Guest Post by Sophie Green.
Picture the scene: The night sky hides dark clouds, rain falls and a lone saxophone tune drifts out of a basement nightspot. Steam rises up from the drain covers to hang over the pavement like graveyard mist, or maybe it curls through pools of lamplight and then disappears into the shadows. Either way it feels like noir – think The Maltese Falcon, or Gotham City.
Most crime for kids is on the cosy side, Potkin and Stubbs is Hardboiled; a style of detective fiction popularised during Prohibition-era in the United States, when organised crime exploded in cities such as San Francisco and New York. Like comics, it started in the pulps; cheap short story magazines written by authors such as Dashiell Hammett (who had been a real private detective for the Pinkerton Agency before he became a writer).
Known for its sharp dialogue and detailed descriptions, hardboiled fiction has been much parodied but there is something noble there; a lone detective up against a city so corrupt and crime-riddled that they don’t really stand a chance, but they’re trying anyway, working the cases – looking for poetic justice if nothing else. It’s also a very visual form of storytelling, which suited me, but also meant that it lent itself well to cinema.
Until I decided to write Potkin and Stubbs I had never read any hardboiled fiction stories, but I had watched them. Many were adapted into film noir in the 1940s – which is how I first fell in love with the cynical, trilby and mackintosh-wearing detectives (think Humphrey Bogart) – from catching old black and white films with my grandparents on Saturday afternoons.
So why did hardboiled crime appeal? The films aside, I chose to set the book in a run-down metropolis, a city that has lost hope, because when I was deciding on what story I wanted to tell austerity was really starting to bite and working in public libraries I could see the consequences every day. Creating Peligan City gave me a stylised way of thinking about things that felt out of my control while also escaping from the reality of them. Imagining where it might lead; apathy, corruption, poverty, no libraries, no free press . . . and then trying to fix it, in fiction at least.
So I wrote a book with hope at its heart, about how two children who, with enough courage, kindness and tenacity, changed the course of history in a city that everyone else had given up on. To me, it became a story about what we choose to believe in, and what we are prepared to stand up for.
Lil Potkin is on the lookout for a scoop. She dreams of joining the network of renegade reporters that write for the Klaxon, an underground newspaper. When she meets a lost boy in the waiting room of the Paradise Street bus station she finds it, because Nedly Stubbs has been missing for a year and no one has been looking for him, not even Abe Mandrel, the private detective hired to solve the case.
Together Lil, Abe and Nedly untangle the mystery of what happened and why, and in so doing they uncover a series of bizarre murders and a web of crime that covers the whole city.
I love the ideas of superhero films and having magical powers but my favourite kinds of heroes are the ordinary ones who just do their best to leave the world in a better place than they found it. That isn’t easy, it takes kindness, determination and bravery, but it’s the kind of hero that everyone has the potential to be.
In hardboiled fiction the detectives are anti-heroes, cynical loners with a weary kind of honour, as Raymond Chandler put it in his essay The Simple Art of Murder, ‘“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’ This was the description I had in mind for my main character, Lil Potkin, someone who could shine in the grim streets of Peligan City and by sheer will and self-belief, attempt to do what no detective in those old hardboiled stories ever did, solve more than just one crime, to change things for the better, for everyone. Even though she is only 12 and it seems like, for Peligan City, there’s no way back.
There is a quote by G.K. Chesterton that writers love: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
Potkin and Stubbs is a fast-paced detective story, as creepy as it is funny, and I really enjoyed telling it, but I wrote it to remind myself of something that I knew when I was young, but had forgotten; that change happens one person at a time and it begins the moment we believe we can do it.
Potkin and Stubbs and The Haunting of Peligan City are both out now with Piccadilly Press. The trilogy will conclude with Ghostcatcher, published in March 2020.
The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.