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Thick as thief-catchers - The crime author and their detective

Ngaio Marsh ‘complained’ that Dorothy L Sayers was rather in love with her creation, Lord Peter Wimsey. One might argue that is a bit rich, when one looks at Marsh and Roderick Alleyn. Even if true for both, I do not think it detracts from their crime writing. Not that I conceal a hidden passion for Serjeant Catchpoll, though there is a lot to like in Hugh Bradecote. No, I am not enamoured of them, or the new member of the team, serjeanting-apprentice Walkelin. However I freely admit to a relationship with them, based upon familiarity and deep affection. This is obvious, one might say, when they originated in my own imagination, but in fact it is not automatic. In a later Bradecote and Catchpoll I have a psychopath, and I do not like him one little bit, however interesting he was to write.

As with all relationships, the one with my ‘boys’ (and how Catchpoll would laugh at that term applied to him) has developed over time. I have ‘known’ them for over a decade, not so much man and boy, but concept and fleshed out character, and the bond is strong. I had Catchpoll pretty much nailed from the first draft, because I had seen a black and white photograph in a newspaper of an actor about to play the lead role in an RSC production, and I looked at Serjeant Catchpoll staring at me from the page. It was instant recognition, and when I added that to the character developing in my head, he could be said to have arrived fully formed. Yet even with him, I found situations where I realised he would think not as I would have expected. His initial relationship with the new undersheriff, Hugh Bradecote, was wary, even antagonistic, but has grown to be a close bond of respect and even friendship, though he would deny it in public. As for me, Hugh Bradecote was initially rather a shadowy figure at first draft, a bit ‘thin’, and he only filled out when I saw an actor of his rough physical description who had nuances of manner and voice that I could ‘adopt’ for my underdeveloped undersheriff. I gave him the stride, the voice, the mobile brows, the way he rubbed his chin when perplexed. From that I could invest a lot more in Bradecote, and the words flowed in consequence. The later drafts of the first book in the series, The Lord Bishop’s Clerk, were a good ten thousand words longer than the first one, not simply because of the character himself but how that impacted upon the plot.

When I came to write Ordeal By Fire, I had a head start, since I knew a lot about both men. and I discovered more, especially about Catchpoll, because I was writing him on his ‘own patch’ and in his own home, with old friends, old enemies, and a wife of many years. As I wrote I discovered, not by intent, but almost by an osmotic process, how Bradecote and Catchpoll were adapting to each other. This came largely from the dialogue between the two, and dialogue is a fluid thing. Whilst one has the aim of what needs to be conveyed for the plot advancement, how that is achieved is in no way formulaic. I let them speak for themselves, make the adjustments to how they interacted, and felt more a reporter than puppeteer. Gradually, Bradecote and Catchpoll were developing an off page reality, so that I might think of them in the same way that I might think of a pen friend not yet met face to face, or in the modern communication world, someone with whom one exchanges frequent social emails. When is someone real? Being corporeal is only a part of it. By the time Ordeal By Fire was complete I could not wait to ‘work with’ the pair, and their new colleague Walkelin, on another murder. What happened next is jumping the gun, and I will not spoil the plot by revealing it now, but it brought a new dynamic to the relationships, and has had consequences thereafter. I have now reached the point where, if I do not have a plot within which to work with ‘the boys’, I really miss them. I am currently working up the eighth Bradecote and Catchpoll murder mystery, and do not know how many there will be in the end, other than that there will be an end, and my heart will be more than a little broken to part from them.

I said I am not in love with my detectives. Perhaps that is a lie to self, because I do love them, just not romantically.