Following in the footsteps of another crime writer

The publication of Satori by Don Winslow is an intriguing example of the way in which one or more successful books can inspire follow-ups by later writers. Satori is a prequel to Shibumi, written by Trevanian in the 1970s and is touted as ‘the exciting re-invention of a hugely popular brand’ that will ‘introduce Trevanian to a whole new generation of readers.’

I should own up to the fact that I’ve never read anything by Trevanian, since the blockbusting thrillers I read tend to be few and far between, but there’s no doubt that his work – which included best-sellers such as The Eiger Sanction – was hugely popular a couple of decades or so ago. Shibumi featured Nicholai Hel, and in Satori, Don Winslow shows how Hel became the world’s most dangerous assassin. Now Winslow is a writer I’ve read, and enjoyed, and his The Gentleman’s Hour was shortlisted for the 2010 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. In a short author’s note at the end of the book, he explains that he’d enjoyed Trevanian years ago, and what tempted him to meet the challenge of following in Trevanian’s footsteps: ‘How could you not seize the opportunity to work with a character as complex and fascinating as Nicholai Hel?’

The pen-name Trevanian concealed the identity of Dr Rodney William Whitaker, who lived in the mountains of the French Basque country and died in 2005. One of the points made by Don Winslow is how much he valued the support of Whitaker’s family as he undertook the project. This rang a bell with me, as I did something slightly similar nine years ago, when I finished The Lazarus Widow, a book in the long-running Thane and Moss series of Scottish police procedurals that had been started by the veteran writer Bill Knox prior to his sudden death. Like Winslow, I very much appreciated the support of the Knox family, and found his wife Myra a great enthusiast for the book. It’s been a joy to me that, although Myra died some years ago, I am still in touch with the family. So the benefits to a writer who follows in the footsteps of another can be many and various.

Of course, many footstep-followers write pastiche, such as the countless authors of Sherlock Holmes pastiches I talked about in my last Bookdagger column. But this isn’t always the case. Charles Osborne, a great expert on Dame Agatha, wrote three novels based on plays by Agatha Christie, which by and large stuck faithfully to the source material. I did feel, however, that perhaps the fidelity was over-done. Had the books been a little more original in treatment, ironically, they might have more of the true Christie touch.

Jill Paton Walsh, once short-listed for the Booker Prize, is a good example of a skilled footstep-follower. She was commissioned to write Thrones, Dominations, a book about Lord Peter Wimsey which Dorothy L. Sayers started, but then abandoned. This novel captures the essence of the Wimsey style remarkably well, and happily Paton Walsh has been persuaded to write a couple more Wimsey books.

Philip Youngman Carter, better known as an illustrator, wrote books about Albert Campion after the death of his celebrated wife, Margery Allingham, and his work earned quite a number of admirers, although others felt that it did not match Allingham at her peak. The mixed response suggests that you have to be very careful when writing about a much-loved character. But I think there is much to be said for this kind of exercise, so long as it’s done by a writer who is really energised and enthused by the undertaking. It’s a technical challenge, and a fascinating test of one’s professionalism. If written with zest, coupled with respect for the original, it can result in a book that is great fun to read.

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