I’ve long planned to have a virtual sit-down with Winnipeg crime writer Doug Whiteway and I’m very happy that he has accepted the invitation.
Prior to turning to crime, Doug Whiteway worked as a writer and editor for, among others, the Winnipeg Free Press and The Beaver magazine. He still keeps a hand in nonfiction editing and writing alongside his career as a mystery novelist.
He has published seven mystery books under the pen name C. C. Benison. The first, Death at Buckingham Palace, featured Jane Bee, a Canadian who flukes her way into a job as a maid in the Queen’s household and solves the crime with an assist from none other than Her Majesty. There were two more in this series: Death at Sandringham House and Death at Windsor Castle. Staying with England as a setting, Whiteway/Benison’s most recent books follow the exploits of Father Tom Christmas, the new vicar in the village of Thornford Regis. Twelve Drummers Drumming came out in 2011, followed by Eleven Pipers Piping and the most recent, Ten Lords A’ Leaping. He hasn’t neglected his home town either; Death in Cold Type is set in Winnipeg.
See the C. C. Benison website here: www.ccbenison.com and our e-chat below.
CM: Like me, you chose a member of the clergy as a protagonist of your current series. Father Tom Christmas is an Anglican priest in the small English village of Thornford Regis. What drew you to that subject matter?
DW: I’m not entirely sure I’ve explained it to myself, but even though I’m happy to read detective novels where the investigator is a professional –– either a private detective or a member of a police force -– I’m more attracted to writing a character who is essentially an amateur detective, a somewhat ordinary person who is thrust into solving a crime through force of circumstance. It may be partly that I think ordinary people can solve problems if they put their heads to it or it may be that I don’t want to spend much time in the head of a policeman. I’m not sure. Anyway, what attracted me more specifically to a clergyman is partly that a priest or minister or rabbi has the benefit of being more likely to be granted entrance into people lives and homes than people in many other professions or walks of life. They’re counsellors and problem solvers and, in a village milieu, community leaders, so it seems less likely to strain readers’ credulity if they involve themselves in the resolution of a crime. I’m also attracted to the moral dilemmas that a priest may face. Clerics, I think (though perhaps I’m being unrealistic) are obliged to consider some of the wider implications of their actions and those of others.
CM: The setting in the Father Christmas books feels very authentic to me. How do you get all those details right and prevent Canadianisms from sneaking through?
DW: I think, suffering as I do from anglophilia, that I’ve spent a lot of time either consciously, or just below the surface of consciousness, paying attention to the speech patterns and vocabulary of the British and to various aspects of their culture. It started early. My ancestry is English and Scottish; two of my grandparents were born in the U.K (one in Devon, which is the setting of the Fr. Christmas mysteries); there was very little Can Lit growing up, so a lot of what I read as a child or young adult was produced in the U.K. or set there or the like. Then, when I was a teenager, there was the British Invasion in music and pop culture, which had a reinforcing effect. I’ve been to England lots of times, particularly during the writing of the Father Christmas series and the earlier Jane Bee series, so that helps in soaking up detail and atmosphere. As for the Father Christmas books, their authenticity owes something to the fact that the fictional Thornford Regis is based very much on an actual south Devon village named Stoke Gabriel, so the street patterns, the major buildings (like the pub and the church) and the landscape is, in a way, a kind of faithful journalistic recording –– only I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent, or the guilty, as the case may be. And, of course, these days, there’s so much available on the Internet. You can download BBC and ITV TV programs easily, listen to BBC live or on podcast, or visit parts of England through Google street view. Even for all that, Canadianisms likely do creep in, but the person most likely to catch them first is my American editor, who’s pretty much an anglophile herself.
CM: It must be the archivist in me, but I love reading Madrun’s letters in the Father Christmas books, complete with typos, of course. Can you talk about Madrun’s epistolary voice and how it came to you?
DW: I would love to answer this question thoroughly, but search my mind as I might I can’t recall what exactly suggested an epistolary voice to me. A little of it may be that I wanted to play a bit with the storytelling conventions of the crime novel, but where the notion of letters came from I’m not sure. Clearly, a piece of brain has gone missing. Once I’d determined to have letters, however, I modeled them after the letters my mother and her sisters would write to each other. In the days when long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, they would write frequently to each other, and in a breezy, chatty, completely unselfconscious style, complete with crossings-out and reconsidered thoughts. When I wrote Madrun’s letters, I would try to replicate the way they wrote letters (or the way I imagined they wrote letters); that is, quickly and with no concern for literary effect. Of course, when you’re creating them as fiction for a wider audience, speed and no concern for literary effect go out the window.
CM: Ten Lords A’ Leaping is your seventh mystery novel and the third Father Christmas book. How has the mystery fiction landscape changed since your first book?
DW: I think years ago I would have said the meat of a mystery is the puzzle and the sizzle is the characterization and the setting, but today I would say it’s the other way around (though crime novels with rich settings and fine characterization is the continuation a longish trend, helping a little to erase boundaries between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction.) I think, too, there’s a greater reader interest within Canada, and outside the country as well, in Canadian settings and characters than there was in decades past, not to mention there are more Canadian writers working within the genre than ever before. These are good things. On a less cheerful note, what has changed in more recent years is the increasing difficulty of getting published and generating revenue from publication due in large measure to the consolidation of publishers into larger and larger conglomerates seeking the new blockbuster and the dampening effect of Amazon on prices (great for the consumer, not great for the producer).
CM: How do you feel about the conventions of the mystery genre now? Are you constrained by them, comforted by them, or are you tempted to defy them?
DW: All three actually, and sometimes all at the same time. One of the pleasures of the genre is working within a highly organized structure and recognized conventions. You’re provided with bare bones that you can enflesh with your own characters and ideas. I think this can be particularly useful if you’re starting out writing fiction: there are so many things you have to get right in a novel that will attract readers, why not have at least have some part of it already provided for you? (I’ve always liked the idea of infiltrating genre forms and filling them up with ideas or subversive notions –– not that I’ve ever done it myself!) That said, the conventions can be a bit constraining at times. While rationality lies at the heart of crime fiction, the neat resolution that comes at the end of each novel rarely mirrors what we know real life (so-called) to be, so there are moments when I’d like, say, to write a more ambiguous ending, though I know readers would find this most unsatisfying. I think by and large the conventions have to be respected, so if I find myself tempted to defy them––and I do––then the solution is to work within another genre. (See next question.)
CM: One of your novels, Death in Cold Type, is set in Winnipeg. Do you think you might do another Winnipeg book sometime?
DW: Yes! I’ve completed a manuscript for a novel set largely in Winnipeg and along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg (though there are excursions to Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco and New York). The working title is “Paul is Dead” and it follows two characters who face the consequences forty years later of a crime they committed in their youth, in the late 1960s. It’s more of a howdunnit and whydunnit (whodunnit you’ll learn in the first few pages and the victim’s name is in the title.) If it has to be categorized (and publishers love categories!) it would be in the realm of psychological thriller.
C.C. Benison: the Reverend Tom "Father" Christmas Series
C. C. Benison is the pseudonym of Doug Whiteway. He has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines, as a book editor, and as a contributor to nonfiction books. He is the author of four previous novels, including Death at Buckingham Palace that won the Arthur Ellis Best Novel Award.C.C. Benison's sixth and latest novel is Eleven Pipers Piping, the second in the series of crime novels inspired by the verses of the well-known carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
When I was a lad – many, many, oh, many years ago – in the days when Canada had but a single television channel, two items were staples of Christmas morning programming: the Queen’s Christmas message and a short film, On the Twelfth Day, featuring a young Edwardian man on a penny-farthing bicycle visiting his lady love at her snow-covered terraced London house and bringing her gifts, starting with a partridge in a pear tree. It’s significant that he starts with the partridge in a pear tree – not with twelve drummers drumming as I do in the Father Christmas mystery series – because each time he brings his true love another gift – six geese a’laying, say – he also (to conform to the repeating verses of the Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”) brings another set of his earlier gifts. Thus, by the end of the film, the woman’s home is stuffed with 22 pipers piping, 30 lords a’leaping, 36 ladies dancing, 40 maids a’milking, an appalling number of birds, and not a few cattle, such that the only escape from this mad house is from the roof, by hot-air balloon, conveniently supplied by the young man, whose plan it likely was all along to secure his true love to himself.
Unlike Her Majesty and her Christmas message, On the Twelfth Day – designed by cartoonist Ronald Searle – disappeared from Christmas morning viewing by the Sixties (though it has since reappeared on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRijElQVlVk). But I never quite forgot its madcap energy. Any time the song was sung ever after, the images from the film would slip into my head.
Skip ahead several decades, and I am in a bookshop devoted to mystery novels, in Winnipeg, where I live, trawling with the shop owners through the computer, admiring all the clever concepts for mystery series, whether letters (A is for Alibi) or numbers (One for the Money) or kings (Bertie and the Seven Bodies) or queens (Death at Buckingham Palace). It is Christmas time. Snow is everywhere. Seasonal music pours from every shop speaker, including one that features gift giving on a grand scale. I am reminded of Ronald Searle’s film. Has anyone framed a mystery series around the carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, I ask, presuming the computer to immediately spit out a list?
No one had.
And so the holiday that inspired a carol that inspired a film inspired me, and the Father Christmas series was born. The protagonist is Tom Christmas, an Anglican priest living in small village in rural England. He’s a widower, a single father, a reluctant detective, and he suffers more than endorses the droll pairing of his profession and his surname. He – and the villagers, too – are seemingly oblivious to the strange pairing of the crimes in their community and a certain Christmas song. A young woman is found dead in a taiko drum in Twelve Drummers Drumming. A member of a Scottish pipe band dies mysteriously in Eleven Pipers Piping. And yet, for all this Christmasness, neither mystery is set at Christmas time. Twelve is set in May, Eleven in January. Ten Lords a’Leaping, scheduled for autumn 2013, is set in August. One day, one volume of the series will be set at Christmas, but I won’t say which one. This may disappoint some potential readers, those who are avid for crime novels set at Yuletide. But I agree with Jerry Herman who wrote a song for his musical Mame called “We Need A Little Christmas”. We need a little Christmas. Not a lot.