By Karen Harper
Colin Edmonds is a writer who wears many hats—including his unique debut novel, STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS. A successful script and comedy writer for British TV, he has written a steampunk thriller/mystery with brilliant characters. As an Anglophile and lover of Victoriana, I was amazed at the book’s range of plot and people, the real and the fictional. Ladies and gentlemen—sit back and enjoy (and be frightened) for the show is about to begin!
What is your novel about?
STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS is set in the swirling fog-filled streets of London in 1899. It’s a thriller-mystery which chronicles the adventures, often misadventures, of a couple of Music Hall/Vaudeville stage magicians who are reluctantly seconded by Superintendent William Melville of London’s Metropolitan Police Special Branch (the forerunner of the British Secret Service MI-5) to help solve the unsolvable. You know, those uncanny curiosities, unfathomable mysteries, bizarre and arcane crimes which defy logic and, frankly, baffle the authorities. My magicians, who also work a twice nightly show at The Metropolitan Theatre of Steam Smoke & Mirrors in West London’s Edgware Road, are the devastatingly handsome Michael Magister, Bronx-born conjuror who has performed in England for just over a decade, and his equally brilliant, drop-dead gorgeous British assistant Phoebe Le Breton.
Because magicians are masters of misdirection, deception, sleight of hand, and all manner of subterfuge, Michael and Phoebe are the Special Branch’s obvious go-to advisers when mysterious crimes start getting just a little too weird.
In this opening case, a former Music Hall hypnotist has escaped from Hanwell Asylum, vowing to murder all the performers who appeared in her final show. Michael and Phoebe must employ all their cunning and experience chasing down this mind-bending killer, whose gruesome revenge makes The Ripper look like a novice. Especially as Michael Magister’s name appears on her Death List.
As the murders mount up and the mystery unravels, history-changing secrets are revealed; not only magic trick secrets and state secrets, but the secrets Michael and Phoebe have been keeping from one another.
All this is set against an exotic backdrop of national conspiracies and steampunk. But is anything what it seems? Or is it all steam, smoke, and mirrors?
Your background as a long-time writer and script editor and your career in comedy and entertainment seem like a perfect lead-in for this novel. Or is there not a lot of overlap?
I’d been a comedy writer in the UK working on TV shows and with stand-up comedians for many years, but the next generation of young fresh writing talent was breaking through and it was quite rightly my time to move on. I can’t complain, I’d had a good run and a great deal of luck.
But here’s the thing, Karen. Even as a kid I knew I wanted to be a writer. I grew up loving the exploits of Franklin W. Dixon’s Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Herge’s Tintin, and back then vowed to create my own amateur sleuth long before I’d even graduated to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But writing jokes on the side with some success turned into a thirty-five-year career distraction, and my ambition of writing a mystery-thriller was sidelined. Until now.
As for the move from comedy writer to novelist, yes, there is a good deal of overlap. Having spent much of my professional life trying to script comic observations, snappy one-liners and felicitous phrases, I found those tricks and tropes extremely useful, so you’re right, it was a helpful lead-in. But I quickly found that putting together a thrilling long-form narrative with all the intricacies of character and plot demands so much more. Also, I had to work hard to suppress the urge to try and jam a joke into every other sentence.
Does modern comedy and entertainment transfer to a novel?
Certainly in contemporary fiction, and a good joke will always be a good joke in whatever medium. But because STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS is set at the end of the nineteenth century, I had to try my best to adhere to the comedy conventions of the period. British Music Hall comedians were earthy, in no way subtle. Most of them came from a largely working class background, as did their audience. Sure, there were a few lecherous English toffs who liked to slum it and rub shoulders with the riff-raff, but Music Hall was predominantly a working class entertainment.
Doing the research for the book was great fun. I discovered that in the Victorian era, all shows in the UK had to be approved by the office of The Lord Chancellor. Anything that might be construed as lewd or bawdy had to be removed upon threat of immediate prosecution, so performers quickly became adept at veiling their raucous vulgarity in the most elaborate faux-eloquence to fool the official censor and delight the crowd.
In STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS I tried to ensure Michael’s smart, on stage heckle-stoppers and his wiseacre off stage quips were of their time, but I must admit some of his expressions, and many of The Professor’s narration idioms, to the purist might seem out of place in the London of 1899. But that’s possibly because Michael and The Professor are American. Well… possibly…
Your amateur detectives are magicians, but with a background in comedy why not make them stand-up comedians?
Adhering to that wise old adage “write what you know about,” yes, you’re right, I did originally plan for my detective to be a comedian. A funny, professional stand-up who, after he’s knocked the crowd dead, comes off stage to solve real murders; a sleuth who is cracking gags while he’s cracking cases! Got to be a winner, surely? Well, no. The more I thought about it, the more I hated the idea. It felt forced, glib and, to be honest, really didn’t grab me…but, wait a second, what about a stage illusionist? That was my “eureka” moment. And I could incorporate my passion for steampunk with a Victorian-era magician whose act involved a bunch of brutal, steam-powered illusions. Now I was up and running.
I’d worked with magicians in the past and always admired their performance assurance, their style and showmanship. It also amused me that while the illusionist stood center stage taking the applause, all grand gestures and easy patter, it was his lithe, sassy female assistant who did all the real work: slinking into confined spaces to be squished, vanished, or put to the sword. So, now my one leading character had suddenly become a crime-busting double act. He’s a brilliant magician who gets the plaudits for solving the mystery, but it’s his gorgeous associate who is the real brains of the outfit. And so were born Michael Magister, The Industrial Age Illusionist, and Phoebe Le Breton, Goddess of Aethyr and The Queen of Steam.
What is the appeal of steampunk? How did you find this genre?
Again, it was growing up with books. I lapped up the novels of Jules Verne, Mervyn Peake and H. G. Wells, so I guess I was a steampunk enthusiast before I even knew it. Then, after I discovered James P. Blaylock, Tim Powers and K. W. Jeter, the great godfathers of steampunk, my fascination with the genre was renewed.
That’s how I found the genre, but what’s the appeal? Firstly, steampunk appreciates, no, embraces the fact that the Victorian era was the most romantically innovative period in recent history; remember, world-changing inventions were being rolled out almost daily. Secondly, steampunk transports you back to that high concept, steam-driven, cog-clanking, piston-pumping world of smoke, oil, and industrial machinery, while at the same time introducing a theme of futuristic but likely possibilities. Retro-techno sci-fi I’ve seen it described as. Thirdly, the steampunk community is populated by truly dedicated fans who have the most creative, brilliant minds. The sassy costumes, highly engineered equipment, and intricate jewellery they design, build, and wear are works of sheer beauty and exquisite craftsmanship.
So, introducing a steampunk element to STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS became a labor of love and a real bonus. It not only provided my Victorian landscape with another layer of rich decoration, it also gave me the latitude to try and invent feasible but ‘ahead of their time’ gadgets for the magicians to use. I can only hope I’ve done the steampunk genre the justice it deserves.
I love novels with appearances by real people. Why did you decide to use them in STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS?
The steampunk element is inevitably tinged with a degree of fantasy so I wanted to involve as many real Victorians as possible, just to help give the narrative a more convincing ring of truth. In addition to the head of the Special Branch William Melville (who was incidentally the very first “M”), Queen Victoria makes a guest appearance, as does Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and Harrison Cripps, a famous doctor at St. Bart’s Hospital in London. Lillie Langtry is pivotal to the plot and you can’t really write a Victorian detective thriller without having Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stop by. Also, I was keen that all the streets and locations in STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS were authentic. Today, some have fallen victim of the wrecking ball, but most of the places still stand.
To try and add further realism, I even gave myself this backstory:
“When my agent, a tough, old British show-business icon passed away, he kindly bequeathed me his vast collection of old British show-business memorabilia. [That part, by the way, is perfectly true.] While sifting through the boxes of posters, books, and ‘olde tyme’ theatrical ephemera I came across a dusty old attaché case. It was stashed with pages of a manuscript handwritten by a scientist and inventor called ‘Professor Artemus More.’ He tells of the exploits of Michael Magister and Phoebe Le Breton. Further research into the Professor and this Michael and Phoebe drew a total blank. It was as if all traces of them had been removed and redacted from every book on magic and show business of the late Victorian era. But as I pored over The Professor’s spidery writings with their talk of steam-driven advanced technology and government conspiracy I began to wonder, what if…”
Can you share a bit about how you balance such a busy “real life” with the discipline of writing?
I am very fortunate. I’ve been a writer for many years, which meant while I was writing STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS I wasn’t holding down a full-time job and penning the novel in my spare moments, like so many debut authors have to. I do admire their discipline and how they manage their time. But, as I found when I was trying to kick start my career, if you want to be a writer desperately enough, you’ll make the time.
How long did it take you to write this debut novel and what is your process?
I prefer to write during the day in my small office at home. Plot-wise, I like to push words around page using a pencil and pad. Some authors like Anthony Horowitz pen their entire first draft in longhand, but for me, once the plot’s got some direction I prefer to commit straight to the computer. It makes for easier rewriting. I start writing at 9 a.m., keep going albeit with frequent tea/coffee/comfort breaks, and finish at about 6 p.m. for dinner. I then go back to review my day’s work and make notes. That’s on weekdays. At weekends I make sure I do some writing. I feel guilty otherwise, but the regime is not as regimented.
When writing STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS I probably over-sweated every sentence to make sure it had a rhythm and a flow, probably a throwback to my joke writing days. As a result, STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS took eighteen months to finish. Yes, I was learning a new writing style and needed to find the correct voice for my narrator, but I’m currently noticing the second book is rattling out at a much smarter pace.
As I said, when I started STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS I had a pretty good idea of the story, but found it fascinating to watch plot devices and characters develop on the page, stuff you had no idea was going to happen. You hear yourself saying, “Oh, no, he’s going to get shot…”, or “Wait, it’s better if she knows her parentage.” I really enjoyed that process.
Readers and writers alike love to hear the breaking-into-the-business story of debut authors. What was your process of finding a publisher and was it difficult? Can you share advice?
Writing STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS was a speculative adventure, so once it was finished—what next? My previous writing “successes” would cut no ice in the proper world of book publishing.
I really didn’t want to go down the route of sending the manuscript to one of the big literary agencies or publishing houses, only to have my novel quagmired in all that time-consuming, corporate “hemming and ahhing.” I’d had a lifetime of that with British television networks. Then a friend of mine mentioned a small, progressive publishing house in the south of England that specialised in contemporary crime fiction. The outfit, run by Darren Laws, was called Caffeine Nights. I checked them out on line, and their output was impressive.
So, on spec, I emailed Darren Laws the manuscript, more in hope than expectation. Yes, my story had crime, a vicious serial killing on the loose with a quirky method of murdering, but it also contained comedy, stage illusions, and being set in 1899 with a core of steampunk. It could hardly be called contemporary.
Six weeks later I got a reply. Caffeine Nights wanted to publish STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS! The novel was launched in the UK in March and is out in the US this month.
I have to tell you in all my years of writing I have never known such joy. And the euphoria you experience when you see your first novel in print is utterly indescribable…which is worrying because I’m supposed to be a writer.
I will be the first to admit I was incredibly lucky. I found a forward-thinking, book-loving publisher who was prepared to go with his instinct. In fact, throughout my career good fortune has played a vital role. But as a famous golfer once said, “The more I practice and the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Your website is great—and how many authors have a trailer with music specially composed for it? Can you tell us about that?
I really wanted the website to be like the ‘Special Features’ or ‘Extras’ section you’d get on a DVD. I was keen to show some ‘Behind The Scenes’ and ‘Locations’ photographs, along with interviews and out-takes. The website continues to be a work in progress, with more location photos, designs and plans for The Metropolitan Theatre of Steam Smoke & Mirrors’ and designs for the steampunk-based stage illusions scheduled for inclusion.
As for the music, I really liked the idea, the chutzpah, of a book having its own specially written theme music. So far as I know it hasn’t been done before. A friend of mine, John Orchard, a professional musician, composed the piece for me, and with our limited resources I’m thrilled with the result John achieved. It just makes me smile.
Can you share with our readers what you are working on now?
STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS 2—THE LAZARUS CURIOSITY is well underway. The main characters, those who survive in the first book, will return. You might be interested to know that Oscar Wilde; Edward, Prince of Wales; Jules Verne and Alasdair Crowley are all hoping to make an appearance in book 2. I’ll keep you posted. And thank you very much for your time.
Since selling his first jokes at the age of 16, and 2 situation comedy scripts to TV at 18, Colin has been involved in comedy and entertainment, live performance and television shows, for almost 40 years. Largely down to luck, his hundreds of TV writing credits include variety, game, clip and chat shows, along with 10 BAFTA Award Ceremonies and 11 Royal Variety Performances. For more than 30 years he was Bob Monkhouse’s head writer and for 5 years he was the script editor on the live, daily ITV talk show Today with Des & Mel. But now he’s achieved his ultimate ambition – penning a murder mystery novel featuring two unlikely Victorian detectives. Entitled ‘Steam, Smoke and Mirrors’, the story revolves around his favourite subjects, Victorian Music Hall, stage magicians, history, conspiracy theories and, of course, ‘Steampunk’.
To learn more about Colin, please visit his website.