Writing the DCI Jack Callum Mysteries

By Len Maynard

1) Three Monkeys

‘The Last Train to San Fernando barrelled down the stairs carried on Johnny Duncan’s nasal whine. Jack Callum sighed, laid down his newspaper and went out into the hall.’

Those were the first lines of a Jack Callum novel ever to find their way onto my computer in the summer of 2010. Not a particularly gripping start to a crime novel I’ll grant you, but for me they were vitally significant because those twenty-six words had fixed so much in my head.

Firstly, period. I was now viewing Britain in the late 1950’s. Secondly, I knew that music, especially skiffle and early British rock n’ roll would be playing a large part in the coming narrative. I wasn’t aware then that Jack’s son, Eric, would buy a guitar and form his own skiffle band, or that his sister would be roped in to sing for them. That would become a voyage of discovery, as would the whole dynamics of Jack’s family.

At that moment all I was really concerned with was the crime Jack would be called on to solve.

I was building a character, as I wrote elsewhere, had no apparent flaws, who had a settled home life, a loving, devoted wife and not much to disturb his uneventful and possibly slightly dull life. I was entering dangerous territory if I wanted to write an edgy crime novel and not a cosy drawing room mystery.

One thing I was certain of was that the crime had to be extreme and deeply disturbing. It had to shake Jack, and the reader, out of their comfort zone.

If you’ve read Three Monkeys you will be the judge as whether I succeeded.

To further complicate Jack’s life I had the return of his and Annie’s estranged daughter Joanie ready to splinter their cosy world. Joan Callum arrived in my mind in the early hours of a Sunday morning. She arrived fully-formed, feisty and remorseful and an absolute delight to write.

I had already fallen slightly in love with Annie. She was the wife I’d always wanted. Level-headed, attractive and able to hold her own when dealing with Jack’s dogged nature. But suddenly Joanie arrived and I was instantly smitten. Here was a young woman who had made her own decisions (not always the most sensible ones) at a very early age and was wasting no time in forging forward with her life.

I was starting to engage with the entire Callum family. Eric was starting to resemble a fourteen version of me, with his love of music and his desire to play guitar. Rosie was still very much an innocent teenager. Little did I know then what lay in store for her in the months and years ahead.

Three Monkeys was written pretty much on the fly. I’ve never been much for planning my novels. When I have done this in the past the results have never been satisfactory. I like to discover what will happen in the novel the way a reader would. However, once I decided there would be more than just one Jack Callum book, I had to break with tradition and started making notes about the characters and the villains…but not the plot. That evolved pretty much as it appears in the book. And it was a system I used throughout the entire series. I hope it’s worked, but you’d be in a much better position to judge than me

2) A Dangerous Life

My fascination for the dark underbelly of the entertainment business has been evident since I first started writing back in the 1970’s.

At a funfair I was always more interested by what was happening behind the flashing lights than the rides and sideshows. At the theatre I always wanted to know what was happening behind the proscenium arch once the curtain fell.

The character of Tony Turner had a certain appeal for me – a famous and popular actor whose career was on the slide. It was someone whose life I wanted to explore, to dig down and uncover the secrets he had kept hidden behind the showbiz smile. The fact that he was also my first murder victim gave Jack a very good reason to conduct that exploration on my behalf.

A Dangerous Life also took me away from the middle-class monster of Three Monkeys and allowed me to write about British gangland of the 1950’s, a world I only knew about from watching the black and white B movies at my local cinema.

Growing up, the names of two Edgars – Lustgarten and Wallace – had been my passport to a monochrome world of murder, thievery, blackmail, fraud and all things criminal.

Once I had my background, my characters and my initial murder the rest came fairly easily.

I wrote the opening scene of a thirteen-year-old Gerry Turner confessing to the killing of her brother some months before starting the actual book. It was such a haunting scene that I knew I would have to use it. I was unaware when I wrote it that it would be a springboard into another novel.

Equally I was unaware of how important young Gerry would become and the role she would go on to play in future Jack Callum books. But that in itself has been one of the delights in writing about the Callum world, how minor characters suddenly come into their own and take centre stage.

Norton Common in Letchworth, where Tony Turner’s tortured body was found nailed to a tree, like a lot of places depicted in the books, really exists. It’s a charming and rather lovely area of parkland barely a mile away from where I live, an ideal spot for ramblers and dog-walkers and not a place where a dead body is likely to be found. (Sidebar – a few weeks after finishing A Dangerous Life, a body was found on Norton Common, hanging from a tree. Nothing to do with me, guv. Honest.)

3) Appetite For Evil

The genesis for this story dates back to 1958, the year my father died at the age of thirty-three. I was just five years old.

For the few years that preceded his death he became involved with the everyday running of St Joseph’s, a local Catholic orphanage. A convert to that faith in his late twenties, his desire to help out in any way he could led to him forming a group of volunteers to help with social events, running sports days and organising film shows for the children and staff.

The first part of Appetite for Evil is pretty much an accurate account of my early childhood. My portrait of characters like Sister Roslaie, Cannon Flood, and especially Les Parsons are drawn from life – especially Les’s glass eye. Les, like my dad, had lost his real eye in an accident at work.

Beyond that, once the murders start, it’s all down to my own dark imagination. The memories of the few years I was a visitor to St Joseph’s, accompanying my dad, are vividly etched on my memory, but this the first time I have used it in the fabric of a story. Writing the book was an emotional roller coaster, re-visiting memories that had been long forgotten, or so I thought.

Once I tapped into them, the names and faces came back in Dolby surround sound and glorious Technicolor.

Again, and probably because I was, for the most part, treading familiar ground, the execution of the book was relatively simple and, once I had put my emotions back in the box labelled Do Not Disturb, an enjoyable experience.

4) Deadly Ambitions

Larry Parnes was one of the most successful impresarios and entrepreneurs of the late ’Fifties, early ’Sixties.

I had read a great deal about him and his ‘stable’ of stars. Indeed, artistes like Joe Brown, Marty Wilde, Billy Fury and Vince Eager had provided me with the soundtrack to my early life. Pre-dating the Beatles and possessed of a glamour and star power that has really been unequalled since, Larry Parnes’ stable of good-looking and talented (some more than others) young men fuelled female teenage fantasies and took the record industry to new heights.

My elder sister was a fully paid-up member of the dream world Parnes was peddling and I absorbed it all through some kind of cultural osmosis…and by reading her weekly Valentine comic when she had finished with it.

So, a great deal of the research for Deadly Ambitions had been done decades before. The title of the book was an accurate description of the plot.

Harry Franks was a would-be Larry Parnes, but a man with a fraction of Parnes’ talent or work ethic. He was a get rich quick merchant who saw the people he was managing as commodities and little else, and it was this avaricious side to his (frankly, unpleasant) nature that led to his murder.

Deadly Ambitions was another of the books that put the seedy side of show business under the microscope, busily lifting stones and examining the furtive, scurrying things that live beneath them.

Saying that, it was great fun to write and introduced one of my favourite characters. Bunny Starling made such an impact on me that I was reluctant to kill her off when it was time for her to die.

Some of my characters are so unpleasant that I have no qualms in hastening them towards their demise – Harry Franks for one – but I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to Bunny. She enlivens the pages in which she appears and never fails to make me smile.

The climax of the story takes place at Farringdon Underground station. A station I know intimately after spending over forty years of my life travelling to and from there when I was working in Clerkenwell. It was inevitable that it would, one day, feature in one of my books.

Since finishing Deadly Ambitions I have returned to Farringdon and, in my mind’s eye, I can picture the scene exactly as I wrote it. Luckily fellow passengers on the Metropolitan line have no insight into my thoughts.

I think they’d be horrified.

5) Sins of the Fathers

Sins of the Fathers was the most difficult of the Jack Callums to write and took longer than the rest of the books by several months. And this had nothing to do with subject matter or lack of inspiration. In fact it was nothing more than real life intruding into my literary world and making itself so noticeable that I couldn’t just ignore it and carry on.

The search for rented accommodation in Letchworth at that time of year (Christmas) was long and arduous. There was little on the market that was remotely suitable and the prospect of finding a three-bedroom cottage similar to the one I was vacating was very slim indeed.

I finally found a two bedroom apartment and moved in, sacrificing many of my goods and chattels, including many books and much of my music, including twelve electric guitars and basses that had once adorned my walls, and now had nowhere to call home.

I really had no idea how traumatic the move had been, what a shock to my system it was, until I sat down at my makeshift desk and attempted to resume Sins of the Fathers from where I had left it all those months before. And I had nothing. I had left my muse at my old house and she hadn’t accompanied me to my new home.

Eventually, after a lot of cajoling she returned, but somewhere along the line she had lost her magic and, not for the first time in my writing career, I was floundering. I had no choice but to start from scratch. I effectively, ripped up the twenty thousand words I’d written and started again with a blank screen.

I’ve stated elsewhere that I’m not a great or fastidious note taker but, at that time, I was actively cursing my own ineptitude and negligence. The words were a long time coming and sometimes it was like pulling teeth. Gradually I realised it was nothing whatsoever to do with a powerless muse or a lack of imaginative power. I was simply a fish out of water, floundering and gasping for air. I had written a good dozen or so novels at my old cottage and had become accustomed to the place, to my writing room and the creature comforts I had fastidiously built up around me. If I was going to make the new book a success, I would have to repair the damage to my psyche and rebuild my life.

The solution, when it came, was so simple. Stop writing.

So I made the conscious decision to stop – for about six months. Six months watching DVD box sets, socialising, catching up on music that I had missed and just enjoying myself. After six months my muse returned, with her tail firmly between her legs, and I completed Sins, followed very quickly by Into the Fire that took a fraction of the time.

Now I’m back to writing and the cottage seems like a lifetime ago. Phew! It was touch and go for a moment there.

6) Into The Fire

In my head I sub-titled this, The Death of a Ring Rat because that was what it was about.

The reason I called it Into the Fire was simply that I didn’t think the majority of my readers would have any idea what a ring rat was.

I had just read a series of biographies of professional wrestlers stretching back to the late ’fifties. Its hard to believe that televised pro wrestling, in the 1950’s and 60’s had such a following, but viewing figures of over ten million were commonplace, and people like Mick McManus and Jackie Pallo were household names. This pre-dated the Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks period of wrestling which was little more than a televised pantomime, and much the worse for it.

And it was this golden age that I had a hankering to write about since I first started writing.

Writing the Jack Callum series finally gave me the opportunity.

Ring rats were, and still are, the derogatory term given to the women wrestling fans who follow their favourites from town to town, and sometimes, country to country, in the same way that groupies follow rock bands.

Once I had decided on a background on which to paint the scenario, the rest came so easily the book nearly wrote itself. In fact the whole thing took me about six weeks from start to finish, a new record for me, and it produced the book, which is probably my favourite of the six instalments. I was even bold enough to include my love of period Variety theatre as a secondary background. I was doubly blessed.

Also, using the scourge of drug misuse gave the novel a resonance and relevance to today’s society. Again it’s easy to forget that back in 1960 that drug abuse was commonplace and a serious source of income for the criminal fraternity. So, the research went deep and the more I discovered the more I wanted to write the book.

So, that’s it for this look behind the scenes. I’ve said before that I think of the Jack Callum series as one long novel, and Into the Fire brought the piece to a satisfying conclusion.

Writing the DCI Jack Callum Mystery series has been a hell of a ride, and I’m not sure I’m ready to get off just yet.

To visit Len’s Amazon page and the Jack Callum books click here

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