Today's guest blog is by author and journalist Peter Bartram. He has written over 3000 articles for a wide range of newspapers and magazines. Headline Murder is the first of a series of crime novels set in Brighton during the "swingin sixties".
When I sat down to write a crime mystery for the first time, I decided to make my protagonist a journalist rather than a detective. I’ve been a journalist all my life and I’ve often thought that we had at least one thing in common with ‘tecs - we both ask a lot of questions.
I don’t know whether detectives read much Rudyard Kipling, but journalists, at least, know the poem about the “six honest serving men” - what? why? when? how? where? who? They’re the questions you ask when you’re pursuing a story - and, I imagine, a suspect.
But while opposites attract, similarities repel. And I suppose the fact that journalists and detectives have the same question-asking skills is one of the reasons why relationships between them are sometimes strained. I discovered this at first hand at one point in my own career. I’d written a story which had made some politicians uncomfortable and the attorney-general of the day instructed two very senior police officers to interview me.
We met by invitation in a room at a convenient police station. Tea and biscuits were served. And then we spent an hour dancing around each other - with me largely answering a question with a question. Nothing ever came of it. To their credit, the officers made it clear they didn’t like being used as handy tools to clear up politicians’ dirty work. I carried on finding stories that sometimes didn’t please powerful people.
Anyway, as I say, the protagonist in the first of what I hope will be a series, is Colin Crampton, a crime reporter on an imaginary newspaper - the Brighton Evening Chronicle. Crampton is part avenging angel, part gutter journalist. He’s passionate about fighting for justice and righting wrongs. But he doesn’t care how he does.
My books and short stories are set in the 1960s, long before some journalists discovered phone hacking - and ended up in court as a result. But sixties’ newspaper people had more than enough scams up their sleeves - and Crampton is an enthusiast for using them. Not always successfully.
Journalists and detectives may spend a lot of time asking the same questions. But, in other respects, they’re different - in the ways they get their stories or solve their cases. Crampton is a journalist who needs to solve a case - generally one the cops have bungled - in order to get his stories. But that introduces an interesting new dynamic into the way the plot develops.
Because Crampton doesn’t just have to solve the case - he has to do it in a way which makes sure he can scoop the story before other journalists beat him to a headline. It creates new opportunities for suspense and - because Crampton has a journalist’s cynicism - a few laughs as well. My own career started on a newspaper in the 1960s and that experience has proved useful in creating the atmosphere - a newsroom where a fug of cigarette smoke lingers under fluorescent lights and 20 journalists hammering sit-up-and-beg typewriters sounds like a machine gun attack.
Those were the days. If you listen carefully enough, you might even hear the ghost of an editor cry: “Hold the front page!”
A Crampton of the Chronicle mystery
It's August 1962, and Colin Crampton, the Brighton Evening Chronicle's crime reporter, is desperate for a front-page story. But it's the silly season for news – and the only tip-off Crampton has is about the disappearance of the seafront's crazy-golf proprietor, Arnold Trumper. Crampton thinks the story is about as useful as a set of concrete water-wings. But when he learns that Trumper's vanishing act is linked to an unsolved murder, he scents a front-page scoop. Crampton has to overcome dangers they never mentioned at journalism school before he writes his story. Headline Murder will keep you guessing – and smiling – right to the last page.
Headline Murder is published by Roundfire Books in the UK and US. Paperback £9.99/$16.95; E-book £4.99/$7.99