The Five By Five Interview with Derek Farrell
“Five By Five?” Um, well… Bear with me: I wanted a name for this (hopefully regular) feature, and as well as being a big crime fiction fan I am also a big Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, with a soft spot for “rogue slayer” Faith, who uses the phrase constantly – though she never explains what it means, it’s an expression used in telecoms/military coms to confirm a signal is being received clearly, so hopefully this means we’ll get a clearer picture of our interviewees!
My very first Five by Five
victim interviewee is the fabulous Derek Farrell. I’ve reviewed a couple of his Danny Bird series (Death Of A Devil and Death Of An Angel – plus Death Of A Nobody was one of my Books Of 2020), and he was a guest in the early days of the blog, talking about his writing and lockdown life and online book festivals. We’ve sat in bars and put the world to rights a few times, but I thought it was time I grilled him more publicly, so to speak…
Derek Farrell is the author of five novels and one novella in the Danny Bird series, all published by Fahrenheit Press. The books have been described as “Like The Thin Man meets Will & Grace”, “Like MC Beaton on MDMA”, and – by Eric Idle – as “Quite Fun”. Derek’s jobs have included burger dresser, bank teller, David Bowie’s paperboy, and investment banker, and he has lived and worked in New York, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Prague, Dublin, Johannesburg and London. He’s married to the most English man on the planet and lives in West Sussex. They have no goats, chickens, children or pets, but they do have every Kylie Minogue record ever made. Follow him on Twitter @DerekIFarrell
First, the sensible questions…
Q1 Tell us a bit about your journey to publication and how you got to where you are now. Why crime fiction rather than another genre?
I wrote the first Danny Bird novel a decade ago and almost by mistake: An exercise at a creative writing course left me with this smart but lovelorn young man who lots of people kept asking about, and so I started wondering what more terrible things I could do to him, and how he’d react to them, and before I knew what had happened, I had a novel.
I met the head honcho at my publisher, Fahrenheit Press, when he spoke at a London Book Fair event, and his obvious passion really inspired me. We started talking on Twitter and a few weeks later he suddenly said: “Do you have a book to pitch to me? If so, why haven’t you pitched it? Every other writer in London has pitched theirs.” So I sent him Death Of A Diva, and 48 hours later he replied, saying: “I love this book, and can’t wait to publish it. It’s the first of a series, right?”
I hadn’t even considered a series, but the moment he asked that question, Danny’s whole world opened up before me, and here we are six years later with four novels and a novella – and the fifth novel, Death at Dukes Halt, hitting the shelves. I couldn’t be happier that I listened to the voices asking what happens next to Danny, and that I accidentally pitched my supposedly “hard-to-sell” novel to a publisher who had absolute faith in it.
And as for why crime fiction? Well, I think that every Great Book – whether it’s romance, or scifi, fantasy, horror, even a literary novel about the love affairs of a bunch of publishers in Highgate – is a mystery. The thing that keeps us reading is the mystery. Oh, the wonderful prose is great to have, and the artfully drawn characters are really important. But from the day that man huddled around fires in the dark and listened to someone tell a story, the thing that kept them focussed, that made their hearts beat faster, was the mystery – what is going to happen next, will the righteous be rewarded and the unruly cast out? There are no purer examples of that type of fiction than the crime or mystery genre.
Q2 What inspired you to create your protagonist, Danny Bird?
In my 20s and 30s I’d written a couple of (still unpublished) novels after a lifetime of writing stories for myself, and pretty much parked them in a box on top of the wardrobe. But I guess my husband and friends could see that there was some talent, so for my 40th birthday they bought me some writing courses to sort of push me to step up. And it worked. Every Saturday for a few months I got to go to the Groucho Club in London (a really posh members club for artistic types) and work on various aspects of writing. One of those classes was to write an interview with a character of our own making, then write their own first-person account of the worst thing that ever happened to them. I wrote about the day that Danny went off to work, was made redundant, came home early, found his boyfriend in bed with the window cleaner and walked out on him, ending up back in his childhood bed in his parent’s flat. I wrote the scene in a way that I hoped showed how heartsick he was, but also how he masked that sadness with jokes and smart comments, and I guess it worked because having put the exercise to bed I then had people for the rest of the course asking me what happened next. Eventually that “what happened next?” became Death Of A Diva, and here we are…
Q3 You’ve taken Danny and the gang out of their comfort zone of The Marq for the latest novel – was this also a way to take you out of your comfort zone and push yourself as a writer?
I grew up reading Agatha Christie country house novels and had always wanted to write one. Death At Dukes Halt mostly takes place in the country home of the ancient and venerable Warren family. Like all old families, they have secrets and sins that have been buried for years, but as always happens in country house mysteries, the secrets and sins have a habit of bubbling up to the surface. Add in a cast of guests including a Hollywood starlet and her overbearing mother, a right-wing MP, an Albanian gangster and a family that puts the fun in dysfunctional, and you have my dream English country house mystery. Like all the Danny novels, it takes this fairly well-known trope and refracts it through a contemporary lens – it’s a modern take on a classic genre trope.
But the truth is I actually wanted to write it for the third Danny novel but couldn’t figure out how to make some of the key elements work at that point, so I put it to one side figuring I’d maybe write it one day with a different detective. But when I started writing a new Danny novel last year, I found myself returning to this idea. Except that now, I felt more confident in trying some of the elements I’d been less able to manage previously, so I think yes it did push me out of my comfort zone – but essentially, by the end of the process, my comfort zone had expanded so that I was having one of the most enjoyable experiences of my writing career.
Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
To quote Dorothy Parker: “Having written.” Which is really very true. But the thing I absolutely love, which makes me rather emotional sometimes, is the discovery of my tribe. The readers who have found these books – the people who don’t know me from Adam, but who wait for the next Danny and devour the books, and send me emails and DMs telling me how much they enjoyed them – and the other writers who have embraced me as a peer and a colleague and who are never anything but encouraging and supportive. I genuinely did not think of these aspects when I was first writing. I dreamed of being published but oddly enough never dared dream of having a readership. Or of being on first name terms with Sunday Times bestseller list authors. And now I do, and I am, and it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world. The work – the books I was once told were too camp and silly to attract a publisher – mean something. They make people happy. They give joy to people. And they do it while still wearing their hearts on their sleeves. And that’s probably the best thing about being a writer.
Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
Ah, now there’s the big question. I’ve written some non-Danny things this past year or two. There was a back-from-the-dead gangster in The Return (a short story for the anthology Noir From The Bar, dreamed up by @VNatB‘s Vic Watson and Simon Bewick to raise money for charity), plus a sociopathic drug mule and gangland enforcer in What Goes Around (which was published as a limited edition Fahrenzine by Fahrenheit Press, and promptly sold out), and a brilliant female New York City bookkeeper who becomes an avenging angel for Suzy Was A Headbanger (in new anthology Gabba Gabba Hey – Stories Inspired By The Songs Of The Ramones, also from Fahrenheit Press). I’m now trying to write a longer, darker standalone, but it’s super early days on that one. Whatever happens, I’ll be writing another Danny novel which will hopefully be out this time next year, and I’m already excited by the story idea for that one.
Now for the quick-fire round…
Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
Tommy & Tuppence Beresford, Nick & Nora Charles, and Gilbert, Moira, and Philip from My Blue Heaven, which is a novel about a Fraud that goes wronger and wronger and is quite possibly the funniest novel I have ever read.
Q2 What book have you reread the most?
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – every Christmas for years now. It’s a perfect country house mystery, and each reading is like coming home to the family house for the holidays. Even if the family house is filled with rancour, suspicion and murder.
Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
Ooh, that’s a hard one. I’ve had them strangled, poisoned, bludgeoned, shot, stabbed, blown up, immolated in luxury cars, driven off cliffs, pushed off balconies. All the basics, really. But I guess my favourite method killing off characters is off-page cos if you see it happening, it ain’t a mystery.
Q4 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
A bookmark, cos I’m not an animal, innit.
Q5 When we finally get back to a book festival bar, what are you having?
A raspberry and hibiscus kombucha. I stopped drinking by mistake six months ago, and to be honest I’m feeling better than I have in years so I’m probably going to steer away from the booze in future, but the kombuchas from a little brewer called Momo in Covent Garden are absolutely delicious. So yeah, a kombucha – but with an umbrella and a cherry, cos we’re celebrating.
Thanks so much Derek – I definitely owe you a drink with an umbrella and a cherry and maybe the whole tin of fruit cocktail too! Do jump on board with the Danny Bird series, they are books full of wit and heart and dastardly deeds – and keep an eye out for whatever else Mr Farrell turns his hand to, I feel certain they will be Damn Fine Reads.
Derek’s latest novel is Death At Dukes Halt: Lady Caroline Victoria Genevieve Jane de Montfort (Caz to her friends) made a promise to her (newly deceased) friend George Warren and she intends to keep it – sadly for Danny Bird, she’s roped him in as her accomplice. And so with Danny’s South London pub The Marq left in the “safe” hands of Ray & Dash (The ASBO Twins) and his indomitable bar manager Ali roped in as their driver, the trio set off to spend the weekend at the Warren family’s imposing country estate, Dukes Halt. As they set about achieving their mission, Danny, Caz and Ali are joined by a classic cast of characters including a Hollywood actress, a right-wing MP and an Albanian gangster. Shenanigans inevitably ensue. Of course, it wouldn’t be an authentic country-house weekend without a murder or two and pretty soon Danny and the gang are on the track of the killer in their midst. As the plot twists and turns in every direction, Danny wrestles with another deeper, sadder mystery hidden in the pages of a secret diary that he realises may just hold the key to everything.
Death At Dukes Halt is available in hardback, paperback and ebook format, and you can buy directly from the publisher, Fahrenheit Press, which means you’re helping an indie publisher too!
Check out the VNatB/Bay Tales archive to see him reading from Death At Dukes Halt at one of their events.