For my birthday a few years ago, I was gifted a course in crime writing.
Every Saturday for eight weeks or so, I got to go to The Groucho Club in London and talk about, think about, and attempt to write crime fiction.
I carried with me my detective heroes; the characters I’d fallen – and stayed – in love with over my life: Poirot, Marple, The Continental Op, Matt Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr and Marcus Didius Falco.
Three weeks in, Danny Bird was born. The exercise was to create a character in the morning: “Tell us who he or she is, what they do, where they live, how they live, what and who they love, and what they fear most in the world.”
And then, after lunch, we were told to write a scene where we destroyed their world.
That scene would eventually become chapter two of the first Danny Bird Mystery “Death of a Diva,” but at the time, Danny was a character, not a detective. Someone whose purpose, beyond filling the needs of that exercise, was zero.
Because, despite the crime writing world being a big church, I’d understood that there were No Gay Detectives. There was one truth I had simply assumed: Crime fiction with LGBTQI protagonists doesn’t sell. Publishers – let alone the public – rarely buy them. And so writing them was a fool’s errand.
Two more weeks in, and the group on the course are down the pub after the days exertions, when talk goes to fictional characters we have loved, and a woman – one of the other students – says “You know who I’d love to go clubbing with? That bloke you wrote about; the one who walked away.”
And a few of the other students nod. One bloke – someone who’s work had to date been dark and violent and very very straight – laughs. “He’d be a really good mate to go down the pub with. Someone that sorted, that grounded.”
“That funny,” someone else says, and I explain that I have no idea what – or who – he really is, and no intent to really use him again.
“Then this course has been wasted,” says the tutor, waving at the other students. “You have something there. Some one. Someone real enough for this lot to actually want to hang out with him. Now, put him up a tree and throw rocks at him.”
And so here we are.
Death of a Diva, my first Danny Bird book came out eighteen months ago. It had Danny, up a (metaphorical) tree, having rocks thrown at him as his life slid from disaster to outrage to farce, and readers seemed to like the idea of “The Worlds Grimiest Gay Bar” (named, deliberately, after the man who drove Oscar Wilde to his destruction), a dead Disco Diva, a cast of ne’er-do-wells, villains and lunatics, and a sense of community friendship and genuine humanity that I tried to put in to it.
I had a message from a reader not long after it came out, telling me how much he’d enjoyed the book, “Despite you dissing my favourite Spice Girl in it,” and his brief and complimentary note has turned into a Twitter friendship I value greatly to this very day.
Death of a Nobody was released at the end of last year. This time, just as Danny’s life was getting back on track, one of a foursome of gay Cater-Waiters was bludgeoned to death in the toilet at his pub as our hero tried to put on a glamorous high society wake. Characters, this time, included a glamorous heiress, a creepy massage therapist, a tweed-clad ex governess and a slumming conceptual artist, and the plot, whilst being a golden-age mystery, touched on themes of community (as always) friendship, love, the messes we make when trying to do the right thing, and the fact that Nobody should ever be made to feel like – or viewed by anyone else as – a Nobody.
A little earlier this year, I was doing some work at a major investment bank – the sort of place that is all testosterone and stripy shirts, all greed and geezers – and a bloke I knew – Tottenham supporter, photo of the wife and three kids on his desk, quiet but clearly alpha male - walked up to me, stopped, and indicated that he wanted to talk.
“Oi oi,” I thought, “What’s this about?”
“That book you wrote,” he said, and I paused, unsure, for a second, whether to do my best Saint Peter and deny I’d ever written a word. “Death of a Nobody,” he said, pronouncing the first word as though describing someone who couldn’t hear.
And he threw his arms around me in a bear hug, pulling away, eventually, with tears in his eyes.
“Oh mate,” he said, “That fucking book. Brilliant!”
And having shaken my hand – and leaving me somewhat shooken myself – he carried on his way.
When I was asked to pitch “Death of a Diva,” I described it as being “Like ‘The Thin Man’ meets ‘Will & Grace’. In Southwark.” And when I was then asked to describe my dream for an ongoing series, I remember saying “I want it to be like an English ‘Tales of the City’ with more murders.”
By that, I had meant that I wanted to represent the London I love – Queer, Straight, Black, White, Asian, European, and everything else that fits between those boulders - all together, all living in close proximity with all the opportunities and challenges that that represents. I wanted Danny and his gang to exist, not in some fantasy world where nothing bad ever happens, but in a world where despite bad things happening they are still strong and solid and together as part of a community of diverse voices, proud in their differences. Proud in their resilience. Proud in their community, and each Proud in their brilliant individualism.
And so here we are.
In a few weeks Danny3 – ‘Death of a Devil’ - will be released by Fahrenheit Press. This time, something horrible is discovered in the cellar, someone horrible comes to threaten a favourite series regular, and Danny and Caz are faced with some of their biggest challenges yet, as everyone realises that secrets, no matter how well hidden, can’t stay buried forever.
Danny4 is currently under way, and Danny5 (possibly the campest Danny ever) is in plotting stages, and if I’m asked, today, for one of the things that makes me proudest in my whole life, it is the fact that thousands – yes, even I almost don’t believe that fact, but I am looking at my Royalty statement as I write this – thousands of readers have picked up and read the first two Danny Bird books.
And wherever they are on – or off – the Rainbow, they’ve taken this man – someone younger, cooler and slightly less neurotic than I am – to their hearts. They’ve fallen in love with the people and places he’s part of, and they’ve proven that Crime fiction with LGBTQI characters can sell, if the story is good, the characters are honest, and the publishers are brave and stubborn enough to put them in front of the audience, and shout loudly about them.
HAPPY PRIDE EVERYONE, don’t ever let anyone tell you that your story isn’t of interest.
Derek Farrell, author of The Danny Bird Mysteries, London, July 2017