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A Matter of Life and Death (and Steam)

Val McDermid, doyenne  of Scottish crime writing, recently did a broadcast talk entitled “Murder is not the point”.   (It’s one of the Radio 4 “Point of View” series, currently available here. )  Her thesis is that murder is a hook to engage the reader, but the writing can take any direction the writer wants to take – which might reflect on history, geography, society, or any other field that preoccupies the writer.   “Murder,” as McDermid put it, “is just a carnival barker’s pitch to get you inside the tent”.

Lazy Bee Scripts publishes murder mysteries of the interactive sort.   These have evolved from whodunnit novels, cited by McDermid as the font of crime fiction, in which the reader tries to solve the author’s puzzle.   In the stage version, the detective work is done by the audience.  Since there is a limited time for the audience to absorb background material, interactive murder mysteries tend towards the light entertainment end of the crime spectrum, rather than McDermid’s high-minded approach (using the murder in the foreground as a means of exploring the background).  Nevertheless, there is still scope for the author to lead the audience down a chosen path.

Rocket The Steampunk Bee (detail)In Abram Skinner, I’ve used a murder mystery as a vehicle for exploring a small corner of the Steampunk multiverse.  Steampunk might be thought of as a fantasy genre, but I don’t think that helps very much.  (The term Fantasy tends to be used disparagingly to indicate something beneath the dignity of the serious reader, but I take the view that all fiction is fantasy, since it is the creation of the imagination of the author.  Whether it is highbrow literature or not should depend on the content, not the container.)  In this case, the imagination starts with a counterfactual history question: what if oil had not become dominant?  The answer assumes the absence of the internal combustion engine and plastic materials and creates an extension of the age of steam with Victorian fashions overlaid with mechanical gadgetry – as exhibited here by the Cottonopolis Coglective (the Manchester Steampunks) along with Rocket the Steampunk Bee (designed by Evelyn Sinclair).Cottonopolis Coglective

It’s the strength of this visual aesthetic that I wanted to bring to the stage, but there’s a pitfall waiting for every Steampunk writer (probably inherent in counterfactual history): the desire to explain everything.  Everything, in this case, is not only the way technology has evolved, but also politics and commerce.  The risk is that the background overwhelms the story – and it was the story that brought the audience into the tent.  That’s why I settled on a whodunnit as a vehicle for bringing Steampunk to the stage.  It has the trappings of the classic country house mystery (albeit without the house).   All the suspects are confined to one place, so the focus is on them and the writer is prevented from exploring the whole of the outside world.  The sociology of the age is implicit in the nature of the characters and the audience can get on with admiring the costumes, absorbing the plot and pointing to the murderer.  (And if they go away ruminating on the role of the professional assassin in buccaneer capitalism, then I honestly won’t mind.)