For a while now we’ve been putting on our collective thinking cap, trying to imagine who would be the best new addition to Murderati, to add but another unique voice to the mix (and spare Pari her Herculean every-Monday schedule). As we tossed various names around, one name kept popping up over and over: Tania Carver.
Only one problem. Tania Carver, well, doesn’t exist.
At least, you can’t shake her hand—or borrow a fiver from her. But she’s alive and well as the pseudonym for husband-wife writing team Martyn and Linda Waites.
I first met Martyn at Bouchercon in San Francisco, and we shared a pint or two (but who’s counting) in St. Louis as well, so I was given the welcome task of, well, welcoming him and Linda aboard. I was beyond thrilled when they agreed.
Martyn, author of nine books himself (The Mercy Seat is one of my all-time favorites), got the idea of teaming up with Linda when a daring proclamation of chutzpah to his editor proved much harder to pull off solo than he’d thought. He needed Linda to seal the deal. And Tania Carver was born. (For the whole story, check out their website.)
The tale just gets better—Ms. Carver became an international bestseller.
The series features Detective Inspector Phil Brennan and psychologist Marina Esposito, and the books are set in Colchester, “a large town in the north of Essex, almost in Suffolk, [that] was once the capital of Britain but was destroyed by Boudica and the Iceni in revolt against the Romans… There are ghosts of crimes and the echoes of ghosts of crimes down the centuries. It feels like a modern, well-connected, rational city occupying the same space as an old, isolated, superstitious town.” The fourth novel in the series, Choked, comes out this year.
So, if you would please, put your hands together for the one, the only, quasi-existent Tania Carver.
And here she is / they are . . . Tania Carver!
Well. I’ve just been to see The Avengers.
What? That’s how they’re starting? After that great build up David gave, that’s the first line? Yes. It is. Well, OK. Maybe I should explain a little more. It’s Martyn here, half of Tania Carver. The tall, male half. If you’ve been to Bouchercon, as David will attest to, you’ll have seen me in the bar. If you’ve been to virtually any crime fiction event you’ll have seen me in the bar. And out of the two of us I’m the one with the thing about superheroes. Which is why I’ve just been to see The Avengers. Linda didn’t fancy it so I took our daughter along as my human shield and no one could feel uncomfortable about the middle aged man wearing a Jack Kirby t-shirt sitting on his own at a kids film. As it was, it was just my daughter who felt uncomfortable about that. It’s a good job cinemas are dark.
Anyway. I digress. I loved it. What a fantastic film. I wasn’t bored once. As a lifelong comic book reader (and aspiring writer of them – still) it was everything I hoped it would be. There were the characters I grew up with, whose adventures I’d religiously followed every month, whose imaginary lives I became completely intertwined with, up on the big screen, fully fleshed out and in action. Avengers assembled, indeed.
And the cinema was just about full, which was heartening. And not just with kids, but with middle-aged people like me, some of which hadn’t brought along their own kids as human shields and were shamelessly enjoying the movie on their own. And that got me thinking. Why would a whole load of middle-aged people turn up on a Saturday night to watch what is essentially a kids film? Is it just childhood nostalgia for seeing brightly-coloured characters fight each other? Or simple, uncomplicated escapism at its most reductive? Is that it and nothing more?
So was that why I was there too? Was it just a way to fill in a couple of hours with spectacle or was there something more to it. Naturally, being a writer with a tendency to over-analyse, I found something more. Something that could be reduced to a (deceptively) simple phrase: ‘Follow your bliss.’
If anyone reading this knows where that comes from then they’ve most probably read Joseph Campbell. If you’re not familiar with him, here’s a brief introduction. He was a writer, best known for his studies in comparative mythology and comparative religion in relation to the human psyche. His most famous works were The Masks Of God, The Power Of Myth (where the ‘Follow Your Bliss’ quote comes from) and the book that brought him to my attention, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
It’s difficult to summarise Campbell’s work in a few sentences but for the sake of brevity I’ll give it a go. He believed that all the human cultures of the world, dating back millennia, shared a common mythology. Common stories, in other words, that were broken down locally to be told and retold. The myths of Eastern and Western religions, he argued, came from the same source and were just different interpretations of those stories. But these stories had one thing in common: they were narratives that not only addressed the human condition but allowed people to understand it and, in many cases, transcend it. ‘Truth is one,’ he said, ‘the sages speak of it by many names.’ He combined this research with contemporary philosophical interpretation, especially the work of Carl Jung’s archetypes, by which time he thought that the telling of myths and stories had passed from religious speakers to artists, filmmakers and novelists. His work can be looked on as a repository for every story type there is.
George Lucas discovered this after he’d made the first three Star Wars films. He screened them for Campbell who agreed that everything he’d said was, coincidentally, up there on the screen. After that, it was open season on Campbell’s ideas. Everybody claimed them. Filmmakers from Disney’s The Lion King to The Matrix, novelists, songwriters. Even game and theme park designers.
Which brings us back to The Avengers. What does that movie have to do with Campbell? Well, more than you might think. Let’s look at the story. There’s a great evil. Some heroes are brought together to combat that evil but, for various psychological reasons, they don’t think that they’re up to the challenge. They then have to put aside their differences and conquer their own fears to face the enemy, defeat it, and in doing so learn truths about themselves that will make them better people. It’s a classic mythic structure: challenges, fears, dragons, battles and the return home as a different person. It’s a template that I imagine every single writer has used. More than once.
I’ve often thought that superheroes were more than just juvenile escapism. In the right hands they become the contemporary equivalent of, say, Greek mythology. Or Medieval morality and mystery plays. But it doesn’t just apply to superheroes. We might, as writers, think we’re trying something new, something that’s never been attempted before. We’re not. We’re just shuffling the words around. Admittedly some do it with such style and skill that they create scenes, characters and novels that make it seem like those words have never been used that way before while the rest of us just sit and take notes. But they’re still following Campbell’s archetypes.
‘There are only seven songs,’ Michael Stipe of REM once said (and I may be paraphrasing slightly here), ‘and we do four of them quite well.’ Campbell’s work shows us that like songs there are no new stories and I doubt there ever will be. Because there doesn’t need to be. We have the same kinds of songs, we just have different kinds of singers. When we write, we’re using the same narratives as the Greeks, as the Romans, as Cervantes, as Poe, as Dostoyevsky. As James Joyce. As Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. We use the same structures whether we call them by the names Campbell used or not. Campbell would say that’s down to localism, where we are in the world and how we’ve interpreted those stories. Where – and how – we’ve been taught or influenced. Whatever. All that matters is, we’re all doing the same thing. Whether we’re writing about superheroes or private eyes, crinolined young women or knights in armour. We’re all trying to tell stories in our own ways that, in their simplest forms, are doing the same things now that they’ve always done. Making audiences – making readers – laugh, cry and think. Connecting.
And in doing so we’re all, hopefully, following our bliss.