CONFESSIONS OF A STORY-TELLER
I can’t say for certain when the urge to tell a story first came to me, but I suspect it was when I read Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It wasn’t a mystery, of course, like the books I was later to write, but I can remember to this day how the adventures of Mowgli and his animal friends gripped me, how I was swept away into another world on another continent, and how real it seemed to me at that age (I must have been ten or eleven). I happened to pick up the book again recently, to refresh my memory about something, and almost at once I found myself reading it again, from start to finish, and finding the old magic was still there for me.
The books I embarked on after that were hardly of the same standard – Kipling is a writer with few peers – but the authors shared one quality with him: they were story-tellers. I remember reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps soon afterwards and being gripped by the twists and turns of the tale. When I turned to the Bulldog Drummond books, however, I was disappointed, which probably explains why I changed course in my reading.
Detective stories had gone cold for me for the time being. Instead I began devouring the works of Rider Haggard – King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain — again not mysteries, but rattling good yarns, before falling briefly under the spell of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda which introduced me to the intriguing notion that the villain of the tale – in this case Rupert of Hentzau – could also be a charmer. Ruritania, the setting for Hope’s story, was an imaginary principality in Central Europe and that landscape became the next focus of my reading world when I discovered the works of Dornford Yates. This takes some explaining now, and looking back I must confess to some shame at the admiration and envy I felt for the heroes of these stories who as often were drawn by some villain into the same kind of world that Hope had conjured up. They would set off from England in their Rolls Royces, each one accompanied by his ‘man’ – it was an era when having your own valet and general dogsbody was thought to be perfectly normal – in pursuit of some criminal or other, most of them with improbable names. Rose Noble was one I remember, Barabbas another. And not forgetting Vanity Fair of She Fell Among Thieves, who proved beyond doubt that she was no lady.
Thinking back later it struck me how all the heroes tended to be upper-class Englishmen with lady friends of the same ilk, while the baddies, with one or two notable exceptions (foreign of course) were from a lower social strata. And this tendency to see things in class terms continued when my reading morphed into what I would call the classical period of English detective fiction. Not surprisingly Agatha Christie came top of the list and while her perennial hero, Hercule Poirot, was from no identifiable class, he was unquestionably foreign, which excused him from too close scrutiny. But Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey (surely the most unlikely sleuth of all time) was aristocratic to the bone, while the protagonists dreamed up by Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh – respectively Roderick Alleyn and Albert Campion – though not quite so grand as Wimsey, were toffs beyond doubt.
But if these books were inclined to resemble each other, there was one I read around that time that was quite different and left an indelible mark on me – and on others as well since it proved to be seminal, the first of the great escape and pursuit stories. Among other things it spawned the whole Rambo series, as David Morell has acknowledged. One of the interesting things about it is that the author wrote more than thirty books, thrillers of all kinds, yet none of them came close to enjoying the success of this riveting tale, which remains as fresh and vivid today as when it was published in the late nineteen-thirties. If you haven’t already guessed, the author’s name was Geoffrey Household and the book Rogue Male.
At this point you might wonder why Sherlock Holmes hasn’t figured in this memoir. The answer’s simple. Although his name was familiar enough to me, I hadn’t read any of the books in which his unique personality and skills were deployed. Why, I can’t say, unless he seemed too much a figure of the past. But when I finally got around to reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterworks I was struck by how the historical setting of the tales seemed to enhance the mysteries that Holmes and Dr. Watson were faced by – it lent them an exotic air — and this realization bore fruit much later when I set about writing what I think of as the Madden series and set my first story well in the past, just after the First World War.
In time, however, the writers I’ve mentioned began to lose their appeal and it was just about then that I discovered American thrillers for the first time. I had been brought up in the British tradition of gentlemanly sleuths and it came as a shock, though an agreeable one, to make the acquaintance of Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op. The hard-boiled school of American mystery writing was like a breath of fresh air. The Big Sleep was the first of Raymond Chandler’s books I read and I couldn’t wait to go down his mean streets again. As for Red Harvest, I’d never encountered anything so savage and blood-soaked in all my reading and it goes without saying I was transfixed by Dashiell Hammett’s cynical tale.
These books and others like them were a far cry from the tradition so carefully nurtured by British writers of a plot well laced with red herrings which culminated in a final scene between the detective, whoever he might be (or she, let’s not forget the admirable Miss Marple) and all the possible suspects, at the climax of which our hero would disclose the identity of the killer – all too often the least likely contender for that distinction – and the world would be put to rights again.
They had given me much pleasure during my formative years, but it was time to move on, and across the Atlantic was a new breed of writers (new to me) I was eager to come to terms with. Ross Macdonald and Horace McCoy were two of the names I remember from that time and Jim Thompson of course whose unreliable, and often psychotic narrators suggested a whole new way of telling stories. Two of his books – The Killer Inside Me and The Grifters – are classics of their kind, close to Shakespearean, rooted in Greek tragedy.
But although the thought of writing stories myself was never far from my thoughts, I hadn’t quite plucked up the courage to try my hand at them, and meanwhile my life took a different turn. I became a journalist, a profession I once heard described as the resort of those who aren’t sure what to do with their lives, which may have been true in my case. Be that as it may, thanks to my job as a foreign correspondent with Reuters I had a front row seat at some of the most dramatic moments in the history of that time which included Washington during the Kennedy years, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
But the call to try my luck at fiction was irresistible and in due course I quit my job with Reuters – not without some regret – and took up residence on a Greek island, a suitably romantic setting for my first sortie into the world of make believe, and started to write…
But that, as Kipling would say, is another story.
Rennie Airth is the author of five books in the John Madden mystery series, the first of which, RIVER OF DARKNESS, won the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere for the best international crime novel of 2000 and was nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity awards. The sixth in the series entitled THE DECENT INN OF DEATH will be published on January 12 next year while a stand-alone with the title COLD KILL will be published on 31 January in the U.K. and on 31 May in the U.S. and Canada.