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Posts Tagged ‘crime fiction’

Cover of book being reviewed

I’ve enjoyed gamebooks for many decades. These are a form of fiction where the story offers the reader choices, allowing branching narratives, which you choose by turning to a different numbered section. This form of interactive fiction has a long history, dating back to the early decades of the twentieth century. However it took off in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, with series such as the US Choose Your Own Adventure books and the UK Fighting Fantasy series.

So it was a delight for me to spend some Christmas money on a fairly recently published gamebook set in the world of the television series Midsomer Murders. This is a UK series that has been airing for decades, featuring police investigating murders in a series of cosy, rural village settings, often with particularly imaginative and setting appropriate methods of death.

In this book you are a detective investigating a crime, which you gradually uncover as you work your way through the story, deciding how to follow up clues, and how to approach questioning members of the public. The writing is strong, getting on with things, and cramming a remarkable amount of content into 219 main sections. I didn’t feel at all short changed, and was immersed in the mysteries I was uncovering. The local characters you encounter are deftly described. And, pleasingly, the various methods of murder include some that are utterly bizarre, and yet so fitting, in true Midsomer Murders style.

On the downside for replay purposes the story and core plot of the crimes in it are fixed, and won’t change on rereads. But there are many varied elements, only some of which you would uncover on each read through. So replays can be fun, exploring changes to the choices made, and pursuing different lines of enquiry.

Even surviving the gamebook can be an achievement for you playing as the police officer investigating, with many opportunities for you to fall victim to the criminal or criminals involved. The book has 30 different endings, to varying degrees of success. In addition there is a really neat section at the back of the book where each ending is given a more objective assessment of success or not. These assessments are grouped together, and it is almost impossible not to peek at some of the others, which isn’t so much spoilery as motivational, making you want to replay the book and experience other endings.

Overall the gamebook is a fun and original take on the cosy whodunnit world of Midsomer Murders, and I would recommend it to any fans of the TV series, or indeed gamebook fans looking for something a bit different.

Could You Survive Midsomer? is written by Simon Brew and published by Cassell. The book is an attractively designed hardback, 304 pages long, and includes a number of illustrations, nicely drawn additions to the story in the text.

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Every few years I head to the Edinburgh Book Festival for a fun flying visit. Last time in 2013 was to see Neil Gaiman talk, and also the Iain Banks memorial event. This time I was there to see Ian Rankin talk about the return of Rebus, with a new novel, and a recent short story collection. Because of my MS-like illness, which means I need to use my wheelchair while in Edinburgh, it is easiest to drive down from Dundee. And because I need to rest after and before travelling it makes sense to stay in a hotel the night before and after. Which is costly, but we think is worth it for the treat. We make a real break of it.

So last night after Afternoon Tea at Edinburgh’s famous Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street we got a taxi to Charlotte Square, arriving at about 6.50pm. The site was packed, with people there to attend author talks, browse in the bookshops, and soak up the friendly atmosphere. Our first stop was to go to the two bookshops, where I bought a few books: one a Gaelic children’s book (I’m learning the language, slowly), and also two other books I’d been wanting to get for a while, on astronomy and the history of Edinburgh.

By 7.45pm we were waiting in the queue for people with reserved seats (mainly disabled people like me) and were in in good time before the event started at 8.15pm. As usual we had good front row seats, and a good view of the speakers: Ian Rankin, and Phill Jupitus who would be chatting to him for the hour.

Ian opened the event by reading an extract from his latest soon to be published Rebus novel Even Dogs in the Wild. This was interesting, and quite gripping, and made me want to read the book when it comes out. Indeed the whole event made me want to read more of the Rebus novels – I’ve read a lot of them, but not all – and also read (and reread where necessary) the short stories. I particularly liked the discussion after this opening read through about Rebus’s relationship with the gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, which Ian likened to Holmes and Moriarty. Coincidentally I’m currently reading Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty.

After this opening section there was a more general discussion. Indeed I was relieved that they didn’t just talk about the new novel, but covered a much wider range of subjects, including as the book festival entry for the event had indicated the recent short story collection The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories. As a big fan of short stories – partly for the form, partly because they are often easier for me to read due to memory and reading problems from my neurological disease – I was particularly interested in what Ian said about the joy of writing them, and seeing a new artefact as the end product in a pretty quick time, as opposed to the marathon many months writing that each new novel requires.

One of the most interesting sections of the talk for me was where Ian reflected on his breaks from Rebus, both more recently and in the past. His recent break was prompted by deaths in recent years of a number of friends, all at fairly young ages. So he didn’t sign a new contract for a new novel then, but took the chance to do fun things, including other types of writing – like scifi – that he normally doesn’t do, but likes to. This was picked up on to an extent in one of the questions at the end. It was a bit sad that even a very successful writer like Ian Rankin feels the pressure to write what will sell, and doesn’t have the time to write other perhaps more experimental works. But the benefits of his break were apparent.

I also liked his discussion of the writing process, both in terms of how many hours he works on the first draft of a novel, and also how he discovers plot and character through his writing. He spoke of an example where he had advance plotted a novel to great detail, and his agent loved the concept, but Ian felt no desire to write it after sorting out everything so much in advance! I don’t write fiction, but in my academic writing I often find that I am feeling my way through the writing process, coming up with new thoughts and ideas by writing, and it’s a process that I enjoy too. I could also relate to his reflections on the importance of getting away from modern pressures to write. He goes to Cromarty (“no wifi”) and finds that in a secluded environment the writing process can flow extremely effectively. He also knows of other writers who play white noise in their ears to chill out the sound of the modern world while writing.

Quite a large chunk of the talk was about Ian’s love of music, including his experiences being in a band. For quite a while there I thought Phill was going to try to coerce him to sing, but Ian dodged that, though he did share some of his lyrics with us – very dark and gloomy, and quite in keeping with much of his later writing as a crime novelist! He also shared some entertaining reflections on touring life from his brief experiences of that. And he mused on how he had been so tempted to buy a record shop …

Returning to the writing craft one interesting observation Ian made fairly late on in the talk was that he doesn’t like to over research books, to the extent of filling them with “look what I found out!” stuff in the say way that some other writers do, including in the crime genre. Though having said that, a constant running joke throughout the event was his struggle to keep up with the changing police situation e.g. current retirement age for police officers, location of CID units, even the terminology used. Phill joked that it was almost as if the Scottish police were deliberately trying to foil Ian’s writing.

There were only limited questions at the end, in the last ten minutes, but they were interesting, and all sparked off lengthy responses from Ian. Indeed during the talk Phill was a fairly gentle interviewer, typically providing a short starting point that Ian could use to explore an issue in more depth.

We skipped the signing at the end, though I’d brought a paperback copy of the recent short story collection just in case I decided to stay and get it signed. But we had a great time. And, as I said, I am very much looking forward to reading more Rebus on my Kindle (the main way I have to read now due to the brain damage and reading problems it causes). Though I think I’ll start with the short stories, because those are so approachable for me. Many I have read before, but a lot I haven’t, and should enjoy them all.

So thanks Ian! And Phill!

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