The theme of the Hound is the death of the book. It seemed an obvious concept to me at the beginning: to use the lives of individuals faced with this cataclysm as a means of revealing its true magnitude.
I made several false starts before realizing a problem. The simpler the theme, the more difficult the story.
And certainly, writing a book to present such a theme is inherently ironic. But then irony is a part of the human comedy–as it is in the catching of whales, Ahab might have said at the last. More to the point, the game is afoot. The murder is happening now.
I have already mentioned here, in ‘The Hound and its consequences,’ why I chose the mystery genre. However, there is one thing I did not say before on that subject, because I thought it was too provocative to put forward without explanation: I do believe the book is actually being murdered. It’s a subject I will return to at a later moment.
My original hero was a bookseller. Well, of course! Casting myself in the John Wayne role was only natural. Wasn’t it? Maybe not. Besides, John Dunning and more than a few others had already planted in that field.
I turned then to a natural second choice: an author. But books about struggling authors are a bit common. There is too much real angst there to permit an unbiased view of the larger struggle. So I tried making him the great success–the author who had already achieved fame and fortune and was now faced with the consequence of his ambition. This is something I could imagine very easily, but actually knew nothing about. I am one of those angst-ridden strugglers, after all. It didn’t feel right.
What was I to do?
I tried a few variations. I had cast an author’s agent as a villain in my first go at it. Though she lacked the handlebar mustache, she otherwise fit the caricature quite well. Trouble was, the more I tried to make her human, the more I liked her.
So I asked myself, “Self…What would Nevil Shute do?”
This is a wise maneuver for any author but especially for me. Shute, the simple master, is my real hero. My writing is nothing like his in style, I know, but very much in his shadow (in my own mind at least)…And he’d find that very funny. His modesty was overwhelming. I don’t believe he ever had the pretensions of being a stylist or litterateur or casting a shadow except in the shape of his small plane on a landscape far below. He was a great storyteller who went about his task with the joy of an engineer and with the efficacy of a pilot–both of which he was.
You might say, shouldn’t that be the efficacy of an engineer and the joy of a pilot. And I would say yes, that too. But I know the joy Shute took in crafting his stories and cannot escape the knowledge that to Nevil Shute Norway, engineering was a calling. As an author, he crafted his stories like fine little machines–taking neither ‘little’ nor ‘machine’ in any pejorative sense. For a near perfect example, you must read Trustee from the Toolroom.
So I asked my question.
The answer was given in due time, as it always is in a Shute novel. There is no rushing it.
What I wanted was someone who made their living at the fringes of the book world and might examine all its aspects with a degree of independence–like a pilot above the landscape. I did not want to lay blame as much as discover it. I did not want be unfair with such a great wrong and place the onus on anyone other than the guilty. I wanted the kind of forensics which are not found in a one-hour television show.
My wish is that the Hound will entertain sufficiently for me to tell the whole story of Henry Sullivan and his discoveries, but I came to understand that I could not faithfully tell the tale in one short novel in any case. More than that, I was not about to sacrifice the telling of his adventures on an alter of speed, a key weapon in this heinous deed.
There are plenty of suspects in that mob which is destroying the book. I think it is worthwhile to consider them all in their own place.
And if the pace of Henry Sullivan in his sleuthing does not suit the audience, it will be on my own head, not on Nevil Shute. He is my mentor, but not my accomplice. I am on my own in this.