The phone conspiracy

I like conspiracy theories. However wild or far-fetched, they freshen our perception of things, break our routines, make us willing to question our assumptions. The alternative is to get stuck in our beliefs, insist that there’s only one way of seeing things. Conspiracy theories are creative – they grab perhaps a partial or possible ‘fact’ and build a complex ‘truth’ with its own coherence, its own persuasive (or not) internal logic. They’re fun.

And the thing that set me thinking about them is a very local one. Visitors to my previous blog may have read a posting I did once about feeling sorry for vitamin pills and toilet rolls. Two of the commenters said they enjoyed it but that it was the silliest blog I’d written whereas its conclusion was in fact a brilliant encapsulation of existential thinking. Anyway, I was suggesting that writers are weird and often make connections that escape others (or, more likely, don’t actually exist). Which is why I think my late telephone was conspiring against me. (I say ‘late’ because, when I replaced it with a new one, I didn’t want anyone to be able to access the contact numbers I’d loaded into it, so I took a hammer to it and, after a long, surprising resistance, it eventually expired – as a phone, although it may have simply transmigrated into another type of existence.)

I have no idea why that phone decided to plot against me. My first suspicion was, obviously, that it was something to do with Rupert Murdoch, but its actions made even less sense than his testimony at the Leveson enquiry. No, its rebellion was more subtle. To begin with, it’s always lied about the level of charge it was carrying, claiming to be empty when it wasn’t. I could live with that. But then … For years, the ring tone had been the conventional brrrr brrrr that’s typical of UK phones. Then, one day, without any intervention on my part, it did the initial brrr brrr then broke into an electronic version of one of the themes of Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville. And from then on, that’s what it did every time. OK, I could understand that, too – it hated being stuck in one mode, loathed its own predictability, so decided to branch out.

But then its bid for individuality took a turn which interfered with its function – which was to act as a link between me and others. We went away for a week (to the party I mentioned in the previous blog). When I got back, its little red number thing indicated that there were seven messages for me, but when I listened to them, they were all the same – not the clicks and half-heard conversations you get when someone accidentally dials from a mobile and doesn’t realise they’ve done so, nor the automated sales pitch from some double-glazing or bathroom-fitting company. No, each one was just a recording of my own dialling tone, the one I get when I pick up the phone to make a call. Which is impossible. I called the people most likely to have left messages but none had tried contacting me. It could only have been the phone itself.

I admired its creativity but then the thought struck me: what if Spielberg had been trying to get through to buy the rights of a novel, or the Nobel Prize Committee had wanted to check my availability for the ceremony? And I knew it had to go. I couldn’t let a piece of plastic and some wires come between me and my destiny. Hence the hammer and my new and so far obedient slave.

I still haven’t solved the riddle of this strange conspiracy but trying to do so certainly beats being sensible and serious about everything. And it puts off the need to get back to the WIP..

Yet another cake

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog enthusing about the energy, creativity and sheer joie de vivre of my three sisters, Gill, Ginge (who’s really called Christine and who’s never been Ginger but that’s what we call her), and the youngest, Lesley. I wrote of their extensive charity work and the way they manage to enjoy nearly everything they do. I also wrote about the cake Lesley, the youngest one, made for my birthday and, last weekend, she repeated the exercise for Gill.

I won’t bore you by describing the evening itself, spent in the rooms of the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club overlooking Plymouth Sound and dancing to a terrific band. It was boozy and happy, but you had to be there. On the other hand, once again, the cake deserves to be acknowledged, summarising as it does the essence of Gill’s pleasures, pastimes and interests. The picture doesn’t do it justice so I’ll just give a few details. The figure lying in her beloved garden with its palm trees and other plants, each of which represents a specific anecdote or memory, is Gill. She’s reading a tiny book through even tinier glasses, both made, as is everything else in the picture, by Lesley. The book has readable text in it, as does the card on the table beside her and the choir book on the nearby hammock (the 3 sisters sing in a choir). She likes cricket, hence the stumps and ball, but the pièce de résistance is the knitting. Gill is a highly skilled knitter, so Lesley actually knitted a few rows of cotton thread using cocktail sticks as needles. On top of all this, she compiled a terrific photo album chronicling umpteen phases of Gill’s life and still had time to get all the family to record themselves in various guises and locations miming to songs from South Pacific. She then edited the footage into a compilation video which was unveiled during the party.

And, just to give you an idea of how much work that editing entailed, the family consists of 6 adults and 3 spouses (or should that be spice?),  14 children and 9 spice, and 15 grandchildren – a grand total of 47, all but 14 of whom sent videos to Lesley. The evening was a joy for Gill and a triumph for Lesley. It also managed somehow to raise £543 for charity.

And Lesley was rewarded just a few days later by tripping, crushing a bone and being taken to hospital. Walking is now very painful and she may have to miss a planned trip to China. God must have been looking after a golfer, a footballer, or a Republican candidate at the time..

Jack Carston and Me

A recent interview with a good friend, the highly talented and perceptive journalist Sara Bain, forced me to think about my relationship with the main character in my contemporary crime novels, DCI Jack Carston. I’ve known him for about 20 years now and I think he’s getting ready to retire. He first came into my head in the early 90s and now, 5 books later, the compromises he’s had to make are beginning to get to him.

He started because the UK publisher, Piatkus, liked a stand alone thriller my agent had sent them but wanted a police procedural instead, so I set about writing Material Evidence. The ending/solution was based on an actual case I read about in a book on forensic medicine, but the interest came from Carston and the team I found around him. I say ‘I found’ and that seems to be how it was. They all emerged, with their tics, foibles, ways of speaking and relationships ready formed.

Carston himself is curious about things, a creative thinker; he’s interested in people but routines bore and frustrate him. His opinion of some of his superiors is relatively low but his wife, Kath, makes sure that his self-esteem doesn’t get so high as to make him obnoxious. In fact, the love and humour in their marriage is one of the strongest themes running through the books.

Why did he choose to join the police? Well, he’s always wondering what makes people (including himself) tick and likes solving puzzles. At first he joined because he was idealistic and wanted to be on the side of the good guys – but the job has made him more aware that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are relative terms, especially when it comes to people’s motives for what they do. His high success rate derives from the fact that he’s not only fascinated by people, he cares about them, too. He’s not obviously ‘flawed’, has no particular rituals, doesn’t drive a flash car, and his only addiction is his wife. He has a temper, is sometimes childish, doesn’t tolerate fools, despises people who don’t respect the rights of others and is driven mainly by compassion.

I’ve followed him through five books so far and, without any conscious plan on my part, he’s definitely evolved – and in a specific direction. The job has taken him more deeply into the psyches of other people (and his own) and, if he had any moral certainties to start with, he certainly doesn’t now. When I first wrote about him, he solved the case by using the testimony of the various suspects to get into the mind of the victim. The picture he saw there was pretty bleak. But the way he did it – using the physical evidence, but building a picture of who the dead woman was – told me I was dealing with someone who trusted his insights into behaviours. In the next book, things were clearer because there was a definite ‘baddie’. Even then, though, the murders and the motives were surprising and not at all clear cut.

It was The Darkness that signalled the real change. He found himself sympathising with someone who was living a normal life helping others but who was also guilty of very serious crimes. It had quite an impact on him and when, in book four, his investigations brought him in contact with highly intelligent people in a university and hospital, the pettiness, self-importance and corrupt nature of some of the people there put another dent in his certainties.

And in the latest book, Unsafe Acts, at the same time as he’s trying to solve two murders and unravel a plot to sabotage an offshore platform, a vindictive superior officer decides he’s had enough of Carston’s unconventional approaches and he faces a charge of indiscipline. It makes him wonder whether he should actually leave the force.

I’m not yet sure of the answer to that, but I will be when I start book six, which might well be the last in the series..