(Lloyd and Hill #2)
(US title: Murder at the Old Vicarage) Macmillan, London
(1988)/St Martin's Press, NY (1989)
My fifth novel, published Macmillan,
London 1988/St Martin’s
Press, NY as MURDER AT THE OLD VICARAGE 1989. Hardback,
paperback, large print, Soundings Audio Book (unabridged).
A white Christmas. Deepening snow isolated the village
from the outside world. By the time the body in the vicarage
was discovered, Byford was cut off altogether.
It was, it seemed, a domestic murder. In fact Chief Inspector
Lloyd thought it would be an open and shut case. But it
turned out to be as complex and perplexing as his relationship
with Sergeant Judy Hill.
And both of them seemed to be slipping
from his grasp…
Why the return to Lloyd and Hill?
Two reasons. One was that they had stayed with me. Usually
when a book is written, the characters hang around for
a little while then begin to fade away, but I kept thinking
about Lloyd and Hill, and I knew quite a lot about the
Judy/Michael/Lloyd triangle that hadn’t appeared
in A Perfect Match. I wanted to continue their story.
The other reason was more basic. Everyone I met said
that their favourite book was A Perfect Match, and it’s
a bit discouraging to be told that your first book was
your best! I began to realise that the advice I had been
given – that the premise wouldn’t sustain
a series – might be wrong.
Why the change of title for the US?
My American editor said that enigmatic titles like Redemption
didn’t go down very well in the States, so he wanted
to change it to Murder at the Old Vicarage. I said that
I didn’t mind a title change, but that he couldn’t
possibly call it that – for one thing Agatha Christie’s
Murder at the Vicarage was too well known just to stick
the word ‘old’ into it, and for another it
was a terrible title. He said that the word ‘vicarage’ would
sell it in the US, and paid me more to let him call it
that, so I immediately capitulated, of course. I still
think it’s a terrible title, but he was proved
right – it was more successful in the States than
any of my previous books had been. But I did recently
read an American review of it which said that ‘by
her very title McGown is stating her intention to challenge
Christie at her own game’, and it isn’t my
title, honestly – it isn’t!
But you were challenging Christie at her own game?
Not challenging, no. It was a homage to Agatha. I nicked
one of her plot devices, and I wanted to acknowledge
that in the book. I thought that one way of doing that
would be to use her kind of setting, so that she could
be mentioned in the dialogue. So I set it in a snowbound
vicarage at Christmas and gave it a modern and decidedly
uncosy twist. I’ve seen it described as a ‘cosy’ in
the US – that worries me a bit!
Do you know the first thing about Church of England vicars?
No – is it that obvious? Sorry. But I do know that
most of them have at least two parishes to serve, as one
cross reviewer rightly pointed out. I had to let mine have
the luxury of just one – and I did mention that he
was lucky in this regard – as there would be no fictional
purpose served by sticking to reality. The vicar just came
into my head one night, arguing with his daughter, whom
he loved, about her husband, whom he loathed because he
was a wife-beater. Once I’d got him and his daughter,
I had to write about them, whether or not I knew anything
about Church of England vicars. I figured they were just
people, after all was said and done.
Where did the plot come from?
A joke, which Lloyd tells right at the end. I had heard
it years before, and saw how it could be the plot of
a whodunit, as a lot of jokes could. Most jokes rely
upon the listener drawing a wrong conclusion, which is
why the punch-line is funny, and most classic whodunits
rely on exactly the same thing. Once the rest of the
vicar’s family began to evolve, I realised that
my ‘joke’ plot had come into its own. What
I borrowed from Agatha wasn’t the plot itself,
but a plot device – a way of distracting the reader
from what was really going on, and it was that plot device
that reminded me of the ‘joke’ plot. Everything
just seemed to fall into place – this was the easiest
of all the Lloyd and Hills to write.
But did it work?
Yes, it did, and a lot of people list it as their favourite
Lloyd and Hill, which is nice. One reviewer on a Mystery
Readers site loathed it, which is fine, but then she
had the nerve to say that I had ‘several times
portrayed the murderer worrying that one of the other
suspects was guilty’, which of course I had not.
I wrote to her pointing out that I had merely allowed
the reader to jump to that conclusion and that I had
subsequently explained what the murderer was actually
worrying about. She replied saying that allowing her
to jump to conclusions was just as bad. I can’t
imagine why she reads whodunits at all if she doesn’t
want to be misled! That sort of uninformed criticism
is something I can do without, but mostly it’s
confined to the free-for-all Web, so can be safely ignored.