As a child, I adored books. The first one I remember owning as my own is still on my bookshelf to this day, and it was called “Magnus Mouse and the Treasure Chest”. In the book, the titular rodent, whilst out digging one day, uncovers a huge wooden trunk, firmly locked with a solid brass padlock.
His discovery of the box, the gathering of all the animals in his village and their communal puzzling over what it might contain and how to open it make up most of the text and, when the casket is finally opened…
Well to disclose that would be to rob some of you of the pleasure that awaits, but suffice it to say that the end of the book was the first ‘twist’ I’d ever read, and I was hooked. So when I started writing fiction myself as a child, the fact that I would write mystery fiction was never in doubt, and when I discovered Agatha Christie (‘Poirot’s early cases,’ aged 9 while stuck at home sick) quickly followed by Chandler Hammett and Edgar Wallace, the stage was set.
But there was something missing from all the crime novels I read: people like me. Oh, there were plenty short white people; there were even some Irish characters (though they tended to be a bit, ahem, ‘punchier’, than I was). But there were no gay characters or, if there were, they were pansies or deviants; there for comedy relief or for beating up to get a confession from.
And another thing that sort of soaked into my thoughts : People like me – working-class people – might read books and tell stories but we didn’t become authors.
Of course I realised as I grew and researched the lives of my favourite authors that many of them had been as working class as I was, and that encouraged me to keep writing. But even though I enjoyed the act of writing I found, always, that I was missing an intanigible spark.
I kept reading voraciously and, because I had a passion for ancient history, became addicted to the works of Steven Saylor and Lindsay Davis, both of whom wrote sprawling series that not only had wonderful plotting but always had brilliantly drawn relationships and slowly developing communities. And, particularly in the case of Davis, tons of humour, snark, cynicism and sarcasm.
I took a short course at City Lit and not only made some friends who are still huge parts of my world today but, through one of them, was introduced to the work of Lawrence Block, who, along with (in particular) Lindsay Davis, taught me what the phrase ‘find your voice’ really meant.
Then for my fortieth birthday some friends bought me an online crime-writing course at Gotham writers, and my husband got me Maggie Hamand’s Complete Creative writing course at The Groucho Club in London. So, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t just writing; I was thinking about writing. Thinking of what I wanted to say, what I wanted to write about, and of who I wanted to write about. Of how I was going to execute my work to achieve my desired effect.
And on one of the exercises at The Groucho Club, Danny Bird was born.
It was straightforward enough: Create a character. One you can interrogate and understand. Then – having found out what the worst thing in the world is to this character – make it happen. Destroy their world and then observe the aftermath.
Why? Because character is wonderful, and story ideas are wonderful, but plot is what happens when they collide. Great fiction isn’t just amazingly drawn characters sitting around talking about themselves (Note to self: I will not make a dig at Literary writers here) or increasing degrees of vague peril, craziness, murder incompetence and horror (Note to self: do not mention Donald Trump here).
No, in order for fiction to work, there have to be characters you believe in faced with situations that push them beyond what you – as the writer and, by extension, as the reader – have determined to be their comfort zone.
So I created a young urban working-class man with a boring job as a mail-room guy in a big magazine house, but who – because he’s in a relationship with a hot-shot middle-class city lawyer – lives in a big house in Suburbia.
And I then had him go to work, get fired, come home, find his lover in bed with the window cleaner and – deciding that his pride mattered more to him than any financial comforts on offer – walk away from the house in Suburbia with not a penny to his name.
And I parked the character.
Exercise done. What’s next?
Except people kept asking me what was next for the (at that point) unnamed boy who walked away from his life. And I had no idea.
I wanted to write historical mysteries. I wanted to write Sidney Sheldon-style romps with glamorous people dying of mysterious insulin overdoses in places like Gstaad or Boulder Colorado.
I ended up, a few months later, writing about the world’s shittest gay bar (paint colour: sclerotic lung) being run by the newly named Danny Bird with his cute but permanently shirtless nephews Ray & Dash (shoutout to Chandler & Hammett) behind the bar along with the world’s least suitable barmaid, Ali (Sample quotes: “People are filth” “The human race deserves extinction. With a hot poker.”). And all of this was overseen by Danny’s best mate, the aristocratic, fabulous, but financially strained Lady Caroline Victoria Genevieve Jane De Montford (Lady Caz).
I had no plans to write the book that became ‘Death of a Diva’, but people kept on telling me they loved what they’d seen of Danny that first day in The Groucho, and I couldn’t shake the nagging sense that they were right and there was a story there begging to be told.
So for fun, I tried an opening scene to a mystery novel in Danny’s voice and what came out – snarky, campy, trying to be hard-bitten but with a bleeding heart inside, and utterly, utterly comfortable in his skin – felt so authentic, so natural that I was both taken aback and incredibly touched.
I made this, I thought. For the first time in my life, I’ve written something that’s not just technically good, but something that feels real, passionate. Joyful.
And Danny Bird was born.
I have often, since, looked back at the birth and development of Danny Bird and I’m going to be honest with you: like most real people, he was not born and developed in a vacuum. He’s the product of his ancestors. Danny’s parents are characters in some of the books themselves, but when I refer here to his ancestors I’m talking of Agatha Christie and her creation Hercule Poirot, whose wonderfully structured plots and whose love of order and method – aligned, in both creator and character, with a romantic heart – formed part of the Danny world and Danny himself.
And then there are Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler whose Spade and Marlowe – lacking, at times, in depth beyond their absolute adherence to a mythic, almost chivalric code – gave me the start of what’s been described as Danny’s Messiah complex, which can be summed up roughly in this exchange: “It’s not your job to fix the world, Danny. That’s someone else’s gig.”
“I know, but I like to fill in when he’s on his day off.” And then there’s Ross Macdonald. Macdonald’s humour makes me laugh at some very inappropriate moments in the books, and his Lew Archer – a detective who starts off feeling like a carbon copy of the Upright Cops that Hammett and Chandler wrote, but whose deep sadness at the tragedy of life makes him something more than a cipher.
And I’m talking of both Edward Holmes who wrote the afore mentioned “Magnus mouse” and Robert Arthur and Virginia Carey who wrote a series of kids’ novels billed as “The Three Investigators,” and who – along with Davis and Saylor – introduced me to the value of secondary characters making the world their protagonists live in feel richer, just as the secondary characters in the Danny Bird Mysteries mean Danny is part of a bigger story – a story about London and Britain and the world we live in today.
Danny’s a gay man in a hugely diverse world and he’s unafraid of his feelings but also – thanks to some childhood lessons intended to combat school bullies – able to box his way out of trouble if needs be. He’s a son, a friend, an uncle, an employer and, if the wind is in the right direction and there’s a recently homicided corpse to be investigated, an amateur detective.
His sexuality is part of who he is, but the stories – as in life – are so much more complex than just that one thing. And because of this I finally have a series of books featuring people like me, and written by, well, written by someone like me (i.e. me), and I couldn’t be happier.
There’s a long story to be told one day about the journey to publication; about the agent who suggested I ‘Cut the camp, dump the gay protagonist – they just don’t sell – and rewrite the book in third person with the Aristo sidekick as the main protagonist. Oh, and give her a love interest’. About the perfect storm that got me my publishing deal and of the bittersweet feelings when the worst year of my life – my mother died, my life fell apart and I wondered if I would ever find joy again – transformed into one of the best.
I’ve now written four Danny Bird Novels – Death of a Diva, Death of a Nobody, Death of a Devil, Death of an Angel and a novella, Death of a Sinner. The fifth novel (which has a title I’m barred from disclosing right now) is due with the publisher in December and will be out in 2021.
I’m about to start another very different series (though still not featuring people called Anton La Chaise being offed by a massive insulin injection up the Matterhorn) and I grow prouder, every year, of Danny Bird, and more grateful than it’s possible to imagine of the readers who come back to him and who have become as much a part of his story – as much a part of his community – as Caz and Ali and Ray and Dash and Nick and all the other denizens of The Marquess of Queensbury public house, London SE1.
Copyright 2020 Derek Farrell