Writing The Mystery of the Stolen Brides
Revisiting A Portrait of Barbara
Returning to A Portrait of Barbara was like a reunion with my younger self. With the book soon to be re-published as The Mystery of the Stolen Brides I eyed the chap cautiously across the years, aware of being old enough to be his father now, sensing that he was eyeing me with equal wariness. I hadn’t read the book since handing in the manuscript, typed on my portable Adler Tippa typewriter on foolscap paper, to the London publisher Bachman & Turner in 1978, who marketed it as ‘horror’ with a lurid cover depicting a skull wearing a female wig, with grapes in the eye-sockets.
Tragic Love Story
At the time I was with the A.D. Peters agency (later Peters, Fraser & Dunlop), who showed the book to Tom McCormack at St. Martin’s Press in New York, who accepted it for publication in the USA. I met this giant of the literary world when he visited England, and he gave me lunch, I think it was at Claridges, certainly a very posh hotel where he always stayed when in London. St. Martin’s Press, too, sold the book as ‘horror’, and it was responsible, among other things, for frightening American schoolkids who had sneaked it into lessons to read on the sly.
So, yes, it was scary, though in my mind the novel was really a tragic love story set in 1891 (I’d bought a bound anthology of the Illustrated London News of that year on the Portobello Road in order to make authentic references), with a Victorian detective inspector from London sent to the countryside to try and solve the mystery of what had happened to a bride who vanished on her wedding day.
A year or so later the novel was published in paperback by Sphere Books, and I met a lady there called Ann Suster and remember how she kissed my cheek as we said goodbye, which I thought such a touching gesture. But was the book any good? I honestly had no idea. Despite its having been taken by these publishers, I was worried my writing would be so bad as to make my toes curl up in embarrassment. So I never did read it again, fearing the worst as year followed year and it melted into the background of my life.
And now, with re-publication scheduled, this time as detective fiction, which I’d always felt it should have been from the start, I was going to have to read it again, if only to tell that misguided young oaf how hopelessly he’d got it wrong. I considered my older self to be more stable, sensible and experienced in writing, as well as lifely, ways, far better able to set a sentence dancing, make syntax scintillate and prose perform pirouettes.
So I took a deep breath and the phone off the hook and settled down to read the book again at long last. As I did so I could feel the chap who had written it watching me nervously, like a student who had handed in his thesis and was awaiting his tutor’s reaction. I fancy he must have smiled when my jaw dropped open, and at one point I threw the book down with a shout of “Who the hell wrote this?” Some of it stopped me breathing. I could hardly believe that ‘he’ had written it. That unkempt, unlettered idiot had pretty well nailed it!
Then I remembered the mass of reading and research he’d done in libraries and institutions in those pre-Internet days, the writing of copious notes, the visits to the Public Records Office at Kew to check train times and destinations in 1891, the newspaper library at Colindale to read bygone reports to absorb the Victorian atmosphere, the long musing midnight walks, the sweat and toil, the treasured relationship that had foundered forever.
So I came off my high horse. The overall construction and main set-pieces I barely touched because I couldn’t possibly have improved them – indeed, could I even have written them now? – though I did help the fellow a bit by enhancing some of the lesser passages I could see he’d neglected somewhat, and added an appendix to round the story off more satisfyingly. At the end I like to think that we both shook hands, having learned from each other. Certainly it’s a better book now.
I rest my case, and so does he.
The Mystery of the Stolen Brides is published by Little, Brown Book Group
Read an extract from The Mystery of the Stolen Brides HERE
Order The Mystery of the Stolen Brides HERE…
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Christopher Lee as Blakemoor: this page describes Christopher Lee’s involvement with the original story.
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