(An interview direct from interviewer Alex Laybourne.)
Christopher D. Abbott has a background in human behavioral studies. He has gained a good understanding about people and their behaviors, and this has led to his interest in psychology. An avid reader of crime fiction, Christopher’s ambition has always been to publish a character driven crime story, in the style of the great Agatha Christie. With a fondness for quirky characters, such as Rodney David Wingfield’s Inspector “Jack” Frost, along with Agatha Christie’s Poirot, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The idea of Doctor Pieter Straay, his Dutch Criminal Psychologist, came about by integrating the qualities he admired best the characters he loved to read.
Christopher grew up in England and moved to the United States in 2010. He currently resides in Connecticut. He loves to write and play music, which has been as much of a passion for him as writing is. He also enjoys cooking and is currently working on his next Doctor Straay novel.
Thank you for joining me again today Christopher. So, how have things gone since we last spoke?
Great to be back with you, Alex. Things have gone very well. The book is selling around 7 books a day now, which is fantastic, and I’m currently writing the “prequel” to SLD (Sir Laurence Dies).
That’s great news. Congratulations.
Last time we talked about your favourite murder mystery characters, and we came down to Poirot vs. Holmes. Would you go as far as saying that the best Murder Mysteries are written by British Authors?
No, not at all. I don’t have a lot of experience with current American murder mystery authors, but I enjoy books by John Dickson Carr (who a lot of people think is British), and Edgar Allan Poe. I remember as a child watching Murder She Wrote, which was created by a great group of American writers. The British have always been spoilt with a number of fantastic authors though, and because of that, we were lucky to have a murder mystery of some kind on Sunday television every week. I used to look forward to Sundays because of that!
What is it do you think that makes British writers so particularly adept at this particular genre?
Well, let’s not forget that Conan Doyle and Christie were influenced by Poe, specifically his detective, Auguste Dupin. Conan Doyle said: “Each [of Poe’s detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed…. Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” Britain is very lucky to have authors like Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle, who in themselves developed such a culture and such a following of other writers, that they almost redeveloped the genre around themselves. I think the analogy can be also shown in the history of the Blues. Look at people like BB King – Can you imagine what it must be like to be BB King? To have spent your entire life doing what you love and seeing attitudes towards race, colour, creed, change? To unite people with music? To have inspired people like Eric Clapton? I mean… it doesn’t get much better than that!
Very true. Well, enough about other writers, let’s talk about you for a little shall we?
I have read and loved your novel, Sir Laurence Dies. I had an idea about where it was heading, but the revelations made in the smoking room left me floored. Well done, sir.
Thank you! I loved writing that… Here’s a little thing. I wrote five separate endings. I wrote them before I finished the book, so I was not sure who did it until I got near the end. Then I was reading each of them and thought, well, they all work – but the way it worked out, I ended up taking all those endings and amalgamating them into one. I was very pleased with the outcome.
So you should be. So we know you didn’t plan the ending, or rather, you didn’t plan the eventual ending, but what about the rest of the novel; did you already have each and every twist planned out?
Oh no! I had one, which was actually going to be the big reveal, but my friend in the UK, Rob, read each chapter as I wrote them, and he worked that out before I’d got to the end! So I had to make a swift change! I read an article about Donald Westlake, explaining outlining to a group of novelists. They were all asking him about his process, and he deadpanned, ‘I subscribe to the technique I like to call “narrative push”.’ When asked what this technique was, he replied: ‘It’s quite simple, actually. I make everything up as I go along.’ So I subscribe to the same technique!
That is some very sound advice right there.
You main characters in Sir Laurence Dies; Dr. Straay and Chief Inspector Drake certainly make a fantastic team. Both are equally quick witted, but would you agree that the case would not have been solved had one of them been missing.
I thought about that a lot after I finished the book. I think deep down, Straay would have solved it. He really did solve it. I doubt Drake would have gotten to the bottom of it. He would have been able to get to a lot of the information, but the weaknesses I developed in his process were a handicap for him. Straay was able to get him to see beyond his own limitation by introducing him to mental exercises designed to make him think a little differently. Drake will definitely go on to become a very successful Policeman, but Straay is already successful by this stage.
The following was a scene I really enjoyed writing:
‘Let us try a little exercise. David Renwick was a dirty man who tinkered with engines. What can you tell me about him?’
Drake looked blank. ‘Hardly anything.’
‘Using your imagination, try and build a profile for me.’
‘It’s impossible, I need more. All I have is that David Renwick is probably a young man, maybe in his early twenties so he probably has long hair. He likes to tinker with engines, so he possibly wears a boiler suit or something similar and if that’s the case, he’ll probably be quite pale, and as he works with engines his hands may well be stained with grease and oil.’
‘Bravo! You see. From one statement, you’ve already told me he was young, pale, and longhaired. His hands are stained with grease and oil. That was far more information than I gave you. You extrapolated this information from your own knowledge and applied it to the task.’
‘Well, okay, I concede that, but what if he turns out to be fifty and dark skinned? It’s not very practical is it?’
‘You’re thinking like a policeman again.’ Straay waggled a finger reproachfully at him. ‘The point is, he may be all these things, but you know from experience that younger men like to tinker with engines because it is the new craze. Engines, cars, motorboats, aeroplanes, all these things are so new, the young are putting aside their toy guns and dolls and picking up books on engines, or model car kits and so on. Where does it lead? The boy who is so keen on engines builds his first model car. Maybe he gets a job as an apprentice engineer, or goes back to school to learn more about engines. To conclude our exercise, we only needed “David Renwick was a dirty man who tinkered with engines” to start us on a theoretical path and our experiences, our knowledge, and our imagination allow us to construct a framework to work with. All you did was to think just a little differently.’
I actually thought that this was the defining scene in their relationship. It cemented the difference between them, yet drew them together with a common interest in learning.
What is it that ties the two together so well?
That’s an interesting question. They work well together because they have a mutual friendship and respect for each other’s talents. However the truth is Drake needs Straay. Straay however doesn’t need Drake – and they both know this.
Was it planned or did it just develop, the way a friendship does, over time.
It was always planned that they had worked on a previous case together, but the friendship that developed actually did take me by surprise.
Which character was the easiest for you to create?
Neither. Straay was an amalgamation of many different characters, who took time to find his own voice. One of my reviewers said: ‘After an Agathaesque beginning, the middle becomes uniquely Abbottesque, very clever and interesting; it kept me guessing and turning the pages.’
That is a nice thing to hear, not only being compared to Agatha Christie, but complimented with breaking away from the Agatha Christie shadow of influence.
Yes. This was actually very helpful, because it showed that by the time I’d written to the middle of the book, I had stopped trying to copy the Christie style and voice, and had begun to develop my own individual style and voice. Straay, by that same logic, went through a similar transition. He was becoming less like Poirot-Holmes and more like Straay.
Drake was always going to be an incidental character, and that probably showed a little at the beginning. I went back a few times afterwards to try and bring some depth to him that I hadn’t thought about, because by the end of Act Two, I knew he would become an essential character in my world. Because of this, it was very hard to characterise him. He wasn’t like Poirot, he wasn’t like Holmes – he had an intelligence that fitted with his rank, but he wasn’t the “lead” detective. Overall I found him the hardest to create because I really did have to create an entire background for him, after I had introduced him. I won’t make that mistake again!
Which one of the two is your favourite, who could you take out of this novel and use again elsewhere?
Oh now you see, I always thought I could answer this one easily, but since I’ve been writing the “prequel” I’m not so sure. Clearly, Straay will be able to hold his own in any situation I put him in. I think at the time I wrote SLD, Drake would have been more of a challenge to write for solo, he would struggle a bit with solving the crime. Now however, I have given him a little more background and am confident he would hold his own also.
You remember when Inspector Morse was the clever one, and Sargent Lewis wasn’t quite so? Then Morse died and Lewis became Inspector. Now he’s solving all the crimes! I see Drake a little like that…
I am glad that Drake has been allowed to develop more, I remember we discussed your keenness to avoid the ‘bumbling sidekick’ label for him during our last chat.
Every character in the book has a purpose, which was one thing I really enjoyed. They were fleshed out and played their role well. Did they all work with you when writing or did some offer more resistance than others?
I LOVED writing Lady Agatha! I adore her. So brusque, so rude! She worked well throughout, and her fallibility was researched in advance. Doctor Powell was a challenge. He wasn’t at all cooperative, and I would have liked to have developed his backstory more. I think the one character (other than Straay or Drake) that I really enjoyed writing for, was actually Superintendent Baker. I liked him, and I’m pretty sure we’ll see him again.
As a reader to certainly had the feeling at the end of the novel that we could even be looking at a super sleuth trio, with Baker more of a backseat role, but there when needed. He worked well with Straay and you have the secondary level of friendship between him and Drake.
Without giving too much, or rather anything away, would you agree it was rather hard to pin point a true villain in the book? In other words, while there are clear lines drawn, personal and individual perspective will give different readers a different, yet equally fulfilling experience.
Yes, and I wrote above that I actually had five separate endings. The trouble was, whilst each one answer the questions, it just didn’t feel right. Essentially the ending that was written was the only one that could have worked (in the way that I had worked it). If that makes any sense? Like you said, it’s hard to answer this without giving too much away, but anyone can be stabbed, shot, poisoned, the trick was to add more mystery than was strictly necessary – to miss-direct the reader. I was very careful to make sure that the clues were all there in the pages, so that when someone reads it for a second time, knowing the ending, they could find them!
Living in Holland, I have to say, you captured Straay very well; the mannerisms, speech and background detail of life in Holland. Have you spent much time in Holland yourself?
I had a friend in Amsterdam whom I frequently visited. I love Holland and I haven’t spoken with that particular friend for a few years now. We drifted apart as friends sometimes do, but I do think about him from time to time and try and catch up. I spent many wonderful weekends in Amsterdam and whilst there, I developed the “idea” of Straay from observing my Dutch friends. I love the carefree attitude, the liberalism. I avoid putting Dutch into the book, except I think one line or two, because unlike French, Dutch is difficult to say in your head and even more difficult aloud!
I also wanted to avoid the – “Ja, ik denk so!” – type of lines – you know – the cliché “Pardon, Monsieur! C’est, possible!” Etc..
Very true, Dutch is a rather throaty language and lacks the poetry of English or French.
Sir Laurence Dies was originally a 3 book series, but do you see yourself continuing with Straay and Drake or will they retire after every detail of the Sir Laurence case has been put to bed?
Oh no! There is a three book series from SLD with each character – and I’ve left two or three plot lines open for them. I’ve written a draft idea for both books. However, I’ve put them aside because I’m actually going to write the “prequel” book first. I’m going to go back and define and develop the relationship between Drake and Straay in a very interesting way! When I come back to the sequels, I will have more definition with each character, and it is my hope that the readers will get a much better appreciation of them both, going forward.
It will be interesting to see how their friendship came about. From reading the first book, I certainly had a feeling that it was based on more than just a few cases together, but on something a bit larger, deeper than that. They certainly make a great team.
I don’t see them both always appearing together in every story, but I see no reason to stop writing them once that particular series has concluded.
That also works, because they are well rounded characters, with their own individual strengths.
Was there a reason why you chose the early twentieth century for your setting?
Yes, I love the period. I love the style, the grace, the changes in attitude between the rich and the poor. You have so much going on. A war finished but recovery still on-going, a second war looming on the horizon. Disasters like the Titanic that changed everything! Huge leaps in technology. The early part of the twentieth century had motorcars and horse drawn carriages in the same street – that is cool!
It must have been quite a sight.
I guess it could be said that the murder mystery, while still being a great genre to write in, needs to be based in the past because of modern technology. Would you agree?
Difficult one that. I would agree that the “type” of traditional murder mystery, the likes of Poirot or Straay, wouldn’t work in the Twenty-First Century setting the way they did in the Twentieth. I think the police in these stories gave a lot more leeway to “consulting detectives” than is probably true of the time.
However, look at what Steven Moffat has done to Sherlock Holmes… A Twenty-First Century spin on a Nineteenth-Century idea – and I think it’s fantastic!
Thank you very much for your time Christopher; it has been a pleasure, as always.