The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal

(This isn’t a promo post as such because the book’s not out till June. But I’ve had a lot of questions on Twitter/GR/here about this book, so I wanted to put the answers in one place!)

Backstory. Last year I wrote a short story called ‘The Caldwell Ghost’ for a Halloween anthology. It was set in the late Victorian period, with a Holmes/Watson-like relationship between Simon Feximal, ghost-hunter and occult detective, and Robert Caldwell, journalist and sidekick who narrates the stories. The premise of the tale was that Robert and Simon have been publicly colleagues and secretly lovers for twenty years, that in writing Simon’s adventures for a Victorian audience Robert has systematically written himself out of his own life, and that he has at last decided to tell the truth.

This is how the story begins:

A note to the Editor

Dear Henry,

I have been Simon Feximal’s companion, assistant, and chronicler for twenty years now, and during that time my Casebooks of Feximal the Ghost-Hunter have spread the reputation of this most accomplished of ghost hunters far and wide.

You have asked me often for the tale of our first meeting, and how my association with Feximal came about. I have always declined, because it is a story too private to be truthfully recounted, and a memory too precious to be falsified. But none knows better than I that stories must be told.

So here is it, Henry, a full and accurate account of how I met Simon Feximal, which I shall leave with my solicitor to pass to you after my death.

I dare say it may not be quite what you expect.

Robert Caldwell

September 1914

It was meant to be a one-off but my imagination was caught by foul-tempered, taciturn Simon, and I liked doing Robert’s voice. I wrote another story, Butterflies, which is free on Smashwords, to continue the tale.butterflies

At this point, Jordan L Hawk and I realised we were both doing late nineteenth-century occult detectives on opposite sides of the Atlantic. There was only one thing for it: Jordan’s Whyborne and Griffin had to stop over in London for a quick adventure on their way to Egypt for their book Necropolis. We called the resulting co-written free story Remnant, and it placed second in Best Free Story in the Goodreads MM Readers Choice Awards last year.

Now, Necropolis is set in 1899. That meant I had to jump forward five years in Simon and Robert’s timeline to have them meet Whyborne and Griffin. It turned out as I wrote that a lot had changed. Robert now has a mysterious bit of metal embedded in his hand, a nasty scar under his eye, and a lot of grey hair. The ghost-writing on Simon’s skin is working very differently. They’ve been in the wars.

A lot of people have asked about this–what happened in the intervening years, where is the story between Butterflies and Remnant, what’s the deal? Well, it’s been in my head, and now it’s coming out, and, for starters, get a load of this cover by Kanaxa.

Secret Casebook

FAQs

So is this a novel?

No. It’s a collection of short stories–some closely linked so they form a continuing narrative over days and weeks, others standalone episodes–covering various parts of Simon and Robert’s life.

I’m not sure about short stories…

No, well, me neither. But that’s just how this had to be written.

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What period does it cover? Are we going to find out about the stuff in Remnant?

It starts with ‘The Caldwell Ghost’ and Butterflies, and plays out the full story of Simon and Robert getting together. Then we cover various other incidents–how Robert got his scar, the cartouche we see in Remnant, a particularly evil enemy–all the way to the end.

Um…that sounds a bit ominous.

/cackles/

No, seriously.

Oh, come on, have I ever let you down?

Well–

Apart from then.

Apart from then, no. Fine. Is this going to be sinister?

Hell yes. High level of spooky magic, brooding evil, ghosts, curses, cults, plots, and the creepiest villain I have ever written.

I object to depictions of devil worship, spirit communication or tampering with the occult. Should I buy this book?

No. Or, yes, because I like royalties, but don’t read it.

Is ‘The Caldwell Ghost’ currently available separately?

No, it’s not. It will be included in the book, which is much better value for money anyway, so hang on. You can still get Butterflies and Remnant for free

So, details?

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal is due for publication with Samhain in June 2015. I dare say I will mention it again before then.

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What’s Good For You: ‘detoxifying’ reading

I am annoyed, and I am disappointed.

Scholastic, the huge global children’s publisher who do, among other things, Harry Potter in the States, have a blog. And on their blog they had a post about doing a ‘literary cleanse’, which is what you’d call ‘throwing out books’ if you weren’t desperately hanging your monthly blog post on a New Year’s Resolution hook.

So this ‘literary cleanse’, in the way of overstretched metaphors, involves ‘detoxifying’ your life to make it ‘healthier’. And what genre of book do we find exemplified as the filthy junk poison that the author needs to eliminate? No, go on, you have one guess.

from this day forward I am officially strict in my literary screening process. I’ll think long and hard about what I want to read in the first place, and if it’s not good for me (ex: See’s Candy catalog, trashy romance novel), it’s out. (Source)

Now, you may argue that the author means only trashy romance novels and not the good ones, but let’s be honest: she doesn’t. Trashy is a word that gets attached to romance like brave to any celebrity who’s been slightly poorly, or renowned to curators being murdered in the Louvre. Romance novel=trashy romance novel. Anyone who cares about the genre wouldn’t have used this example because they’d be tired of being kicked in the teeth.

The author is of course entitled not to read romance, or to feel it’s bad for her, just as she is entitled to toss out casual dismissals of any genre she likes. I think it’s more meaningful to criticise a specific book than to dismiss a whole genre, but whatever, it’s a throwaway line in a throwaway post, who cares. That’s her point of view, fair enough. What bothers me is to find this kind of thing on a children’s publisher’s platform, and here’s why.

The thing about children’s publishing is, it cannot be worthy or didactic. We’ve been through that. Children need to read books that are the kind of thing they want to read, and that may not be what a well-meaning adult considers ‘good for you’. I hate Horrid Henry and the oeuvre of Jacqueline Wilson with every fibre of my being, but my kids go through them like maddened locusts, and every book improves their reading skills, vocabulary, reading fluency, joy in picking up a book.

Scholastic know this. You can tell they know this because they publish Rainbow Magic in the US. Brace for pink.

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Here is what Scholastic have to say about Rainbow Magic:

Rainbow Magic is a delightful way to boost literacy. The predictable series plotlines gently stretch reading skills, allowing children to develop their fluency and speed in a fun and familiar context.

Even the publisher says it’s predictable. Oh my God, is it predictable. We must have had fifty of these pass through our doors, and (aside from the first seven, which are actually good), every single one was identically plotted, repetitive to the point of brain death, and utterly unchallenging.

My daughter read and reread these things, her literary security blanket when she was coping with starting school. She  started to develop critical faculties off their pink-foiled backs (‘Why do the goblins always hide the stolen magical objects where Kirsty and Rachel live?’) and eventually got bored and moved on without regret. She is now seven with a reading age of 14, so I’m pretty sure they didn’t rot her brain. I never want to encounter Bertha the Barrel-Scraping Fairy again, but these books were worth every penny and every minute for her.

These books are fun and pleasurable for kids. Not for anyone else, sure, but that’s the point. Scholastic publish series after series of stuff that any tweedy literary critic would pick up using tongs because they know bloody well that there is a massive value in reading for pleasure. They know readers often need a sense of familiarity and security. They know that the book world is wider than the Times Literary Supplement would have you believe. They publish stuff that their readers want to read, not just to make money, but because the health of the entire book world depends on people learning to love stories and read voraciously.

So why the hell would a publisher that knows about the importance of fun, and familiarity, and story, and reading for pleasure, casually publish a swipe at an adult genre that offers the same thing?

Why can’t adults read for pleasure? What exactly makes romance (or fantasy, or YA, or implausible conspiracy thrillers) ‘trash’ as a genre? I’m not just defending the genre books that are brilliantly written and well executed here, legion though they are. Even the most routine, uninspired, ‘trashy’ series product can have value to readers who want that sort of book right then–just like Scholastic’s routine, uninspired Rainbow Magic series product does.

It’s book snobbery. It’s the didactic, dictatorial impulse that says ‘Take away Rainbow Magic and give that child The Water Babies!’ The urge to tell people what to read, the urge to dictate what’s ‘good for you’. The attitude that can’t simply say, ‘I will read something else,’ but has to frame it as ‘This stuff is junk and I look down on you for it.’ That isn’t how anyone who cares about reading should talk about other people’s books.

Let readers have the ‘joy of reading’, as the tagline on the Scholastic website has it, without sideswiping their tastes, whether they’re adults or children. Because if you ask me, a habit of patronising, belittling or casually sneering at other people’s pleasures is a lot more toxic than reading genre fiction can ever be, and probably more likely to turn people off reading at all. And I don’t want my book-gobbling children growing up with that.

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KJ Charles used to edit children’s books and now writes award-winning romance. Jackdaw is coming in February.

Speech is free and silence is golden

Silencing is generally considered a bad thing. Which is quite right, considering how many people still have to fight for their voices, and demand to be heard. It is not okay to silence people. That should go without saying.

The problem is, it seems like very little can go without saying any more. The right to free speech is huge and crucial, so crucial that people die for it. But we do also have a right to silence. And I am profoundly disturbed by the idea that an absence of speech should be denied, interpreted or condemned.

I’m specifically thinking of the way members of a group (or at least some groups) are expected to denounce a member who behaves badly, or be tarnished by the association. Thus, there seems to be an idea that all Muslims, in general and particular, should denounce the Charlie Hebdo murders. (There are 1.6bn Muslims in the world. This is going to clog up Twitter something rotten.) Anyone who spends any time on the internet or reads the news will be able to supply their own examples, large or small. “There were calls for X to condemn Y…” “Are you seriously okay with what she said? Well, why haven’t you said anything then?” “I can’t believe that anyone who cares about Z wouldn’t speak out!”

I am bang alongside people condemning bad behaviour, obviously. I start to feel uncomfortable when people demand other people should join them in condemning bad behaviour (especially since bad behaviour usually isn’t as clear cut as mass murder, and it’s not unknown for crowds to be wrong). And I get very worried indeed when not denouncing an offence is treated as tacit support for that offence–so that if you don’t join in the denunciation of someone who said or did a thing, that suggests you agree with the thing they said or did. So-and-so hasn’t said anything? Well, that looks bad… (It is, incidentally, noticeable that the demand to speak out never seems to be satisfied. Not enough people have denounced the offence, or they haven’t done it strongly enough, or they spoke out earlier but they ought to do it again right now because, you know, my outrage.)

There are plenty of reasons individuals might not ‘speak out’ against something that aren’t, “Hey, an atrocity, cool!” Sometimes people haven’t heard about whatever it is. Sometimes they think that an Internet status update is not a worthy response to, say, genocide. Sometimes they have a nuanced opinion that will take a while to process, or they haven’t worked out what their opinion actually is yet, or they don’t feel they know the whole story. Sometimes they feel that their opinion doesn’t need to be publicly stated, whether because they aren’t actually responsible or involved, or because it’s just not that interesting. Sometimes they don’t have an opinion at all.

Sometimes people might be afraid to speak for personal or professional reasons, and that fear might be real and valid. Sometimes they might have been advised that “anything you say will just make it worse”, and all too often that’s true.

Some people don’t want to be drawn into the argument in the first place. That’s a valid choice that deserves respect. We aren’t obliged to engage with every topic, even when we feel strongly about the subject, and we’re probably happier when we don’t.

Sometimes people actively choose to shut up. That might be because they’d rather treat an outrage with silent contempt or deny it publicity. The most irritating and effective thing you can do to a run-of-the-mill troll is ignore them. But also, sometimes people in privileged groups need to shut up and let others talk, amplify their voices rather than adding our own, clear a space for marginalised people. If our own speech is valuable, everyone else should get a go too.

Sometimes people would rather listen than talk. That’s actually quite important in a conversation. My grandmother used to say, “This is why you have two ears and one mouth,” and, like all grandmothers, she was right.

Be silent or let thy words be worth more than silence. (Pythagoras)

Nobody should be silenced. Actively recruiting popular support can be a huge force for good, as long as we don’t preemptively damn those who don’t sign up. But if we value speech, we should also respect the choice to be quiet, whether people are listening, thinking, or choosing not to engage for any of a million reasons. Silence is not consent. And insisting that people speak or be damned is a way of controlling their voices–which seems to me the opposite of what free speech is about.

After all, it’s not like the Internet is going to run out of opinions any time soon.

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KJ Charles is rarely short of opinions, truth be told. Look out for Jackdaw, coming in February, and A Case of Spirits, a free story available now. 

Demon Drink and Another Free Story

So there is another free Charm of Magpies short story available right now. Another! There was one last month!

Here’s what happened. Samhain, my publisher, at that time published print a year after the electronic version. They have a minimum length at which a book can go into print, and A Case of Possession, Charm of Magpies #2, squeaked in a little under that. Now, I really wanted it in print. Because print is fun to have, but also because it’s dedicated to my friend Caroline, and she informed me that if she didn’t get a print copy to show people, I’d be in serious trouble.

I have been friends with Caro for thirty years. I know what trouble means. So I suggested to Samhain that I could write a bonus story to bring the book up to print length. They went for it, to be released electronically at the same time as the print book (hence its appearance out of series order), and even said it would have its own cover by Lou Harper. Now all I had to do was write something.CaseOfSpirits-A300

This was less easy than you might think. I was hopelessly stuck on Magpie 3 at this point, so stuck that I’d actually written an entire and totally different novel that came into my head while I was fretting (Think of England, the world’s longest example of ‘oh look, a squirrel’). So coming up with a story that fitted into a series arc that I wasn’t sure about…whimper.

I had no idea what to write.

I went for a drink with Caro and her bloke Simon, and ventured a quiet murmur of mild complaint (which I may have phrased as ‘your bloody story is doing my head in, you utter moose, now buy me a drink’). Simon asked about what I was writing. I spoke of Victorian London. And Simon, who works in the drinks trade, asked, did I know about the black cat signs they used for bootleg gin?

Tell me more, I said.

Well. It seems that the very many brewers of bathtub gin would identify their product for sale by a black cat, as a universal sign of ‘Get very cheap drink here!’, in the same way that a red and white pole indicated a barber, or three golden balls indicated a pawnbroker. I haven’t been able to find any very serious sources on this, but here’s one version as presented by Hayman’s, gin manufacturer:

dramdrinkerBack in 1736, one Captain Dudley Bradstreet lucked into both a piece of London property and a stock of gin. Bradstreet hung a sign depicting a painted cat in the window and let it be known that doses of sweet mother’s ruin could be had at the address. “Under the cat’s paw sign was a slot and a lead pipe, which was attached to a funnel inside the house,” reads a history put together by Hayman’s. “Customers placed their money in the slot and duly received their gin. Bradstreet’s idea was soon copied all over London. People would stand outside houses, call ‘puss’ and when the voice within said ‘mew,’ they would know that they could buy bootleg gin inside. Very soon Old Tom became an affectionate nickname for gin.”

It is, at the least, a cool story. And it got me thinking. It got me thinking about what drives people to drink, to remember and to forget, about cold dark wet Victorian streets. I started thinking about what my characters had that they might want to forget. A plot came swimming out of the depths, a piece depicting one of Stephen’s justiciary cases that turns personal…

And with it came a revelation about what two of my secondary characters had been up to offstage while I was writing the main story.

I realise that this is the kind of thing that makes non-writers roll their eyes and mutter, “Obviously they aren’t doing things behind your back, they’re made up. By you.” All I can say is: Sorry, that’s how it works. I realised when I wrote this story that two characters had embarked on a relationship. That realisation isn’t pivotal to A Case of Spirits, as such…but it gave me the handle on Magpie 3 that I needed.

Suddenly I could see the shape of Magpie 3. I could see how the stories interlocked and what was driving everyone on, and what was piling strain on the main relationship. The whole book that became Flight of Magpies clicked into place. It worked. Thanks to Caroline (by accident) and to gin.

Story of my life, basically.

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A Case of Spirits is available from Amazon and all the usual places. It’s free (because it’s free with the print book) and comes between A Case of Possession and Flight of Magpies. It’s more a mood piece than anything, and has no series spoilers so feel free to sample if you haven’t read the others. I hope you enjoy it!

A Charm of Magpies reading order:

The Magpie Lord

Interlude with Tattoos (free)

A Case of Possession

A Case of Spirits (free)

Flight of Magpies

Feast of Stephen (free)

Jackdaw (coming in February, and a linked story)