The Hooded Gunman: An Interview with John Curran

So today is not only exciting because my second puzzle book is out, but it is also the release day of the much-anticipated title, The Hooded Gunman by the highly esteemed John Curran. Before sharing my own thoughts on this title, (hopefully tomorrow), I have put a few questions to John about this project…

1. How did the book come about? Were you approached to write it, or did you go to Harper Collins with the idea?

With the current interest in the reprinting of Golden Age crime fiction – including HarperCollins Detective Club – I approached HC with the suggestion, knowing that the Crime Club had been one of the longest running and most successful ventures in their back catalogue. Its 65-year history remains impressive and the Club launched the career of many crime writers, including some who are now re-appearing after many years languishing unremembered. 

2.      What was the Collins’ Crime Club?

Collins Crime Club was, essentially, a marketing ploy to promote crime fiction titles published by Collins. They had published detective fiction since the early 1920s and on the crest of a wave of public enthusiasm for the genre, launched Crime Club in May 1930. It published 3 titles every month – apart from the War years – until March 1994.  In becoming a member of the Club, there was no obligation to buy books, so strictly speaking, it was not a book Club; but it was a very clever way to promote books.

3. What can readers expect to find in this book? How many CC titles are discussed?

The Hooded Gunman discusses this history and looks at the conditions that made the venture such a success. It includes images of every dust-jacket and every blurb.  It lists (alphabetically and chronologically) all 2012 titles, with brief – only for reasons of space – comments on many of the books and their authors.  Also included is a list of White Circle paperbacks, details of the Crime Club Card Game, many images from the Crime Club archives and Newsletters and the history of a very intriguing Crime Club competition.

3.     Did you read/re-read all 2012 titles?

 I had read many of the 2012 before I ever thought of writing a book: all of Christie, of course, and also the entire outputs of Marsh, Blake, Symons, Moyes, Barnard, MacDonald, Penny, Rawson, Devine, Garve and Aird inter alia; as well as many titles by Burton/Rhode, Lorac, Gilbert, Ferrars and Carmichael. During the course of writing the book I read – and/or re-read – almost 500 books, many of them purely for pleasure, but some of them in the interests of the overall CC picture. I had to persevere with some writers: Palmer, Stout and Gilbert spring to mind. And, of course, during the time I spent researching in the CC Archive I had a chance to read many difficult-to-track-down titles: Loder, Abbot, Carnac, Cole, Alington, Grierson.

4.      Which were some of your favourite and least favourite reads for the project?

Books I had read before embarking on the project – see above – remain firm favourites and after re-reading I found no reason to change my original opinion. I was impressed with Patricia McGerr’s experiments with the whodunit formula; with Michael Pereira, Val Gielgud, Laurence Meynell, Shelley Smith and with the early titles of Maurice Culpan and Michael Butterworth; to my surprise I enjoyed a few Hartley Howard titles, despite the fact that they are private-eye novels in the style of Chandler.

I have finally admitted defeat with the Coles and Rex Stout, despite giving each of them a dozen chances. Their plotting – always an important factor for me – remains unimpressive; in addition, the former have the added problem of colossal dullness while the doubtless entertaining relationship between Nero and Archie Stout, does not make up, for me, for the casual approach to plot.  

5.      How did you go about researching the book? What was the easiest/hardest part(s) of the book to write?

Most of the research was reading and assessing the books, while the trickiest aspect was dating the appearance of individual titles. I tried to get precise – day, month, year – dates but this proved more difficult than might be assumed. Not all CC catalogues – especially those from the War years – are still available and in many cases they contradict each other! The upside side of this problem was the discovery of ‘phantom’ titles: books that were advertised but which never appeared in print.

And tracking down every dust-jacket need the tenacity of Inspector French!

6.      When working on the book did you uncover anything surprising or unexpected about the authors you mention?

Yes, definitely. I’m not going to name names here – you’ll have to read the book to find those! – but I discovered that one CC writer was a witch, complete with coven! And another who spent more than one period in jail.

7.      How long did it take you to write the book?

It took roughly two years to write, but that also includes tracking down dust-jackets, reading the books, and poring over dusty catalogues in the Collins Glasgow archive. The actual writing of the text was, in many ways, the easiest part of the project.

8.      Where did the title for the book come from?

The Hooded Gunman was the name given to the iconic logo that appeared on all covers and title-pages.  And in publicity material this illustration loomed large. So it seemed an obvious title, as well as an eye-catching image. 

9.      Cover art is a key feature of this book and it’s great looking at the covers of familiar titles. But the sheer volume of pictures also reveals the changing nature of the artwork.

What do you think influenced these changes?

It is important to remember that the covers were illustrated by many artists, hence the wide variety of styles. Unfortunately, many of them remain unknown and/or anonymous, although the work of two who are identified, William Randell and Kenneth Farnhill, remain striking. In the 80s and 90s the covers became photographic, with no less impressive results. I did make contact with one of these photographers and his answers provide a behind-the-scenes look.

What period or style of cover artwork appeals to you the most? Is there one cover which sticks in your memory (for good or bad reasons!)?

Few would argue that the early pictorial covers have ever been bettered. Beautifully rendered, gloriously nostalgic and frequently subtly ominous…

My Desert Island cover is that for Ellis Peters’ Funeral of Figaro. A wonderful example of less-is-more that seems to be one thing but, on closer examination, proves to be something else…

10.  This work covers well-known names such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, but which less well-known authors, included in the book, do you think are under-appreciated and deserve more recognition?

I spoke earlier this year at the Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library of my admiration for Dominic (D. M.) Devine and Nigel Fitzgerald, both Golden Age stylists. Although not writing in the strict Golden Age whodunnit tradition, Andrew Garve and Harry Carmichael are very underestimated. Each was a resourceful plotter with an easy writing style and the ability to retain surprises for the last chapter. And Martin Russell can always be relied on to produce an unpredictable and entertaining story. Darker and enviably original is Joan Fleming, a writer in the Ruth Rendell style – 15 years before Rendell.  And Shelley Smith has claims to be considered a serious novelist. 

 

I hope this has piqued your interest in reading this title, even you weren’t already chomping at the bit to read it and it’s available now in all good bookshops as they say and online of course. Oh and don’t forget to come back to the blog tomorrow to read what I made of it…

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