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M.W. CRAVEN with Paul Gitsham

Written by Paul Gitsham

P.G.  First of all, congratulations on the book. It is a cracking read and guaranteed to delight both existing fans of the series and newcomers. [Ed: Check out the review here]

Before we delve into The Botanist specifically, I want to talk about the stars of the show, Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw. I think most readers would agree that their relationship is the beating heart of this series. When you started writing, did you intend for that relationship to become so integral to its success?

M.C.  I sort of did, but only because readers of my first series mentioned the relationship between DI Avison Fluke and DS Matt Towler more than anything else. And I did enjoy the buddy aspect. Two friends (one an ex-Marine, the other an ex-Para), very comfortable in each other’s company, doing that peculiarly British trait of constantly taking the piss out of each other. When my agent asked me to write a new series, again set in Cumbria, I took that odd-couple dynamic, but rather than the pre-existing inter-unit banter Fluke and Towler had, I decided to start right at the beginning of a friendship. So, in the The Puppet Show, the first in the series, Poe and Tilly hadn’t met before. And, let’s be honest, they didn’t initially like each other. They had nothing in common and one didn’t really know how to communicate with the other. But over the course of the book their mutual respect overcame the natural barriers to their burgeoning friendship. It’s been fun to write.

P.G.  Both Poe and Tilly have evolved over the books. Do you have an idea of where their characters will go from here, or are you taking it as it comes?

M.C.  A little from column A and a little from column B, I suppose. I have some rough ideas of things I want to try. At some point it will be fun to give Tilly a boyfriend, I think. See how Poe reacts to that. Amusingly, I imagine. And of course, his own personal life develops a bit in The Botanist. So, we’ll have to put a stop to that …  There are also a couple of unresolved issues – Poe’s parentage and the fallout from the events at the end of The Curator. All of this will have an emotional impact on the main characters going forward.

P.G.  Let’s focus on The Botanist. Alongside some short stories, this is the fifth major outing for the series. In it, Washington Poe states that he hates locked-room mysteries - but here he is presented with not one, but two. Where do you stand? Have you always wanted to write a locked-room mystery, or did this just present itself to you?

M.C.  This was intentional. At the start of every book, I set myself a challenge. In The Puppet Show it was introducing Cumbria and the main characters and setting the tone for the rest of the series. In Black Summer I wanted to set the guys, Tilly in particular, an impossible puzzle to solve – how can someone be both dead and alive at the same time? In The Curator it was a warning shot, that no one is safe, and Dead Ground was about the skewed nature of the ‘special relationship’. And in The Botanist, it was a locked-room mystery. I usually start out these challenges without knowing quite how I’ll do it and end up trusting to blind luck that a solution will present itself. 

P.G.  And writer to writer, what came first? The solution or the puzzle? Did you write yourself into a corner and have to fight your way out, or did you have a great idea for how to solve an impossible mystery and work your way back from there?

M.C.  I’ve sort of answered this, but as an ex-probation chief, I always want to understand my villain’s motivations – all my characters really – so I start each book with the ‘why?’ before I move on to the ‘how?’. I then ask Poe and Tilly to solve it for everyone. It sort of works for me, but sometimes it’s a bit hairy, right down to the wire. In Black Summer in particular, I ended up getting an Oxford professor involved in coming up with a plausible explanation. For The Botanist though, I had the method going in. Which was a bit of a luxury. I’d read an article on something and thought with a bit of tweaking that it would be a great way of murdering someone undetected.  

P.G.  One of the great things about this book is that The Botanist, as the name suggests, features plants and poisons, and the science behind them. As a former biologist, I was impressed with the accuracy, and as a science teacher felt they were very well explained to the reader. How did you go about researching the topic?

M.C.  I bought a couple of reference books: Molecules of Murder and More Molecules of Murder. They were quite academic, and aimed at students who wanted to understand how poisons worked on the human body, how they were made etc. The author used real-life examples of how they’d been used to murder people. I also had a lot of help from Brian Price, a scientist who’s also a crime writer. But like anything technical in my books, I purposefully have it so that Poe doesn’t understand it. Tilly then makes it accessible for him, and therefore accessible to the reader. I work on the basis that if I understand something, most people will. It’s a device, but it allows me to talk about technical things without losing anyone.

P.G.  Returning to the topic of Poe and Tilly. You clearly have a lot of fun writing them. Do you have to edit a lot of their interactions to keep them short, or does the pace come naturally? What I'm really asking of course, is whether there's any chance of a blooper reel from stuff that got cut? I'd definitely read that! 

M.C.  I usually over-write my first draft, so a lot of their banter gets cut. But I do keep everything and if it’s a scene I enjoyed and, more importantly, I think the readers will enjoy, it will find its way into a different book. For example, in Dead Groundthere’s a scene in which Tilly explains the rules of Muggle Quidditch to Poe. That had been cut for pace in Black Summer and cut from The Curator as it was too much like a scene from the previous chapter. But it found the right home in Dead Ground. And in at least three books I had to cut a scene where Tilly explains the physics of falling toast. That made it into a short story. As Michael Praed kept saying in Robin of Sherwood, “Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten…” 

P.G.  And one final question. Food features prominently in all your books. Poe has never met a meat-based dish he doesn't love, and Tilly is a vegetarian. But the thing that readers really want to know, is where do they stand on the Marmite debate?

M.C.  I suppose I’ll have to take a position on this. As Poe tends to like the same things as me, I’m going to say that he loves Marmite. And as Tilly is basically Mrs Craven, I’m going to say Tilly would like Marmite as well. I’ve checked and it is vegan-friendly … 

P.G.  Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Mike. The series becomes better with each entry and the teaser for next year’s book, The Mercy Chair, included at the end of the The Botanist, is already on my must-read list.

The Botanist

Hbk Published 02 June, 2002 priced £16.99 by Constable

Photo © Antonio Herdia

M W Craven

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