Friday 28 August 2020

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944)

Today, the UK has been remembering Noor Inayat Khan, a British Muslim who was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France. English Heritage have erected one of their iconic blue plaques at the flat where she lived in Bloomsbury from 1942-43, and they've put together detailed information on her life and heroic exploits which you can read here.

I was struck by the detail that prior to the Second World War, Noor had been pursuing a career as a children's writer in Paris, with some stories in Le Figaro. I made a quick search of France's National Library archives, and I found one quite quickly. I've translated this below. I have done this quickly, but I hope I've done it justice. It's a rather charming retelling of Echo and Narcissus.

I hope you like this, I've done it because... I don't know. Noor Inayat Khan lived a remarkable life, that was brutally curtailed. And she was heroic and brave (rooftop escapes are my Kryptonite), but she was also creative and inspired. And although today is about remembering - and, for many, probably hearing for the first time about - her heroic wartime acts, I'd like everyone to remember that she was so much more than a war hero.

What you hear in the woods sometimes...

Many, many years ago there lived some nymphs at the top of a high mountain.

There were also nymphs down on the ground, but those from the mountains were more beautiful than all the others, because they drank the nectar from the daffodils which covered the slopes, and lived so close to the sky, up there on the rocks, that they breathed all its scents.

So, they gathered all those scents, mixed them with pine, and laurel branches, and when Mistral, King of the Winds, passed by the mountain, they gave them to him to spread over the earth.

Among the nymphs, there was one who was younger than all the others. She was called Echo. She was the smallest, her voice was softer, more gentle than the others, but she had two great drawbacks.

She was never first to speak, that was her habit. Someone else would always have to say hello to her first.

But once conversation began, she didn’t stop babbling, because she was chatty, even chattier than the magpies and the crickets.

One day, one of the nymphs was going to take the scents that she had gathered to Mistral, when she met Echo on her way.

“Good evening, Echo, my little sister,” she greeted her.

“Good evening!” Echo answered. And immediately began babbling. And it took such a long time, so long that Mistral passed over the summit while the nymph charged with gathering, listened to Echo speak.

So great was Mistral’s rage that evening that he blew four times harder, and trees leaned over, sand was blasted from rocks, and across the world there could be heard nothing but sighs.

All the mountain nymphs had already climbed into crevices in the rocks, but the poor nymph whom Echo had delayed was running hopelessly, carrying the balms towards the peak.

And Mistral, who saw her from far away, blew sand into her eyes to punish her.

Poor little nymph! She was sitting and sobbing until daylight failed and she slept beneath the pine trees.

But the next day, on finding Echo in her way once more, rage took hold of her.

“Echo! Wicked Echo!” she cried. “It was you who delayed me with your interminable chattering! The earth hasn’t received its evening fragrance and Mistral has punished me sorely! And you think that I’m going to forget all the harm that you’ve done! No, henceforth, you’ll only be able to repeat the last words spoken to you, and that way you’ll never again be able to delay anyone on their business.”

At once, the unfortunate Echo was robbed of her speech.

She huddled under the pine trees beside a path, and began to sob bitterly.

“Everything speaks,” she thought, “the stream flowing down there over the rocks, the pine tree which never stops rattling its branches. What’s it talking about? Interminable stories about nymphs, about Mistral, about daylight…”

And while she was thus reflecting on all the joy that she no longer had, the sound of soft footsteps was approaching.

It was Narcissus, the young shepherd.

“A man from the earth, so handsome!” Echo thought, certain he was the son of some nymph because he was as handsome as the dawn.

Hardly had he passed through the pine trees, when Echo began to follow his footsteps softly.

“Who’s behind me?” Narcissus cried.

“Me!” Echo answered, hiding behind a pine.

“Why are you hiding?” Narcissus cried.

“Why are you hiding?” Echo answered.

Wait till I find you… I’m coming!” Narcissus said.

“I’m coming,” Echo replied.

And at those words, she split the thick foliage and appeared before Narcissus. Her tears had dried and her wide eyes shone like periwinkles.

But on seeing her, Narcissus turned on his heel and fled.

She stayed under the pines for a long time and wept for so long that she turned to stone.

Nothing is left of Echo but her voice.

And that voice can still be heard in the mountains and woods.

When you call, she answers and her voice is still so sad, because she’s thinking of Narcissus who left her alone one day, under the pines.

Noor Inayat

Boring bit. This translation was taken from Gallica, which archives many French newspapers and other publications. The full page can be seen here: This story was first published on Sunday 13 August 1939, and was written by Noor Inayat Khan. This translation however is copyright Andrew Lawston 2020, please do not share without attribution.

Sunday 13 October 2019

Chantecoq - King of Detectives, Master of Disguise

Arthur Bernède (1871 - 1937)
The long wait is over, and the King of Detectives series is here. Belphegor: Chantecoq and the Phantom of the Louvre led the charge in September, and now my first translation in the series - Chantecoq and the Mystery of the Blue Train is available on Kindle for just £0.99 / $0.99.

I first translated the detective's original adventure, Chantecoq and the Aubry Affair, back in 2014, and this current run of books was mostly translated over the last twelve months. At sixty thousand words a pop... well, I've worked out I've translated well over half a million words of Chantecoq adventures to date, and there's still four books I've not even looked at.

Blue Train, as I'll call it for the rest of this post, marks a landmark in Chantecoq's career in several respects. It was published in 1929 as the first of the Further Exploits of Chantecoq series. Introduced by a short preface where the detective himself turns up at Arthur Bernède's house to complain that the author has forgotten about him, Chantecoq has moved on, even from the events of 1927's Belphegor. His daughter, now married to reporter Jacques Bellegarde, comes over to visit, but her supportive role has been taken over by Météor, a young man who idolises the king of detectives, and who will develop over the course of eight books with a care and attention to detail which is rarely afforded to supporting characters in pulp fiction.

But although Blue Train heralds a new chapter in Chantecoq's life, it surely can't be coincidence that it appeared barely a year after Agatha Christie published the Poirot novel Mystery of the Blue Train in 1928. The similarities end there, however. While much of Christie's book unfolds on the "Train Bleu" itself, Chantecoq's adventure takes place almost entirely in Paris, as he investigates a murder committed in Marseille several months earlier.

A prolific novelist and screenwriter, and a shrewd operator, it's fair to say that Bernède certainly wouldn't have been above riding Christie's coat-tails with a familiar title for the first novel in his new series. But he had the confidence to avoid echoing any more of Poirot's adventure as he instead establishes the template for the next eight novels. This is more of an adventure story than a true mystery, and while Chantecoq's "little grey cells" are easily a match for those of his famous Belgian counterpart, Bernède makes sure that the reader is always half a step ahead of the great bloodhound. Chantecoq's ability to solve a mystery is never in doubt. What Bernède seeks to show us is a detective who is completely confident in his abilities, to the extent that he intends to have some fun while exposing a murderer and clearing an innocent's name.

The "Further Exploits of Chantecoq" have never been translated into English before, and they're hard to get hold of in French. It's my serious hope that through these translations, Chantecoq will soon win back his rightful place in the pantheon of literary detectives.

Thursday 22 August 2019

Chantecoq Rides Again!

Yes, I now own a 1916 newspaper supplement.
Developments! At last!

Long-time readers may recall that I once translated and self-published two early 20th Century French pulp novels by the prolific Arthur Bernède, under the titles Chantecoq & The Aubry Affair, and Chantecoq & The Père-Lachaise Ghost.

Chantecoq is a half-forgotten hero of French pulp fiction, but he had many popular adventures spanning two decades, from the eve of the First World War right through to the early 1930s. He started life as a secret agent, before becoming known as a private investigator. Though amusingly he's always described as a detective even in his wartime adventures, as the French didn't like to admit that their nation would ever resort to espionage. Even though it's a French word.

The books represent a halfway house between 19th Century sensibilities, and 20th Century pulp adventure. Telephones, electric buzzers, aeroplanes, and cars are all portrayed as the trappings of a cutting-edge techno-thriller. And I suppose they were. In the earliest books, all the characters are incredibly, melodramatically, nationalistic, but with the innocence that comes of having been written before two world wars: Franco-Prussian rivalry seems barely as serious as the Britpop feud between Blur and Oasis.

As the years roll on, Chantecoq's skills as a master of disguise are boosted by a taste for gadgets and his the growing capabilities of his irrepressible assistant, Météor. Oddly, the strong female characters of the wartime books become increasingly downgraded to cookie cutter femme fatales and trophy wives in the 1920s, but at the same time the rampant nationalism is toned down. A bit.

Now, I've spent the last eight months not just neglecting this blog, but translating seven more Chantecoq novels. Yes, seven. And also liaising with a fellow translator and author who has translated the most famous Chantecoq story of all: Belphégor.

In the next couple of months, all eight of these books will be self-published and coming to a Kindle near you. Seven haven't been reprinted since 1929. Six have never before been translated into English.

Get ready. Chantecoq is coming.

Friday 10 August 2018

Voyage... Of The Space Bastard

Gun, actor's own.
Joth Krantor, heir to the Krantor-Huang Corporation that once controlled interstellar travel, has a plan to restore his fortune. An evil plan. Join his ship, the Space Bastard, as he enlists a forgotten race of super-soldiers, dodges the lethal birds of Borthokk, and ends the mystery of the Rosetteish Stone.

You wait 30-something years for a writer's first novel, and then he brings out the second in a few months. Yes, it's a second comedy space opera adventure. It's not a direct sequel to Zip! Zap! Boing! - not by any stretch of the imagination, but it is set in the same universe, and the Starship Troupers Initiative will be crossing paths with Joth Krantor further down the line.

Voyage of the Space Bastard is currently available for pre-order, exclusively for Kindle. It's an epic mad quest, that takes readers from frozen asteroids to stone forests. I've developed characters and concepts from an old story of mine, The Frag Prince, and that short retold fairy tale is also now available as a free download on most e-reader platforms.

In this book, which was originally published as a novella in Pew Pew Volume 4, I wanted to create a sort of evil Star Trek. Joth Krantor is interested in exploration and discovery, as long as it helps him further his goals. And, wow, he has some ambitious goals. Even having finished the book, I can't decide whether I like Joth Krantor or not.

There are mysterious space phenomena, sinister spacecraft, and strange new worlds to explore.

I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday 8 May 2018

Come and join the Starship Troupers Initiative!

The new book!
From 21st Century Shakespearean actor to intergalactic super spy!

Ten thousand years in the future, the Starship Troupers Initiative is the galaxy's foremost touring theatre company, bringing the greatest actors to entertain soldiers in warzones on the most lethal colony worlds. Now, new actor James Fanning must both give the performance of a lifetime, and singlehandedly turn the tide of the civil war that rages on the distant desert world of Jargroth. The show must go on... even if it kills him!

The first book in a very different science-fiction universe, where Aristotle's three unities hold more sway than Asimov's three laws of robotics.

Published: 24 May, 2018. Pre-order for just £0.99 / $0.99 here!

I finally wrote a novel.

Long-term readers may be surprised that I've never actually written a novel. I have various novelettes and novellas and lengthy short stories to my name, and I've translated various French novels. But until a few months ago, I'd never actually completed an original novel-length work. And I've been writing fiction since I was six.

But the important thing is I got there in the end, and the result is something very special. I think.

Zip! Zap! Boing! was first published towards the end of 2017 as a novella in Pew! Pew! Bite My Shiny Metal Pew! That book was a great commercial and critical success, but instead of just republishing the novella, I found myself wanting to dig a bit deeper into the world I'd created, to put in a few more jokes, and to flesh out some of the supporting characters. The novella version of my story left a lot of open questions for a sequel, but I wanted to understand more about the Starship Troupers before I sent them all off on a second adventure.

So yes, I write novels now. Do please take a look on Amazon!

Friday 29 December 2017

Obligatory 2017 round-up...

2017. What a year it's been, right?

Like 2016, the news was largely rubbish, but it was personally and professionally pretty good for me. So I stopped watching the news. Brilliant.

I went into 2017 riding high in bestseller lists across the world thanks to an elusive Bookbub campaign for my Casanova translation, Story of my Escape. Even one year one, I've not got tired of typing that kind of sentence. In spite of the "quiet" reception of my other translated novel, Chantecoq and the Aubry Affair, I finished translating a second Chantecoq adventure, though it wouldn't come out until the very end of the year.

I was lucky enough to reprise my role as Dave in an expanded production of Naomi Westerman's play Puppy - and I got to play former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg into the bargain! Puppy sold out all shows at the Vault Festival at Waterloo, and was selected as a Time Out and Guardian pick of the week. Even our dog was featured on the poster, which might explain why he's such a little diva. I briefly wondered how I could follow all that, and then decided I obviously couldn't, and so took the rest of the year off from acting.

A short story I'd written the year before was published by Obverse Books. The Scottish Flap appeared in A Treasury of Brenda and Effie, edited by Brenda and Effie's creator, Paul Magrs. It's probably the story I'm proudest of to date, and the book was absolute top quality.

A book we'll come back to later went into pre-order during April, but to be honest, around this time I was soft-pedalling on the writing in order to support my lovely wife Melanie as she got her dissertation finished. Late nights in the university library formatting bibliographies, it all made me thoroughly nostalgic! The finished dissertation was submitted on 25 April at about 22:15, and then we dashed for an Uber to get us to our local pub to celebrate with prosecco before they could call last orders!

I seemed to spend most of May enjoying Doctor Who, adding egregious puns to Apocalypse Barnes, and working on an expanded version of the Cyberpunk novella I mentioned last year.

Similarly I had to check Facebook to see what I was doing in June, but the main thing seemed to be laughing at the UK's Conservative Party as they tried to wipe out a beleaguered Labour Party but instead lost their parliamentary majority. This is the trouble with a year in review from a writer, unless there's a new book out, each individual month tends to look a bit quiet.

My comedy zombie novella Apocalypse Barnes was finally released. Four years in the writing (though to be completely honest, I took whole year-long breaks in the middle of that), I was really pleased with readers' reaction to a book that was a complete departure for me in terms of genre. It's done incredibly well in the UK, and just well enough overseas that I'm happy the book works beyond the boundaries of SW13...

Yeah... look, a book did come out this month, a political novelty book that I published anonymously. I think I'm going to stick with the anonymity, as it's both sold a bunch and annoyed a lot of people (thereby achieving both my aims in producing it) without any extra help from me so far...

This was a month where it probably looked as though I wasn't up to much on the surface, but like an iceberg or a particularly hyperactive duck, there was a lot of activity behind the scenes. My second Chantecoq translation went into pre-order, and did a bit better than the first one, which was nice.

Every year I do this Sober for October thing in support of Macmillan Cancer Support. It took on extra poignancy this year, as an old friend of mine had passed away from cancer at the very start of the year. Pleased to report I raised a bunch of cash, and got a bunch of writing done.

Here we go with the big finish, as all the stuff that made the previous six months look a bit sparse came in to roost. November saw the publication by The Wooden Pen Press of my novella Zip Zap Boing, in the comedy space opera anthology Pew! Pew! Bite My Shiny Metal Pew! (popularly known as Pew Pew Vol. 3). My story focused on the members of the Starship Troupers Initiative, an unfortunately-acronymed theatre company touring warzones of the far future, while indulging in a spot of espionage on the side. The book went straight to the top of various SF charts around the world, and sold thousands. I'm still getting my head around the implications of this book's success for me as a writer, to be honest. And I couldn't really appreciate it back in November, because of all the stuff that was about to happen...

The very start of December saw the publication of Chantecoq and the Aubry Affair, held up from the start of the year thanks to delays getting the cover sorted. The Chantecoq books are... selective in their appeal, but this book, taken from the very end of the original series, was a bit pacier than the first, and it's seen a more receptive audience. There's a third translation in the works for next year, and I hope that interest will begin to pick up as more of the series becomes available.

Mid-December saw the second book of the month in the form of my novella Voyage of the Space Bastard, which was named after a classic AE van Vogt novel that no one else seems to remember (Voyage of the Space Beagle, for the record). My novella was published in Pew! Pew! Bad Versus Worse (Pew Pew Vol. 4), a kind of holiday-themed villains v. heroes edition. My story was written at, ah, some speed, but I'm very proud of it. High concept comedy SF of the kind I've always wanted to write, and a sequel of sorts to my SF fairy tale, The Frag Prince, which writer friends had encouraged me to look at for a while. Again, the book stormed the charts, and is continuing to entertain readers over the Christmas holidays.

AND, as if the above wasn't enough for one month, I was finally able to announce that 2018 will see the production of my first play, Matrexit, which is a finalist in Arts Richmond's New Plays Festival 2018. I'm incredibly excited at this opportunity, and I've assembled a cracking cast, led by Melanie Lawston and Naomi Westerman, to perform my 20 minute satirical SF play.

I've a nasty feeling that stuff I'll predict for 2018 includes quite a lot of things I said would happen this year, but which have been delayed for various reasons. Tell you what, I won't go and check until after I post this, and then we can all go back and look at my round-up of 2016, and wince together. Still, here goes...

There's Matrexit of course, and then I'm really conscious that I've still not produced a full-length original novel. 2018 will be my year for this. After they've finished doing the rounds in their respective Pew Pew anthologies, Zip Zap Boing and Voyage of the Space Bastard will both be expanded into short SF novels, each with a view to spawning a series. My comedy cyberpunk tale Rudy on Rails will also finally be published, probably also as a short novel. There will be a third short story collection, though my money is now on that being a compendium of Something Nice and Something Nicer, plus some new stories, rather than an entirely new collection. As a result Something Nicer will probably be retired, with Something Nice becoming a free book to introduce potential readers to my work.

On top of that, I hope we'll also see Detective Daintypaws and a Squirrel in Bohemia, which is more or less written, but is currently quite episodic and in need of tying together. There's also a fanasy novella on the cards, following a doomed attempt to write Noblebright work for an anthology this year, a third Chantecoq translation hopefully before November 2018, and maybe another instalment in either The Gentrified Dead or The Lifehack Heroes. But look, we'll see what happens.

I hope you had a great 2017, and that 2018's headlines will start to be as positive as this year's personal highlights have been for me!

Monday 20 November 2017

My Science-Fiction Debut...

Lasers, spaceships, light opera. I'm so proud.
Since I was old enough to hold a pen, a large part of me has wanted to write science-fiction filled with spaceships, lasers, and explosions. Inspired mostly by repeats of Star Trek on BBC 2 in the mid-1980s, as well as reading Douglas Hill's Last Legionary series, replete with titles like Day of the Starwind and Deathwing Over Veeyna.
But... I've always had pretensions of producing quality work, and it became clear that my grasp of science and maths weren't up to producing the sort of SF that you could actually read without a scientist judging you. I was finally put off, honestly, by the forum fallout over my "deliberate mistake" in a charity Doctor Who anthology back when I was 21.
And now I've written a novella called Zip Zap Boing, wherein my hero hang-glides, from a laser-spewing drone fighter, between dog-fighting spaceships. It's utterly bonkers, and any forum ninjas can bugger off and thrash themselves silly watching The Martian if they're that bothered about scientific accuracy. And Wooden Pen Press have published it in, ahem, Pew! Pew! Bite My Shiny Metal Pew! My inner 8 year old who used to write Doctor Who stories in smeary blue biro in A6 notebooks from the village newsagent is nodding and saying to me, "That'll do, Pig. That'll do."
I think I've written the sort of story that I always wanted to read, and more to the point that I always wanted to write. It's now available from Amazon (universal link).

Next up, I'll be writing a sequel which will be out in mid-December. And before that... a second Chantecoq book. It's been a busy year, and I didn't think I'd get to mid-November and still have two books to come out, as well as one in the pipeline for 2018 already!