I happen to have a few hundred books, but can only count on one hand how many collections of short stories I have, something that I have always wanted to rectify as I love the idea of having a “mini library” of stories bundled into one book!
Well, “Mystery & Mayhem” is definitely fitting that criteria and furthermore it has been written by authors’work I have sampled before and thoroughly enjoyed.
Today I have the pleasure to welcome Sally Nicholls who is sharing with us how the story that was not to be actually came to be.
CRACKING OPEN A MYSTERY STORY
I turned down the offer to write a story for Mystery and Mayhem. I was six months pregnant. I had a very unfinished YA novel to finish, and two books for younger readers (one 20,000 words long, one 3,000) to write before the baby got here. Much as I love detective stories, the work I’d already committed to had to come first.
“I’m sorry,” I told Egmont. (I really was sorry.) “I’d love to. I would. But I can’t.”
I was at a party (a book launch actually) when I got the offer. The party was in London, which meant I had a tube journey, a train journey and a cycle ride home to Oxford. All the way home I couldn’t stop thinking about that offer. What story would I have written if I could have said yes?
Unlike most of the writers in this anthology, I don’t usually write crime, although An Island of Our Own does have a mystery at its centre. This made the whole thing more exciting, like a puzzle. Could I write a crime story? What crime would my detectives have to solve? How would it be solved? Who would my detectives even be?
Well, I knew the answer to that one. Ever since I first read Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise (set in a 1930s advertising agency) I’ve thought the Sexton-Blake-loving office boys at Pyms deserved their own mystery to solve. An office is a closed institution, which is always the best setting for a story (there’s a reason so many crime novels take place in country houses). Even better, it’s an institution where all sorts of mismatched people are forced to spend all day together. You have the office staff, muddling along together, and then you have the office boys, doing the same thing on a smaller scale. There’s plenty of scope for drama, and for arguments, and for crime. Perfect.
In Murder Must Advertise, there are twelve office boys, so I started off by imagining that that’s how many there would be in my story too. I pictured it as something like Emil and the Detectives or The Otterbury Incident (two great children’s mystery stories, by the way), in which gangs of boys act less like detectives and more like bobbies, doing the grunt-work of policing, trailing suspects, establishing sequences-of-events and – eventually – retrieving the stolen goods.
The problem with this sort of plot, however, is that it doesn’t really work in a short story especially not a story where I would have to introduce everyone from scratch. Twelve boys is far too many characters; you simply don’t have the words. And actually, I realised, when I thought about short stories by mystery greats like Arthur Conan Doyle, you don’t really have time for all the setting up of suspects and alibis and motives and so forth either. Not if you want to give your story space to breathe. If you think about the Sherlock Holmes stories, very often there is only one character who has a motive for the crime. The story tends to be about solving a single problem: how was the crime committed (or sometimes why or is there even a crime happening at all or what the hell is going on here, help, aargh, splat.)
So I decided my story was going to be a howdunnit rather than a whodunnit. And I knew I didn’t want it to be a murder. Murders are big, complicated, ugly things, with messy consequences, particularly in small offices where everyone knows each other. I felt like if I was going to write about a murder, I’d need more words to do it justice.
A robbery seemed like the obvious solution. Money frequently passes through offices – particularly in the 1920s or 30s, when fewer people had bank accounts. And if the stolen money was hidden in a safe, that would provide the how that my detectives would have to solve. How was the money taken out of the safe? (In my first draft, the thief stole bank notes. However, my clever editor at Egmont pointed out that bank notes were a relatively new invention in 1921 (they were first introduced in 1914), and would be easily traceable by their serial numbers. So I had to think again.)
Since I didn’t have any spare detectives lying around, this would also be a sort of origin story – how my characters decided to take up detecting. I decided that someone they liked would be accused of the theft, and they would have to turn detective to clear this person’s name.
In Sherlock Holmes stories (and Dorothy Sayers stories too) the villain often commits the crime using some clever trick, and once you’ve figured out what the trick is, that tells you who the criminal is. I knew exactly what trick my criminal would use to open the safe. (I won’t tell you how the thief did it, but if you’ve read the book I stole the method from, you’ll know, so stop reading now if you want to be sure of not being spoilt).
Most safes can be opened using special tools like thermal lance and drills. Opening one without tools, however, is much harder than people think. Someone who took a special interest in safe-cracking was the nuclear physicist Robert Feynman. He spent the Second World War stuck in a very boring office working on the Manhattan Project, trying to build the world’s first atomic bomb. Obviously, this work was highly secret, so everyone was given shiny, new, expensive, uncrackable filing cabinets to store their papers in.
Feynman spent a lot of his spare time trying to figure out how to break into these filing cabinets (not for nefarious purposes, just for his own amusement). He discovered lots of safe-cracking tricks, which you can read about in his autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! I won’t tell you which one my criminal uses in Safe-Keeping, but I will say that using this method, Robert Feynman managed to break into about a third of the high-security, top-secret filing cabinets used by physicists on the Manhattan Project.
Which, if you’ve read my story, you’ll know is rather terrifying.
Anyway, once I’d figured out the what, the where and the how of my story, I then began putting it all together in my head. I gave my characters names. I started writing dialogue for them.
At which point, I gave in, and wrote an apologetic email to Egmont. You know that story I said I didn’t have time to write? I said. Can I change my mind?