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Chris grew up in Devon a long time ago. He went to the University of Liverpool where he stayed until the grants ran out. He became a maths teacher, starting on the Wirral and ending up in Tunbridge Wells. He threw in the towel in 2007 when the idiocies of senior management began to affect his blood pressure. He currently lives on Romney Marsh with his second wife Theresa. He has three grown up girls from his first marriage.
As to why Chris writes? In his own words:
Writing is a lonely business. I would have given up long ago except for two things: I enjoy it and, much more importantly, because of the encouragement of other people who seem to like what I do. To you all, my heartfelt thanks, especially if you took the time and trouble to write me a review on Amazon. On the other hand, if you didn’t bother then please punch yourself in the face.
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PUBLISHER’S NOTE: A surprising fact is the disproportionate number of authors who’ve emerged from a small school in South Devon, Teignmouth Grammar School. Four of them are published by APS Books: Barbara Whitton, Chris Grayling, Pete Sears and Andrew Sparke. In addition we publish a discography for another TGS veteran, Phil Beer and his folk band Show Of Hands. Suspect some credit’s due to teachers like Adam O’Riordan and Adrian Davis as well as the central hive of all forms of creative energy that was the TGS Annual Eisteddfod.
THE INSPIRATION FOR NEIL MACKENZIE BY CHRIS GRAYLING
If you were to put me on the spot and ask me which was my favourite book of all time I think I would plump for The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Even so, despite being an avid reader in my youth, I’d never heard of the author or his cult hero creation until I was eighteen. Back then news travelled slowly, very slowly, and most of the world’s knowledge stayed hidden from your average Devon youth.
I came upon it by accident, about forty years ago, on a hotel shelf. It was the beginning of a love affair that dimmed for a while until I started writing myself. Radfords Hotel was owned by Terry Crump who became, in the absence of my own father, my mentor during my teenage years. He was a cultured and educated man, full of energy and enthusiasm who, among many other things, converted an Elizabethan country house of wood panelled rooms and crooked corridors into a hotel. And, more to the point, so far as this story is concerned, Radfords was full of numerous nooks and crannies, some of which contained shelves of books that Terry had collected over the years.
Back then, on Thursdays, he and his wife Janet used to take most of the hotel guests on a coach to an Exeter nightclub, leaving me and a few guests back at the hotel. Sometimes the bar, for which I was responsible, would be deserted and, bored, I’d go wandering looking for something to read. And on one night I got lucky.
The book immediately drew me into Marlowe’s world. Set in pre-war Los Angeles, everything is filtered through the eyes of the world-weary private eye. He is both of the seedy world he inhabits and yet set apart from it. He effortlessly engages with it but remains somehow insulated from its sleaze and corruption. Marlowe is as cynical as a loan shark and yet somehow you know he’s a man you can trust with your last penny. You sense that he both hates and loves LA and needs its glamour and excitement like an addict needs heroin. This struggle to break free from something was mirrored in real life by Chandler’s own tragic relationship with alcohol.
Chandler’s writing style clinched the deal for me. Spare and witty, the prose had a cadence that I’d never met before in other novels. It’s still rare – that quality of combining momentum with elegance and interest. So much writing can seem stolid and often impenetrable by comparison or, conversely, simply gauche and unsophisticated.
So, while we’re on the subject of writing styles, we come to my own blundering efforts to aspire to the heights reached by my novelist hero. Because, when I started The Big Keep over ten years ago, all I wanted to do was sound like Chandler. But I was to find that it was easier said than done. Ask Mikel Arteta for example: I’m sure he would love his Arsenal team to play with the fluidity and grace of those of the Arsene Wenger era but they don’t. And, probably like Mikel, I’m fucked if I know why they don’t. You seem to need a magic ingredient and that’s a rare commodity both in football management and writing.
Anyway, I’ve persevered through four, soon to be five, books. In the beginning I intended to make it only a trilogy, charting Neil’s exit from teaching and introduction into the world of private investigations. In one sense they were autobiographical except for the being a private eye part. But when the first three were finished I found there were a couple more stories to tell. Or maybe I’d become just as addicted to Neil as Marlowe had been to LA?
So what do I hope a reader will find in a Neil Mackenzie book? Well, I intended Neil to be like Marlowe if the latter were English and lived in modern-day Kent: there’s the world-weary cynicism and wit in the face of fuck-wittery for a start. However, for all his flaws, Neil is, first and foremost, likeable and heroic. It’s a rare combination in protagonists these days: being either likeable or heroic is rather old hat among present-day literati. But, as Neil would most probably say, ‘Fuck ‘em’.
Of course there are differences between Marlowe and Neil. Chief among which being that Neil has two friends and partners – Rocky and Gere. Neil’s relationship with them is almost the heart and soul of the books or, at least the major distraction from his own adventures. I still find myself laughing at what Rocky has to say even though I’m the one actually writing his lines.
Finally, I’m also going to make a big claim for the Neil Mackenzie series: the stories are better than Chandler’s. I’m never going to say that the prose can come anywhere near his standards, but I maintain that Neil’s plotlines are simply more interesting, exciting and realistic. When I reread any of the books (I know I shouldn’t admit to that) I’m still genuinely amazed that I actually had enough imagination to make all of that up. I only hope my readers are similarly impressed.
ANTONY BASSETT For KENT BYLINES 18th July 2021
I found it challenging at first to warm to The Big Keep, whose main character, Maths teacher Neil Mackenzie, fancies himself as a modern-day equivalent of a wise-cracking, hard-drinking Philip Marlowe. Although Mackenzie is the divorced father of two daughters teaching at a Kent girls’ school, eyebrows were raised at how close he was becoming to a former pupil of 18 or 19 – nearly 20years his junior. There was also a shocking headbutting incident in the early chapters which hardly improved our hero’s reputation in the readers’ eyes.
However, I need not have worried. This book is a classic example of a novel that improves vastly as it goes along. Once you’ve assimilated the writer’s somewhat jokey style, it quickly morphs into an entertaining caper with fascinating characters, witty dialogue and an intriguing plot centred on a break-in at a luxury hotel. I felt it was not so much a crime novel as a work of contemporary fiction, highlighting the relationships between Mackenzie and the characters he encounters: teenage girls, badminton players, fellow teachers and women in general. But soon I got used to the writer’s down-to-earth, light-hearted writing style.
Although he touches on the break-in at the very start, there’s mounting excitement as, further into the book, further details emerge of the burglary, along with its aftermath. It was hard to stop turning the pages as, with a humorous but delicate touch, the writer handles romance, sex scenes, tension, banter and human friendship. In the end, I felt it was a rollicking good read!