I’ve always got a great kick out of kids’ books – the zanier the better, in general – and I love noir detective mysteries. Raymond Chandler has been a particular favourite of mine since I was in school. Having two young nephews (aged 7 and 9) who were really getting into reading gave me the perfect excuse to write a book that was both: a slightly madcap noir detective mystery for kids, populated by animals and with a down-at-heel turkey-detective as narrator and hero.
Unfortunately, while I’m great at coming up with seemingly wonderful ideas for projects, I’m less great at following them through to completion. I felt that I needed some way to force myself to see this particular project through. So, I hatched a plan. Once I had the first tranche of about thirty pages written I printed them out, forged a cover letter from Seamus the Shamus on Free Range Detective Agency headed paper (motto: “I’m no chicken – I’m 100% turkey!”), bundled them into envelopes, and posted one bundle to each of my nephews. Basically, I had decided to guilt myself into finishing the book. I’d happily leave something unfinished if I was only doing it for myself, but didn’t think I’d be able to face leaving it unfinished if my nephews were looking forward to it with those big hopeful Bambi eyes of theirs. Thankfully, I was right. One double-cross, two murders, and three months later, the book that would later be published as Murder Most Fowl was finished, and the Free Range Detective Agency was off to a flying start. Ten months later, as is sometimes the way with these things, its sibling arrived through my nephews’ letterboxes: The Baboon With The Golden Bum.
Although, as it happened, pretty early on in writing Murder Most Fowl the guilt – or rather the threat of guilt if I left the book unfinished – evaporated away. First, the process of sending it to my nephews was great fun. They would examine the postmarks, the signature on the letter, anything at all that might give a clue as to who was sending them, and I’d have to organise to post the bundles from increasingly exotic locations: Cork, Athlone, Britain. And second, I was having more and more fun doing the writing itself, in particular the back-and-forth of the dialogue sequences.
One of the more useful bits of advice I’ve been given on writing is that, rather than hamming up a scene and playing it for laughs, it can be a lot funnier to set up a slightly ludicrous or odd situation and play it completely straight. That’s certainly what I tried to do with the dialogue sequences, something that was helped by having the book populated by animals. To me, there’s something inherently funny about, for example, a scowling hyena remaining unmoved by a well-meaning but slightly bumbling turkey who’s trying to wisecrack his way to impressing her. I definitely found Seamus’s back-and-forths with the different characters the most fun parts to write, and to read back. Keeping the books dialogue-heavy also had the added benefit of reducing the risk of the writing getting too knowing and self-referential, something that tended to happen whenever there were extended sections of narration from Seamus.
These dialogue sequences would frequently take on a life of their own, going off in often unexpected and sometimes bizarre directions that I hadn’t planned. I’m not the world’s best planner of plots, so I started Murder Most Fowl with a clear idea of how the dénouement would work but only a sketchy idea of how to get there. My tendency to get carried away with the fun of writing dialogue often resulted in the fairly sketchy plan I had for the remainder of the plot being seriously contorted, or even simply ripped up and completely redrawn. Hopefully it was usually to the benefit of the book – it certainly made getting to that dénouement a lot more enjoyable.
There were times when, technically, I found the dialogue tricky. I spent a fair bit of time at various junctures trying to avoid pages of “he said/whispered/cried, she said/murmured/exclaimed”, while still making clear who was saying what. I was especially conscious of this given that I was writing for kids. One of my bugbears when reading is being halfway through a scene and realising that, somewhere along the way, I lost track of who was saying what because I couldn’t get a clear sense of the voices from the writing, and I have been hearing the son’s lines in the mother’s voice, and vice versa, for the last page and a half. In my own writing, I found it very helpful to give the characters particularly distinctive voices. Sometimes this has included giving them pretty obvious speech patterns: Simon the snake sssaysss all of hisss esssesss like thisss, Frank Bloo-oo-oombum talks like this because he’s a baboo-oo-oon, and Doc, the mole, takes lots … of pauses when he … speaks. As well as making it an awful lot easier to figure out who is saying what, it hopefully helps keep the characters in character the whole time, and brings the scene more vividly to life.
While the books are written for kids, it’s not easy to classify exactly which kids – I’ve been in more than one bookshop that stocked Murder Most Fowl simultaneously in both the 5-8 years and 9-12 years sections because they weren’t sure which best suited it, while another bookshop listed it as being suitable for 12-15 years. I don’t really think that these books are aimed at, say, 9-12-year-olds, so much as aimed at anyone from about 7 upwards. They’re very cartoonish – helped along by Steven Stone’s excellent illustrations – and the humour is often pretty silly, driven by the slightly ridiculous combinations of animals. On the other hand, I think it’s important to have some emotional depth to the writing – while I don’t want to bludgeon readers with weighty moral points, there are still some genuinely serious emotional themes of loss and love and guilt and revenge touched on in the books, which give the books a certain amount of moral heft. These, I hope, make them a more satisfying read for older kids, as well as for the adults who might be reading them to younger ones. When I think of the kids’ books that I enjoy now (and enjoyed back then), they’re generally like this – great fun to read, but also underpinned by serious themes dealt with in a way that’s not too heavy-handed. My aim with the two (and counting!) Free Range Detective Agency books has been to add to that group of books. Fingers (and wings, paws, and hoofs) crossed that I’ve succeeded.
(c) Jed Lynch
About The Baboon with the Golden Bum:
A brand new instalment of The Free Range Detective Agency series. Seamus the turkey detective is once again desperate for a new case.
When security breaches threaten two-time Business Monkey of the Year, baboon Frank Bloombum’s top-secret money-making facilities, the Free Range Detective Agency is called to the rescue.
Who might be responsible? The baboon, the jackal, the newt, the toad? And what about that other toad
Frank accidentally flushed down the toilet all those years ago?
It’s a hard case, but, Seamus can count on his friends, a meerkat and a mole, to help him crack it.
Order your copy online here.