of this story.” Once again, an intriguing and interwoven plot is a key element to the book.
Yet after this book, Edwards, though still writing about Harry Devlin, seemed to change direction a little, The Devil in Disguise, was a very different book in many ways. I asked the author what had brought this about.
“I’d been determined for many years that one day I would create a classic Golden Age type mystery, but set in a contemporary urban setting rather than Mayhem Parva. This is one of the lightest of my novels, full of jokes about the legal profession, with another elaborate whodunit puzzle. It wasn’t in any sense a trendy book and I wasn’t sure how people would react to it, but my new publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, were tremendously enthusiastic and, thankfully, the reviews turned out to be great.”
First Cut Is the Deepest, followed which was much darker than his earlier works - and also more gruesome.
Edwards agrees, “Yes. I’m keen to ring the changes with the Harry Devlin series. I don’t want to stick to a formula or become stale. Quite simply, I’m trying to write a better book each time out.”
Edwards is also a regular contributor to various magazines – including Shots – writing both articles and reviews.
“Because I’m so keen on crime fiction, it’s no hardship to review books. The only problem is finding the time to read as many as I would wish. It’s probably a mistake to over-intellectualise about any type of popular culture, but I do enjoy writing essays on aspects of crime writing that interest me. A couple of dozen or more of my pieces - including an article on ‘The Prodigal in Crime Fiction,’ would you believe? - appear in the new Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. One day, I’d like to write a whole book about the genre. And if it turned out to be half as good as Julian Symons’ classic Bloody Murder, I’d be delighted.”
Novelist, short story writer, reviewer and editor too, for Edwards has reviewed several volumes of short stories.
“I’ve always enjoyed reading them and editing anthologies for regional chapters of the CWA was a labour of love. When the chance came to edit the CWA’s national anthology, I jumped at it.”
Edwards’ versatility was further underlined acouple of years back when he was commissioned to finish The Lazarus Widow, the last Scottish police novel to be written by the late Bill Knox.
“We’d never met, we came from different generations and our interests as writers were very different, so completing his novel was a tremendous challenge - all the more so since Bill never left any notes to indicate what the solution was going to be! But I didn’t want the reader to be able to see ‘the join,’ where Bill’s manuscript stopped and I took over. I found the whole project utterly fascinating.”
With so many demands upon his time, I wondered how the author managed to balance everything in his life.
“Badly! I’m focused on trying to write so much and am motivated to write, so it is difficult to fit everything in.”
That said, he’s still managed to fit in writing another novel. Take My Breath Away will be published by Allison and Busby in May. It represents a complete departure from the Harry Devlin series. The book is set mainly in London and opens with a shocking murder - committed by a dead woman. This is, by far, his most ambitious book. As well as the crime theme, there are also underlying elements of political satire.
“The idea for the book haunted me for years. I desperately wanted to write it. Then, when I set down to work, I found it was the hardest task I’d ever set myself. But I’m thrilled that, after two and a half years, all the strands of the story finally came together in a way that was very rewarding. Thrilled and truly relieved!”
Thrilled is exactly what Edwards’ fans will be knowing his book of short stories is available now and his new novel set to follow in May. Whatever Edwards tries next, with his commitment and talent, it’s bound to please.