Sapere Books are publishing books of mine from two different series involving two different detectives.
One, involving Lieutenant Josef Slonský is set in 21st century Prague; the other, featuring the university lecturer Master Mercurius, takes place in 17th century Netherlands. There are obvious differences in setting that inform the writing.
Slonský is a career policeman. He is inclined to take the occasional drink to get the mental cogs turning faster. There is nothing much in his life except his work, and since he is 58 when the series starts, the threat of retirement looms large. Slonský has all the support that modern science can offer, including a mobile telephone, though he does not really know how to do anything beyond making calls on it.
Mercurius is very much an amateur, an accidental detective who falls into the work when a series of abductions in Delft leave the local authorities baffled, so they send to the University at Leiden for a clever man who might help them solve these; and the Rector sends Mercurius. He is a young man, only 33, a lecturer in moral philosopher and an ordained minister, and he has little in the way of science to help him.
To my mind, though, none of these is the major difference between the series. I award that distinction to the fact that Slonský books are written in the third person, whereas Mercurius narrates his; and I thought it might be instructive to discuss why that is so.
I would love to say that it was the result of a carefully balanced decision, weighing all the factors for and against either approach, but if the truth be told the stories just came out that way. In my head, the action in Slonský appears as a film in which I stand back, observe, listen and record, whereas the Mercurius books involve me as a character in the tale I am telling. I toyed with telling Mercurius in the third person, but it didn’t feel right, and I have spent a bit of time thinking why that might be.
I think the reason is that Slonský is a big character, but he has a large regular supporting cast and it is important to me that we should get to know them. If he were also the narrator, I think he would dominate too much. Mercurius, on the other hand, is the only character who appears in all that series of books, and as the only consistent element the story has to pivot on him anyway.
This is not just of analytical interest. Many crime novelists consistently favour one or the other approach. I am prepared for either, but it changes the way the story develops. In Slonský stories things can happen when he isn’t around; Mercurius only knows what he sees and hears. That inevitably leads to a slower unwinding of the evidence, because it would seem forced if all the clues turned up in an afternoon. Slonský can send his colleagues out to investigate several lines of enquiry and bring them back together for a conference; Mercurius spends a lot of time travelling to discover things for himself. There is no telephone or telegraph system that he can use, and he does not possess a horse.
There have been rare examples of writers changing the voice during a series – Conan Doyle had Holmes writing one of his stories, for example – but generally once the choice is made, you’re stuck with it. It seems strange, given how important it is, that I am not more systematic in my selection!