This is a talk I have given at a couple of libraries so far this year (2023) and will use for Book Week Scotland in November. I tend to go off script a little, and sometimes ramble when I’m actually talking, but this is how it should be.
New Talk – Thirteen Books and Nowhere To Go
Good evening, welcome, thanks for coming, etc., etc.
This year marks my tenth anniversary as a published author, which given the thirty plus years I’ve been making stuff up and writing it down, might seem not that long a time. Somehow in those ten years however, I’ve managed to produce twenty novels, with a twenty-first on the way and a twenty-second and twenty third already written.
Five of those books are my epic fantasy series, The Ballad of Sir Benfro, which is inspired by Welsh language, mythology and sheep. Three of them are the adventures of Detective Constable Con Fairchild. But most of my work features Detective Inspector (occasionally Chief Inspector, sometimes Detective Sergeant) Tony McLean. They’re what brought me my initial success and what I am probably best known for. You can read twelve books in his series now, with the thirteenth due out in February. And I’ve just started to break ground on book fourteen.
That’s a lot of stories – a lot of misadventure – for one character to carry. Which begs the question just how does a writer keep a series and a character fresh when they’ve been around for such a long time?
Well, I’m not entirely sure, but first a little history.
I’ve been writing stories featuring Tony McLean for even longer than most people realise. He first appeared as a support character in a comic script I wrote in about 1993, sent out on spec to 2000AD comic magazine, but never bought. The lead in that story was a young man, a busker and beggar, eking out a meagre existence on the streets of Edinburgh until fate intervened in the form of a violent truck crash. It’s an indicator of how long ago I wrote that story that the crash took place on Princes Street, outside the flagship Boots store. Trucks can no longer drive down that part of Princes Street, and Boots is long gone. When I pinched some of the ideas behind it for my eighth novel in the series, The Gathering Dark, I moved the crash site around the corner as it were, the truck losing control as it took the corner from the western approach road onto Lothian Road and taking out a bus stop rather than a chemist shop.
But I digress. Tony first popped into my head over thirty years ago – albeit initially called John McLean until I watched Die Hard at Christmas and realised my mistake. He appeared in another comic script, again unpublished, that I co-produced with a certain Stuart MacBride, who you might have heard of. I used Tony as the walk-on copper in a couple of unpublished novels, too. Unpublished because they are embarrassingly bad, but we’ve all got to learn somehow. I like to re-use characters from earlier works, both because I’m inherently lazy, and because I like the idea of referencing things that have gone on before. Even if they’re in books that quite literally no one has read but me.
It wasn’t until 2004, so a good decade and change after I first came up with the character, that I finally put Tony front and centre, and again that was down to my old chum Stuart. Excited by the news of his first publishing deal, and the imminent arrival of Logan McRae on the Aberdeen scene, he phoned me one night and in the course of our conversation told me to stop writing nonsense with dragons and sheep in it and try my hand at crime.
I’d written stories with policemen in them by then, of course. But I’d never been what you might call a huge fan of crime fiction. Still, Stuart and I had both been trying to get published for years, and he’d finally managed to find a way in. I’ve generally taken his advice, too, so I put my mind to how I might write something contemporary and crime related.
And I remembered Tony McLean. The copper who could see ghosts, even if he didn’t want to admit that they existed. Who lived in a world where people might believe in ghosts as TV entertainment, but not really accept them as true. And the same with all the other occult stuff – witches, demons, djinn, the devil incarnate… the list goes on. Tony’s was a world where these were considered fiction, not fact. Except that they did actually exist. Maybe.
I’d read a little crime fiction of course. There was Stuart’s stuff, for starters, and I’d read a few of the Rebus books because my dad was a fan so there were copies kicking around. I’d enjoyed some of R D Wingfield’s Frost books, and as a boy I’d been brought up on Hardy Boys, Famous Five, and later a few Agatha Christies. Mostly though, I read fantasy and SF.
What I really loved was comics. That’s why when I first tried writing stories of my own it was for that medium. And comics are a medium, not a genre. Anything goes within the format, not just superheroes. One of my favourites for many years was Hellblazer, from DC’s adult-aimed Vertigo line. John Constantine (ein, not een as the Americans insist on mispronouncing it) first appeared in an Alan Moore scripted edition of Swamp Thing in the mid 1980s, but the acerbic, Scouse, working class magician really came into his own when Jamie Delano started writing stories just for him. Constantine existed in a world that, yes, had superheroes in it, but they were largely missing from the narrative. Instead it concentrated on the little people and a recognisably contemporary world. There was a lot of political commentary and dark satire, and of course magic running through it all.
Hellblazer and the long roster of great writers who have written for the comic, was a huge influence on my own early writing, including Tony McLean himself, but when I started thinking about writing stories for Detective Inspector McLean I wanted to distance myself a little from that too obvious source. Initially I asked the question ‘who is Tony McLean?’ by writing a series of short stories featuring him, and it’s there that things like his inherited wealth and that he was raised by his grandmother after his parents died when he was very young came to light. I raided my own experience of living and working in Edinburgh for much of the details – the flat in Newington is where I stayed as a postgrad student of AI in 90/91, for instance. I lived in Roslin for five years while my partner studied for a PhD in animal nutrition at the Dick Vet school in Easter Bush, and so a lot of the early books feature settings in and around that area. Oh, and I was sent away to boarding school at a very young age, and suffered some horrendous physical and mental abuse there, but we won’t go into that.
Tony grew mostly out of those first short stories – a half dozen in total that are all available to read on my website if you subscribe to my newsletter! One of the last ones I wrote was called ‘Natural Causes’, and I managed to get it published in a Canadian crime fiction magazine called Spinetingler. I liked the story enough that I thought it might make the framework of a full length novel, and so expanded it into what became the first Inspector McLean book.
(read the opening of Natural Causes here)
That book was short listed for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2007. It didn’t win, but I’d had so much fun writing it, I’d already started on a sequel. The Book of Souls was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger the following year, and a lot of publishers asked to see it. All of them passed when they discovered the underlying occult influences, which was why it took a good few years more and my own self-publishing attempt before Penguin finally started publishing the series in 2013.
It was a huge success, as I’m sure a lot of you know. At the time I joked that while I appeared to be an overnight success, it had actually taken me twenty years to get there.
Since then it’s been full on, publishing two and sometimes three books a year to get to where I am now. Perhaps a little unhealthy, but after so long in the wilderness of trying to find a publisher, I basically said yes to anything my editor suggested, at least for a while. I kind of hit a wall at the end of 2021 when I’d delivered All That Lives, and needed to take some time off to recharge the batteries. Hence no new novel this year, much to many of my readers’ disgust.
The good news is that I’ve written book thirteen – For Our Sins – and it will be out in February. I’ve also made a start on book fourteen – Title As Yet Unknown – which is scheduled for February 2025. I’m also under contract for book fifteen, about which I know very little at all other than that it should be out in February 2026.
Fifteen books, as I said at the start, is a lot of story for one character to carry. So how does an author go about keeping things fresh when the series count reaches double figures?
The truth is, I’m still trying to work that out.
Each book is, of course, its own thing. I work hard to make it so that anyone could pick up any book in the series and enjoy it without having read any of the others. True, there are returning characters – it’s called series fiction for a reason – but the format and genre give enough of a clue as to what to expect. You don’t need to know everything there is to know about Tony, Janie Harrison, Madame Rose and all the others to understand what’s going on.
This, incidentally, can lead to bad ways. I’ve been working on a totally different project in the few spare hours I have between writing Tony’s adventures, wrangling Highland coos and occasionally sleeping. I can’t give much away, but it’s a standalone novel, not crime fiction, and I’ve found it really hard to get the right structure for the tale I want to tell with it. Mostly because for the past ten years I’ve basically been working off the same format, which cuts out a lot of the deep thinking behind a novel. Characters and their relationships with each other are baked in from the start, and while I have to remind myself to remind the reader from time to time, I don’t need to start from scratch in working out how, for instance, Tony and Madame Rose are going to get along.
A new book, with new characters and a new setting begs a lot of questions I’ve not had to ask for a while now. It’s been an eye opening experience, and one I should probably have had a few years back. It’s all to easy to fall into bad habits.
But even with established characters, a well-tested and successful format, and a loyal readership, it still gets harder with each book to keep things fresh. Harder to find new things to do. Harder to write the damned things without thinking ‘hang on. Didn’t I write this scene already?’ It’s harder too, to find that balance between telling existing readers too many things they already know and not telling new readers enough to keep them coming back for more.
So how do authors do it?
Well, for starters I’m firmly of the belief that – as famous and brilliant American author Chuck Wendig puts it – Characters Poop Plot. Series fiction is a bit like soap opera, in that it is largely character driven, and one way to inject a bit of change into the mix without estranging too many readers is to play around with the character point of view.
By and large, the first ten Inspector McLean books are all written third person past tense from Tony’s point of view. The narrative is all ‘McLean was this and McLean did that.’ As an aside, I slightly regret using his surname in the early stories, as it set the template going forward. It would feel odd to start writing books ‘Tony was this and Tony did that’ now. It sets him up as the adult in the room though, so perhaps it works. Reacher is always Reacher, Rebus always Rebus. Logan McRae is Logan though. More approachable? I’m not sure.
But I digress. The books are all written from Tony’s (see what I did there?) point of view. I throw in the occasional third party point of view scene – my cold opens are usually the victim or the killer killing or being killed, and it can help to break up the narrative by dropping scenes like that in along the way. For Our Sins has very short extracts from a young boy’s diary every so often, and All That Lives opens with a young man contemplating the irony of his hating drugs as he takes some to dull the pain of his existence.
A few books back – Written in Bones, I think it was – I introduced a new character to the team. Detective Constable Janie Harrison came about for purely selfish reasons. My godmother has, almost without fail, always given me book tokens for my birthday and Christmas. Even though it’s forty years now since I was confirmed and she no longer had any religious obligation to me. She’s a big fan of the books, so I named a character after her, never really thinking that character would last beyond the book she was in.
Janie Harrison was fun to write though. She’s nothing like my godmother, particularly. All they share is a name. But she’s a good foil for Tony and someone for him to mentor. Being female, and maybe twenty-five years younger than him, allows for all sorts of gossip and intrigue within the station, too. We know there’s nothing to it, of course, but it all adds verisimilitude to the workplace dynamic of the story.
With book eleven in the series – What Will Burn – I was beginning to grow tired of writing exclusively from Tony’s point of view, so I dropped a few scenes from Harrison’s perspective into the mix. Nobody complained, and it worked even better in the next book – All That Lives – where Tony himself is absent for a large chunk of the story. If you’ve read that one, you might expect the next book in the series to be entirely from Janie’s point of view, and I did indeed pitch that idea to my editor, but he didn’t bit. Fear not, Tony is back in some capacity at least in book thirteen.
It’s always a bit of a juggling act using multiple points of view in a book though. I like writing Janie, and I think I’ve got her voice sufficiently different from Tony’s that it’s easy to tell who’s who. I’m careful not to cross those perspectives within a scene, too, something that irritates me whenever I see it in someone else’s writing!
I’ve recently finished reading Alex Gray’s latest Detective Superintendent Lorimer book, Questions for a Dead Man, which I can highly recommend, and which uses multiple points of view well. Several of Lorimer’s team get their own story arcs, as well as other characters in the book. That’s great when it works, and in the hands of a skilled writer. I won’t name names, but I’ve read books where it’s all but impossible to work out what’s going on and who’s voice I’m reading, which is distracting to say the least. In one memorable fantasy work, we jump thoughts from one character to another within the same paragraph, and it bumped me right out of the story reading that.
Another, related, way to freshen up a series is to switch the narrative person. At least so far, the McLean books are all third person narrative – McLean was something, McLean did something – and in the past tense. This is the most usual way to write novels these days, with the first person past tense narrative running it a close second – I did something, I was somewhere. Neither is better than the other particularly, it’s usually a case of finding out which works best for the story you’re trying to tell.
Strangely enough, when I sat down to write the first Con Fairchild book a few years ago, it came out in first person present tense, and I’ve continued that for all three books so far in the series. Those books don’t have any alternative points of view in them, just Con all the way through. I have some ideas for book four, by the way. Just no spare time at the moment to actually write the damned thing!
Mixing up tense is another way to freshen a narrative, but that tends to work better within a book rather than between them. Tony’s scenes – and going forward, Janie’s scenes – are always in the past tense. But sometimes for the alternate point of view scenes I’ll switch to present tense. It adds a sense of immediacy to the writing, but does seem to put some readers off, especially when used for a whole book. Some of the happily few complaints I’ve had about Con Fairchild are about the first person present narrative.
So you can play around with the way the books are written – the technical specs, as it were – to keep things fresh. But what about setting?
I’ve taken Tony to Aberdeen briefly in The Book of Souls, and out to Fife in both Dead Men’s Bones and Written in Bones (what is it about Fife and bones?) But mostly he sticks to his patch, Edinburgh, and occasionally south into Midlothian. Mostly that’s a choice for me because these are places I know well. I’ve lived in Aberdeen and Edinburgh cities, and out in Midlothian when I was in Roslin. I wrote the first two McLean books while living and working in Wales, so had to rely heavily on memory (and a couple of OS Landranger maps) to keep things accurate. With mixed results of course, as the disgruntled resident of Trinity let me know when I described it as being full of drug addicts and prostitutes.
It’s not easy to move a detective away from his home patch successfully. The poorer Rebus novels, to my mind at least, are the ones where he’s not in Edinburgh. The city is a major part of the McLean books, too, and something is lost if he strays too far away and for too long. Readers like the books for Tony and the rest of the characters, for sure. But they also like them for the Edinburgh setting.
Those support characters can of course come and go. The early books featured a certain Detective Constable Stuart MacBride, who was something of a whizz with computer tech. I named him after my old chum Stuart when I was writing the short stories, never anticipating that they would go beyond a small group of like-minded writers. Stuart the character hung around for the first few books, but it was getting harder to write him convincingly, given all the things that had happened to him, so he quit the force and I was able to bring some new detectives in.
Some new villains, too, and that’s often the best way to keep a series fresh. Each book needs to tread that line between familiar and new, with most often the familiar being the team, the new being the crime and hence the villain. I have strayed in the past, bringing back a certain female baddy simply because I like writing her. Mrs Saifre is actually another throwback to the very early incarnations of Tony McLean in my unpublished novels, so it plays to my love of referencing past work to keep bringing her back too. Even if that past work will never be read by anyone.
Another thing I’ve tried, and which has by and large failed, comes from my background as an avid reader of comics. In that medium it’s quite normal for individual stories to build up into longer arcs over the weeks and months of serialisation. Each month we get an adventure, but put together, six or twelve issues completes a wider reaching story. When I’d written the first three books in the McLean series and my publisher immediately offered me lots of money for three more, I entertained the idea of doing something similar.
There is an arc in those three books – Dead Men’s Bones, Prayer for the Dead and The Damage Done – involving Tony’s partner Emma. Only the arc of the story largely involves her not being there and Tony being upset about that. For those who’ve not read them, and with the obvious concern about spoilers, Emma went off travelling around the world, possibly carrying the soul of Tony’s long-dead fiancée with her, but we’ll not go into that here. She sent him postcards from all over, which kept him sane through the madness of those three books, but also stopped him from having any kind of romantic relationship with any of the other characters. Tempted though he might have been.
I’ve not had many letters of complaint about my books, but I had a few people mutter that they didn’t like that. A lot of people don’t seem to like Emma much, poor woman. It occurred to me too late of course that a multi-book arc works fine when the books are comics and coming out once a month or even week. It’s less easy for people to follow when the books are novel length and coming out every six months or a year. See my earlier comment about being able to pick up one of the books without having read any of the others and still find it a satisfying read. I should have listened to myself.
Incidentally, that arc was originally planned for Emma to tip up on Tony’s doorstep with a year old child on her hip. I ditched that idea for two reasons. First, I reckon if Tony ever actually had some happiness in his life he’d give up the day job and throw himself fully into the task of raising a child. Second, I don’t have children so had no idea how to write realistically about being a father. Yes, I could have asked, but see what I said earlier about being lazy? That’s the kind of research I’d rather avoid.
A final way to inject some new life into a long series is perhaps to stop writing it for a while. Plenty of series authors have taken a step back, some time off, even thrown their famous detective off a waterfall. To a small extent I’ve done this with not having a new book out this year. All That Lives, book twelve in the series, was the last in my previous contract. As he has done many times before, my editor immediately offered me money for more books. I’ve got bills to pay and I quite like to eat, so I didn’t immediately say no. I was, however, utterly exhausted by that point. Twenty books in nine years is a lot, especially with a day job on top of that. In the end we agreed to three more McLeans but a year’s gap before the next one. My readers weren’t happy, but then you can’t please everyone all of the time.
A lot of series authors have, when taking a break, started a new series. I’ve lost count of how many Val McDermid’s written now. Anne Cleeves has three on the telly most nights, it seems. Ian Rankin and Mark Billingham both did something quite clever, introducing a new character in their own series before merging them with the main man. And that’s what I sort of tried to do with Con Fairchild. By accident as much as design.
Con has met Madame Rose, Janie Harrison and Grumpy Bob so far in her own books. Her half sister Izzy had a fairly major role in What Will Burn. As yet though, Con and Tony have not met. I’m just beginning to put together a cast list for book fourteen, so who knows? Maybe their fates will finally align.
I’m going to end with a reading from the new book, since that’s probably what most of you came here to find out about anyway. In the end, really the best way to inject new life into an old series is the same as how you start a series in the first place. Just trying to write the best book you can, and hope that people enjoy it.
So here it is, the opening scene from For Our Sins:
January 8th 1983 – Saturday
He can still feel the heat of the priest’s breath on his face, smell the stink of whisky, hear the harshly-whispered words echo in his head.
‘Stay there and don’t make a sound. You know what will happen if you do.’
It’s dark here in the closet, warm as he is surrounded by the cassocks so recently removed by the other altar boys. He still wears his. Knows it will be worse for him if he takes it off before he’s told to. It will be worse for him whatever he does. The interruption feels like a small blessing. But soon enough the distraction will be done, the special ministrations begin.
God’s love, visited through him. That’s what Father O’Connell says, and isn’t he God’s voice? What he says, what he does, can’t be wrong. A priest cannot sin. Can he?
Footsteps on the stone floor, and he shrinks back into the closet, wraps the cassocks around himself, breath stopped, eyes squeezed tight. He does not want Father O’Connell to come back, even as he knows it is a sin to refuse God’s grace.
A noise of the closet door being yanked open. He can only hold still as a growing warmth spreads from his crotch and down his leg. Fear smells like piss. An eternity passes as he waits for the hand to reach in and grab him. And then the closet door slams. He trembles with relief as he hears new noises. The clink and thud of silver against silver. Another crash, the familiar sound of the vestry door as it slams shut. And then a silence falls so total he wonders if he has gone deaf. Only his heart, and the soft bubbling of snot from his nose reassure him he has not.
How long does he wait there, unable to move? An hour? Five minutes? He cannot say. And then another sound, low like the sad keening of an injured beast. It rises and falls until he can’t know whether it is real or his imagination. He reaches for the door, black in front of him. Father O’Connell had latched it closed, but now it swings open to his touch. Slowly, wincing at the dampness in his trousers, he steps out of the closet.
Across the small vestry, the door to the outside hangs ajar. The censer, chalice and candlesticks are gone from where they had been left for him to polish for Sunday mass. Chairs lie on the floor, hymnals scattered and ripped. The priest is nowhere to be seen.
He should flee, he knows. Run all the way home. But he knows, too, the hell that awaits those who disobey God’s will. And who knows God’s will better than a priest? Slowly, reluctantly, he walks a squelching path to the other door and the nave beyond.
His voice trembles and squeaks, he knows it will annoy the priest. But there is no answer from the gloom. No light from the dirty, stained-glass windows. Only fat candles on the altar to cast any illumination.
He takes the two stone steps down, passes the pews and into the aisle. A nod of the head, the instinctive sign of the cross as he turns to face the altar. And that’s when he sees.
Father O’Connell lies on his front, arms wide as if he’s praying. But he is still, so still. No sound of murmured prayer. A step towards the altar, uncertain. Then another, and a third. He cannot see the priest’s face, his lank black hair splayed out around his head like a fan. Longer than it should be, it spreads past his shoulders, down the steps to the chancel.
He crouches by the still form, unsure what to do. There is so much blood. Is the priest dead? Before the thought has faded, a hand reaches out and grabs his wrist. That same hand that has touched him too many times before, administered God’s special grace. He tries to pull away, but the grip is too strong, the weight of it heavy as the priest pulls himself slowly around. Bloodshot eyes, crazy and wide with something that looks like fear. Flecks of bloody spittle cover his lips, spot the rough stubble on his chin as the priest croaks in a voice laced with panic and despair and utter, utter terror.