Selected Books by Edward Marston
The Nicholas Bracewell/Elizabethan Theater Mysteries:
The Domesday Mysteries (first British publication dates):
The Restoration London Mysteries (first British publication):
Selected Books by Keith Miles
The Merlin Richards Mysteries:
* Not yet available in the United States.
What's the easiest way to distinguish an exceptional mystery writer from a merely good or clearly gimmicky one? Try reading several of his or her books in a row. Authors who are confident of their abilities and bold in the execution of their craft don't become repetitious after one or two novels. Their fiction continues to offer unanticipated situations, memorable turns of fate or phrase and appealing, evolving characters.
Every serious reader in this genre could come up with a dozen choices for a list of such wordsmiths. My own contributions would have to include Keith Miles, a British historical mystery master best recognized under his pen name: Edward Marston.
I first met the Wales-born Miles/Marston at a Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Seattle several years back. Already well known by then for his lusty, light-hearted series of whodunits set in the tumultuous theater world of Elizabethan England, he'd been assigned to chair a panel on the writing of historical crime fiction. I'd never previously heard of Miles, but having greatly enjoyed his presentation, I decided to find out whether his stories were equally entertaining. I started with his second Elizabethan mystery, The Merry Devils, then proceeded to read four more of his books in a hungry rush, hooked by his sensual re-creation of late 16th-century London and its bawdy, eccentric, often hilarious habitués. The only thing that stopped me from reading more of Miles' works at that time was that my local bookshops couldn't offer me any additional titles.
Miles/Marston isn't usually considered an "important" crime fictionist, in the same sense that Michael Connelly, Robert Goddard, Ruth Rendell, Dennis Lehane and others are considered important. He has been an Edgar Award finalist and his books draw widespread critical acclaim. But because most of his tales occur in the past (sometimes the very dusty and arcane past), and because they're often weighted with farcical episodes, readers who prefer the hard-boiled or at least "serious" traditions of mystery fiction may dismiss Miles' efforts as inconsequential. The fact that he is so prolific, often turning out more than one book in a year -- in more than one series -- might also cause readers to think his work inexpert.
This is an injustice. Because at 59 years old, with more than two dozen novels to his credit -- and three new books out just this summer -- Keith Miles is one of the most consistently enjoyable and innovative historical mystery writers working today.
A graduate of Oxford University, now living in a village near Canterbury, in southeast England, Miles has written plays, radio dramas and even television series. He's composed children's stories, penned non-fiction books about swordplay and rugby, and worked up adult novels with various sports backgrounds. (In all, he has written more than 40 books.) Yet it is his yarns based in bygone eras that have attracted the most attention. Especially worthy of note are his 10 Marston novels, including The Wanton Angel, that feature an ambitious but habitually struggling theater troupe, Westfield's Men. Managed by the levelheaded Nicholas Bracewell, this company all too frequently gets mixed up in devious, deadly and thoroughly delightful larcenous doings around the London of Queen Elizabeth I.
On top of those, the author is nine novels into a spirited Marston series about a pair of royal surveyors, soldier Ralph Delchard and lawyer Gervase Bret, who roam 11th-century Norman England, collecting data for William the Conqueror's tax records (or "Domesday Book"), while simultaneously uncovering -- and solving -- crimes. (The newest Domesday adventure, issued in England earlier this year, is The Foxes of Warwick.) Miles has also just published -- under his real name -- Saint's Rest, the second mystery starring Merlin Richards, a young Welsh architect who has moved to Prohibition-era America in hopes of working with the famous Frank Lloyd Wright, but instead winds up doing as much criminal detection as he does building design. And the author inaugurated still another Marston series in August with the UK publication of The King's Evil, in which 17th-century society architect Christopher Redmayne and a police constable named Jonathan Bale conspire to answer questions raised by the stabbing death of Redmayne's latest client.
How does any single human being write so many books? "Discipline," Miles insists. "All stemming from those early days in TV and radio. Also, I work on enthusiasm. I choose subjects and characters about which I can enthuse, because that makes me want to finish the book to see how it all works out."
Fortunately, the author was recently able to break away from his literary labors long enough to grant me a wide-ranging interview, during which we discussed everything from his theatrical background and his fascination with English history, to his golf game and his prison experience. (Yes, you read that correctly: prison experience.)
J. Kingston Pierce: I've read that you started out writing for the theater. Is that correct?
Keith Miles: I began writing at high school (a boys' grammar school in South Wales), where the highlight of the year was the Sixth Form Concert -- a mixture of comic sketches, songs and mime. For two years, I wrote, acted in and directed the show. I got the acting bug from an appearance in a school production of Arsenic and Old Lace as Jonathan Brewster, the Boris Karloff character. During a six-month gap between leaving school and going to Oxford, I worked as a laborer in a steelworks to help finance my way through college. At the same time, I began to write plays.
One of them, a one-acter called A Man Named John, was performed in Oxford in November 1960, as part of a competition. It was selected to represent Oxford in the Sunday Times National Student Drama Festival in January 1961. That got me some publicity and I was approached by a script editor from BBC Television. He got me interested in writing TV drama.
You attended Oxford in the late 1950s, early 60s. Did you remain active in theater during those years?
Yes. We had a rehearsed play reading every week and staged three or four major productions in the course of a year. We became acquainted with a wide range of world drama. My favorite part was the Provost in Measure for Measure for OUDS (Oxford University Drama Society). This was directed by a student called Ken Loach, who is now a prize-winning film director. I also appeared in a garden production of The Shoemaker's Holiday, by Thomas Dekker, and as Starbuck in Richard Nash's The Rainmaker. Among the various plays I directed during this time, my favorite was Sergeant Musgrave's Dance, by John Arden. The cast included a youthful Michael York, now a Hollywood film star.
In the summer of 1961, I was invited to represent the British Union of Students at a Culture Festival in Turkey. We performed the Turkish premiere of The Birthday Party, by Harold Pinter. I played the old man. We toured for a couple of weeks, ending with a weird outdoor performance at a fairground where we had to compete with flashing lights and blaring music. The experience taught me a lot about the problems faced by touring actors.
And didn't you go from there to teaching drama at a prison?
I was a history lecturer for three years after Oxford, before becoming a full-time freelance writer in 1966. And during that time, I also taught drama at a maximum-security prison [Winsen Green Prison in Birmingham, England] for a couple of years. I had a two-hour night class with a dozen cons. All I had to work with was a tape recorder. We got through an incredible number of plays. The two they liked best were Waiting for Godot and The Iceman Cometh. They felt that Beckett and O'Neill had an affinity with them. I was there on the night before they hanged the last man ever executed [at Winsen Green, in 1962 or 63]. It was a gruesome occasion and the atmosphere was grim. We read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that evening, and it kept their minds off what lay ahead next day.
It sounds like you had some fun bringing the world of the stage to that, shall we say, "captive audience."
I enjoyed the experience immensely. My students were old lags, recidivists who will spend most of their lives in and out of institutions. But there was a lot of talent there, if you could win their confidence, and they did value a link with the outside world. It was a Victorian prison with pretty appalling conditions, dominated in those days by the tobacco barons. Today, of course, it's the drug-pushers who've taken over.
You also have some experience writing for television, right? What was that like?
I was offered a one-year contract by a television company in 1965 and quit my teaching job that Christmas. I wrote a soap opera for the TV company for two years, then sold them an idea for a 13-part drama series called Crimebuster, about corruption in sport. This was a theme I later took up in my golf mysteries.
I also wrote for a cop series called Z Cars; a comedy sci-fi series, The Adventures of Don Quick, which projected Don Quixote and his sidekick into the future; and children's drama series like Freewheelers, which was an adventure series for teenagers, a sort of junior Avengers. I made a fleeting appearance in one episode as a dead body in Trafalgar Square. Not even a walk-on. Just a carry-off.
Of the others, the only one still on TV over here is Space 1999.
Really? I remember Space 1999 as a pretty good, mid-1970s science-fiction series starring Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. Did you work on that series for long?
I came in at the end of the second series of Space 1999, so only made a brief contribution.
When did you become interested in mystery fiction?
I've always liked mystery fiction and grew up on Agatha Christie and James Hadley Chase before graduating to Chandler, Hammett and John Dickson Carr.
But the first book you published back in the mid-70s was not a mystery novel, was it?
No, it was an academic work, a critical study of Günter Grass, the German author, whose Danzig trilogy was known over here, but whose plays and poems were relatively neglected. I thought The Tin Drum was a marvelous novel, which gave a unique insight into the German psyche during the Nazi era. Since most of the male adults in my family fought in the last world war, I had a close interest in its causes. It's no accident that I choose periods of history with a background of war -- The Queen's Head starts with the Spanish Armada, and the Domesday series looks back over the 20 years of continuous warfare in which William the Conqueror was engaged.
I also wrote a lot of children's fiction before I turned to mysteries; a novel about the murky world of professional snooker, a big-money sport over here; and The Finest Swordsman In All France, a non-fiction book with a comic slant, listing the major clichés used in films, books, plays, political parties and so on. It did very well over here but had too British a slant for an American audience.
And wasn't your first mystery series golf-related?
It featured Alan Saxon, a professional golfer who plays in a different country in each of the four books. Bullet Hole , the first, took him to the British Open Championship in St. Andrews; Double Eagle moved him to California's San Fernando Valley; Green Murder shifted him to Australia; and Flagstick  got him (and me) to Japan. At the time, I was playing a lot of golf and had a wonderful excuse to try out courses abroad. What was interesting about the series was that I wrote them in the first person, which has advantages and disadvantages for the writer. The main advantage is the concentration of the narrative, telling the story through one man's eyes and building in moments of self-discovery for him; the reverse side of that coin is that all the information about other characters and events has to be fed through him. There's no independent action, no way of taking the reader elsewhere.
You wrote the Saxon golf mysteries under your own name and must have been proud of them. Yet the series died. What happened?
After four books, the publishers did not wish to continue, though I wrote a fifth golf mystery [set during the Ryder Cup] for them, Stone Dead, under the pseudonym of Martin Inigo. It came out [in 1991] with my tennis mystery, Touch Play, also under that name.
Even though the Saxon books are behind you, do you still get in a few golf swings now and then?
I play less golf now than I would like, but I do fit in an occasional stint on the golf range. At my peak, I managed to get below 80 on a regular basis, but would probably be nearer an 18-handicap now.
So, tell me about the inspiration for your much better-known Nicholas Bracewell/Elizabethan theater mysteries.
Bracewell came out of a love for the theater, buttressed by regular visits to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford. For 30 years, I lived within easy driving distance and never missed a season. When they opened the new Swan Theatre there [in 1986], I got a much clearer idea of what Elizabethan performances would have been like -- and the Bracewell series was born. But the real hero is the editor who invited me to submit a synopsis for the first "Edward Marston" novel. At the time, I only thought in terms of writing three of them. But I've just delivered the 21st Marston.
For those January readers who are not familiar with the Bracewell books, could you give me a quick synopsis of the series' principal characters -- especially some background on Nicholas Bracewell, himself?
Nicholas Bracewell is the book-holder or bookkeeper with Westfield's Men, an Elizabethan theater company who perform in the innyard of the Queen's Head, a London pub. The book-holder was much more than the modern stage manager, because he had a much wider ranger of functions, including the care of the plays themselves, which often only existed in one single complete version and which had to be kept away from plagiarists. Innyard theater gave actors a precarious existence. They were banned by City statute, harried by Puritans, unable to play on Sundays, confronted by rowdy audiences and regularly out of work when there was an outbreak of the plague and all theatres were closed. External dangers made them draw together into tight-knit groups with fierce loyalties.
Lawrence Firethorn, the leading actor with the company, is also its manager, a talented but vain man with enormous physical and emotional energy. He is always at loggerheads with Barnaby Gill, the resident clown, though they work superbly together on stage. The love-lorn Edmund Hoode is the company playwright, required to produce new plays or to refurbish old ones. These three are the nominal leaders of the company, but it is the resourceful Nicholas Bracewell, a merchant's son who once sailed round the world with [Francis] Drake, who really keeps them going. Other members of the company make regular appearances in the series, as does the wayward patron, Lord Westfield. Their future is always in doubt -- one day, they may be playing before Queen Elizabeth at the palace; the next, they may be performing before a rustic audience when forced to tour because of some disaster in London. Through the medium of a theater company, it's possible to reach all strata of Elizabethan society.
With your background, I can certainly understand why you'd want to write about a theater company. But why did you choose the Elizabethan era as your setting?
If you want to write about the theater, the obvious time period to choose is the 1590s, when verse drama flourished as never before or since. Also, the Tudor period, in general, is one that I know extremely well and find eternally fascinating.
You've written 10 Bracewell books thus far. Do you feel that you have learned a great deal about writing -- and maybe some things about yourself -- in concocting this series?
Any series stretches a writer, because he does not want to repeat himself. This means you have to ring the changes every time, while keeping enough serial elements to satisfy your regular readers. The beauty of the series is the ability to explore different characters in depth each time. The novel I most enjoyed writing was The Silent Woman, because it made me look more closely at Nicholas himself and trace him back to Barnstaple. He is by no means an unblemished hero and this book explained why.
It's interesting that you should bring up The Silent Woman. That's also one of my favorite installments of this series. And I'm sure I am not the only one who had presumed that, after what happened in that story, the relationship between Bracewell and his landlady, the widowed hat maker Anne Hendrik, would become closer than it has.
It would have been very easy for him to marry Anne at the end [of The Silent Woman], but she has far too much spirit to be taken for granted, and she rightly rejected him at the time.
The relationship between the two of them is one that's evolved in ways I never envisaged at the start. Anne disappeared from The Roaring Boy altogether, then resurfaced in The Laughing Hangman with a much more central role. This was not planned. It just came naturally when I started writing. Will they marry in time? Maybe and maybe not. Wait and see.
Given the fact that at least all of your recent novels have been historicals, can I presume that you enjoy researching history?
Research is fun and I always try to work from primary sources. I have endless books of historical documents and letters, and access to a university library. In fact, I spend more time there than most of the students. For the Bracewell books, of course, the plays themselves are a primary source and I constantly re-read the works of Shakespeare's lesser-known contemporaries. Writing is the easy part. The difficult bit is collating the vast amount of material that you have patiently garnered and leaving much of it out.
You mentioned Shakespeare's contemporaries. Which of those playwrights, and which of their plays, do you most enjoy?
My favorites are Marlowe, Dekker, Jonson, Middleton, Webster and the much-underrated Beaumont and Fletcher. Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy is another favorite and, of course, The Malcontent by my namesake, John Marston. I use the standard themes and conventions of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre to devise my own plays for Westfield's Men. They would have had a large repertoire, getting through 30 to 40 plays a season. I try to invent plays which most suit their particular talents. Shakespeare, inevitably, provides much inspiration. The Corrupt Bargain, the play featured at the start of The Roaring Boy, is inspired by Measure for Measure.
Do you think you would have been happy living back in 16th-century London? If you had lived back then, do you think you would have been a playwright?
I'd love to have lived in 16th-century London. It was an exciting time. I doubt if I could have made a living as a dramatist for more than a couple of years (very few people did), but I would have been involved with the theater at some level.
In addition to writing about Nicholas Bracewell and his merry band, you've penned nearly as many mysteries featuring the pugnacious Ralph Delchard and his more studious partner, Gervase Bret, two of William the Conqueror's "Domesday" surveyors. Tell me what provoked your interest in the Domesday stories?
It arose out of regular visits I'd been making to Normandy and the fact that I have a passion for visiting English cathedrals. The last time I saw the Bayeux Tapestry [a massive picture story recounting the Battle of Hastings, in 1066], I was reminded what a wonderful piece of propaganda it was. There's no Anglo-Saxon equivalent. Victors write history. I thought it would be interesting to explore Norman England in more detail and see it from other points of view. That's why I made Gervase Bret come from mixed Saxon and Breton parentage. He has divided loyalties and sees things from new angles.
So far you have published six Domesday novels in the States (and more in Britain), without any obvious end in sight. Do you have a specific story arc in mind for this series, or can you see it going on as long as readers will buy the novels?
The Domesday Book covered 34 counties, each one different, each one throwing up a new set of problems for my commissioners. I have tried to ring the changes by resting two of the commissioners from time to time and bringing in replacements (such as in The Stallions of Woodstock and The Wildcats of Exeter), who provide strong narrative elements. In the 10th volume, The Owls of Gloucester, just finished, I introduce William the Conqueror for the first time in the series -- though I did use him in a short story called "Domesday Deferred" [included in the anthology Crime Through Time II, edited by Miriam Grace Monfredo and Sharan Newman].
My original idea was to fit all the pieces of the Norman jigsaw together, but I doubt if I -- or my readers -- will last out the full 34 counties. I'll go on as long as the ideas continue to flow and the commissions come in from my publishers.
You also have a third mystery series going, this one centering on an earnest immigrant architect and Frank Lloyd Wright-wannabe named Merlin Richards. Tell me about your inspiration for the Richards series. Have you long harbored an interest in architecture, in general, or the works of Wright, specifically?
My brother is an architect and he fired me with tales about Frank Lloyd Wright over 40 years ago. During my teaching days, I used to lecture on the History of Building and that furthered my interest in Wright. I didn't want to make him the protagonist in a novel, so I chose an outsider instead, a Welsh architect who escapes from the conventional career planned for him by his father and seeks out Wright as his touchstone. Over the years, I've met many people who've made these impulsive life-change situations, mostly with disastrous results, but some have been extraordinarily successful. Merlin Richards is a compound of such people, with a few idiosyncrasies of his own for good measure.
Such as his skill with the harp and his background as a rugby player?
His rugby-playing career is a crucial element. I played the game myself until I was 40 and still do some occasional coaching. Indeed, one of the books I most enjoyed writing was The Handbook of Rugby, which came out over here a few years ago. It's more than a sport. It determines your attitude to life. Merlin is the kind of man who puts the ball under his arm and runs headlong into the opposition.
You, yourself, are Welsh. And you've periodically dealt with Welsh characters in your other series. But Merlin Richards was your first Welsh main protagonist. Had you been thinking for a long time about creating a Welsh main character? If so, why did it take you so long to introduce one?
Actually, my novel about professional snooker, Breaks , has a Welsh protagonist and was set in Wales. It drew heavily on biographical material, including memoirs from my time in the steelworks. My favorite radio play, Where's Your Sense of Democracy?, had an all-Welsh cast, and I've featured Welsh characters in many other plays and books. Merlin is different in that he's an exile -- like me.
Do you mean to suggest that Merlin is more like you than are any of the other myriad characters you've created?
There's a part of me in all my protagonists, but none of them wholly represent me. I'm too fond of getting on a stage myself to settle for being a stage manager. The beauty of writing the Bracewell books is that I get to play all the parts.
How do you see the Richards series evolving? Will we see more of Frank Lloyd Wright in future installments? I confess, I was actually a bit disappointed that he had such a bit part in Saint's Rest, since he has such a wonderful, commanding presence.
I'm still in discussion with the publisher about the direction Merlin will take.
At the outset, I decided to use Wright in a supporting role, a tricky business because he was such a giant. The danger was that he would overshadow everyone else, so I have tried to show Wright through Merlin's eyes rather than have him striding across the forefront of the story.
Americans will see only two of your new books out this summer. You also have a third, The King's Evil, which is being published in Britain. Is that a stand-alone mystery or the first installment of yet another series?
The King's Evil is the first in a new series set in [England's] Restoration period. It starts with the Great Fire of 1666 and gives my protagonist -- another architect, though totally different from Merlin -- untold opportunities to rebuild London. I was pleased with the way the first mystery developed and will soon be starting work on the next one, The Amorous Nightingale.
So, you're now working on three British historical series and one American one. Not to even suggest that you should take on more writing, but are there other time periods or places around which you would someday like to build mystery stories?
There are lots of time periods I'd like to explore. I've written two stories about a Biblical character I invented called Iddo the Samaritan, and I'd love to develop him in a novel some time. The Victorian period also attracts me, as does the Edwardian. I once wrote a series of radio plays about a Bow Street Runner in the early 1820s, another period I'd be happy to revisit.
You write historical mysteries. Do you also read them? If so, who else's works in this subgenre do you enjoy?
I'm a voracious reader and particularly like novels by Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor, Miriam Monfredo and Sharan Newman. Of the others, [I like] Elmore Leonard, Larry Block, James Ellroy, Paul Bishop and Rex Burns. But I also read a lot of non-mysteries and am an ardent Anne Tyler fan.
Are you happier working with historicals than with a modern series? Have you considered working on another modern series of mysteries?
I'm happy working with historical or modern material. I'm developing an idea for a one-off contemporary mystery at the moment. I like to push myself and create new challenges all the time. It keeps the work fresh. That's why I never write two consecutive books in the same series.
I've read that you're a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Does this also mean that you are a bird-watching enthusiast? If so, might you someday build a story around that interest, the same way you did around golf?
I already used that interest in a five-book series for teenagers. One of the protagonists was a keen bird-watcher with a habit of seeing other things through his binoculars as well. Each book was set in a different country, giving me a chance to go bird watching in Britain, the Florida Keys, Norway, Australia and Pakistan. The series was called Action Scene because the children's father was a stunt man in films and they went with him on location.
What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of your novels? What would you like to be able to do better than you can already?
I think I spin a good yarn, invent a wide range of interesting characters and -- because of all those years in radio and TV -- produce credible dialogue. I'm always looking for ways to improve or to learn from other writers. I learned a lot from working on Günter Grass and from adapting the work of writers like Hardy, D.H. Lawrence and Dostoevsky. It would be nice to work on a bigger canvas -- a real blockbuster -- but it's not easy to persuade publishers to make that kind of investment.
Are you surprised or disappointed that you haven't won more awards for your fiction?
It would be gratifying to be nominated for more awards, but it's not something to lose sleep over. There will always be writers with less talent who get more recognition than you and, conversely, those with far more talent who get less recognition. Writing is something of a lottery.
Finally, I'm curious: You write principally under two names -- Edward Marston and Keith Miles. Do you, as a result, have two distinctly different sets of fans? Or does everybody know to read your works under either moniker?
Not many people like golf and Norman history, so I do tend to have two sets of fans. A lot of actors read the Bracewell series but they wouldn't be interested in Merlin Richards. It's one of the joys of diversifying: You reach new people with each series. | September 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.