DEBORAH CROMBIE: One of the bonuses of doing a book tour is the people you get to meet along the way, including other authors. I did a panel with Mark Pryor at the Books in the Basin festival in Odessa, Texas. Mark was funny and charming and interesting. And…English. But he is an assistant DA in Austin. Texas, and the protagonist in his books is a Texan who is a former FBI profiler who is head of security for the US Embassy in Paris. I asked Mark if I should start with the newest book in the series, or the first book. “Start at the beginning,” he said, with conviction. So I had him sign a copy of The Bookseller, the first Hugo Marston mystery, and as soon as I started it, I was hooked. I’m now on the third book and very much looking forward to the forth.
And I was intrigued by someone who seems to suffer from as much of a split personality as me, a Texas who writes books set in the UK, with English protagonists. So I asked Mark to elucidate, and here’s the scoop!
Fly Away With Me To… Paris? London?
What happens when an English writer dons a pair of cowboy boots and becomes a Texas prosecutor?
Why, you get a mystery series set in Paris, of course!
Okay, maybe that doesn't make much sense. But one of the first questions I get at book events addresses this disconnect, the fact that I'm an Englishman living here in Austin, and yet my books are set in France. The answer lies in a tangle of coincidences and good luck, one that stretches from the dusty trails of Texas to the grassy slopes of the Pyrenees.
But let’s take it in reverse, because this is the place to start, the place where my mother lives. These photos show her house and her view.
Oh, I know. If anyone has a motive to commit inheritance-based murder, it's me, right? Well, also my brother. And sister. Anyway, this is the place where I proposed to my wife, where we got married, and where I held my father's hand as he passed away. (Please don't be sad for me, he had a wonderful life and he would have found some aspects of his passing rather jolly, so much so that I wrote about it here. This wonderful place is the village of Castet, not far from Lourdes, and halfway up the Pyrenees mountains. The air is crisp and clear, the food is exquisite, and the views are... well, as you can see, they are unimaginably beautiful.
As you might imagine, France has a lien on my heart. And for me, a visit to France is not complete without a few days in Paris. There, I can linger on its bridges and contemplate the River Seine (which usually means I wonder how many bodies have floated down it this week), wander through its cobbled squares (pondering the beheadings that once took place in them), and eating at its many wonderful little bistros. Or, as I like to call them, Opportunities to Poison.
Does your imagination do that? I wonder whether it's just writers who manage to subvert just about everything they see, make it either part of a crime or part of the solution. Once, when flying into North Carolina with my son, he looked out of the widow and remarked on how pretty it was, with all those trees and lakes. I agreed, while marveling at all the wonderful dumping grounds for bodies.
Anyway, I digress, I was talking about why I set my books in France, in Paris in particular. Although, I don't digress much because my first novel, THE BOOKSELLER, came about as I was strolling along the Quai de Conti on January morning, holding hands with my wife and enjoying the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral peeking over the trees at us from across the River Seine. As we walked, we passed one of those wonderful institutions of Paris, the booksellers who ply their trade at river's edge from their metal lock-boxes, the merchants known as bouquinistes.
We stopped at one to peruse the bouquiniste's wares, run an eye over the titles of the books he was selling and perhaps buy a postcard or two. Then I noticed the steps nearby, the ones leading down to the strand of a walkway beside the rolling, swollen river.
"Hmmm," I said to myself. "What would happen if someone were to push a bouquiniste into the river? Why on earth would someone do such a thing?"
My wife, at that point, suggested I mutter a little more quietly in case the old man with the rubbery nose spoke English and decided to call les flics. So we repaired to a cafe where, after buying a pen and a notebook, the outline for THE BOOKSELLER was scratched into existence over the course of twenty frantic minutes.
My wife claims it was two hours, just for the record, but this was the final product.
As you might imagine, setting a book in a foreign land presented certain problems. For starters, who was to be my hero? A brave, crime-fighting Frenchman? Hey, no jokes… As a realist, I knew that if my book were ever to see the light of day, I'd need a protagonist that readers could relate to, would want to know about. An American.
Which gave me a lot of states to choose from. Around fifty, I think.
Now, one aspect of life has always interested me, one you see reflected in many books and movies, and that's notion of the fish out of water. Someone plucked out of their normal environment and dropped into a foreign land. You know, like an English farmer's son who now lives in Texas. (You know what's even weirder? My big brother, who's as English as I am, is now the police chief in Aspen, Colorado. I'm not kidding, the top cop in Aspen is a sweet, friendly, white guy by the name of Richard Pryor.)
Back to my hero and fish. Given my own situation, I thought to myself, "What could be more fun that a boot-wearing Texan patrolling the streets of Paris?" I suppose, technically, a clown patrolling the streets of Paris might be more fun, but no one likes clowns very much so I went with a Texan.
Filling out the rest of my protagonist was actually quite easy. I always wanted to create a rather old-fashioned, angst-free hero, the sort Eric Ambler or even Agatha Christie might have come up with, and so I based him on a slightly stoic, utterly honorable man that was my father. For spice, I made him a former FBI-profiler, based on a couple of those guys I've met through my job as a prosecutor. Once his persona was created, I needed a name and went with "Hugo Marston." Hugo is for Victor Hugo, and Marston because... I can't remember why. No idea. Seriously.
Now you see how the puzzle pieces fit together, why an Englishman living in America created a mystery series set in France with a Texas protagonist.
But, as with any mystery, there's a bit more to the story, something a little deeper. It's not just about convenience, the practicalities. No, if I'm writing about where Hugo comes from, why the books are set in Europe, I should acknowledge that there's a more metaphysical reason. You see, France is the place I see myself living. Maybe it'll happen one day, maybe it won't. But setting my books there is a way of connecting myself to Paris, and to the tiny village of Castet where my mum lives. I even feature the village in the second in the series, THE CRYPT THIEF. It has a wonderful church high up on a hill, perfect for... well, I can't tell you without spoiling it.
Yep, that's the church I got married in, what do you think?
Of course, I go back when I can and setting a novel set in Paris or the Pyrenees is the perfect excuse to visit, but it’s why I want to visit that matters. It's that inexplicable connection I have with those places, with France, and I'm betting that you have a connection to somewhere like that. I hope so, because then you'll understand what I mean. Maybe yours is Akron, Ohio, or perhaps its Prague, or Beijing. But when Hugo stops to buy a crepe in Montmartre, or his buddy Tom tucks into a plate full of garlicky escargots, I'm there with them, sipping wine and nibbling on pastries.
It took me a while to realize this facet of the settings, my need to be in touch with the places I love. It clicked as I wrote the fourth, and most recent, in the series. It’s a prequel called THE BUTTON MAN, and is the only one to take place in England. You can probably tell from the cover.
I had intended for all the adventure to take place in London, every bit of it. But my characters kept wanting to leave, head out to the English countryside -- in particular the village where I grew up in. I think now it's because I don't have a very powerful connection with London, maybe I went there too much growing up, I don't know. But it doesn't have a hold over me the way Paris does. As it turns out, the village of Weston, where I was born and raised, does have that magnetic pull, which is why I visited it in the book (and left a few bodies behind for good measure).
I now imagine my characters to be like kids, running off in different directions, dragging me to places that are meaningful, safe, fun. As you might imagine, since my little darlings take me to Paris most of the time, I'm just fine with that.
What about you? Are there places that tug at you, insist you come back time and again? And I'm curious, as readers of fiction are you drawn to books that take place there, or do you prefer to learn about new locales when you read? I actually like to explore a little when reading, but I suppose that's safe enough when I know I can turn my mind back to the boulevards and cafes of Paris any time, enjoy a cup of coffee or glass of wine with Hugo Marston and listen to his tales of derring-do.
DEBS: What a great story! And I love the fact that Mark’s English brother is a police chief in Aspen, Colorado. And I’m very happy that Mark’s little darlings take him to Paris, and London, and hopefully other places I like to visit in my imagination.
READERS, do you like to learn about new places, revisit the familiar and fond, or a bit of both?
You can learn more about Mark and Hugo Marston here.
And oh my gosh, he's got a quote from Oprah! (See Debs, already swooning with envy over the house in Castet, swooning even more... Or I would be if I weren't such a fan!) And do read the link to Mark's post about his dad. You'll see why I like his books so much.