It’s great honour to be invited to post a blog on the Coffee Time Romance Steampunk page and chat about my debut novel.
Well, set in 1899, the novel chronicles the adventures of a devastatingly handsome Music Hall/Vaudeville stage magician and his equally brilliant, drop-dead gorgeous assistant as they help Victorian London’s Metropolitan Police Special Branch – the forerunner of MI5 – in solving strange and arcane mysteries, all set against a backdrop of conspiracy, murder, intrigue and Steampunk.
That’s pretty much the pitch.
So, what in that miscellany of Victoriana was my starting point? Definitely Steampunk. Well, you see, growing up loving the books of Jules Verne, Mervyn Peake and HG Wells I guess I was a Steampunk enthusiast before I even knew it. Then, after graduating to the works of James P. Blaylock, Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter, I knew I wanted to, one day, put together a novel which introduces the concept of Steampunk to a wider audience. Why? Largely because I believe Steampunk is such a richly decorated, creative, imaginative genre that it deserves greater recognition. It’s a smoky, high-concept world of steam-driven, cog-clanking, piston-pumping industrial machinery, scented with soot and oil, and graced with a 19th century fashion of sci-fi fantasy that I have grown to love. And the Steampunk community is populated by dedicated fans with the most creative, brilliant minds who embrace the fact that the Victorian era was the most innovative period in history; with any number of brand new, world changing inventions being rolled out daily.
Next I really wanted to fulfil another ambition: to create a distinctive, unlikely detective whom I could weave into the fabric of a mystery-comedy-thriller. So, what regular day-job should my amateur clue-sniffer hold down? Well, for 40 years I’d been a professional comedy writer for TV shows and performers in the UK. I sold my first jokes when I was 16, and adhering to that wise old adage ‘write what you know about’ I figured my detective should 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 cracks gags while he cracks cases! Yes!
Actually, no… I hated the idea. It felt awkward, glib and really didn’t grab me…but, wait a minute, how about a conjurer? Better still, a stage illusionist! That felt more like it, especially as the notion of a Victorian era magician appeared to sit so comfortably in a Steampunk environment.
In the course of my journeyman comedy writing career I’d occasionally worked with magicians, and always admired their performance assurance, their style and showmanship. It also amused me that while the illusionist stood centre stage taking the applause, all grand gestures and easy patter; it was his sassy female assistant who did all the damned work; squeezing herself into unfeasibly confined spaces or submitting herself to the sword or the saw. So, now my one leading character had suddenly become a double act: a brilliant magician who grabs the plaudits, but it’s his gorgeous associate who is the real brains of the outfit. That sounded okay. Especially if my magician admits she’s the smart one.
Then came that chin-stroking poser that confronts all writers – what names do I give these characters? I called the magician ‘Michael Magister’ which had a crisp ring about it, and his assistant ‘Phoebe Le Breton’ for reasons which are eventually revealed in the book, along with how and why they came together to work on the stage. Michael would be an easy, wise-cracking 29-year old American and Phoebe a feisty kick-ass 21 year old high class, cut-glass English girl. I could make him an orphan, born in the Bronx who somehow, as a teenage Vaudevillian, found his way to London, while she was probably an orphan, brought up in Scotland by a well to-do famous Victorian family.
I also hoped it might make for an interesting dynamic to keep the relationship between these two physically attractive, charismatic and (hopefully) likeable characters, purely platonic. You know, one of those ‘will-they-won’t-they’ partnerships enjoyed by John Steed and Emma Peel, or Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. In the novel, when Michael is asked why he and Phoebe aren’t an item he says, “Because I’m an idiot and she isn’t…”
With my star characters and their circumstances now pretty much in place it seemed credible that they would find themselves seconded, albeit reluctantly, to the Victorian police authorities helping them solve the unsolvable. After all, magicians are practiced experts in subterfuge, misdirection, deception and sleight of hand. It’s what they do. They deal in secrets.
And that’s the theme of the narrative: secrets.
The secrets of magic tricks, secret societies, State Secrets, the secrets we hide from our nearest and dearest – and, as we learn in ‘Steam, Smoke & Mirrors’, the earth-shattering, history-changing secrets Michael and Phoebe are keeping from each other.
And how about the twisty-turny plot? After a good deal of pushing words around the page, it developed into a serial killer mystery thriller: Michael and Phoebe trying to prevent an asylum escapee, a former stage hypnotist, from fulfilling her promise to murder each of the Music Hall performers she worked with, including Michael Magister, in the most apposite and painful ways.
A year later, ‘Steam, Smoke & Mirrors’ was finished – so, what now? I really didn’t want to go down the route of sending it off to one of the big literary agencies or publishing houses, and have my novel quagmired in all that time-consuming, indecisive, corporate ‘humming and ahhing’. I’d had a lifetime of that with British television networks. Then a friend of mine, a TV critic oddly enough, mentioned a small, progressive publishing house in the south of England which specialised in contemporary crime fiction. The outfit, run by Darren Laws, was called ‘Caffeine Nights’. So, I emailed him the manuscript, more in hope than expectation. Sure my story had crime, a vicious serial killing crime, but it also contained comedy, stage illusions, and could hardly be called ‘contemporary’, being set in 1899 with a core of Steampunk. Would any of that appeal?
Six weeks later I got a reply. Caffeine Nights wanted to publish ‘Steam, Smoke & Mirrors’!
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.
Was good fortune a factor in getting ‘Steam, Smoke & Mirrors’ published? Most certainly. But you have to sit down, start writing and stick at it until you have a finished manuscript to get lucky with.
And that’s no secret.
‘Steam, Smoke & Mirrors’ by Colin Edmonds is published in the US by Caffeine Nights on June 1st 2015.
Colin is a UK based TV comedy writer who has been involved in entertainment shows on television for 40 years. His hundreds of on-screen writing credits include variety, quiz and chat shows along with 10 BAFTA Award Ceremonies and 11 Royal Variety Performances. He also scripted HM The Queen Mother’s 90th Birthday Celebration for BBC television. While we’re still on the subject of Royalty, for many years in England Colin worked closely with the legendary TV executive Nigel Lythgoe.
But now, at long last, Colin Edmonds has achieved his ultimate ambition – penning a murder mystery comedy thriller featuring two unlikely Victorian detectives. Entitled ‘Steam, Smoke and Mirrors’, the story revolves around Victorian Music Hall, stage magicians, history, conspiracy theories and, of course, Steampunk.
Born in Paddington, in the shadow of the historic West London railway terminus
Paddington Station (built in 1854), Colin now lives in the Buckinghamshire
countryside where he frequently tests the patience of his heroic wife Kathryn and two
children Lucy and Mark.
STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS EXCERPT for WORD CROSS PUZZLE (below)
On the dark stage, the spot-lit Michael Magister, for the second time tonight, had just explained that the enigmatic Goddess of the Aethyr and Queen of the Steam, Phoebe, would now be returned to that mysterious dimension from whence she was summoned, and had revealed the very machine with which he would perform this feat; the magnificent Throne of Disintegration. The new audience gasped and then cheered when Phoebe re-appeared in a puff of blue smoke.
“My-my,” whispered Sir Cumberland Sinclair, as he settled into his seat next to Salisbury.
“So now, ladies and gentlemen” Michael told the audience, “For the continued safety of the world, I must dispatch the Goddess back to the Aethyr!”
The people in the cheap seats murmured as Phoebe began to slink seductively, ominously towards Michael.
“You may issue such a decree, Magister,” she breathed, “but I have decided tonight, because of this enthusiastic audience, I shall be returning nowhere!”
The crowd cheered, thoroughly pleased with themselves, having brought about this change of heart.
“But Goddess, you forget! I am armed with the ultimate talisman… The Hypnotic Timepiece of Hyperion!”
Then, as if from nowhere, from up his sleeve, Michael suddenly produced a fob watch; clear glass on both sides, enabling anyone with decent enough eyesight, to clearly see the glinting cogs and crisp movements within. The Hypnotic Timepiece of Hyperion dangled from a golden chain, as Michael swung the mystic pocket watch back and forth, back and forth. But with a haughty turn of the head Phoebe smiled and scoffed, “Ha! Magister, no man-made trinkets can enchant a Goddess!” Her voice was clear, defiant, on the way to being posh.
“Yea, well I reckon this’ll enchant her!” hollered some rough-type from the stalls, as he stood and pointed down at the front of his dark moleskin trousers.
“Thank you, sir, but for that size of trinket the Goddess would need a magnifying lens the size of a window just to see it!” Michael’s put down was like a stiletto in the rough-type’s heart, and after the great roar of mockery and laughter subsided, Michael knew he needed to rebuild the tension.
“But The Timepiece of Hyperion has been handed down through the ages from Queen Elizabeth’s Astrologer Royal, Doctor John Dee himself, via Sir Isaac Newton, and now to me. I control its great hypnotic power!”
With a graceful flourish he again swung the watch back and forth, and then suddenly it was gone. Vanished. Actually dropping it down into a pouch sewn onto the pleats of Phoebe’s skirt, on the blind side of the audience. With a dramatic second wave of his hand the crowd ‘Oooh’d as they witnessed Phoebe’s entire body suddenly stiffen and her head slump to one side, totally hypnotised.
“While it’s true, no ordinary man can enchant the beautiful Goddess, never forget, I am The Magister! And in The Trance of the Living Dead, Phoebe, Goddess of the Aethyr and Queen of the Steam, yields to the blackest depths of her unconscious mind!” intoned Michael firmly, as he led his now compliant, vacant-looking assistant by the hand towards the hissing, snorting Throne of Disintegration.
“Pheebs, check the Royal Box. Four men just came in,” whispered Michael.
“Really? The Professor must have sold the tickets,” whispered Phoebe, despite the depth of her supposed trance. She even managed a surreptitious glance across at the box flanking the left of the proscenium. “Oh, my days. Michael. It’s Salisbury.”
“What, Lord Salisbury? Prime Minister of England Lord Salisbury?”
“And perhaps even Balfour’s with him,” whispered Phoebe. “But I don’t recognise the other two. I’ll take a closer look when I get up there.”
Michael seated Phoebe upon the leathern cushion of the heaving Throne of Disintegration and quickly buckled the heavy, ox-blood leather straps about her wrists and ankles.
“Witness how the Goddess is unable to resist the awesome power of The Throne!” Michael told the audience. “Even I, Magister the Magician, am rendered humble!” Michael then confirmed his new found humility by whispering, “Do they offer Americans knighthoods? Is that maybe why he’s here?”
Phoebe’s pithy response was lost as Michael gripped the metallic sheet and raised it to hide the apparently unconscious Phoebe from the crowd.
Once hidden, she quickly unstrapped her wrists and ankles from their phoney leather restraints, all within fleeting, well-drilled moments.
Michael lowered the sheet, affording the audience another look at the head and shoulders of the still seemingly ‘fluenced Goddess. The Throne discharged a burst of steam and Phoebe’s eyes suddenly widened as if in shock.
“Feel the sensual power of the Throne of Disintegration!” incanted Michael, as the chair began to rhythmically chug and throb. Michael dramatically raised the sheet once more.
Under cover of which, Phoebe released the trap door set in the seat and slipped her legs down into the void beneath the chair. She opened a red tapped valve which released another surge of steam.
The pipes embracing The Throne strained and complained as the pressure and throbbing increased. Again, Michael lowered the sheet allowing the audience another good look at Phoebe, while she opened her mouth and let out a pleasured gasp, just before she was hidden again.
Then, out of view and with the throbbing quickening, Phoebe shimmied down into the seat void, twisted the valve for another burst of steam, and with a hiss, a metal arm, supporting the outline of a false head, swung forward, and falling to rest where Phoebe’s head would have been.
The aroused audience stared with wide-eyed wonder as the steam pulsed and the Throne itself began to undulate, faster and louder.
Phoebe then struggled, legs first, out through the back of The Throne, re-set the false seat door and slipped back, away and free into the upstage blackness.
Michael heaved the entire metalized sheet up, back and over the false head piece and let it rest there. As far as the audience could tell, the helpless Phoebe was still strapped to the now furiously rattling, steam-snorting monster.
“No more shall the Goddess Phoebe – exist – as we return her to her own – dimension!” Michael shouted above the climactic crescendo. A great scream of white steam ejected upwards, as he now whipped the sheet back and over…
Taking with it the arm of the false head!
…, to reveal, in the immediate silence of a dissipating cloud of white steam – the completely empty Throne!
The silence continued as the audience stared open-mouthed until their bewilderment gave way to a great thunderous wave of applause and cheering. Michael gestured, bowed, and tried his very best to look modest. But, of course, rather than disappearing, Phoebe had already slipped out of her stage dress and scampered past Wicko the Dwarf, our manservant, who from the prompt side wing of the stage, controlled the show’s unique lighting using a great panel of gauges, pipes, wheels and circuit breaker levers, much akin to a Great Western Railway signal box. Wicko spun a few wheels and readied himself to throw a couple of circuit breakers while unseen, above the audience; unused spot lamps swivelled and tilted at Wicko’s command.
Phoebe threw open the stage left Pass Door and sprinted up a small flight of stairs, two at a time, and into the passageway ahead. On stage, Michael firmly gestured for the crowd to settle.
“Has the Throne of Disintegration banished her spirit to the darkest recess of her own dimension?” shouted Michael, as if he understood a word of what he was talking about.
Phoebe sprinted along the corridor towards the anonymous slick haired oaf in the brown suit who was standing outside the Royal Box. As for Detective Inspector Skindrick, he barely had a moment to take in what he saw. A slender vision of breath-taking loveliness, dressed, if that was the word, in a red corset and black knee length boots. The vision then pointed and called, “Look out behind you! It’s John Wilkes Booth!” Even as Skindrick turned to look, he knew he’d been duped – but it was too late. Phoebe had yanked open the door and slipped through the black curtain at the rear of the Royal Box. She sashayed smoothly past the four seated dignitaries with a quick “Excuse me please, gentlemen, Goddess coming through,” and leapt up to stand on the lip of the balcony, all in one fluid movement. Skindrick entered the box, pistol drawn, but Melville calmly held up an arm to bar his way.
“Is her fleshly body banished to the recess of her own heavenly world?” demanded Michael, from down on the stage.
“Not just yet, Magister!” The clear female voice rang out through the theatre. All heads turned up towards the box. Wicko pulled his levers and a handful of pinpoint shafts of white light fired downwards upon her. Suddenly, she was there for all to see. Arms aloft, imperious, standing like some deity of the exotic, there to be worshipped.
“Ladies and gentlemen – Phoebe, Goddess of the Aethyr, and Queen of the Steam!” yelled Michael. The astonished crowd rose as one to roar their approval. Even those plagued with rickets or haemorrhoids felt the need to stand, braving the inevitable consequences. You know, even the Prime Minister, whom Melville had quickly pulled back into the shadows and out of the light felt compelled to applaud. Phoebe then pointed dramatically at the magician on stage.
“For tonight, Magister, I do return to the Aethyr, but I take you with me!”
Then Phoebe leapt from the box safely into Michael’s waiting arms. He spun around a complete revolution, shouted, “Farewell!” and then the crowd saw them both vanish in a vicious burst of steam. Right before their very eyes.
Below the stage, gears turned and a piston pumped as the trap door dropped them down into the void in less than a moment. The audience cheered and applauded at length as clouds of smoke billowed about the centre of the stage. For half a minute they yelled, then cheers became a collective gasp, as Michael’s swirling face appeared, as if conjured out of the smoke, huge, nine feet high, green and eerie.
The moving image was back-projected using a tinkered-with version of the Theatroscope, invented by my old friend Robert Paul. I used the dense smoke as a wall or screen onto which I could project the images of Michael’s animated face. The effect was eerie and convincing. I much preferred Robert’s projection equipment to that of those two Lumiere Brothers. They were Frenchmen, you know. I need say no more.
At his control panel, Wicko pulled the wooden handle of another circuit breaker and a voice filled every corner of the theatre. Upon the consul at Wicko’s elbow sat a black dinner plate, clamped firm and still. Beneath the plate a circular bed revolved quick and steady, and it was from this arrangement the spoken words emanated, captured by a brass horn and then fed along the network of tubes which embraced the auditorium.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Michael Magister. I have been transported to a worldly dimension known only to Phoebe, the Goddess of the Aethyr and Queen of the Steam. Nevertheless, I shall return tomorrow for two shows, so please share the news with your friends. In the meantime, stay safe on your journeys home and ever keep a sharp eye over your shoulder. For, remember, the Goddess of the Aethyr walks among us at will! Or might it just be Steam, Smoke and Mirrors?”
End of excerpt
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