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Find more The Booklist Interview
British author Simon Brett has a lot of credits behind his name. He’s written for the stage and has written and produced radio and TV sitcoms and dramas, but he specializes in crime novels. Some are stand-alone thrillers, but most of them are series mysteries: the Charles Paris, Mrs. Parteger, Fethering, and Blotto and Twinks novels.
Brett’s best-known character may be Charles Paris, a middle-aged, alcoholic British actor who scrapes together a living by doing what he loves, acting. Paris is always the bit-part player, never the star. He’s stumbled across a fair number of bodies in the labyrinthine recesses of theaters and broadcast stations. Paris is an accidental sleuth, with an insider’s insights into a world that percolates with murderous ambition. Paris was last seen in 1997, getting drunk at the end of Dead Room Farce. Sixteen years later, Brett has brought Paris back in A Decent Interval (to be reviewed in the July 2013 issue of Booklist). We interviewed Brett by e-mail to mark the occasion of Paris’ return.
We haven’t seen Charles Paris in a new mystery since Dead Room Farce in 1997. While you didn’t exactly pull a Conan Doyle and throw your sleuth over the falls, it did seem as if you were through with the old trouper. Were you? What made you bring him back?
BRETT: I stopped writing the Charles Paris series for a variety of reasons. One was that, after 17 books, perhaps it was time I started something new. And I had this idea about two mature ladies based in the part of West Sussex where I live. That became the Fethering mystery series, of which the most recent, The Corpse on the Court, came out in 2012; the next (the fifteenth), The Strangling on the Stage, will be published over here in October of this year. I was also wondering whether I was still as much in touch with the world of theater as I had been at the time I wrote the early Charles Parises. When I started the series, I was working as a radio—and, subsequently, television—producer, so every time I lifted up the phone at work, I would be talking to an agent, an actor, a writer, or a designer. In other words, I didn’t have to look far for my research.
But when I became a full-time writer in 1979, I was not so close to “the business,” and I was worried about losing the insider view of an actor’s life, which was appreciated in the Charles Paris books. But after 15 years of not writing about him, that worry has evaporated. I’ve been involved in lots more theatrical projects in the interim, and also my wife, Lucy, now works full time as head of development for Chichester Festival Theatre, so once again I have a ready source of backstage information. And there had been a lot of new developments in the world of show business for me to explore. Also, I’d missed writing about Charles.
Charles Paris seems to be the theatrical equivalent of a hack—he’s never hit it big, at least not for long, and will take almost any paying gig. What does this allow you to do?
BRETT: There’s a running joke through the series that, whatever job Charles Paris takes on, it will probably end in disaster (and probably start with murder). Very early on I decided that I couldn’t have a successful actor as protagonist. A successful actor would be basically too busy to go around investigating murders, whereas the bit-part player, sitting at the side of the rehearsal room, has much more opportunity to observe what’s going on with the other members of the company. I have never, incidentally, said that Charles Paris is a bad actor. He is just, like many I know in the profession, an actor who has not had the breaks. But there’s a kind of problem in my having written so much about him. One of the ingredients in the books I particularly like is the way Charles keeps remembering the bad newspaper reviews of his performances. If you were to add them up over all the books, his career can’t have involved much “resting”—it has been an extremely busy one. But I guess that’s just one of the problems of writing a series character.
One of the joys of reading a Charles Paris novel is encountering all the secondary show-biz characters, some of whom, like Charles, want to practice their craft, while many of them seem to be boiling over with egomania and ambition. Are these characters based on types you’ve encountered in the entertainment world?
BRETT: I think, without risking libel suits, I can say that a lot of the secondary characters have characteristics of actors, directors, etc., with whom I have worked or about whom I’ve heard stories from friends in the theater. But I don’t think I’ve ever put a real person in a book. For me, the fun of writing is not describing someone who already exists—it is making people up. So I might start with a couple of quirks or mannerisms from characters whom I have met, but then I elaborate these to create someone who has never actually existed but who “feels right.” It’s also difficult, if you’ve put someone you know into a book, to make them behave in the way your plot needs them to behave rather than as you know they would in real life.
Your newest Charles Paris showcases some legendary acts of sabotage that actors have pulled on each other. This sounds as desperate as the recent reports of Bolshoi ballerinas allegedly putting ground glass in rival ballerinas’ toe shoes. Can you list a few of these tricks? Do you think these legendary tricks have any basis in reality?
BRETT: I think the theater is a world that loves creating its own mythology. Acting is probably the most gossipy profession in the world, so the stories you hear must always be taken with a pinch of salt. Before modern high-quality lighting—and a more naturalistic style of theater—actors used to wear a lot of makeup. This was usually greasepaint in stick form made by Leichner’s. The story of some vengeful actor inserting a razor blade into a rival’s stick of greasepaint is so commonly heard that maybe it was based on an actual incident.
Charles Paris is falling apart in a lot of ways, with a failed or, at least, failing marriage, uncertain income, moods that veer from thin hope to desolation, and a continual halfhearted battle with the bottle. But he has a really strong respect for and love of acting, no matter how small the part. Why is this part of his character emphasized so much?
BRETT: Charles Paris is a troubled character in many ways, as you say, and he has his share of cynicism, particularly about his profession. But his attitude to the theater is a bit like parents to their children—he can criticize as much as he likes, but heaven forbid that anyone else should say a word against it. He does genuinely love being an actor, and through all the vicissitudes and humiliations of his career, he probably still gets his biggest highs from those rare moments when he feels he’s given a good performance.
You have quite a background in writing for radio and TV. Are there any rules you learned from that kind of writing that apply to writing mysteries?
BRETT: One thing I have learned from writing for—and indeed producing for—other media is that actors don’t mind having small parts so long as they are good small parts. So if I’m putting a character into one of my books, and they only have a minor role to play—to give one simple piece of information, say—I’ll ask myself, “If I had to play this part as an actor, would I be pleased?” I think that discipline helps to make sure that all the characters—even the minor ones—get a fair crack of the whip. Most of my writing apart from the mysteries has been scripted comedy, and I do find great similarities in the technique required for both. It’s all about making sure your readers and/or audience have the requisite amount of information at any stage in the narrative. They must know enough but not too much. One of the most important skills in any kind of writing is withholding information.
I noticed that you graduated from Dulwich College. So did P. G. Wodehouse. Has he affected your writing? It seems that you can’t get much more like Wodehouse than your newest series, Blotto and Twinks.
BRETT: The Blotto and Twinks series probably couldn’t have existed without P. G. Wodehouse. Despite having been at the same school, I actually came to reading his books relatively late, in my forties. But now I’m a devoted fan. I love the way he plays with the English language, which is a very delightful language to play with. I suppose the Blotto and Twinks series is kind of the love child of P. G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Anthony Hope, and Bulldog Drummond. But for some reason, Dulwich College does have a remarkable literary tradition. Apart from Wodehouse, other old boys include Raymond Chandler, C. S. Forester, Graham Swift, and Michael Ondaatje.
Is there anything you’ve been hoping an interviewer would ask? It could be about your favorite dentrifice—anything.
BRETT: I’m always quite pleased if an interviewer asks me what my first job was after leaving university. This is simply because it’s a question to which I have a good answer. For seven weeks, I was a department-store Santa Claus.
—Interview conducted by Connie Fletcher
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