Writing books tends to be a solitary pursuit. You think thoughts, work out ideas, then sit down at a keyboard and convert them into prose. Maybe you dip in and out of online writers’ forums, but that’s hardly the same thing as working side by side with other people. Basically you’re on your own.
So it was a great pleasure this summer to meet another novelist face to face – especially one with whom I seem to have quite a lot in common. I made the leading man in my Mike Stanhope series a logistics journalist, and I worried at first that this wouldn’t sound very appealing to readers. However, Robert Crouch has gone one better; his main character, Kent Fisher, is an environmental health officer.
What does that sum up to you? If I hadn’t read Rob’s series, I probably would have envisaged someone who was quite the antithesis of the typical leading man. No disrespect intended towards environmental health officers, but the very title sounds … well, dull.
Far from it! Kent Fisher is dynamic, inquisitive, sometimes reckless, but never dull. He knows lots of people in his area, the glorious downland of East Sussex, and inevitably he has made a few enemies in the course of passing official judgement on them. So when he develops a penchant for investigating crimes that the police seem to have neglected, he soon finds himself embroiled in all kinds of conflict, and turns out to be tough-minded and persistent.
Like my character Mike Stanhope, Kent manages to attract women with seeming effortlessness. In fact he seems to interact with several of them at the same time in most books in the series: not always romantically, but in various ways ranging from comradely to confrontational. The lively verbal sparring between him and them is priceless; in fact to me the vivid characters and natural dialogue of Rob’s books are the best parts.
One area where Rob and I conspicuously diverge is in that my books are written in the past tense, while Rob’s are in the present. He tells me he tends to work out the detail of his plots as he goes along, so it makes sense for his characters to be as surprised at events as he is himself.
I see the logic, but having written my first (unpublished) novel in the present tense, I found it a difficult approach to sustain. However, Rob makes it work, which makes me wonder if I should try it again some time.
Breathless or contained?
Another aspect in which we differ is that Mike Stanhope often travels the length and breadth of the country in pursuit of his stories, whereas Kent Fisher tends to stay in East Sussex – although he travels widely within it. Does that make Rob’s books seem more contained, or mine seem more breathless? I guess both approaches have their merits.
One thing that comes over clearly in Rob’s books is a love of the coastal downland settings – so it was appropriate that we met up at Birling Gap, adjacent to the Seven Sisters white cliffs. The location features in several of Rob’s books, and coincidentally also in one of mine, although mine are mostly centred on London. If you haven’t encountered his novels yet, they’re well worth a look. The Amazon book page for the first in the series, No Accident by Robert Crouch, is here, and there are plenty more in the series.