Award-winning crime writer Dave Warner, aka “The Suburban Boy” tells The Starfish about his latest novel.
David, congrats on your new thriller. What’s it about?
A New York scientist, Doctor Georgette Watson is, like the rest of us, under the misapprehension that Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson were mere fictional characters. So, when her great-great-grandfather John Watson’s diaries lead her to a corpse kept secretly frozen in Switzerland since 1891, she has no idea, until she revives the nameless stiff, that she has brought Sherlock Holmes back to life. It’s a huge conceit but one you can believe might happen. On the surface the novel is an opportunity to bring together a contemporary, female Watson with the greatest detective of all time as they try and solve a baffling serial killer case in NYC. On a deeper level, it is about a man out-of-time trying to define himself in a world that may have moved beyond him. Something I feel every time I have to upload or download some tricky Internet thing. It’s about our humanity really, and how that doesn’t change with technology.
What prompted you to worm Sherlock Holmes and his offsider Watson into a contemporary work?
Nearly 20 years ago I was working on a film idea for my detective Lizard Zirk and his female off-sider and chauffeur, Fleur. When I wrote the synopsis as `like Holmes and a female Watson’ I just went “ping” that’s a really, great fun premise for a film. Holmes in the present day. I wrote a couple of drafts and tried over the years to get some interest; I thought it was the kind of film I’d want to see. Then I thought, hell, I’ll write the book anyway. That shifted the tone to something with more gravitas but still plenty of fun.
What were some of the challenges in putting an historic character into a modern setting?
Surprisingly there weren’t that many. The great thing about Holmes is that his mind is totally plastic and open to all things. It also works at lightning speed, so with his character you can accept he is going to `get it’ really quickly, as far as technology goes, and so on. The trickier thing was more, what silly things about 2020 would delight him and what would he most miss?
How satisfied are you with the result?
I have a super editor, Georgia Richter. Between us, we worked hard to shape something that satisfied us. That’s the starting point. You hope the readers like it as much as you do – but I was prepared for a very large number of Holmes fans who hated the whole idea. I’m exceptionally pleased with how it has been received. A lot of people really, really, love it and only a very few really, really, don’t!
Presumably you’ve read a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories?
When I was about 12 I got a book of them for Christmas or my birthday. I was fascinated by the mysteries and how Holmes worked them out. Before I embarked on Over My Dead Body I went back and re-read Holmes’ stories (I may have missed a couple!). I wanted to do justice to this great character even if the premise was out-there.
What do you like about these tales?
There’s great empathy between the reader and Watson, as we are baffled by the machinations of Holmes. I like that intimacy; how we feel we are sitting by the fire with Watson with a port on the sideboard as he tells us about this exotic friend of his. The Holmes solution is always fabulous. You try and beat him to the solution of the mystery and in my case almost never do, but it only works as well as it does because of Watson’s atmospheric set-ups.
Did you emulate the Conan Doyle style in any way in the telling of Over My Dead Body – ie ever stop to think, how would he write his way around this problem?
I first wrote the story as a movie screenplay and in that very two-dimensional world I didn’t have to think about that kind of thing at all. In a movie you are not in anybody’s head; not usually. But a book is different. I spent a great deal of time before I actually started writing asking: Whose story is this? Watson’s or Holmes’s? Whose point of view is the reader going to see? In the end I decided Watson should carry the day, as with Conan Doyle, however, relatively early on I realised I wanted to explore the notion of what is going on inside Homes’s head too. That was what excited me, and also what set this apart and made it original. So, I decided I would give Holmes’s point of view but only much later in the novel.
When it came to the plot itself and how that was unwound, I felt that Conan Doyle’s style where Holmes’ relates everything at the end of the story, just wouldn’t work with contemporary readers in a modern setting. I spent a great deal of time choreographing the suspense. But I did try and channel Conan Doyle by having some set-pieces where Holmes could surprise us with his very quick deductions of things that we simply fail to notice in the way Sherlock does.
Watson’s descendant, Georgette, is also a main character. How important is she to the story?
It really is Georgette’s story. One of the advantages of working in film and TV is that you always ask yourself at the start of the project, whose story is this? Who is going to undergo the most change? Now, I got lucky with Holmes in my story. He does undergo change, he learns to love and to be human – but when I started out I couldn’t be sure I would get to that point. With Georgette though I knew I had a character who had to let the barriers down – had to learn that to enjoy life she needed to be prepared to bend the rules, her own especially. Georgette grows exponentially as the story progresses.
Dave roaming NYC looking for inspiration
Can we expect these characters to appear in more Dave Warner murder mysteries?
Over My Dead Body wasn’t planned that way. It was a one-off really – but I suppose if there was enough demand, or if I had another idea with them that delighted me enough it would be entirely possible for these two to embark on a new adventure.
Presumably all your musical gigs were cancelled in 2020, but your what effect did Covid have on your writing?
I had planned to tour nationally with the original Dave Warner’s from the Suburbs and it was all booked for May-June. Sadly, that had to be cancelled. I then thought, good, plenty of time to write a new novel but in March I had a meeting with Anthony Van Der Wielen, manager of Marlion Pickett, about writing Marlion’s biography with him. I just loved the story anyway but then Anthony filled me in on more things I didn’t know and I thought, yes, what a great story. Simon and Schuster bought the rights and then I had to write the story with Marlion in just five months. Normally you would need twice that. Making it harder, Marlion and I could not meet in the flesh. We did the whole thing by phone. It was full-on, but the book, Belief, is something of which I am very proud. I narrated most of the audio book too, with Meyne Wyatt.
What does 2021 hold for you, David?
Late last year I wrote the first draft of a stage musical In Search of the Suburban Boy and I would like to advance that. I’m also currently writing a new Dan Clement novel. Dan is my Broome-based detective. For a while now I’ve been writing short-stories for Kindle and recording them as audio-books. So far, I have released five of these. They all have a twist and are mainly, but not all, crime fiction. As audio books, they run from shortest, about 17 minutes to longest, about 35 minutes. They are the price of a cup of coffee, so I hope a few people will give them a try. As e-book short stories they are even cheaper, you’ll get about three for the price of a cup of coffee.
I’m also very excited to be working on an audio-book autobiography of my musical life as a youngster in Bicton through to the release of my Mugs Game album in 1978. Maybe I’ll do a print version. It’s exciting with loads of songs, original radio interviews and input from some of the other Suburbs.
Will we see you in Perth any time soon?
I would love to get to WA, either just to visit or to do some music or library talk shows. It’s just a matter of the plague pissing off.