By Matthew Ross, author of Death of a Painter, Red Dog Press, April 2020
Have you ever had a lifelong ambition and when you finally achieve it, it’s nothing like you imagined, in fact nothing like anyone could ever have imagined? How about getting to finally strike something off the bucket list only to find the whole world teetering on the edge of the bucket?
Welcome to my life!
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to write a novel and see it published. They say everyone’s got a novel inside them, trouble is with every year that passed mine sunk deeper and deeper inside whilst work and family and having children all vied for priority.
I’d managed to tick off another lifelong ambition several years ago when I tried my hand at stand-up comedy – an experience probably best forgotten by both myself and the few poor unfortunates that endured it. I did discover though, much as I’d expected, I actually preferred the writing side of it more than the performing and I enjoyed a little success with it. I was invited to provide material for a leading stand-up in their nationwide theatre tours, corporate gigs and radio and tv appearances in addition to writing commissions from a couple of production companies (‘So TV’ Graham Norton’s company being one, and Pozzitive, the makers of so many brilliant comedy shows, being the other) for their shows broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It was fun, but just as I was beginning to gain some momentum I got derailed by the death of my father, the birth of my first child and a change in work circumstances all happening within the same three-month period.
However, a few years went by and the itch to write came back itchier than ever. Deciding the full-length novel format was more appropriate for where my mind was at, I applied for a place on the very well-respected Faber Academy Novel Writing Course and was offered a place under the tutelage of Richard Skinner. It changed my life.
Thanks to the Faber Academy course I wrote my first novel ‘Death Of Painter’ – a comic crime caper featuring an electrician as the reluctant protagonist helped and hindered by his crew of idlers, slackers and gossips. I’d completed the initial draft by the time I’d finished the Faber Academy course in Spring 2017, then revised and edited it over the Summer.
But between Summer 2017 and Spring 2020? Let’s just say getting it to publication has been a difficult birth. All of the feedback I’ve had to date has been so very positive, people have been very generous and kind but … there was always a ‘but’!
Most of the buts were there’s no place in the market for my kind of crime caper – readers didn’t want levity in their murders; where on the spectrum of crime fiction could it go - it wasn’t the traditional body in the library, it wasn’t a domestic psychological thriller and it wasn’t a gory, gruesome serial killer slasher. If forced to describe a home for my work, I’d say it was somewhere in the neighbourhood of Andrea Camilleri’s ‘Montalbano’ and MC Beaton’s ‘Agatha Raisin’ in the way that the crime itself mostly happens off-stage and the story is about how the characters deal with the situation thrust upon them in their own unique ways. Thankfully the publishers at Red Dog Press agreed, and kindly offered me a deal with the publication date of April 27th, not knowing the planet would be in lockdown by then.
Going back to the feedback, my absolute most favourite comment received was when my book was described as “Father’s Day Fiction” by which they meant it was the sort of novel you could buy for someone as a gift, someone that doesn’t ordinarily read books and feel confident that they’d get stuck in and enjoy it. Exactly what I wanted to hear because having been influenced by that kind of fast-paced, commercial fiction such as Dick Francis and Lee Child, and a lifelong lover of TV’s light-hearted criminal capers such as Minder, New Tricks, Lovejoy and so many more, that was exactly what I’d aspired to write – something I’d want to read on holiday.
So how did it feel to finally reach the point of publication just as the world went into a global shut-down? Aside from the cancellation of any celebratory lunches and launch parties? I don’t actually know to be perfectly honest.
Part of me was naturally disappointed that I didn’t get to pop the champagne with friends and family to mark the achievement, after all isn’t that part of the dream alongside holding a paperback with your own name on the cover and your own words on every page?
But the greater part of me is too busy to dwell too much on it. Life’s been turned upside down. Our normal world has been put on hold. We’ve turned spare corners of the house in to operational office spaces so my wife and I can work remotely. We’ve had to somehow cram in full-time jobs whilst prioritising home-schooling our two young boys. One of the boys, with spectacularly unfortunate timing, managed to break his arm the day before school closed resulting in so far two visits to a hospital valiantly staying open in the height of a viral emergency. Add on top of that the constant desire to keep in contact with elderly parents living alone: my mother-in-law is in New Zealand and my own mother is forty miles away but distance is irrelevant right now, with the lockdown restrictions in place they may as well be on the other side of the Moon. There’s no question: trying to maintain communication and trying to organise groceries and essentials to them is more pressing than a self-congratulatory back-slapping shindig in the grand scheme of things. There’ll be plenty to celebrate once we’re all through this and back together again.
As for the book itself, I actually feel quite positive. In recent months, the way the politics, the culture and the attitudes were turning, it felt as though people were looking for a return to the ‘cozy crime’ sub-genre, seeking something modern but nostalgic at the same time, something light-hearted, some levity in their murders. And as if to prove it, the wonderful ‘Knives Out’ arrived in the cinemas around Christmas time and on our streaming services around Covid time.
So maybe the stars have aligned to bless this difficult birth, maybe it’s coming at a time when people want a bit of humour, a bit of escapism, something to take their mind away from the current problems. Maybe this is the right time after all for ‘Death Of A Painter’?