Monday, June 4, 2018

A COIN FOR THE HANGMAN: Guest Post by Ralph Spurrier

RALPH SPURRIER: 
A COIN FOR THE HANGMAN 

Many of your older readers may well remember me as a bookseller (Post Mortem Books) from the UK who would turn up at Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime with a whole slew of British books signed by the likes of Dick Francis, Ruth Rendell, and P.D.James as well as carrying stock by British authors that were making an appearance on panels. My first Bouchercon was Minneapolis in 1987 and my last was Nottingham in 1995. By that time I was running out of steam and lugging vast tonnes of books across the globe was beginning to ruin the back muscles. I guess it was then that I had decided that I should make an attempt at writing my own novel.

As an indication that procrastination was deeply embedded in my psyche I enrolled as a mature student to read English at the University of Sussex. By 1998 I had a Bachelor of Arts degree under my belt but not a single word of a novel down on paper. Then along came the Harry Potter phenomenon. I suddenly found that customers from all over the world were keen to ensure that they received first edition, first printing copies and to do that they had to have a bookseller who knew exactly what a “first edition, first printing” meant. I garnered hundreds of pre-orders both for the regular trade and also for the deluxe editions and by the time Harry Potter had come to an end - by the seventh book as was thought then - my house mortgage was paid off and the pressure of monthly bills was off. Now what could I do?

I know, let’s go back to university and do a Masters degree! You getting the procrastination thing here, right? I enrolled for a Creative Writing and Authorship course back at my alma mater, Sussex. A one year course in which students had to hurdle various obstacles - please don’t ever mention Bakhtinian Discourse to me again - before serving up a 20,000 word dissertation which would consist of a 15,000 word chunk of a novel and 5000 words critique of your own work. Hey presto! From out of the depths came that novel which had been bubbling away for all those years.

It was pure chance that I had seen - for the umpteenth time - the classic film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” just as I settled down to write those 15,000 words. Those familiar with the film will know that the “hero” of the film is incarcerated in prison awaiting execution the next morning. He begins to write a diary describing the events that led him to the scaffold and we follow the story, involving multiple murders, in flashback. By chance he is reprieved and walks free from prison. It is only then that he realises that he has left his diary, a confession to murders, in the cell. Curtain.

For my story I had my “hero” write a diary while awaiting execution (1953 Britain when capital punishment was still in force) but in it he points the finger at an unnamed man. The diary is replete with quotes and allusions to other writers - some of them crime - and the reader is left in no doubt that Henry - my character - is innocent. Or that’s, maybe, what they want to believe. I became aware that I, a writer, was writing another man’s diary and I really didn’t know if he was telling the truth or not. That was the moment that the concept of the unreliable narrator kicked in big time and I decided to include myself in the story. Hey, if this was going to be my only published novel, I wanted to get as much of the limelight as possible!

So the story begins with a secondhand bookseller (me) discovering a diary - THE diary - in an estate sale of a man, who he discovers, was one of the last hangmen in England. From my researches I uncover all the names of those involved in a murder that occurred in the small Wiltshire town of Bradford on Avon in 1952 and even manage to track down two of those still alive in the year 2000. At this point I step back out of the action and the story unravels of its own accord, chronicling the life of the main characters from 1939 to 1953. The period is of especial interest to me and the research involved such diverse things as checking railway timetables (shades of Golden Age crime novels) and the eyewitness reports of the relief of Belsen-Bergen by British soldiers in April 1945 (two of the characters are involved).

Only at the very end do I step back in and show how the reader could be fooled by unreliable narrators - and there are more than one in the story, including the author himself - and while the text is the same it is the singular imagination of each reader bringing their own experiences and emotions that change the meaning of that text for each one of us. There is no simple denouement in which a Poirot type figure explains the plot and points the finger at the culprit. Readers have already come up with three different “solutions” to the question of whodunnit. Each of them is correct because the “solution” lies not in the author’s pen but in the imagination of the reader. I just unravel the text for the reader to plunder and extrapolate. The only caveat I would give: beware of just who may be telling lies. It could be the author.

There is to be a sequel provisionally entitled The Butcher Began to Kill the Ox and for those of you who recall Cornelius Grafton’s first two books there is a very good reason for choosing that title. And if you think you have worked out who the murderer was in A COIN FOR THE HANGMAN you may be surprised to find….

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