London calling…

,,,or, rather, Edinburgh. Who’s going to quibble if it’s the BBC who’s calling?

There was I on March 16, 2012, seated at the computer and minding my own business, when an e-mail appeared out of the blue from a BBC producer asking me if there was a way he could reach me for a chat about a forthcoming Radio 4 programme (UK spelling) on Locked Room Mysteries. You could have knocked me down with a feather, as they say where I come from.

There followed a lengthy and informal chat a few days later, with none of the stuffiness you tend to expect from the BBC (perhaps because the producer, David Stenhouse, is a down-to-earth Scot). He explained it was going to be the third in a series of radio documentaries hosted by the comedian Miles Jupp covering different aspects of the mystery genre, and would mainly consist of on-the spot interviews in interesting locations such as the Tower of London and a crypt somewhere. We covered a range of topics including my thoughts on the sub-genre, suggested reading, real-life locked-room mysteries and who the current masters were. I recommended John Dickson Carr’s Locked Room Lecture, Bob Adey’s Locked Room Murders and a Book and Collector Magazine article Brian Skupin and I had written on the contemporary scene (see Recommended Reading.) I suggested he might want to talk to Brian, Bob, and Bob’s French counterpart Roland Lacourbe who speaks fluent English..

Regarding the modern masters, I nominated three prolific writers: Paul Halter, Soji Shimada and David Renwick, and offered to arrange for Miles Jupp to interview the first two (I assumed that the BBC didn’t need my help to locate the author of their Jonathan Creek series). Let me state here that the over-riding quality I look for in a locked room mystery is the “Aha!” factor: the ability to utterly bamboozle and elicit a gasp of admiration at the denouement. Prolific as they are, I just don’t feel that way when I read Paul Harding’s or Bill Pronzini’s stories–with a couple of exceptions– and Christopher Fowler hasn’t written enough yet (although The White Corridor contains a definite “Aha!” for the murder of a coroner inside a locked morgue.) I know my views are up for debate!

David took up my offer to link up with Paul Halter and Shimada Soji and, while I was contacting them, he and Miles prepared a list of questions to be put to each of them. I translated Paul’s, and Soji’s charming daughter Yuko translated his. Then, of course, the answers had to be translated back. The broadcast itself: Miles Jupp in a Locked Room was scheduled for May 21,2012. The show was prerecorded, with Paul’s interview on April 19, 2012, and Soji’s on April 25, 2012; translators were . to attend in case of impromptu discussion (at least, that was the idea.) Paul was to go to the BBC studio inside the European Parliament in Strasbourg (where he resides,) and I was to go to the one inside Carnegie New York. Soji’s interview was to be by phone from his home in Tokyo with Yuko linked in from Washington, D.C., where she was studying.

On April 18 I was notified of a change in venue from Carnegie Hall to a “BBC Studio” in West 33rd St, which was actually a space that the BBC leases inside the Associated Press headquarters. This has to be the most godforsaken part of Manhattan, at least a mile from any public transportation and overlooking a major highway. Why a major news organization would select such a spot is quite beyond me. Anyway, I grossly underestimated the walking time and there were no taxis around, so I barely got to the broadcast in time on the following day. The building itself is tacky and dilapidated, but it’s radio– so who’s to know?

David and Miles were already in the Edinburgh studio when I arrived and so was Paul. We ran through the procedures to be followed, and I must say they did a very good job of putting us at our ease. They started off with the prepared questions but once they had Paul’s voice recorded for the first view questions, they veered off into other topics, notably Jack the Ripper. In the final broadcast, Paul’s responses were faded out after the first and replaced by that of a professional BBC reader. After Paul’s section had finished and he was off the air, Miles started asking me questions. We chatted for a while and, although I knew it was being recorded, it was still quite a surprise to listen to the actual broadcast and find I’d been given equal time with several best-selling authors. Maybe it was because I laughed at Miles’ jokes 🙂

Obviously in the interests of time, very little of the prepared material actually made it into the final broadcast, but luckily I kept all the questions and answers from Paul and Soji, and the Articles page on this web-site is the only place you’ll find them.

All in all, a highly enjoyable experience, although if I’d known I would be heard by nearly 500,000 people, I might not have been quite so sanguine. The reviews were quite favorable as well. Here’s one by the Puzzle Doctor. Christopher Fowler, who was one of those interviewed, talked about his own experience on his excellent blog.

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