Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mark Pryor--Fly Away With Me To...Paris? London?

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.


  1. I think I'm in the "a bit of both" camp.
    It's fascinating to learn how Mark's stories came about and now I've another series to add to my teetering to-be-read pile . . . .

  2. Welcome, Mark! Love the idea of characters as kids, running off in all different directions.

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  4. I'm hooked already, and I haven't started reading the books yet!

    [This new captcha thing is very hard for me to negotiate.]

  5. What a wonderful storyteller you are, Mark. And thanks for sharing that lovely post about your father. I think I need to pay a visit to your mother's village! And read your books, of course.

  6. Welcome, Mark! I plan to look for your books as soon as I can. Consider yourself responsible if your addition to my towering TBR pile falls over on top of me! (Have you ever thought of THAT as a murder method?! Killed by her books!)

    As a mystery reader, I often say things such as "this would be a good place to kill someone" or "I wonder if I can find a murder mystery set in this place." So far I haven't been able to find one set in my favorite vacation place. There's a tall lighthouse, wooded trails, lots of mosquitoes, so many possibilities...

    As far as visiting places, I do prefer to return to one place regularly because I love it and it feels like a second home, but I'd also love to able to afford foreign vacations.

  7. I discovered your books, Mark, because of our Bouchercon panel, and I'm so glad I did! Love them. And I love the stories behind them.

    Plus, I'm with Debs, swooning over the views.

  8. Wow, thanks Debs and everyone for the warm welcome!
    I'm flattered to be making it to some new TBR piles, and I absolutely LOVE the idea of a tower of books being instrumental in a murder. Err, I mean, a fictional murder, Deb R, don't worry!
    For anyone captivated by the village of Castet, my mum is thinking of starting a B&B, so maybe you really CAN go visit.
    "Hey, mum, I've got some new friends who want to pop by for a few days, that okay?"
    "Sure, how many?"
    "About forty."
    Actually, she'd love it, my dear mum could cook for that many people and have leftovers for lunch.

  9. The books sound fascinating. A Texan in Paris? Definitely a fish out of water!

    As a reader, I'm another "bit of both" person. I enjoy reading stories set in places I know well, but books also give me the opportunity to visit places I'll probably never get to go.

    And yes, I do subvert things all the time. My son brought home pictures from a caving trip he took with Boy Scouts in the Laurel Highlands (south of Pittsburgh, where I live). Beautiful. And my first comment was, "What a great place to hide a body." He rolled his eyes and said, "Mom, only you." Now I can tell him, "No, not only me!"

  10. I am impressed by your style of writing. I must get one of your books today!

  11. Fascinating stuff, Mark! And truly beautiful scenery at your mother's place.

    I have that kind of heart attachment to the city of Oxford in England. On my first visit there, I felt a strange sense of coming home--to my real home. I may have to write a book set there.

  12. Mary, there's a use for caves that doesn't involve stashing bodies? Huh, now I know... ;)

    Libby, you must, you must! Actually, you don't HAVE to, but if you do I hope you like it. :)

    Linda, I can see how Oxford would have that pull, absolutely. Is it the history of a place? Feels like it, sometimes.

  13. Mark and I sat next to each other on a panel about location at Bouchercon, and I was so intrigued by his description of Hugo Marston I went out and bought THE BOOKSELLER and THE CRYPT THIEF.

    One of my great after-Christmas-Day treats is to curl up with a stack of books and read for a few days (letting the family forage off leftovers.) I think Mark's books will be at the top of the pile this Boxing Day!

  14. Welcome Mark. Book now on my Christmas list hints to husband.
    I think it's interesting that you, an Englishman, have a Texan protagonist while your host, Deborah, is a Texan with British protagonists.
    I hope to meet you at a future book event.

  15. I adore those views and have a serious case of location envy right now! Sigh.

    Familiar settings, new settings--I prefer new--especially if it involves a new culture--done well, it adds to the pleasure of the story--not just the whodunit, but a feeling of immersion in a new world.

    That said, I confess to sometimes having serious aversions to new places--a shuddering sort of feeling that makes me feel I don't want to spend any length of time there, and not based on any event or rational thought. The opposite of those times when I feel utterly at home in a new place.

  16. Julia, you may want to pass the books along. My daughter is as big a fan as I am, so we are fighting over them. I have The Blood Promise, #3, waiting for me when I finish the current book I'm reading.

    I can see that Mark feels about France and Paris the way I feel about England and London. So interesting how we connect to places, isn't it?

  17. Paris has a lien on my heart too, Mark. The Bookseller is at the top of my list too. But as we all love the bouquinistes, please don't kill anymore!

  18. Hi Mark! I've read and thoroughly enjoyed all your Hugo Marston books to date. So interesting. One of your stories has the French police clearing the highway outside of Paris. Maybe I'm weird (I did used to live in Austin) but I found the mechanics of that so cool. As much as I enjoy various places in our country I find myself leaning more to the old world. I was very comfortable and happy visiting Ireland and Scotland, even Spain for that matter. I'd like to make an extended visit to all those, plus England and France.
    Please keep writing Hugo's stories. How did you and your brother both wind up in the U.S.?

  19. This is so terrific...thank you! And welcome.

    And got to wonder how many eavesdroppers have heard authors and their spouses musing over how to kill someone....

    (And one of my favorite restaurants in Paris is Bouqiniste! HAve you been there?)

  20. Thanks Pat, so glad you like the books. Yeah, the technical details can be fun and I learn those from my day job as a prosecutor. Like how to slow traffic and clear a highway. :)

    Diana, I won't kill any more bouquinistes, two was enough. That said, my editor wants the next Hugo mystery to return to the theme, something to do with books. So, maybe I'll shoot for a librarian this time... metaphorically speaking.

  21. Wait, there's a restaurant called "Bouquiniste"?? How do I not know that?! Thanks, HPR, I will rectify that situation - we're headed there this spring (more tedious research, you know...!) so we'll check that place out. Going to look online now...

  22. There are times when readers want to kick themselves in the backside, those times when you thoroughly enjoyed the first book in a series and haven't gotten back to #2 and beyond. I read The Bookseller last year, and I was fascinated with the bouquinistes and Paris. (My review at I even have The Crypt Thief on my shelf. I will soon be rectifying my egregious error in not going straight on to the next book.

    Mark, after reading your post here on Jungle Reds, I realize that you are an amazing writer off of the fiction page, too. I am now following your blog, D.A. Confidential, and I look forward to reading about your father and checking out your non-fiction book, too. Your background is a story in itself to read, with your job and setting in Texas, your mother's beautiful home location and your brother's position in Aspen. It's such a thrill for a reader to discover that behind a favorite book is a person who is so interesting and full of story himself.

    Your comment about the places that claim our heart, or that one place, reveals why your characters are so appealing. You take your heart and put it into theirs. My place is still my hometown where I grew up, haven't lived there for 38 years. It's the place where I find sanctuary.

  23. Another series to add to my TBR stack. I think I need to put it at the top and start at the beginning. Sometimes just reading a post or interview with an author tells you that you will love whatever they write. I think that's the case here. England (and Deb's books) usually draw me more than France, but I might have to add Paris now! And the pictures are gorgeous.

  24. Hank, I picked up my daughter and three (younger) schoolmates, none of whom really knew me, from a field trip last year. First words out of my girl's mouth: "So, did you figure out how to kill your guy?"

    There was very little talking from the backseat on the ride home.

  25. Kathy, you are kind, thank you for saying all that. And not getting to The Crypt Thief isn't egregious, we're all so busy and have so many books to read, so please don't worry. I just hope you enjoy it when you get to it.
    Grandma Cootie, I'm reading one of Debs now, so I know what you mean about it making you love England. She's amazing.
    Mary, my kids are immune to my comments like that, too funny.

  26. C'est chouette to see you here, Mark! I loved The Bookseller, which you signed for me at our conversation @ Book People. Looks like there's some catching up + need to read what Hugo's up to. Hope I told you at Bcon that The Bookseller was on the front table at WHSmith in Paris last month! Yes, that idea of characters as kids running off in all directions is so true...but mine can only round around Paris zut...countryside is forbidden :)

  27. Hi Cara! How great that The Bookseller was on the table at WH Smith's in Paris! (I hope Aimee gets equal treatment!)

    Mark, thanks for the compliment! (He's reading No Mark Upon Her.) Did you row, growing up in England?

    My daughter was immune to "where to put the body" conversations, too. But brainstorming with writer friends in public places has gotten me lots of strange looks over the years:-)

  28. Cara salut! You did tell me that, I hope it's still there when I visit in Spring. Wait, I hope it's been sold...!

    Debs, no I didn't row. Rugby, cricket, football (the real football!) but no rowing. I'm about the right size... but maybe too lazy. ;)

  29. Mark, what a wonderful post, so sorry to come late to the party. Must add these books to my xmas and birthday lists too!

    How often do you go to Paris to do your "research"? Does your character speak French?

  30. The Places I love most to visit in my imagination are my hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Paris. And Oxford. If I hadn't studied a little bit at Oxford I might not have made it over to Paris until years later. The connection it is a little too complicated to post here. So I'll just say that when my husband and I discovered we had a Danish granddaughter everything dropped into place. We were invited to her birthday party and drove from her hometown down through Germany and across France where I visited an ancestral house built by my 9th great-grandfather. It was a great thing to do. I had never known that part of my ancestry beyond Acadia and Québec. I met distant cousins who Lived in the area and one who lived in the house. One was a man of the nearby town, and his brother was... don't know how to say it in English but I will guess it would be keeper of the deer park. That must've been a ancestral work, and somehow manage to filter—by accident of the Great Depression—all the way to my grandfather's generation in Salem, Massachusetts. He was out of work that was offered the position of taking care the deer herd at Forest River Park.

  31. Please excuse the errors from my speech to text. Just want to clarify one regarding the relative who lived in the nearby town. I was trying to say that he was the mayor.

  32. Well, since I'm in a sad rut post-To Dwell in Darkness... :) Sounds like some Parisian mystery is what I need!

  33. Lucy, I try to go every year but that doesn't always happen - three little kids to take care of. But we're going this spring, for sure.
    And yes, Hugo speaks French. I currently have him (writing book 5 now) in Barcelona, but he doesn't speak much Spanish, which makes writing dialogue a little harder.
    Reine, that's a nice discovery and story, thanks for sharing. :)
    And Jessica, Parisian mystery is what everyone needs, always!

    Thanks again to everyone for stopping by, this has been so much fun!

  34. Dear Reds,

    Thank you for introducing me to another mystery series.

    Mark Pryor,
    Your series sound interesting. I cannot believe your English brother has the same name as that American actor/ comedian. He was in many movies with Gene Wilder.

    I visited Paris several years ago though my visit there was too brief (3 to 4 days). It was a two week tour of Europe with a group. Did you or Hugo ever communicate in Sign Language?

    I invented a few Signs for things like "euro?" and they seemed to understand me in Paris.

    a mystery fan