My greatest book selling acknowledgement came when Mr. Alan Beechey, author of one of my most favorite books ever, bestowed a town the name Plumley in his second book starring Oliver Swithin. After selling my page flicking fingers to the bone and making his first book An Embarrassment of Corpses named ‘most collectible’ by a now defunct hypermodern book collecting newsletter, and sending the book into a second printing (yes, I believe I single handedly am responsible, ha ha), Mr. Beechey and I became good friends. I named a ferret after his hero, another ferret provided a photo-shoot at a signing, and I’ve enjoyed Mr. Beechey’s sterling wit ever since.
Rather than write my usual tedious and torturous (for me, I can barely remember what day it is, let alone plots) review of the title, I am reprinting my interview with the fresh faced Beechey, from a decade plus ago. It will provide the plot and hopefully a soupcon of humor.
Finsbury, the ferret, should be couched in the living room, fighting bubbles in the bath, or nestled up on a downy pillow in bed with you. Why? Because he is the fictitious ferret in the fictitious books written by the fictional children’s writer Oliver Swithin, in the very real and hilarious novel by the fabulously flesh and blood First Offender, Mr. Alan Beechey. I first spoke with Mr. Beechey on the phone when I was three thirds of the way through the proof. I couldn’t stand it any longer, I had to be sure I set up a signing with this wildly imaginative author on the spot. I became just one of thousands, quite literally, that went bonkers over the very intricate whodunit, with the humor of P.G. Wodehouse. Since then the book has gone into numerous printings, received rave reviews, was chosen by Bookline, the Hypermodern mystery newsletter, as a highly collectible and great book, and recently was #3 on internet newsgroup dorothyl’s year end list of favorite books.
Character, Oliver Swithin, writes children’s books featuring a foul mouthed smoking ferret while keeping a day job doing basically nothing for 2 eccentric gentlemen. Oliver’s uncle happens to be a Superintendent of Police and comes to his nephew’s aid when Oliver’s fellow writer is found dead in the Trafalger Square fountain. Bodies begin to pile up and Oliver, his uncle, and a stunning police woman Effie Strongitharm, work to unravel the puzzle. The book is peopled with simply super characters with outrageous names, and a plot line that never runs straight. After discovering 2 facets of the book that endeared me to it even more, a ferret and Alice in Wonderland references, I wrote “O fabjous day, I have found the perfect mystery” in a review. Fellow readers love the book for different reasons but what we all agree on is how funny and clever Mr. Beechey is. Mr. Beechey, which he hates to be called, is very much the English Gentleman, which he doesn’t like to be thought of because he comes from a very nice working class environment and is proud of it. He was born in Hampshire and moved to West London within weeks and stayed until an adult. Due to high intelligence and a scholastic program that England no longer provides, Alan excelled himself into a better school where he studied for his O and A levels, something we anglophiles love to read about in mysteries, but I still have no clue as to what it means. We continued talking, our discussion turning to Oxford, with me trying to figure out exactly what college he attended and where it was located. What I established is it’s the same college where Bill Clinton didn’t inhale and where Fox Mulder and Alan received the same degree, a master in Psychology from University College at Oxford. After Oxford, he worked for a bit and then embarked to the New World. The red white and blue welcomed him and soon he was ensconced in a comfortable career and life.
Ah, but was he really? Here is where the story leads us to writing. A career path began to develop brambles, and rather than spend one’s life hacking at them, he traveled a new and risky one, the road to publishing. In other words he chose to begin writing, something he had always wanted to do, but naught the time. With a painful job experience past, it opened him up to untold possibilities and of course, potential poverty, because we all know authors make no money! His ingenuity in creating a personal consulting firm, allowed him the wherewithal to start the second book he wrote, and the first published. “Sometimes career changes have to be seized as opportunities”, Mr. Beechey says. The first novel was a police procedural much darker in tone and Alan couldn’t reconcile that the characters kept saying very funny things. After completing An Embarrassment of Corpses found the Brits don’t like to read about Brits so sold it to the US. Martha Grimes was kind enough to answer a letter sent to her from Alan asking for advice as to where to try to get it published. She then read the book, loved it, and gave a very nice jacket quote! So what bizarre thing happened to him to produce such a zany and funny story? He read. Alan’s favorite author is P.G. Wodehouse. He evens remembers where he bought his first book, Carry On Jeeves, at a church jumble sale in Oxford. He told me a quote “the world is made up of 2 kinds of people, those who love P. G. Wodehouse and those who haven’t read him”. Next he said something I couldn’t understand with his modulated BBC British accent.”I didn’t understand anything you just said”. “Ah, good” in reply. I point out that interviewing him is rather like being in the maze at Hampton Court, you think you are getting somewhere, but alas you are right back where you started.
With the humor of P. G. Wodehouse, the whimsey of Lewis Carroll, and a style all his own, he created the fabulous inhabitants of the book. The characters names in particular are priceless. Asked where he comes up with such gems, he explained that he collects names. Whenever he sees a word or name that he likes, he simply writes it down and goes back to the list when needed. That’s how Miles Lipsbury-Pinfold was born. He doesn’t remember where he saw that combination name (he later recalled it was from King Lear) but does recall seeing Effie’s last name in a phone book. When confronted that no one can pronounce Effie Strongitharm, he cheerfully admitted he doesn’t know how to pronounce it either. He is inspired by Charles Dickens his second favorite author, for the mind boggling names. One particular favorite character of mine and others is the invisible man. Not literally unable to be seen, just sort of ignored. I inquired how on earth he come up with such an hilarious personage. It’s based on his experience. “I was in an elevator when some immensely self indulgent 20–year–old girls got in after me. Chatting to each other, they backed into to me, turned around with a sort of self indulgent giggle and said sorry, didn’t see you there. I’m thinking to myself, how hard is it to miss a human being on an elevator? That led to thinking about somebody who might have that happen to them all their life”.
Now for Finsbury. Upon actually meeting Alan, I realized that he indeed was as witty as my mother thinks all Englishmen are, and that he actually knew very little about real ferrets. Most Brits have a very nasty image of ferrets and they are correct about undomesticated ones. He decided that for the fictional animal in Oliver’s children’s books that he didn’t want a cuddly creature and remembered a famous segment from the BBC that had a TV presenter being bitten on the finger by a ferret and it just wouldn’t let go no matter how much the man screamed in pain or shook his finger. Finsbury the character, is a wonderful depiction of bad boyness and I love him. As a fictional character in Oliver’s children’s books, he smokes, drinks and leads the poor railway mice down a sinful track. However, real ferrets, which are domesticated like dogs and cats, only steal socks and shoes, sleep up in the rafters of your couch and chase cats. No he isn’t going to have Finsbury be the detective, nor will he speak. I think we all just heaved a big sigh of relief. Asked if Finsbury was really his alter ego, he replied “I would like to think if I had an alter ego it would be Bipedal.” “It would be who?” I asked? “Bipedal.” “Which one’s he”? No, bipedal-walks on 2 legs rather than four. B-i-p-e-d-a-l. I yelled “Do you realize how stupid I just sounded? Although you know, it isn’t crazy to think you might have a character named Mr. Bipedal, is it”?
With the pressure on him to come up with a sequel, Murdering Ministers is finished and is due out this fall.(Obviously since this interview the book’s been published and can be purchased.) I can’t divulge plot, but I can say that I nearly died laughing over the type of murder weapon used. He says this outing is a bit more serious than Embarrassment but Oliver and Effie and an appearance by Finsbury are guaranteed. Mr. Beechey is a very happily married man (sorry girls) and has just become the proud father of Thomas Beechey.(along with a couple more sons who are now teenagers!) He contentedly goes grocery shopping, does the laundry and loads of other domestic things. (sorry again girls). If you want to visit Alan and Finsbury go to www.beechey.com.(I need to check to make sure this still works.) I promise neither one of them will bite!
Re-reading my interview has made me hunger to read the book again. I don’t read books twice as I’ve stated many times–but for this list I’ve been doing just that if I can’t remember what it was about–I certainly remembered Embarrassment–but want to enjoy it fully again. Truly–if you love humor, traditional mysteries in the spirit of Christie, Sayers, with fantastic characters, and wonderful whodunit–this book delivers everything and sooooo much more–I mean–it has Finsbury, the smoking ferret!
Don’t forget to check out the ever growing list of Best 100 Mysteries of All Time