Christopher Huang grew up in Singapore, where he served his two years of National Service as an Army Signaller. He then moved to Canada where he studied Architecture at McGill University in Montréal. Huang currently lives in Montreal. A Gentleman's Murder is his first novel and he recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was the inspiration for A Gentleman’s Murder?
Believe it or not, it was the French Impressionists. I’d been reading about their lives at the time, Auguste Renoir’s biography by his son Jean Renoir in particular, and I was impressed by the close-knit dynamics of the core group. It occurred to me that the only place where such camaraderie was a matter of course, was in the military, and since I wanted to set my story in the 1920s—the aftermath of the First World War—everything fell into place.
Are Eric, Avery, Penny or any of the other characters inspired or based on specific individuals?
Eric Peterkin was originally inspired by Reepicheep from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, with perhaps a healthy dose of Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi thrown in. He’s grown significantly away from that inspiration source, of course. Penny Peterkin was Miss Peters from Enid Blyton’s Third Form at Malory Towers (don’t judge me) brought down to a post-schoolgirl age. Avery Ferrett came out of a misunderstanding: I was having coffee with a bunch of other writers when someone at the far end of the table mentioned “a psychic fair.” I misheard it as “a psychic ferret,” and that was Avery: A Very Psychic Ferrett. I could go on, but one mustn’t give away all of one’s secrets at once. Suffice it to say that I’ve come to think that one of the best ways of creating an original character is to fail really hard at creating a copy.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
There were multiple changes along the way. Eric Peterkin used to be white, for one thing, and his father used to be still alive, an enigmatic figure who spent most of the story asleep in an armchair. The most significant change was the removal of an entire subplot involving a mistaken identity and an inheritance, of which I was quite fond, because of how it showcased certain characters and their principles. I might bring some of that back in a future story, though—these things are never truly lost.
What was it about the period immediately following WWI that appealed to you for the setting of A Gentleman’s Murder?
It’s a transition period between eras when a lot of our modern conveniences began to appear but a lot of the sensibilities were still carried over from the earlier Victorian age. Forensic science hadn’t quite developed to what it is today, which I thought enabled amateur sleuths to work on a more equal footing with their official police counterparts. On the whole, it meant that the world was just familiar enough to be comfortable but just different enough to be an interesting element in its own right.
You seem to understand the stark difference between romanticized visions and the realities of war. Are you a veteran? If so, where/when did you serve? If not, what draws you to these issues?
It’s my inner realist, I think. I find that I can’t romanticise something without also bringing in the cracks in that romantic vision. I once wrote a short piece about a boy in 1892 trying to escape his stuffy aunt and uncle in order to play outside—and I thought I was being very cosy and romantic, until a reviewer pointed out that the story was chock-full of cracks in the facade and could be read as a subtle criticism of late Victorian society. Well, if that’s my style, then I guess I should own it. I did serve in the Singapore Army for two years: it was required of me as a citizen, which I was at the time. This was in peacetime, though.
The ending of the novel seems to set up another adventure with Eric and Avery. Will we get the chance to spend more time with these characters? Any chance this is the beginning of a series?
Yes, of course. Everyone loves a mystery series, and the only question is where to go from here.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
That would have to be Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It gave me quite the taste for absurdist humor for a while, though students of Lewis Carroll would know that Alice was really more about satire and parody than straight-up absurdism.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Enid Blyton’s Rainy Day Stories. I’d completely forgotten that I already had a copy when I bought it, which meant I’d just thrown money away on something I wouldn’t actually read. In North America today, I could simply have returned it, but that wasn’t an option in 1980s Singapore.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Certainly. Agatha Christie (of course), Anthony Trollope, and Lewis Carroll would always be somewhere in that top five list; the other two spots are harder to place. At this present moment, I’d fill them with Harper Lee and Michael Ende.
What is a book you've faked reading?
For a long time, that was the Bible. I used to claim that I’d read “enough” in bits and pieces, hopping around. Then one year I decided to actually read the whole thing from cover to cover and realized that I’d never come close to reading “enough” before. I can honestly say now that I’ve read it all, but a lot of it would still have to be reread simply because of how hard it is to retain everything.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. I think it was a Fontana edition, and the cover image was a charming little still life of a plate of sandwiches and a framed photographic portrait nestled among some pink roses. Yes, I admit to a certain sentimentality. There was also that second copy of Enid Blyton’s Rainy Day Stories, which I wouldn’t have bought if I’d taken the time to find out if I’d already read it before.
Is there a book that changed your life?
I think the closest to such a thing would be Robert Barron’s And Now I See, which discusses Christian metanoia, the transformation into a “magnanimous spirit,” using a reference to multiple works of literature to illustrate its points.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird should be required reading everywhere, I think.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was the first Christie I ever read, and unfortunately, I’d had the ending spoiled for me by the MAD Magazine parody of the 1972 movie adaptation. Mind you, it was that MAD Magazine parody that got me interested in reading the book in the first place, but I wonder what it would be like to read that story without any idea as to how it would end.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
The weather would be just cool enough and just dry enough to wear a jacket and tie, and the day’s activities would probably include a family dinner in Italy—because I honestly believe that nobody in the world knows how to live quite like the people of the Italian peninsula. There would be no actual murders involved.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novella with a somewhat darker focus. That’s unrelated to Eric Peterkin et al, but I’m also outlining the sequel to A Gentleman’s Murder. As I said before, everyone loves a mystery series.
Book Review: A Gentleman's Murder