Who or what inspires you in the development of your main character in your book Sir Laurence Dies?
When I was developing Sir Laurence Dies, I decided early on I needed a quirky detective because I believe those characters, with their own flaws and issues, stand above the average and are remembered for not just their brilliance, but their eccentricity too. I have always been a mystery fan and whilst I’ve read and watched a significant amount, I decided I’d begin with mystery-genre royalty. So I went straight to Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for my primary inspiration.
Doctor Pieter Straay’s personality is developed from an amalgam of the best qualities I found in Christie’s “Hercule Poirot”, Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes”. Rodney David Wingfield’s “Jack Frost”, Edgar Allen Poe’s “Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin” also contributed to the character development, as Poirot and Holmes were both, in my opinion, heavily influenced by Dupin also.
Using Doctor Watson’s method, I wrote a list of the traits I admired most in those characters, good or bad, and wove them into his make-up. I listed habits along with psychological and physical problems. Straay is a child of the First World War. We know a little of his background but there is some mystery surrounding his father and the circumstances of his arrival into England that hasn’t been explored, just hinted at. In Dr. Chandrix Dies – the prequel to Sir Laurence Dies – we learn a little more, but that mystery is woven into the subplot of his character, rather than the narrative, so we are left with more questions than answers.
In a similar way, the development of Chief Inspector Henry Drake came from looking at Inspector Lestrade (Doyle) Chief Inspector James Japp (Christie) and Chief Inspector Jack Frost (Wingfield). It was never my intention to develop two detectives but as I began to develop the story I found I enjoyed the interplay between them. Drake is painstakingly procedural and because of that logical intelligence, he is probably one of the finest detectives at Scotland Yard. Like Straay, Drake has an interesting ambiguity to his background … and in the tradition of Christie and Doyle we find that despite Chief Inspector Henry Drake’s brilliance and his hugely successful career, he is no match for the irritating and pedantic Criminal Psychologist, Doctor Pieter Straay.
How does your background in human behavioural studies and psychology help you in crafting more mysterious plots and develop more exciting traits in the characters of your stories?
Behavioural science is fascinating. I’ve had a unique opportunity in a number of corporations across two countries to study and try to understand people’s actions, by analysing the way they outwardly behave, and thereby assist to either help change or modify those behaviours. I went back to school to learn and develop a greater understanding of the subject, to ensure a higher level of realism in the structure of my narrative tales. I’ve always been a people watcher. If I’m sitting in a bar or in an airport, maybe a Doctor’s office, or supermarket, I find myself making observations … I’m listening in on conversations, trying to determine something about who they are. Snippets of heard or half-heard conversations can often be inspirational, hilarious, and sometimes terrifying at the same time. And in combination with this and news stories of the day, I develop plots that have intricacy and excitement, because they are real.
Which is your favourite best known literary and fictional character? Why
I would have to go with Hercule Poirot. For the reasons I explained before. He is quirky, brilliant, difficult, with his fastidiousness for order and method. Poirot is often described as a walking brain. He is concerned with orderliness, perfectionism and often displays excessive attention to details. He has mental and interpersonal control. When a case takes him he indulges in intricate rituals to the point of excluding friendships. The character of Poirot exhibits a strong indication of an obsessive compulsive personality disorder, I’m not sure if that was Christie’s original intention, but it’s inspired.
Being an author of mystery and fantasy, what has been the most unsettling or unconventional plot you have ever read? Who wrote it?
I think the most unsettling plot I ever read was the one for the series Torchwood – Children of Earth, written by Russel T. Davies, John Fay, and James Moran. A spin off of the hugely popular British show, Doctor Who, the story revolves around a group of aliens who come to Earth and demand that 10% of all the children on the planet be handed over or they’ll destroy the world. Without giving too much away, the focus is not on special effects or technobabble, but on a real human-level, with focus on the seriousness of political decision makers and those who serve in the Civil Service, remaining once a Government changes. We get to experience what it must be like to have made poor decisions leading to choices and sacrifices made because of them. The story takes us on journey of mixed morals. It’s relentless. It’s emotionally charged and we get to observe debates of officials justifying the actions that must follow … but in the background are the elected men and women, who are the ones who must make the difficult decisions, and it’s all behind closed-doors. We can only sit back in horror as they come up with the justifications they need to decide which 10% should be sacrificed.
Don’t get me wrong – it was well written – but it bothered me for a long time afterwards. I still have not been able to re-watch it.
For the most part I don’t find too many mystery plots unconventional or unsettling to be honest. There is a format that a lot of mystery writers like to stick to. It’s tried and tested and whilst it might seem a little cliché to admit it, the closed room “whodunit” is still very popular.
Humans have been writing about dual morality for thousands upon thousands of years. What is in writing about the ‘Good and Evil’ conflict that challenges you the most?
I’m not a black and white kinda guy. I certainly think, in mystery, it isn’t always possible to define things that way. I mean sure we have a bad guy who murders someone and then we have a good guy who catches them and brings them to justice – but sometimes motive aren’t always easy to classify in those terms, certainly not as simple as good vs evil.
Songs of the Osirian, my latest book, challenges me to stick to that concept– but because of my own natural dislike for the simplicity of it, I add a character that walks the line between both. There are so many shades of grey in our world and I’ve met people who define things in ways that suggest it’s either on or it’s off – there is no in between with some people. I wanted to get away from the simplicity of stories like Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is good and Darth Vader is evil so it’s perfectly fine to blow up the Death Star, twice, with a million people on it and not feel a “great disturbance in the Force”. I suppose there is historical evidence that justifies this claim, but I just don’t see all people as either good or evil, with the exception of a few in our recorded history, but these people are anomalies.
I also took concepts of Monothelitism and mixed it with Polytheism. I wanted to give some detached plausibility to the ideology and cosmology of the Osirian that worked in a science-fiction and fantasy way. Man worship the Osirian as Gods, yet the Osirian worship the Ardunadine as Gods, and the Ardunadine worship Arrandori as THE God of all. But each group are simply higher forms of life, evolved beyond each other’s understanding making their abilities seem godlike.
What is your secret in writing your second book Dr Chandrix Dies as a standalone read, as well as a temptation for readers to want to read the first Sir Laurence Dies after?
It’s a secret! No, seriously. I wanted each story to have a murder, and a resolution. Sir Laurence Dies was written in such a way, as to cement each character with the motive to have committed the crime. I wrote multiple endings in the development stage so I could keep a tense uncertainty throughout the narrative–it’s classic closed-room murder mystery whodunit. In contrast Dr. Chandrix Dies was a little less whodunit and more political-thriller. There are red herrings, bodies, and intrigue–but it’s definitely more of a linear story than Sir Laurence. I haven’t heard that anyone solved either before they arrived at the conclusion. When I’d finished them, I purposely went back and put clues in each chapter. If you re-read it, you should spot them … it is possible for the story to be solved as all the information needed is there.
I wanted each book to be read in isolation, yet have subtle connections that run throughout the series. There are some mentions here and there of unsolved crimes. There are some vague links to people or groups in the background. When I began the Dies trilogy, it was important to me that each book has a single mystery that was solved by the end of the book. It must be able to be read standalone. I start with a basic plot. I have the people written and their traits defined. I begin with a brief outline which almost always changes. I write to around 50,000 words and stop, and then I write the end. Once the end is done, I write the bridge.
My hope is, there should be just enough in each book to entice the reader to pick up the other.
Was any part of your books based on your personal encounters and past working experiences?
There are some unconscious elements of personal interactions, observations, experiences, but I didn’t set out to write any of my books on those experiences directly. I think we writers certainly hide ourselves in our books, and perhaps, one or two of the bodies might be people I have encountered in the past, but murder in print is perfectly acceptable!