Lynne Truss is the author of the new mystery novel A Shot in the Dark. Her many other books include Eats, Shoots & Leaves. She lives on the south coast of England.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Shot in the Dark, and for your character Constable Twitten?
A: The four main characters in A Shot in the Dark all had their origins in a radio comedy series I wrote over a period of years: young Constable Twitten, his colleagues Inspector Steine and Sergeant Brunswick, and the lovable cockney charlady Mrs Groynes.
The very first inspiration for me was the opening of the film Brighton Rock (based on the novel by Graham Greene), where the public are reassured that the story of razor-gangs and hoodlums in Brighton that follows does not remotely represent this law-abiding town, which has been completely cleaned up since the war by the police.
I liked the idea of a police inspector in the 1950s who actually believes such propaganda: who insists there is no longer any crime in the town, and therefore discourages his men from looking for it. Having such an inspector in place, it seemed natural that the detective protagonist should be a very clever young constable who is keen to expose crime (but to whom no one will listen).
By the way, the names all relate to Brighton topography. The “Steine” (pronounced steen) is an area in the centre of town; “Brunswick” is a common street name, because of Caroline of Brunswick, married to George IV; “Twitten” is the local name for an alleyway, or cut-through; and “Groynes” refers to the breakwaters. There are signs on the seafront that say, “Danger! Hidden groynes!”
Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, which is set in Brighton in the 1950s?
A: I have done a lot of research, yes, and it’s all been very pleasurable. For A Shot in the Dark, I read a lot about music hall acts, and crime reporters, and so on.
The only thing I didn’t need to research particularly was the world of the theatre, because I’ve always been interested in this period, when “angry” plays were first produced. And I suppose I also knew a lot already about phrenology (which is practised as a music-hall act by one of the characters).
I am still learning new and useful things, though. Brighton police in this period wore distinctive white helmets, for example (I have only just discovered this). Brighton was also home to a famous and successful ice-hockey team called The Brighton Tigers who, in 1957, beat the Russian national team!
I haunt the local history archive attached to Sussex University, looking at microfiche of old newspapers, and I’ve tracked down a lot of films shot in Brighton (there was a short-lived film studio in the town). I also count it as research to curl up in the afternoons and read classic British crime novels (but mainly I just like doing that).
Q: You've noted that your characters originated in a radio program you created. What was it like to transfer them to this novel?
A: Well, I did already love these characters, so the main difficulty was remembering that other people didn’t know them at all! But I haven’t been at all hidebound by anything that was in the radio series. I’ve reinvented all the characters, to some degree or other; I’ve lifted fragments of plots but changed their outcomes.
The biggest challenge with the characters was to tone them down while keeping them memorable. For the radio, we had four fantastic comic actors in the main parts, and in the end I was writing the parts to suit the actors’ strengths. In the novels, I can allow the characters to mould themselves more.
Q: What are some other comic crime novels that you've especially enjoyed?
A: I’ve read a lot of Carl Hiassen; also all of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. There must be others.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The second Constable Twitten novel, The Man That Got Away, has just been through copy-editing; I’ll start the third (for publication in 2020) after Christmas.
In the meantime I’ve been writing and recording three stories for radio broadcast in the spring, for an on-going series called Life at Absolute Zero. The stories are set in a fictional town called Meridian Cliffs, and I read them myself – which again has an influence on how they are written.
As you can probably tell, I do like the challenges of different types of writing. For four years I was a sports columnist for The Times, and although the lifestyle was absolutely horrible, I did embrace the scariness of the deadlines.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am so impressed by American readers being prepared to overlook how British A Shot in the Dark is. I can imagine what a tall order it is. I’m very grateful.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb