Eric Brown – The Book that Changed My Life
A single event on a summer’s day, way back in 1975, changed my life for ever.
I was fifteen and living in Melbourne, Australia, where my parents and I had emigrated the year before. I was kicking my heels that summer, waiting to start work at a local corner shop, and in a bid to forestall my complaints of boredom my mother handed me a book.
It was this simple gesture which was to set the course of my life for the next forty years.
Until that point I had managed never to have read a work of fiction. Quite how I achieved this is a mystery to me. It would seem, in retrospect, to be an impossible thing to do: to go through nine years of schooling without having my mind and imagination fired by novels and stories. But I resisted the better efforts of teachers, and those of my increasingly desperate parents, and spent my time playing football and building space-rockets from toilet roll tubes and tissue boxes.
I often look back and wonder what might have happened had my mother not handed me that novel, whether I would have discovered literature myself at some future date, or whether I would have gone through life in ignorance of the wonder of the written word. I shudder at the thought that the latter might have been the case.
And the title of that life-changing novel?
It was Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie.
* * *
First published in 1936, the novel is considered one of Christie’s finest, and shows Hercule Poirot at his most human. Mr Shaitana, a wealthy socialite, collects objets d’art and murderers who have yet to be unmasked. He invites Poirot and three other sleuths to a dinner party – along with four members of his ‘collection’ – to see if the detectives can solve their crimes. During the course of the evening, however, the scheming Mr Shaitana himself is murdered, and the hunt is on for the culprit. Of course Hercule Poirot solves the case, with the aid of supreme logic and his ‘little grey cells’.
It is hard to overstate the effect the novel had upon my youthful sensibilities.
On one level, for the period of the two or three days it took me to read the book, I was transported to another world, a world very different to anything I had ever experienced – the art galleries and salons of cosmopolitan London in the 1930s. I was privy to the lives of characters the like of which I had only ever seen on TV and in films: the dapper Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, the Mephistophelian Mr Shaitana, secret agent Colonel Race and the detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who some critics believe was a thinly disguised portrait of Christie herself.
On a more profound level, my immersion in Christie’s fictive world had the effect that all literature has upon the individual: it allowed me to access the lives, the very psyches, of people other than myself; it allowed me, in very real terms, and for the first time in my life, to view the universe from a perspective other than my own.
Thus began a life-long fascination with reading and collecting books.
After Christie, I sought out other crime writers. I discovered the delights of the Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey, and the thrillers of Miles Tripp, amongst others.
And soon I was trying my hand at writing detective stories. My imagination was fired and I wanted nothing more than to be a writer, spinning imaginary worlds like those of my literary heroes and heroines. I penned dozens of feeble efforts involving unlikely deaths in quaint English settings – as much a response to nostalgia for the Old Country as they were to the influence of Christie and Sayers. I duly submitted the stories to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the London Mystery Magazine with high hopes, only to have those hopes dashed, months later, when they returned with form rejection slips.
* * *
Over the course of the next ten years I wrote twenty bad novels and over a hundred stories of a similar quality. They were all rejected, and rightly so, but I persevered. I discovered that writing was a rewarding pastime in itself, even without the bonus of publication.
That decade, from the age of eighteen to twenty-eight, I wrote a million words of fiction. I learned my craft and the bonus of publication eventually arrived. I sold a science fiction story to Interzone in 1987, and then a couple more. I was contacted by an agent who liked the tales and asked if I’d written a novel. Well, I had a chest-full under my bed, all of them appalling. But would he be interested in looking at a collection of my stories?
He was and, more amazingly, an editor at Pan was willing to publish the book. The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories saw the light of day in 1990, fifteen years after I first set pen to paper. There followed my first novel, Meridian Days, and twenty-odd other SF novels over the years.
* * *
Forty years have passed since I first read Agatha Christie, and last year my second crime novel, Murder at the Chase, was published.
That naïve fifteen year-old would have been amazed.
The Pan edition of Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table sits before me on the desk as I type, the very same copy my mother insisted I read back in 1975, with its broken turquoise spine and leering devil’s head on the cover.
All I need to do is pick up the book and read the opening line, “My dear Mr. Poirot!” and I am taken back to that transformative day in my youth when my life was about to change for ever.
Eric Brown has lived in Australia, India, and Greece. He began writing when he was fifteen and sold his first short story to Interzone in 1986. He has won the British Science Fiction Award twice for his short stories and has published over fifty books. His latest include the crime novels Murder by the Book and Murder at the Chase, and the science fiction novels The Serene Invasion and Jani and the Greater Game. The Sequel, Jani and the Great Pursuit, will be published in 2016. He has also written a dozen books for children and over a hundred and thirty short stories. He writes a monthly science fiction review column for the Guardian. He lives in Cockburnspath, Scotland, and his website can be found at: www.ericbrown.co.uk