“Anything That Strikes You As Very Different From Now Is A Very Good Place to Start” – Lynne Truss On Creating The Delightfully Funny World Of Constable Twitten
In Psycho By The Sea, the fourth installment of Lynn Truss’ hilarious Constable Twitten series, the Brighton detective squad squares off against their most confounding case yet. A renowned American sociologist is found murdered in the music section of Brighton’s high-end department store at the same time a local criminal (and valued police station informant) disappears from his local spot. To top it off, a serial killer intent on beheading police detectives has recently escaped from Broadmoor Hospital and is rumored to be heading to Brighton. As always, Truss nimbly balances an intricately plotted crime story with the comic workings of the officers’ personal lives. Inspector Steine contends with his newfound fame (and over-efficient secretary) after his success in a previous high-profile case, Officer Brunswick agonizes over a budding romance, and the redoubtable Constable Twitten continues his struggle for power with Mrs. Groynes, the police station’s charwoman whose true identity as Brighton’s criminal mastermind is only known to Twitten. Critics have raved over the series, with Publisher’s Weekly noting, “In her ability to blend crime and farce, Truss is in a class of her own.” The latest book is no exception, having already been long-listed for the Crime Writer’s Association Historical Dagger Award. Truss talked to us about fleshing out her characters from her radio series that inspired the books, getting inspired by her research, and placing her characters in stressful situations.
The last time we talked you discussed the mystery writers who were influential to you. These books are so funny and so impeccably plotted, and several reviews have compared them to P.G. Wodehouse. I wanted to ask if there were any comic writers who were significant to you as a reader or writer?
I love comic writing. PG Wodehouse, above all, I suppose. He’s the master. I think what’s so great with any comic plot is that the characters make the things happen, make all the plot occur. His characters are very strong. I think I probably have learned quite a bit from PG Wodehouse. Evelyn Waugh, his early books are incredibly funny, so I suppose some of those. Also, television, you know. I think that you can learn a lot about plot, obviously, from scripts, because they have to be so neat and tidy, don’t they? They have to work. Lines have to land. If a character says something funny, it’s got to work in terms of the character, in terms of the situation. I suppose we pick up a lot, don’t we, from TV and films, as well.
The world of this series has grown, with new characters from the second and third books playing integral roles in Psycho By the Sea. What’s it been like expanding the world of the books and yet also still giving the main characters their due attention?
It’s been the main enjoyment really of writing this series. I think I told you before they were originally a radio series, so the characters existed, but they existed in a very different way. It was all in what they said. Everything was in the dialogue and in their relationships with each other, so you couldn’t go into their past or anything about what they were thinking. Clearly when it’s radio you can have no internal life for them. That was a big challenge when I decided to write the books, but I so enjoyed it. It has been wonderful to flesh them out and to push them on in their relationships with each other. That’s been really lovely. I think they’ve all benefitted from that.
Brunswick the one that’s changed the most, I think. Like Mrs. Groynes, I’ve become quite maternal towards Brunswick. I really want him to be happy and I know he’s very self-defeating. I care about him enormously. Meanwhile, I know much more about Mrs. Groynes than I ever did before. In a series like this you have this scope. In the last book, we find out much more about the genesis of Mrs. Groynes in Brighton. We have a chapter on when she came to Brighton, who she brought with her from London, what the situation was—she was lying low after a job, which we’d already heard about—how she devised the famous Middle Street Massacre in order to take over in Brighton. And also the people she’s acquired since—how she treats them, how she trusts them, and how she actually cares about them quite a lot. All that was sort of implicit before, but I could really explore it and deepen even the sort of comic character that she is. I think she’s gaining more reality, even though she clearly could never have existed. (laughs) It’s quite an interesting sort of device, isn’t it? It’s all a sleight of hand to make you believe in people who couldn’t possibly have behaved the way they did.
One of the really fun aspects of this book is how Mrs. Groynes, this criminal mastermind who has always had the upper hand in previous books, finds herself facing lots of insurmountable obstacles in this book. What was it like writing this character who now finds herself in such dire straits?
You can’t have her completely always in control because that would be tedious. But also it’s to do with her relationship with Twitten, because when it comes down to it, will he be on her side? That’s an important test for him. Up to this point, he’s obviously been befriended by her. He enjoys her company, she’s helped him, and they have a very interesting codependency. But when it comes down to it, if she’s in trouble, will he help her? Because he’s a policeman who believes in putting bad people away and she’s a bad person. (laughs)
In a way, it was a very important thing to push him forward. He’s never going to do anything illegal. He does actually help her substantially, but he also does not enjoy the fact that she’s in that situation. It’s always sort of developing how not corrupted he’s become, but certainly compromised. He has been compromised by her. It’s actually put to him by Adelaide Vine, who’s a very clever person, but she explains to him, “This is what she’s doing to you. She is drawing you into her realm by including you in her thinking, by flattering your intelligence and so on.” He’s really got to think about what his relationship is with her. It’s grey. That’s what inspired me really to push her under a bit, to see how their relationship would develop as a result.
Constable Twitten has this innocence about him and Mrs. Groynes seems giving him an education in the real world . It’s fun to see him face his own flaws and also deal with this love triangle he finds himself in this book. What’s it been like for you to develop Constable Twitten over four books?
Obviously, as you know, I’ve kept it all in a very short time frame, so it’s only four months. He’s only been there a short time. He has to be young and clean. He has to be learning and still fresh from his studies, so that he can still quote what he was told at training school. I think in a way I enjoyed torturing him quite a lot. (laughs) I’m reading lots of other people’s crime novels, and I’ve noticed that they usually put their protagonist through some terrible danger at some point. It’s always in chapter ten—they’re half drowned or they find themselves in a locked coffin. There’s something terrible and they’re rescued at the last minute or they break out at the last minute. I don’t really do that to him, I just make him incredibly tired. (laughs) I put him in situations where he’s awake all night or he’s just under a lot of stress. With this one, he experiences a lot of stress. He’s obviously me—they’re all me in one way or the other—and I suppose for me, the nightmare is stress. I put him through a lot of stress as the climax rather than a lot of physical jeopardy.
In this book, there is the looming threat of violence, with the killer Geoffrey Chaucer poised to strike. What are the challenges of balancing the comic tone of the novel with some of the more violent scenes?
It’s quite hard for me to dissect really. Maybe I expect too much of the reader, but I expect the reader to always be alert to a change in tone. I expect them to get it when I make a joke. I remember in the third book, there’s this cow stampede that kills this woman, who was actually a very nice woman. We could feel terribly sorry for her, but I say, “Seeing as we’ve always discussed what an awful life she would have had at the BBC, we have to conclude, who is to say whether this was a bad thing or not that she’s been killed by these cows?” That’s about as heartless as I’ve been, really. But I thought that was incredibly funny, because she was only going to be treated really badly at her job for the rest of her life, so you might as well go out like that. (laughs) Mostly, I suppose, you have to believe in the potential danger. You do really have to believe this man is capable of something very violent indeed. We enter his head a certain amount. He knows what’s going on, he know he’s being manipulated, he knows that someone wants him to do something. But nevertheless, he has these triggers that people are going to apply to him to get him to do this violent thing to Inspector Steine. I think we have to believe in that.
Then of course, the threat to Mrs. Groynes is quite serious and we are worried for her when that’s happening. We can’t see how she’s going to get out of it. It can’t all be light. It can’t all be jokes. The thing with Mrs. Groynes, because of her nature, we know she’ll get over it quite quicky. (laughs) She’s tough. She’s extremely tough, but Steine has a breakdown. He’s besotted. He’s done something heroic for the first time in his life, and then he has to see this awful carnage in the street. He feels like passing out, he’s so shocked and upset by it all.
Incidentally, I was thinking of writing a piece for someone about the way the three male characters are sort of parts of one psyche. Brunswick is like the id, he’s the feeling, emotional, and kind of basic one. Steine is ego. He’s just like a kid. He sees the world very straightforwardly from this very selfish point of view. And then Twitten is the superego. He sort of can’t see the other two points of view very well, but he’s looking for the bigger picture all the time and trying to organize it. I think that’s why I think they’re all me, really.
It’s so fun to see how at odds the characters are with each other and yet how they have to learn to function together to survive the case.
I think the key to Steine, he comes back from London and he’s got all his trophies. He’s actually hated it, being there, but he’s come back and he wants to tell everyone how marvelous he is. Then he doesn’t get a chance to do so, because some violence has occurred, some murder. He’s sort of furious. He’s furious that the police always have to react to crime. He hates that. I don’t know if anyone’s written a policeman like that before. (laughs) He rightly resents it. He was really looking forward to a couple of days of telling his stories, and how inconsiderate these criminals are, by getting all the attention. He hates them.
You immerse the reader in the pop psychology of the time, with the work the professor was doing and also the books that Twitten is reading. What was your research like to recreate the mindset of people 1957?
In one of the previous books, I used a book of that time, which was the Nancy Mitford stuff about you and non-you. I used that as the sort of thing Twitten was reading, that was explaining society and how we judge people by how they speak and so on. Everyone doesn’t want to know what he’s reading and what he’s finding out, but of course it’s terribly pertinent [to the case]. So I was keen to do that again, that he should be inspired by books that were out. The Hidden Persuaders, which is the Vance Packard book, is really fascinating. It came out in 1957, I think. It’s about this motivational research that was being done on behalf of the advertising industry by psychologists and sociologists to work out what pressed people’s buttons, what made them do things. As a thematic thing for a crime novelist, it seemed perfect. A policeman would want to know about motivations. (laughs) The thing is, Steine doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t want to understand why criminals do things, he just wants to get them. But obviously Twitten really does want to know. He also finds it interesting that it’s used in the advertising industry in this consumer boom that there was at that point, when people were rushing out and buying stuff. That’s why I made a big department store a big part of the plot, because it’s about people rushing out to buy the newest fridge and the newest TV and so on.
There actually was a sociologist in Brighton in September or August 1957. He was an American sociologist who was working on crowd behavior. He went out with a reporter from The Argus, as he does in this book, and they went to the Brighton races. He had a terrible time! People were rude, the crowd was pushing him. He thought they were ghastly. He didn’t stay very long, but he didn’t get murdered. (laughs) That was another trigger that made me think about it. It was good to have him as the first victim, as it were.
Are there plans for more Constable Twitten books?
I don’t know at the moment. This is the last one for the time being, I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. But I have to say I think this one ends quite well. Although there are some obvious tantalizing things for going forward, I think the scene in Twitten’s bedroom with the stuff going on downstairs, that feels like quite an ending. For the time being, if I have to leave it there, I’m not too sad. I think there’s so much more to learn about these characters. I’d love to know more about Twitten’s parents. Twitten’s father would be a very good character to bring in. Also Steine’s mother, who is in Kenya, and is very disapproving and has never forgiven him for shooting her lover, who was approaching [their home] dressed in a lion skin in the undergrowth. That would be very uncomfortable for Steine. There are so many more places. One of the things that has been very inspiring about setting it in a town you know, a town you enjoy researching, you can think [of all the places you haven’t explored]. There’s a dog track, there’s the racetrack, there are political party conferences that were taking place in Brighton, there’s a famous event every year of the London to Brighton vintage car rally—that happens in November and was the subject of a very famous British film called Genevieve in the 50s. That also would be a lovely setting for a story. There’s still a lot of potential actually in the town, it’s got a lot of aspects. We have not explored them all yet, by any means
I started to research October, and there was so much I could deal with. Little things come up in the reading of the local paper. At the beginning of October, there was a fox, a lone fox—I don’t know if he was run over, but he was knocked down, and the driver who knocked him down took him to a police night stand, which is very odd because you wouldn’t do that now. You wouldn’t deliver it to the police and say, “I’m sorry I’ve killed that fox.” At that time, clearly, a fox in a town was a very unusual thing. Now urban foxes are very common. You’re more likely to see a fox in a town than you are in the country, but obviously at the time it was a huge story. Where did this fox come from and what was it doing in the center of Brighton? That is the sort of thing that can get your imagination easily working on a plot. Anything that strikes you as very different from now is a very good place to start. That’s such a lovely thing to work on.
Tags: Lynne Truss