The ‘Museum Murder’ series by Jim Eldridge – a BBC scriptwriter’s journey to becoming a novelist
2018 saw the publication of Murder at the Fitzwilliam, the first in my historical crime series ‘The Museum Mysteries’. Set in Cambridge in 1894, it introduced Daniel Wilson, a private investigator and former detective with Scotland Yard (he had been part of Inspector Abberline’s squad during the Jack the Ripper investigation), and Abigail Fenton, an archaeologist with a long experience of digs in Egypt, Palestine, Greece and Rome. A graduate of Girton College in Cambridge, Abigail is curating an exhibition of Egyptian artefacts at the Fitzwilliam museum when she discovers the body of a man in a sarcophagus, followed by a second body a few days later. Daniel has been called in to investigate after the local police have dismissed the first death as an accident. From the start, Daniel and Abigail are at loggerheads, a clash of two different cultures, but – and this will come as no surprise to readers – there is an attraction between them that both find hard to resist. But resist they do. At first.
Breaking the typecast
For me, the acceptance of ‘Fitzwilliam’ by the publishers, Allison & Busby, was a long-time ambition realised. I have been a professional writer since 1971. In that year I had my first book published, an espionage crime novel called Down Payment on Death; and also sold my first situation comedy to BBC Radio. Called ‘Parsley Sidings’, it starred Arthur Lowe, Ken Connor, Liz Fraser and Ian Lavender. The radio sitcom did better commercially than the novel, and as a result I spent the next 40 years primarily as a scriptwriter, with 500 scripts broadcast in the UK and internationally: the first 14 years writing comedy for radio and TV, and the next 26 years writing comedy-drama for BBC Radio (including creating ‘King Street Junior’, which ran for 20 years on Radio 4) and creating and writing series for children’s television. Since 2000 I’d also been writing children’s books, but always I’d had this desire to return to where I’d started – writing crime novels, if possible linking it with my other obsession, history.
The problem was that when I approached publishers known for their crime lists about submitting ideas to them, the usual response was “But you’re a scriptwriter, not a novelist”, and when I pointed out that I had written a hundred children’s books, including historical fiction, the response was often “Ah yes, but that’s writing for children“. It was in vain that I pointed out that Ian Fleming had also written Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and that Roald Dahl wrote crime fiction stories for adults, I was not either of those two. The door to entering the world where I wanted to be, among the crime novelist fraternity, seemed to have turned into a brick wall, against which I banged my head to no avail. How to break through it? This was the question so many other writers had asked and – like them – needed to come up with an answer.
Proving himself in a new genre
One major lesson my career as a writer had taught me was that every time I entered a new genre (first radio comedy; then TV comedy; then drama; children’s television, whether comedy or science-fiction or straight drama; children’s novels, etc) I had to prove myself in this new arena. Reputations gained in other fields carried little weight. And so it was here. If I wished to break into the world of writing historical crime fiction for adults then I had to write something to show potential commissioning editors that I was worth showing an interest in: that I could write for their market. Luckily for me, history and crime fiction were my first loves as a reader, so I was already steeped in the genre as a fan. So, on spec, I wrote an historical crime novel, a police procedural set in the 1920s. That got me a new literary agent who represented adult fiction writers (my existing agents, one of the largest, only represented scriptwriters and children’s authors). My new agent, in turn, arranged a meeting for me with Allison & Busby.
As I headed for that first meeting with Allison & Busby in 2017, I felt the same sense of excitement mixed with awe that I’d experienced when I first entered the halls of the BBC in 1971 to meet the legendary script editor, Edward Taylor, who’d invited me to talk about my sitcom idea. During the 70s and 80s, books published by Allison & Busby had a fantastic reputation, being by exciting writers like Colin McInnes and Michael Moorcock, and they were also the publishers of Edward Marston, one of my favourite historical crime novelists, particularly his ‘The Railway Detective’ series.
Museum Mysteries finally get the nod
Fortunately for me, they put me at ease straight away and we got down to the nuts and bolts of the ‘Museum Mysteries’ idea: when should it be set, who was our hero (in this case, hero and heroine) and how could we make sure it could develop into a continuing series if the first book did good enough business. Luckily for me, my experience as the creator and also writer of series of TV and radio kicked in. I’d created 17 different series for BBC and ITV over the years and had written for a further 15 created by others, so I hoped I knew how to keep a series running. But, as I’ve said before, this was a new venture for me into a new genre, so I knew I would be very dependent on my editors at Allison and Busby to make sure this series did what they wanted. I was in safe hands. As publishers, Allison and Busby are very experienced at building series.
Murder at the Fitzwilliam came out in 2018, followed by Murder at the British Museum and Murder at the Ashmolean in 2019, and Murder at the Manchester Museum in January 2020. Murder at the Natural History Museum will follow in mid-Summer 2020.
Where next? Who knows? All I know is that it’s been a long journey since 1971 to here, but at last I feel I’m home. But my long career has taught me never to get complacent and take things for granted, so I’ll add: I feel I’m home … for now. And I hope it will last.
For more on Jim’s books and links to his website visit his author profile on the CRA.