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Tuesday 19 January 2016

L C Tyler


Lynne Patrick talks with L C Tyler

L C (or Len if you’re offering to buy him a drink) Tyler first appeared on the crime fiction scene about ten years ago and immediately began to make an impression. His series of comic crime novels, featuring not especially successful crime writer Ethelred Tressider and his opinionated chocoholic agent Elsie Thirkettle, have won awards and been nominated for others, and last year he was afforded one of the greatest honours of the crime writing world: the chair of the Crime Writers’ Association.
Now a full-time writer after a busy and varied life which included travel over three continents and being chief executive of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, he recently turned his attention to historical crime fiction featuring 17th century lawyer John Grey, and claims that the Stuarts will turn out to be far more fun than the Tudors when his characters finally emerge from the rather more dour Cromwell era.

Lynne: Len, I’m sure a lot of people will be intrigued to know why you decided to change direction a couple of years ago. Ethelred and Elsie had gained quite a following; where did John Grey come from?
Len: I was trying to think of a new direction in which to go. I had an idea for a plot in which everyone in the story knew who the murderer was except the narrator. Then I had to ask myself under what circumstances that might happen – the narrator had to be an outsider of some sort or, now I came to think of it, somebody who had lived in the place but had been away for some time and was no longer trusted for some reason. The narrator had to be clever enough to solve the puzzle but naïve enough to be taken in at first. And I was keen to write some historical fiction. Thus it was that I came up with John Grey, just returned to his village after studying law at Cambridge, only to find that things have changed in a way he can’t quite put his finger on …

Lynne: Research must play a large part in historical fiction, and written records of the 17th century can’t be prolific. How do you go about making the background real and getting the details right?
Len: I knew the period a bit anyway. I knew something about the architecture and the costumes and the music and the politics. But there was no substitute for many days spent in the British Library researching every detail of seventeenth century. There is actually an amazing amount of contemporary stuff out there that gives you a flavour of what was going on – for example, letters to exiled royalists from their families in England, the extensive archive of John Thurloe, Cromwell’s spymaster and of course Pepys’s diaries. The big picture is usually clear enough – it’s the small details that can trip you up. Did people normally eat breakfast in 1665, for example? Pepys rarely mentions it (he takes his ‘morning draught’, which was probably alcoholic) but was that just the way Pepys did things? Or did he usually eat breakfast but not think it was worth mentioning? Would small children have eaten breakfast, even if adults didn’t? Sometimes you just have to cross your fingers and make an educated guess.

Lynne: Humour is very much your thing on the page, but it’s notoriously personal, and hard to get right; what makes one person laugh simply doesn’t do it for another. Is there a knack to it? Or do you have a sounding board: maybe a group of people you try things out on? Or... what’s your secret?
Len: It’s very difficult to analyse humour. As you say, it is so much a matter of personal taste. It sometimes surprises me which bits of a book people like and don’t like. I’ve had lines enthusiastically quoted back at me that I thought were rather ordinary and lines that I thought were inspired that nobody seems to have noticed. In the end my benchmark is that if it makes me laugh then it may make somebody else laugh. Interestingly the humour seems to translate quite well into French, but not for some reason into German.

Lynne: Your first protagonist, Ethelred Tressider, always had ambitions beyond popular fiction, and saw himself as the author of a more serious kind of book altogether. What was L C Tyler aiming at when he first took up his pen? Booker Prize, or Last Laugh Award?
Len: It was my intention to settle for nothing less than the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Lynne: Quite right too! And there’s still plenty of time – especially now you’re writing more or less full-time!
Your early career as a senior civil servant took you all over the world and into some pretty high-powered company. Where did the writing come from? Was it always there in the background, or were you a late starter?
Len: It was always there. I wrote one novel at university (about somebody at university) and one when I was in Africa (about somebody in Africa). I’m rather pleased now that neither was published. It may have been my time as cultural attaché in Copenhagen that that inspired me to have another shot at it. Colin Dexter, Robert Goddard, Nick Hornby, Helen Dunmore, Romesh Gunesekera and A L Kennedy all visited. When I returned from Copenhagen I started The Herring Seller’s Apprentice, but it took me some years to finish it.

Lynne: If the ‘Herring’ series was ever picked up for TV, who would you like to see playing Ethelred and Elsie?
Len: Excellent question! I’d have answered differently at different times, but I did wonder recently whether David Tennant wouldn’t make a very good Ethelred. Maybe Rebecca Front as Elsie?

Lynne: Rebecca Front would be perfect. And David Tennant would certainly do wonders for the viewing figures!
Do you remember the moment when your advance copies of your first-ever book arrived – a real book, not just a computer file or a pile of manuscript? Did it feel familiar – or completely different from the work you initially sent out? Did you re-read it?
Len: It was wonderful. I placed on copy of it on the bookshelves next to Mark Twain and just stood there admiring it. What was really strange wasn’t the transformation from manuscript to book, but the fact that people were talking to me about these characters that for years only I had known about. I’m not actually that keen on re-reading my books – you always spot mistakes or things that you could have written better.

Lynne: Who do you write for? Was there a reader in your mind when you set out to write about Ethelred and Elsie? Are you aiming the John Grey series at the same audience?
Len: I set out to write the sort of book that I enjoy reading. But it’s not as simple as just writing for myself. I include all sorts of obscure jokes for friends. In The Herring Seller’s Apprentice, for example, there are various references to oral surgeons, of whom I know a few. In A Masterpiece of Corruption one of the characters bears the (only slightly altered) name of a prominent crime writer. I hadn’t really thought whether I was aiming John Grey at a different audience but people who like one series tend to like the other.

Lynne: What is your working strategy? Are you highly organized, plotting it all out in methodical detail, with timelines and storyboards? Or do you just plunge in and let the characters get on with it?
And how does a new book start in your mind?
Len: It various so much from book to book. In The Herring Seller’s Apprentice, I honestly didn’t know from one chapter to the next what the characters would do. With A Masterpiece of Corruption, I knew more or less where the plot was going from the beginning. But I rarely do detailed planning more than half a dozen chapters in advance. A new book often starts with a fairly simple premise – such as the one I quote for A Masterpiece of Corruption – and grows from there. My Herring books all have Christie-esque titles, but only Herring on the Nile actually set out to mirror a Christie plot in any way (and then only a bit).

Lynne: Like many comic crime novels, your books have been described as ‘cosy’ crime: sex scenes and graphic violence happen off the page if they happen at all. Are you uncomfortable with the modern trend towards gory descriptions? Is there anything you wouldn’t write?
Len: As I say, I write the sort of thing I like reading, and I’m not that keen on gore. My victims tend to die with a neat bullet hole through the head or from a quick acting poison (even though, as I point out in one of my books, most deaths from poison aren’t remotely as fast as you’d like). My stories are in that sense very much traditional mysteries, which focus on detection rather than the crime itself. I’m not sure I’d rule out anything, but if I wrote gore, I’d probably do it under another name. You can’t play fast and loose with your readers’ expectations.

Lynne: And finally – what’s next? A Masterpiece of Corruption, the second in the John Grey series, is just out. Is there another in the pipeline? Or can we look forward to another change of direction?
Len: There’s another book in the Ethelred and Elsie series out next month – Cat Among the Herrings. I’m currently working on the third book in the John Grey series, set during the Great Plague and provisionally entitled The Plague Road.

L C Tyler is the author of the Ethelred and Elsie series, published by Allison & Busby:
 The Herring Seller's Apprentice
 Ten Little Herrings
 The Herring in the Library
 The Herring on The Nile
 Crooked Herring
 The Herring in the Libary
 Cat Among the Herrings

and the John Grey series, published by Constable:
A Cruel Necessity
A Masterpiece of Corruption

and also A Very Persistent Illusion, published by Pan and described as ‘a hilarious, hugely inventive and thought-provoking novel about love, madness and reality.’


Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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