Janice Law winner of the Lambda Award for The Prisoner of the Riviera. Her latest novel, Moon Over Tangier (Mysterious Press), is the sequel to the The Prisoner of the Riviera.
Developing the Francis Bacon Series
One of the nice things about writing mysteries is that the genre is flexible enough to include the writer’s interests and obsessions. Sure, the body has to be in the basement and the killer in the attic– or vice versa– but there are few restrictions on where that basement is or what the killer’s other interests might be in his– or her– off hours.
There is even more freedom with one’s detective. She can be interested in birds or cooking. He can like opera or fine weapons, or, like the grandaddy of them all, Sherlock Holmes, play the violin and dabble in recreational drugs.
With Francis, my somewhat reluctant detective of Fires of London and the Lambda award winning The Prisoner of the Riviera, I’ve gotten to indulge one of my passions– painting. I drew quite well long before I could read, and only a colossal lack of confidence kept me from majoring in art and embarking on a different sort of La Vie Boheme than writing.
Although I preferred then – and still prefer now– to get rejections at long distance instead of beside someone who finds my latest effort just won’t fit over the sofa, I never gave up the brushes, and after I retired from teaching, I began filling up the barn with paintings.
So when I first thought of using Francis, inspired by the Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon, one of the positives was that he was a painter, whose art was the chief stabilizing force in a rackety existence. In the great era of abstraction, Bacon swam upstream with grotesquely distorted and vigorously brushed figurative work, immortalizing his friends and lovers, and in his screaming popes, wrestlers, and animals, revealing a peculiar and passionate nature.
Of course, there were downsides. I’m not usually keen to use historical figures in mysteries, although I have written and published a couple of historical novels that did include notables of the time. Then, too, there was Bacon’s promiscuous gay lifestyle in ‘50’s London and his taste for rough trade: Research needed there.
Fortunately for me, painting– along with the fact that he lived with his old nanny until her death– gave me a way into his personality. Besides, he began whispering in my ear, as good characters do, and soon took on a distinct personality. This was close enough not to distort what I knew about the historical figure but separate enough to put into mystery plots that the real man never entered.
For the first two books, there were also other ingredients: Fires is set during the London blitz, when the real Francis was an Air Raid Preparedness warden. This was an easy enough job at first, consisting of reminding people about their black out curtains and gas masks, but not so nice later when there were terrible road accidents and pedestrian casualties, not to mention the carnage once the bombs started falling. I do not think it is coincidence that the painter’s figures become increasingly distorted and mutilated post war.
The Prisoner of the Riviera is set immediately after the conflict, and I was able to use material on the French Resistance that I’d gathered for a previous novel– never throw research away! I had a fine cast of resistants, collaborators, and opportunists, but best of all, I was able to add another of my interests, the greatest of the grand tour bike races, the Tour de France, which at the time I sent the fictional Francis to the continent, was being revived after the hiatus of the war years.
That the real Francis may have been ignorant of this splendid event was quite likely. But that’s the beauty of fiction. A handsome young bicycle mechanic and amateur cyclist was quite sufficient to ignite my Francis’ interests, especially when the lad appeared in a most fetching and form fitting cycling costume. Soon Francis was entangled in old feuds and old hatreds and struggling, as he is wont to do, with mechanical conveyances, crooks, and rascals.
Along the way, I had the fun of writing about his painting, set him to work as a beach front artiste – something the real man would have loathed and my Francis disliked– and put him to work as a decorator of sorts, something his prototype did in real life. Along the way, I discovered something we had in common – both of us were essentially self taught in our craft. Of course, he had genius, which I can’t claim, but I think I can say that all three of us, Francis Bacon, my Francis, and me, love putting paint on canvas, and in my case, putting paint on canvas in mysteries as well.
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