In the Swim by Jan Needle

One of the beauties of swimming in the ebook pool is the flexibility that comes with it. I recently finished the second book in what I intend to be a series of thrillers about an odd partnership between a hardened cynic of a journalist/investigator in his forties and a woman not yet thirty who is learning the tricks of this vulgar old trade the hard way.

The first book has been out for about a year now, and has had nothing but five and four stars on Amazon, and a few good formal reviews to boot. It’s called Kicking Off, and is about the modern bleed of criminality into the more respectable world – high finance, politics, the self-styled ‘moral’ press.

It starts with the ‘extra-judicial’ death of a rooftop rioter in a Scottish jail, which leads the authorities into a desperate, and spreading, cover-up. At the same time a massively rich businessman is unexpectedly given a sentence much harsher than the one he had paid good money for, while an American super-criminal is targeted by law enforcers he was confident were on his side. The politician who rises to power on the back of this swamp has the moral compass of an alley cat.

My two protagonists – who in the nature of the game I became extremely fond of and intimate with – are called Andrew Forbes and Rosanna Nixon. I know precisely where both of them came from, and part of them are obviously me (romanticized). Rosanna is called the Mouse, but underneath her soft exterior is a blade of Scottish steel, while Forbes is a hard drinking widower who is prepared to take almost any risk to nail a wrong-doer (for a story.)

It is a hard world, vile, sexy, violent, and I think I probably reveled in it. But when I came to write the follow up – called The Bonus Boys – I found an odd thing inside myself. This one is about a dreadful multiple killing in a quiet country house in West Sussex. Think, maybe, In Cold Blood without the lonely prairies. But as I wrote, and rewrote, and rewrote – I found myself cowering from some of the sex and nastiness. It is horrid, like Kicking Off, with some appalling people in it. But I did not want to examine the vileness in such minute, microscopic detail.

I wanted to draw a veil. I wanted to indicate extreme suffering without plunging my hands wrist-deep in blood and fluids. I found that the story I was telling was too horrifying for me to tell. I began to (for want of a better description) tone it down. Not just the violence, either. My two main pre-readers, both women, found the sex disturbing, too. Neither could express their responses exactly, and neither thought that I had done it wrong. They just wished it was not so raw. So ‘in your face.’

By the time I had finished The Bonus Boys, it was a different book from the one I started. And I reread Kicking Off and wished that I could revisit that as well, in the same spirit. Too vile, too violent – and for some readers, certainly, a hard, hard read. A friend of mine who used to be a Detective Inspector said he thought it was terrific, and terrifically authentic. But he could not say he ‘liked’ it, under any circumstances.

The realization was quite a long time coming. The Bonus Boys was almost ready to  ‘go up’ when it occurred to me that Kicking Off was not set in stone. Imagine what a publisher would say if you told him you wanted a second bite at the cherry! But in the ebook world, everything is possible. The excitement, let me tell you, was acute.

So now I’m working on the prison thriller anew. No bowdlerizing, oh dear no – how can I bowdlerize my own work? I’m making it more like I want the book to be. I’m improving it. And I’m able to hold back on The Bonus Boys until Matti Gardner, my techie wizard son, has recast Kicking Off. Then I’ll ask advice from my Authors Electric friends who know about marketing and publishing and so on, and hit the world anew. At the very least it will be flagged up as a new edition.

A package, maybe? One free taster for a few days, then the old one-two? There are generous brains aplenty to be picked. Watch out, friends!

ANOTHER WONDER OF THE EWORLD. A highly thought-of conventional publisher has just contacted me out of the blue haze of gmail to tell me they’ve got hold of Killing Time at Catterick and are considering it for publication. Such fun! What would my admirers at the Army Rumour Service make of that, I wonder…

With the way public opinion is visibly changing about our military 'role', time might finally be on its side.


Bill Kirton said…
That's such a familiar feeling, Jan. When I wrote my first crime novel, I assumed readers would want a bit of gore so I obliged with a violent death scene. It led my agent at the time to introduce me to her friends as '... a nice man with nasty thoughts'. Last year, a publisher took up the translation rights of all my other crime novels but not that one - precisely because of that extreme scene. The book's still available in print from a publisher so I can't yet take your route and tone it down, but I will as soon as I can.
glitter noir said…
Interesting story, Jan, and one I can relate to. I was lucky to have the chance to retool Southern Scotch, the first entry in a crime thriller series starring Boss MacTavin. Boss is a Scot who's beaten nearly to death in Atlanta...and who returns in full Mike Hammer mode, on the trail of the men who beat him. Now, I'd intended from the start to have Boss evolve in future books: growing into a hero resembling Paladin from Have Gun Will Travel. But when I reread the book, I realized I'd gone too far in the Mike Hammer direction--and that readers needed reasons NOW to stick with this character. I let the novel sit a while. Then, like you, I found and took the chance to get the tone and the character right, without selling the book down the river. Or forsaking my original plan of having Boss grow from one book to the next. Cheers!
Chris Longmuir said…
Jan, would you describe your book as dark crime? And when will Bonus Boys be available? I ask because I've put myself forward for the crime residency at the Edinburgh eBook Festival and I intend to try to do the posts as examples of specific categories of crime books, taking into consideration there will be a degree of overlap. It means a heck of a lot of reading though!!!!
julia jones said…
You know I am a tremendous fan of your writing, Jan and I suppose I should have trusted that fact earlier to say that much as I did (and DO) enjoy and admire Kicking Off I could have enjoyed and admired it just as much (and more) without it being quite so strong. If I remember correctly it was some of the scenes on the boat (sacred spot!) that did it for me. A bit too Martina Cole if you know what I mean. Could even have detracted from your main important message. All that said I still thought it was worth all the stars I gave it and you can put me down for a copy of Bonus Boys as soon as available. (Fpr the record I had thought that Killing Time at Catterick might be the same so I held off a bit. But it wasn't. Your kindliness shone through and that accentuated the message of the story)
Guernsey Girl said…
I love the idea of the 'seediness' of journalism - in a novel, of course! Coming from a family of journalists I regarded them with awe until I joined the fraternity and managed to grow up almost overnight! Without the experience I'm sure I wouldn't be a writer now. Fascinating post.
Jan Needle said…
Sorry to come back so late, but i've been losing my passport on a train all day. Only I can do this, folks! Thanks for the comments, and similar experiences. I'll reread yours tomorrow, Chris, and respond. At the moment I'm merely brain damaged, so i'm going to watch the prerecorded Borgen. I was with a Swede in a Cornwall pub yesterday. And it's pronounced Boryen. So he says, but then his name was Petri. No jokes about being a dish, thank you very much.

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