Today's The Write Stuff with... feature In the Beginning comes from author Lev D. Lewis talking about the inspiration behind and creation of his debut novel Jellyfish.
“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” (Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely, Ch. 34)
After spending the summer dwelling on this fact, Frank appeared more or less complete: a down-at-heel private investigator working on the mean streets of London who had gone to a comprehensive school (a school where in real life my sister had gone to) half-a-mile away from where Chandler attended his public school.
Frank finds his own life bleak and boring but, aware of the Chandler connection, has developed a Marlowe fantasy to overcome the dullness.
I gave my nose another wipe and rang the doorbell, still wondering: goon or dame? That was the fantasy, the thought that behind the next door may lurk a goon with a gun or a dame with legs. It brought a frisson of sun-baked Californian menace to the wearying trudge down streets as cold and grey and wet as a drowned man’s shadow, between doors that only opened, if they opened at all, on the desperate and despairing . . . No wonder my nose is always running. If I had had anywhere to go, I’d have run too.
When, in the course of a routine job, Frank stumbles across a murdered student in an alley, he is forced to turn his fantasy into action armed with nothing but native guile and intuition.
And the Investigator’s Fallacy: the belief that my native guile and intuition counted.
One thing that wasn’t complete come the end of the summer of his conception was his name. He was always going to be called ‘Frank’, and his surname was going to start with ‘B’. There’s a detective agency near to where I live called Finlay’s Bureau of Investigation with a sign etched into the window saying ‘FBI’, and I wanted to use the same conceit for Frank.
Originally, he was called Frank Bowman, then I went for the shorter Frank Black (I remembered reading something about Ian Fleming choosing ‘James Bond’ because it’s brief and boring), before ‘Bale’ hit me as being appropriate; it’s even shorter than ‘Black’, still begins with a ‘B’ and is, perhaps, indicative of something baleful in his psychology (or that he has a head full of straw).
So, I had my hero/antihero and, given the essential attributes of the character, the book’s location, i.e. London and, in particular, South London, which is handy because it’s all I really know. I remember talking to a writing student from Ireland and being a tad envious of the fact that he came from a little village in the country, full of characters. He said, straight-faced, that he had never been to Croydon (where I’m from), and he would find it fascinating to read about daily life there!
I know that some authors are acclaimed for turning their settings into characters; to be honest, I don’t really know what that means. I do describe the streets of South London (including Croydon – I hope my Irish friend, if he’s still out there, isn’t disappointed), and Frank has an interest in architecture which gives me the license to describe some of the buildings in (hopefully not too much) detail. I hope I have made South London a ‘character’ – it could do with the glory.
So now, I had a hero and a location – but what came next?
At the time, I was studying creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London, and I’d discovered that I was good at dialogue and scenes, but the scenes went nowhere because I was lousy at drawing them all together, i.e. I couldn’t, in fact, write a story (not a long one anyway).
Part of what attracted me to crime writing was, I figured, I’d have to come up with a plot, however flimsy, first. I’ve since learnt that many notable crime writers don’t – the thinking being that they have to surprise themselves with the dénouement in order to surprise the reader. Fortunately, I didn’t know that then, or I might still be hopelessly stranded in random dialogues and unconnected scenes.
I came up with a beginning, an end, and a little bit of a middle (I wasn’t even sure that it counted as a plot at first; my tutor assured me that it did) and begun writing to that. This eventually became my debut novel, Jellyfish, and Frank Bale’s first outing.
A lot of things happened in the writing process, incidents, subplots even, that I hadn’t conceived of beforehand, but I always knew where it was going to end up. It was just a question of getting there – which wasn’t as simple as it sounds.
I found the biggest challenge was writing, convincingly, a regular-Joe private eye at work today, i.e. one who’s not a forensic expert, not a master of technology, doesn’t have any insider contacts or martial art training, and doesn’t even own a gun. I hope I’ve succeeded with Frank.
Now that I’ve started in crime, I can’t imagine myself writing in any other genre. I feel that here I ought to bang on about crime fiction being more than just a genre, about it laying open the ills of society as it explores and reflects the cultural and societal issues of our times, but the truth is – I just enjoy it.
I dined on cream of tomato cup-a-soup with croutons of stale bread, washed, dressed, and drove to Bloomsbury with my camera. That was the difference between Marlowe and me. He never touched divorce work. But then people in my world never got murdered. At least, that’s what I thought back then.
When Frank Bale was a lawyer, he wore Savile Row suits. Now he has holes in his trousers and serves papers for other, successful, lawyers. Life is bleak but he is kept going by a Philip Marlowe obsession and a longing to prove himself.
When a student winds up dead, he gets the chance to investigate a real crime, relying on advice found in an old Tradecraft Manual and the sayings of his nan. But neither the manual nor his nan nor Marlowe prepare him for handling the slimiest of London’s underbelly, jellyfish, who hit back first with fists, then with golf clubs and finally with guns.
Can Frank stay alive long enough to find the killer – and get the girl?