Any resemblance is entirely coincidental…

“This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental”

We’ve all read them – those disclaimers in the front of novels that tell the reader that what follows isn’t ‘true’. A novel, they say, is made up. It’s invented, a work of the imagination in which characters and events are the creations of the writer rather than representations of real people and events.

But despite these prefatory warnings (or maybe because of them), readers still like to speculate and look for similarities. “That journalist in your book, it’s Tom, isn’t it?” “You’ve based that lawyer on Nick, haven’t you?” “Is that murder victim a thinly disguised Sarah?” “That character – it’s me!”

 Most readers confine their speculation to polite questioning, but some are so angered  that they go further. For many this means legal action, but some go to more extreme lengths. Take Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, for instance.  When he read  The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig (written by David Graham Phillips and published in 1909) Goldsborough was so convinced Phillips had based one of the characters in the book on his sister in an attempt to defame her that he didn’t bother to question him or go to court. Instead, he shot the author six times.

Writers are  quick to deny  accusations, but they know the relationship between fiction and reality is never as simple as they claim. Where else can they get their inspiration for characters and events if not from their observation of the real world and the people in it? That’s why they look closely at what’s around them. That’s why so many carry a notebook to jot down things they hear people say, or trawl the news for real stories that could spark an idea for a plot.

Thinking about this tricky relationship between fiction and reality (and of  Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough) gave me the idea for Every Trick in the Book, the third novel in the Garibaldi series. Its starting point is the murder of Liam Allerton, a retired teacher who has taken up crime writing. He has recently published his first novel, Schooled in Murder. Here’s its blurb –

When the body of Alex Ballantyne is found in Barnes Pond police are baffled. Who would kill the newly retired teacher? Investigations reveal that Ballantyne had been blackmailing several of his colleagues. Sex. Money. Drugs. It seems that Ballantyne knew all about his victims’ secrets, and they were prepared to pay to buy his silence.’

What’s alarming about the murder of Liam Allerton is that he has been killed in exactly the same place, and in exactly the same way, as the victim in his book. This eerie similarity between the death of the writer and the death of his character directs DI Garibaldi and his team to the pages of the crime novel, where they  discover more connections with real life.  Liam Allerton taught at a school which seems to be very similar to the one he describes in his novel. Could the characters he describes be similar to the teachers who work there? Could Liam Allerton, like the novel’s murder victim, have been blackmailing them? And, most importantly, could the key to the writer’s murder be hidden within the pages of his own novel?

Every Trick in the Book is a metafictional murder mystery, a crime novel about a crime novel in which the detective and his team swivel their gaze between the pages of a book and the real world.

The novel has at its heart the murder of a retired teacher who has taken up crime writing. As it happens, I too am a retired teacher who has taken up crime writing, but it would be wrong to assume that victim is a version of me. And the same can be said of my fictional detective. Whenever I’m asked how much DI Garibaldi is based on me I always given an  honest answer.  Garibaldi lives in Barnes. So do I. Garibaldi can’t drive. Neither can I. Garibaldi is of Irish-Italian ancestry. So am I. Garibaldi likes country music. So do I. Garibaldi is a QPR season ticket-holder. And so, alas, am I.

So my honest answer is always the same – Garibaldi isn’t like me at all. Any resemblance, as the disclaimers put it, is entirely coincidental…