Lynne Truss on Not Giving Everything Away, Big Characters, and Being the Cleverest Person in the Room
Lynne Truss is perhaps best known in the U.S. for her lauded book on grammar, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, but with A Shot in the Dark she establishes herself as a gifted comic mystery writer, mixing equal parts Christie with Wodehouse. Based on characters Truss originally created for a series of successful radio dramas, A Shot in the Dark takes place in the seemingly idyllic resort town of Brighton. When a fatuous theater critic is murdered on opening night of a touring theatrical troupe’s play, the idealistic Constable Twitten finds himself embroiled in a crime that stretches back to an infamous bank robbery decades prior. Joined by his lovestruck colleague, Sergeant Brunswick, and the station’s sagacious charlady, Mrs. Groynes, Twitten uses his wits to solve not only the murder, but also ferret out a criminal mastermind who has been hiding in plain sight for years. A darkly comic romp, A Shot in the Dark has been widely met with praise. The Guardian raved, “with plenty of brightly coloured bucket-and-spadery, including ghost trains and Punch and Judy and variety acts, this clever, tongue-in-cheek escapade is a perfect summer read.” Brendan Dowling spoke with Truss via telephone on October 24th, 2018. Photo: Penguin Random House.
This is your first mystery novel in a long career of writing. I was wondering what were the mysteries that were influential to you growing up?
When I was thinking bout this a while ago ago, it occurred to me that quite a lot of children’s stories were actually crime novels. We have these Enid Blyton books in the UK, and quite a lot of those were mysteries solved by children, like Scooby Doo kind of plots. When I was growing up, I read those kinds of adventures. but they always involved, in the end, finding out who did something, who did the crime.
Then I started reading people like Chandler. When I got in my twenties, I got very interested in the Golden Age period, people like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. I read quite a lot about them, as well as reading their books. Then I started reading Patricia Highsmith—who is, of course, a genius—writing from the criminal’s point of view, which I thought was really amazing and wonderful. I can’t see a course through all that, can you? (laughs) But I think there’s a number of influences along the way.
I think that’s one of the reasons reading your book is so fun, seeing all of the different influences. You write in the introduction of the book how your visit to the Detection Club encouraged you writing this novel. How did that happen?
When I said that, it was a bit tongue and cheek. I was already writing these things on the radio and someone said, “Well, if you write them as novels you would one day be invited to the Detection Club.” They invite you if you’re really, really wonderful, so I didn’t think it was going to happen soon. I think the society of other crime writers seems to be something really valuable. I’m just joining the Crime Writers Association, because they seem such a jolly lot. It’s very interesting. (laughs) Crime writers, who you’d think would be very suspicious and looking at each other for plots, actually seem to be very jolly. There’s a lovely story I heard last week about the Detection Club, which was that Julian Symons apparently turned up to a dinner having done a little gardening, but not washed his hands. He saw that Agatha Christie was looking at his dirty fingernails, imagining all sorts of things, like he’d just been burying a corpse. He could see the cogs whirring as she was constructing a plot around the man who shows up in a tuxedo with dirty fingernails. So maybe they all just look to each other for plot content. (laughs)
The world of crime is so vast and I’m very aware that I haven’t read much of it. I’ve had to give myself permission not to try to have a sense of the scope of what’s out there, or where my book would fit into it, because It’s almost impossible to imagine.
These characters originally appeared in a series of radio dramas you wrote in England. What was it like bringing them into a novel?
At first, I got it wrong. I tried to do it and it was generally agreed that it didn’t work. Radio is a wonderful medium for getting straight to the listener. There’s no barrier. You’re not looking at something, you don’t get distracted, you just hear what people say. So in a way it can be subtle, but this wasn’t. (laughs) It was actually very broad, really. Because in a way I was harking back to the radio comedy of the past—big characters with catchphrases, which I have an affection for. They had proper plots, but they were half an hour, and in twenty-eight minutes you’d have a lot going on for each character, plus a resolution that brought it all together. It didn’t breathe much. It was pretty densely packed in. Everything people did was quite big.
Writing novels, for a reader, you want to do almost the opposite. You want things to appear gradually. You don’t want to know instantly what somebody’s like. They shouldn’t give themselves away with every single thing they say. I know I’ve got a lot of plot in A Shot in the Dark, but it’s not as plot-heavy, because I do want to give the characters more of a chance to announce themselves and grow on people.
I didn’t think it would be easy, but it was harder than I expected it to be. It involved taking more responsibility and putting the whole thing into my own voice. Since there’s a narrative voice in the book, it means that I’m in it to a certain extent. That was something I was a bit shy in doing to start with. Once I got over that shyness and thought, “This is actually fun to be able to make jokes myself, rather than the jokes made by characters all the time,” then I found it.
That voice is such a pleasurable guide through this really hilarious and dark world.
It sounds very authoritative, as if I always know what’s going on, but of course when you’re writing it, you don’t! You have to pretend! “Oh yes, trust me! Trust me on this!” Whereas actually you’re thinking, “I don’t know really how those two people fit together.” It’s going to happen later that you work it out. It’s a lot of whistling in the dark, working in that narrative voice.
The book is set in Brighton in the late 1950s, what about that time and area was so intriguing to set a mystery there?
I think the actual period, the fifties, was obviously the end of a long period of the war—rationing, getting out of the war, and letting some of the influences of war go. There was a sort of turning point in ’57 when people started to look forward and really feel modern.
I did a lot of research looking at how people went out for pleasurable times at the seaside. That was a real heyday, in a way. There was so much going on. People dressed up. They stayed in these hotels and boardinghouses and they were determined to have a good time.
In terms of having a milieu that has lots of potential, I find it limitless. There are all all the potential locations for things to happen, because in a seaside town you’ve got all these attractions. You’ve got the sea, the piers, music halls, fudge shops, ice cream parlors, and sports stadia. Loads and loads of things going on.
What’s always fascinated people about places like Brighton is the way that, just as the tide goes in and out, people come in and out. You have people coming in and going away by train or by bus. There’s this sort of fluidity. It’s not like writing about St. Mary Mead, where people have been there for a hundred years and everyone knows the vicar. There’s a sense of transition as well in a place like Brighton. If a man leaves a body in the suitcase at the station, he might not be around when it’s found. He’s probably got back on a train to London. In terms of crime novels, that’s very helpful. It’s a shifting population all the time.
You worked as a television critic for many years. I was wondering how that background played a part in your writing process?
It was a very interesting job because you were writing for two different audiences at the same time. You were writing for people who saw the program and for people who didn’t see the program. That was a very useful thing to learn to do. Quite a lot of reporters only have to write for people who weren’t there. But when you’re writing about telly, you want to entertain the people who did see it as well as inform people who didn’t. In America, you do the TV crits the morning of the program, don’t you? So in fact you’re writing for people who are going to watch it later. But we do ours the day after. The thing has been on, and people have watched it, but they still read the reviews because they liked it, or they didn’t like it, or they weren’t sure. That was a really useful thing to be able to pull off, to try to make it funny for people who had watched it and for people who hadn’t.
As a writer who has also been an editor as well—this sounds very pompous—but I think remembering that there is a reader who doesn’t know what you’re about to write is the decency and courtesy that you pay to your reader. So you always remember that you’re writing for people who don’t know what you’re about to write. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? But I think that’s quite a useful thing to bear in mind when you’re writing a complicated plot.
This is the first book in a series. Do you have an idea of the overall arc of where the characters end up?
At the moment, I’m already one book ahead. Mrs. Groynes has quite a big plot of her own about an old flame who turns up working as a gentlemen’s gentleman in Brighton. I think she relates back to my family background, because we’re all working class. The sorts of things she says, “All this standing around jawing won’t buy the baby a new bonnet,” that’s very much from my childhood. I feel very comfortable with her because she’s my people. I feel very comfortable with Twitten because I’m the cleverest person in the room all the time, and it’s very hard. (laughs)