We go back to 1960s Brighton for murderous adventures with journalist Colin Crampton.
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Today’s Mystery Author
Peter Bartram brings years of experience as a journalist to his Crampton of the Chronicle crime mysteries. He’s has done most things in journalism – from door-stepping for quotes to writing serious editorials. He’s covered stories in locations as different as 700-feet down a coal mine and Buckingham Palace.
Peter launched his Crampton series in 2015 with Headline Murder. As of now, there are 12 books in the series with well over 120,000 readers around the world.
You can learn more about Peter Bartram, and find all his books, at ColinCrampton.com.
You can also click here to listen to the interview on YouTube.
Excerpt from The Tango School Mystery
In Antoine’s Sussex Grill, Shirley slammed down her knife and fork.
She’d lost interest in her steak. The blood-stained remnants lay on her plate.
Another droplet of blood formed on the ceiling. It shone like a ruby.
I glanced up at it and sighed in a resigned sort of way. I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy what I had to do next.
“I’m going upstairs,” I said.
“How?” Shirley asked.
“There’s a separate front door to the apartment in the street.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“No, it’s best you wait here. If we both rush out Antoine will think we’re doing a runner to avoid paying the bill.”
Shirley grinned. “Would be great exercise, cobber.”
“Not now. There are more important things to deal with.”
I crossed the room and stepped into the street. Across the road, a couple of drunks lurched out of The Smugglers. A young woman with blonde hair in a beehive, tight skirt and killer stilettos, staggered by. A taxi cruised down the street looking for a fare. The driver eyed me briefly then focused on the blonde.
I stared up at the first-floor apartment window. The light was on and the curtains – tired brown numbers that hung like a beggar’s rags – were half drawn. They let out a shard of light.
The front door to the apartment was at the end of the building. It was recessed into the wall in a kind of porch arrangement. I stepped into the porch and rapped firmly on the door.
Twice. I pushed gently and it swung open. Its hinges creaked like a pensioner’s kneecaps. I stepped into a small hallway which led to a flight of stairs.
The place was lit by a dusty bulb hanging from a short flex cable. The walls were covered with embossed wallpaper painted a muddy cream. A picture of a yacht sailing in a stormy sea had slipped sideways in its frame. An umbrella was propped in the corner. There was a threadbare grey carpet on the stairs. The place had a fusty smell that comes from wet clothes drying in front of gas fires.
I moved to the foot of the stairs wondering whether this had been good idea.
I shouted up: “Hello! Is anyone at home? I’ve just come round to see if you’re alright.”
Somewhere in the house something creaked. But that would be the result of the cooler air flooding in after I’d opened the front door. Natural in an old building like this.
At least, that’s what I told myself.
I shouted again. “Nothing to worry about. I’ll just come up to make sure you’re alright.”
I listened. Something else creaked.
I shouted: “I’ll come up now unless you say not to.”
Nobody shouted: “Clear off and leave me alone.”
But then a dead body wouldn’t.
Nor would an intruder. Especially one whose soft-shoe shuffle made the old floorboards creak twice.
I looked over my shoulder at the door. Wondered whether I should leave quietly and shut it behind me. Call the cops. Let them take the glory. Or a bullet in the forehead.
The safety-first option.
But safety-first leaves you standing on the outside. Forever wondering what it must be like to be the guy who gets the action. Never the guy who wins the medal. Or, in my case, lands the front-page story. Safety-first leaves you growing old wondering what life could have been like.
Besides, what would I tell Shirley if I scurried back with nothing to show for my original bravado? And, anyway, I knew I had to find out who was upstairs.
Or what was upstairs.
I slunk up the stairs with all the enthusiasm of a Tommy going over the top at the Battle of the Somme.
The stairs led into a landing with three doors. Two of them – one in front of me, one to the left – were closed. The door to the right was open. A light was on inside.
I stood in the landing and listened for a sound. Any sound.
Like a moan. Or a whispered plea for help. Or a rasp of breath from an intruder.
But I only heard silence.
And then a creak. Not once or twice this time. Three times. And it came from behind the closed door to the left.
I stepped silently over and put my ear to the door. Like a nosey-parker listening in on the neighbours.
The floorboards creaked again. But softly. As though they didn’t mean to.
I took hold of the door knob and turned it. I pushed the door gently. Nobody pushed back.
So I flung open the door and stood back.
A tabby cat shot out of the room with a piercing screech. It raced across the landing and stopped at the entrance to the lighted room. It turned round and stared at me. Bared its teeth and snarled. The moggie equivalent of “don’t try anything if you know what’s good for you”.
I bared my teeth back, but its eyes radiated withering contempt. Besides, I was in no mood for a staring competition with a cat.
I stepped into the darkened room where the little beast had been imprisoned and switched on the light. It was a bedroom. There was an iron bedstead with tangled bedclothes There was a dressing table with a hair brush, a couple of combs and a half-used jar of Brylcreem. Across the room, the door of a wardrobe hung half open. I walked over and looked inside. The wardrobe held a couple of shabby jackets, a pair of grey flannel trousers, three shirts with crumpled collars, and a cardigan with frayed sleeves.
Evidently, Beau Brummell didn’t live here.
There was a bedside table. A glass of water, a bottle of pills, and a book rested on it. I moved across the room and looked at the book. It was called Hitler’s Permanent Wave: How the Führer Escaped Berlin and Began a New Life as a Ladies’ Hairdresser in South America.
Its three hundred pages of nonsense had been penned by someone called Titus Scrivener. I flipped open the cover to see whether the inside flap held any further information on Scrivener. Instead I found an inscription on the title page: To Derek Clapham – time for the truth – best wishes, Titus.
So, presumably, this was Clapham’s apartment.
But I had forgotten why I was flipping through Clapham’s bedtime reading. Downstairs in the restaurant, there had been blood on the ceiling.
Up here, in the apartment there should be a corresponding pool of blood on the floor. I’d been too diverted by a creaking floorboard and a cat to focus on the main purpose of my mission.
If the blood had been leaking on to our table below, which room of the apartment would it be in?
I glanced out of the window into the street to help me get my bearings. The Smugglers was slightly to my left. When we were sitting in the restaurant, Shirley and I had been exactly opposite the pub.
So that must mean the blood was in the lighted room. The room that had been to my right when I’d come up the stairs.
I hurried out of the bedroom, thoughtfully turning off the light after me.
I crossed the landing and entered what was obviously a sitting room. In the middle of the room, there was an ancient settee upholstered in brown leather. The leather had long ago faded and started to crack. A small Indian rug covered the bare floorboards in front of the settee. There was an easy chair piled high with an eclectic collection of old newspapers and magazines. I spotted the Daily Telegraph, the New York Herald-Tribune (European edition), the Spectator, the New Daily, Paris Match and La Stampa.
On the far wall, a glass cabinet held a half-empty bottle of scotch and a few glasses. I resisted the temptation to help myself.
To my left, another door was ajar. By the half-light from the sitting room, I could see a sink piled with dirty crocks and the edge of a cooker. My brilliant deductive powers were on top of that straight away: the kitchen.
But the kitchen was at the back of the building. And Shirley and I had been sitting at the front. So any blood must be in the sitting room, where I was standing.
I looked around the room. Couldn’t see any blood on the floor.
Then the cat stepped out from behind the settee. It looked a lot less cocky than when we’d eyeballed one another on the landing. It slunk across the room leaving a trail of red paw-prints on bare boards.
I took a deep breath and crossed the room. I looked behind the settee knowing I wasn’t going to like what I would find.
A man’s body was lying there. He was middle-aged, had thinning brown hair, and was dressed in a pair of blue slacks and a grey pullover.
His throat had been cut so deeply I could see neck bone showing. It was as though his neck had opened in a scream. Death must have been quick but not instant, because a pool of blood had flowed from his wound. The floor wasn’t level – common in older buildings in central Brighton – and blood had drained into a crack between the floorboards. That would’ve been how it formed the stain on the ceiling below.
My heart pounded like steam hammer. A troupe of acrobats started turning somersaults in my stomach.
I reached for the edge of the settee to steady myself. Closed my eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. Felt a little better.
Knew that my next step must be to call the cops.
Then a crash like a dozen tin cans rattling in a bin shattered the silence in the kitchen. Something metal and heavy landed on the floor making a racket like scrap metal falling off the back of a lorry.
And then glass smashed like a window had just been punched out.
I swerved around the edge of the settee and dashed towards the kitchen.
But the moggie had been scared witless by the racket. It fled across the room. In front of me. I tripped over the animal and took off like the first man trying to fly without wings. I landed full on my front, like I’d been dumped without a ‘chute twenty thousand feet from an airplane.
I crashed onto the floor and felt the wind rush out of me.
The moggie hissed and disappeared under the drift of newspapers in the easy chair.
I lay there feeling more foolish than injured while I gasped for air to re-inflate my lungs. Then I pushed myself onto my hands and knees. I stood up and made my way gingerly towards the kitchen keeping an eye out for stray cats.
The floor of the kitchen was littered with half a dozen pots and pans. They’d been pushed hastily from a draining board. The window behind the draining board was smashed so all the glass had gone. Outside the window, there was a metal fire escape leading down to an alleyway which ran behind the buildings. I climbed onto the board, avoided shards of broken glass, and peered out of the window.
There was no-one on the fire escape. The alley wasn’t lit, but towards the far end I could make out the shape of a man. He was moving at the determined pace of someone who knew that his night’s work was done.
And that he was going to get away.
Interview with Peter Bartram
Alexandra: Peter, when we last spoke, I think you had maybe three books in the Crampton of the Chronicle series at that point and as we mentioned up top, you’ve got 12 now.
What’s it been like writing a character for the last three or four years and getting to know him a little better?
Peter: It’s been a very interesting thing to do because he’s developed a lot over the years and Shirley, his girlfriend, has developed even more in a way than he has.
Right at the beginning Shirley was more of a background character. She was Colin’s foil, but she now takes a much more active role in the stories and indeed often rescues Colin when he gets into a situation which is a bit difficult for him.
So it’s been interesting to see how these characters have developed through the books and as they faced up the ever more challenging and sometimes dangerous situations.
Alexandra: Was Shirley’s development something that you had planned or did that just happen?
Peter: I think it just happened in the very first book, which is Headline Murder, Colin has just met Shirley and their relationship is very much one of on and off. Colin is a great scam star as a journalist. He’s always pulling scams in order to get his stories. In Headline Murder, Shirley always seemed to be the butt of them. Things went wrong and she always ended up with a troubled end.
And at the end of the book, she decides to go off to India, leaving Colin. And in fact, that’s what she does.
I have to give it a little bit of a spoiler here, I’m afraid. But she actually comes back in in book two and they get together again.
And because she’s been away, it’s as though their relationship becomes different. It becomes much more a relationship of equals than a kind of master and mistress relationship. And of course, Tony and Colin meet Shirley because she’s an Australian and she’s doing what a lot of Australians did in those days. They took a year out to tour the world.
She happened to pitch up in Brighton for a time. She was working as a waitress in order to make enough money to do the next leg of her journey, but she never got to do that. When we we meet her in later books she’s a very lovely girl.
She’s become a model. So she’s in the world and modeling and that’s kind of changing. Her relationship is changing. Her attitude is making her much more confident and sassy.
And so Colin and Shirley are much more equal than they were in earlier books.
Alexandra: I love hearing that. That’s fantastic.
Peter: And I can tell you that there’s another development for Shirley coming up in the beach party mystery, which comes out, comes out in the summer.
One thing I noticed was that you’ve grouped the books in three different series. What was the reasoning behind that? They’re all Colin and Sheila.
Alexandra: Sorry! She’s Shirley The Sheila so I get mixed up.
Peter: Yes, it’s true. That’s right.
Well, the reason for that is the first three books in the series that’s Headline Murder, Stop Press Murder and Front Page Murder were all by Round Fire, a publishing company.
They wanted to carry on with the series, but I felt there would be more opportunity in publishing them personally, individually, self publishing them. In fact, that has actually proved to be the case.
So they’re divided into two series. So there’s the Crampton and the Chronicle mysteries, which are Headline Murder, Stop Press Murder, and Front Page Murder.
And then there’s the Deadline Murder series, which starts with The Tango School Mystery, the Mother’s Day Mystery, The Comedy Club Mystery, and The Poker Game Mystery.
And then in the summer, the beach party mystery.
On top of that, we’ve got a trilogy called called the Morning, Noon and Night Trilogy, which consists of Murder in the Morning Edition, Murder in the Afternoon Extra, and Murder in the Night Final. And we’ve got a book of short stories which is free on Amazon. That’s called Murder from these Days.
And if you sign up to my web site you get a free book. It’s called Murder in Capital Letters.
Alexandra: Oh, I see. Okay. Got it.
Peter: It’s all going into quite a lot of complicated tree structure.
Alexandra: It’s an empire you’ve got going there, that’s awesome.
What I love is that there’s the consistency of the characters throughout all the books.
Peter: I swore it would be my intention to run the books through the 1960s. And so they started 1962 and we’re up to about 1966 now. So I will reach 1969. That may be the end or it may not. We’ll have to wait and see.
Alexandra: Okay. That was my question. If you’d ever had an urge to write any other kind of character.
Peter: I have experimented with a couple of other books. Neither of them, I thought were very successful.
One was a crime mystery, setting Edwardian times with a female protagonist. I think it had some merit, but I wasn’t happy with it.
And then I tried something completely different, which was more what they call high concept thriller based around the idea of climate change and global warming.
That didn’t really work because it is supposedly a very serious subject. And I kept putting jokes in. Well, that’s that’s fine for The Crampton of the Chronicle series, but not for a serious subject like that.
So I’ve decided to stick with what I can do best, which is the comic crime mystery.
Alexandra: I can completely understand that because I find myself as a writer that certain characters fit our natural voice.
Sometimes if we try to go outside of that in and fit ourselves into a different kind of box, it doesn’t really work.
Peter: Yes, I entirely agree with you about the question of voice. If you’re not a writer and a writer starts, which ran on about, oh, I’ve got to find my voice, you think they’re just talking a lot of nonsense, but it’s absolutely true.
You can capture the voice of your your protagonist and then you’re not going to get very far.
And that’s particularly important when you’re writing in the first person rather than the third person, because you’ve got every intonation of their speech, their thought process and everything else in what you’re writing.
Alexandra: When I interviewed you before, which was in July of 2016, I looked back and realized it’s been a while. We talked about your past as a journalist.
Do you find that your ideas for the new books are still coming from that experience or where did they come from?
Well, they come from all source kinds of sources. The Tango School Mystery, funnily enough, did come from my experience as a journalist. It came from a public meeting I had to report on. This was way back in 1966 and that was rather an odd meeting. I won’t go into details. But it gave me the idea for the Tango School Mystery.
The Mother’s Day Mystery, which is the next one along in that particular series, I got the idea from that from my old school. I went to a school, which was founded back in 1614 and housed in the original buildings. There were a lot of old gloomy Jacobean buildings with heavy beams and legged windows. And it was all kind of ghostly and spooky. That gave me the idea for the Mother’s Day Mystery.
For the Comedy Club Mystery, some people may have heard of a comedian who is very famous in the UK in the 1940s and 1950s, Max Miller. At one time he was the highest paid entertainer in the UK and he came from Brighton, where all the books are set. There’s a statue of him in the Pavilion Gardens in Brighton. I was walking past that statue one day and looked at it and that gave me the idea.
And then The Poker Game Mystery, I read about a secret wartime group of men who were based in and around Brighton. And that gave me the idea for that book. We had pirate radio stations, which in the 1960s were broadcasts from ships outside the three mile limit. And that’s given me the idea for The Beach Party Mystery.
So these ideas come from all kinds of sources. But of course, the thing about an idea and this is I think what sorts out people who end up writing a book from people who have an idea but don’t end up writing what is is developing that idea into a plot and then writing 75000 words about it.
It’s quite a different thing isn’t it, to have the original inspiration and then turn it into something that’s entertaining and that has twists and turns and surprises along the way.
I guess we’re just about out of time, but what I wanted to ask, too, what your writing routine is like. You’ve been so prolific since I last talked to you.
Do you write every day? Do you write at a specific time of day, that kind of thing?
Well, of course, I spent my life working as a journalist and I still regard myself as a journalist, really, although I’m not doing much journalism. Now I am doing a lot of book writing. That’s why they’re coming at the rate of two year at the moment.
But yes, I’m in my office pretty much by nine o’clock every morning and I’m there or round about it until about 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening, working away.
Not always on books. I have other work to do as well. And sometimes I’m doing that. But yes, I’ve got a pretty regular work routine and I think you have to have one if you’re going to produce a lot of publishable written work.
That discipline, in my case, came from working as a journalist, latterly as a free freelance journalist for over 40 years writing for newspapers and magazines.
Alexandra: That that muscle of just showing up at the desk was has long been developed.
Alexandra: This has been amazing, Peter. Thank you so much for chatting with me and sharing a bit of your book with us. I really appreciate it.
Why don’t you let everybody know where they can find out more about you and your work?
Peter: You can go to the website ColinCrampton.com. So that’s Colin Crampton, the dot com or just Google me on Amazon and you’ll find all the books there. And for the audio books go to Audible. They’re all they’re all on there.
Alexandra: Fantastic. Well, that’s great. Thank you so much. I’ll put links in the show notes to all of that so people can easily find.
And you mentioned, too, that if they go to ColinCrampton.com, they can get a free book. Is that right?
Peter: If they sign up to the newsletter. We have a newsletter that goes out once or twice a month. Little articles, background articles and so forth. Yeah, they get a free book called Murder in Capital Letters.
Alexandra: Perfect. Well, that’s awesome. Well, thank you again so much, Peter, for being here today.
Peter: Thank you very much. Alexandra. It’s been great fun. My pleasure. Bye bye.