Sheriff Alec Lawson has come a long way from the Scottish Highlands and work is never slow as he deals with a kidnapped woman from China, moonshine that's sending those who drink it blind, and a terrifying incident involving a moving train.
But when a man is found dead out in the wild, Sheriff Lawson starts to wonder if the one and only witness might not be telling him the whole truth as to what really happened, and decides to start digging a little deeper.
I started working on the next Sheriff Lawson novel on a car journey from Congleton to Alnwick in June 2011. The first paragraph read "US Marshal orders Alec - US deputy - to arrest someone. During investigation, Alec discovers X has been set up. Alec has to decide whether to arrest him or let him escape." After this, I picked names for the murdered man, the accused, and the murderer. I took the name for the character being framed from the name of a town signposted on the A1 - Morpeth - that we were passing. The surname of the victim, Haylock, was that of a school friend, and the murderer's name, Ford, may have been inspired by a passing car (I was travelling with my friend, Gary, and his mum, Ann, in his bright green Mazda 2, trivia fans). After deciding on the crime, I worked out a motivation both for the killing, and for the framing of that particular person. I also noted the two basic facts Alec discovers that eventually lead him to solve the puzzle. I managed to get quite a lot of useful stuff worked out in that hour or so, and it was a good start to what became a refreshingly straightforward writing experience after the many stops and starts of Darrow's Gamble.
I wanted to write Darrow's Gamble before I started a second Lawson story. That one had already been brewing for a while and I wanted to get on with it. It was tough to find my way into, and I was dithering over it, so nothing happened for a while. In May of the following year, 2012, I went on holiday to the Cotswolds. While browsing a bookstall at the market in Morton-in-Marsh, I spotted The Encyclopedia of Mass Murder, and having something of a weakness for true crime, picked it up to have a look. While flipping through, I came across an account of the Fountain Train Explosion of 1888. A freight train had stopped to unload some horses. A few miles back down the track, in Fountain, Colorado, an express train had stopped to take on water. Someone unhooked the last five cars of the freight train and let them roll back down the track to the waiting express. Two cars of the freight train contained flammable naphtha oil and an explosive called Giant's Powder. When the trains collided, the subsequent fire caused a huge explosion.
The real story was a tragedy for the four people who died, but as an author, my thoughts were "wow, that'll make a great scene in a western." It seemed to fit logically with the follow-up to Silver Express, and suggested the title Dynamite Express quite easily. I spent the summer and early Autumn on Darrow's Gamble, immediately followed by Trigger Point my Blakes 7 story. This took me up until late March 2013, close to two years after making the first notes on Dynamite Express.
Once I settled down to writing Dynamite Express, I needed to develop the character of the villian, Ford. Inspiration struck in the form of someone I had known. She had fallings-out with officials and other people, yet it was never her fault, as least as she saw it. She invited people to feel sorry for her and resented the 'establishment' and those who seemed 'privileged' in any way. It was all classically passive-agressive and her comments were often accompanied by a little laugh, as if to say "don't mind me/I don't mean anything bad". For some reason, the first time we met, I took an instant dislike to her. She didn't say anything out of the way and I didn't know enough about her to have a reason to dislike her: she just set my teeth on edge. So I decided to model Ford's behaviour on her, and gave Alec the same, instant distaste that I'd felt. Of course, as Alec begins to question Ford's version of events, he can't help wondering if his dislike of the man is colouring his attitude to the case. Is Ford really as shifty as Alec suspects, or is Alec's dislike causing him to misinterpret things ?
I had quite a lot of fun writing Ford. I didn't have to think too hard about a character I'd created from scratch - I just had to think of how X would act. And it was rather theraputic too, being able to express my feelings via Alec, and being able to vent my irritation at X by using her as the basis for a bad guy. Though to be fair, I don't think my acquaintance is ever likely to murder anyone.
There was no need to tackle the difficult obstacle: they had enough time to follow the trails around the mountain to the ranch. But having spotted the challenge, Alec was reluctant to back down, even though there was no one around to see. He studied the banks carefully, planning his approach. If he didnít tackle the obstacle with enough impulsion, Biscuit would run out of momentum and they would be stranded partway up. If he went in too fast, Biscuit could misjudge a jump and fall. But the horse was experienced at managing all kinds of obstacles out on the trail and was a bold jumper. Horse and man trusted one another. Turning the horse, Alec jogged a short distance back to gain momentum, then circled and came back to the banks at a brisk pace.
His legs urged the horse on, but Alec controlled the speed with the reins. He could feel the energy of the horse coiled beneath him. Biscuitís ears were pricked as he focussed on the challenge ahead. They timed the distance to the jump perfectly. One stride away, Biscuit gathered himself and leapt to the first bank. Alec leaned forward in the saddle, giving the horse plenty of rein so it could stretch head and neck forward. Biscuit landed neatly and took off again immediately. Alec stayed in perfect balance with his horse as it made the consectutive leaps upward. The last jump required the most effort, but Biscuit had enough energy and momentum to keep going. They reached the floor of the hanging valley and cantered forward a few paces before Alec reined his horse in. Biscuit was breathing heavily, but his ears were still pricked. He stretched his neck out and shook himself vigorously, finishing with a triumphant snort.
When the first draft was finished, the novel was too long, so I took out this, among other scenes. I kept in Alec's return down the banks, partly to show the risk-taking aspects of his character, and also to show the riding skill which would enable him to catch up with the villain at the end. Although I had some riding lessons and holidays as a child/teenager, I'm not much past a beginner as a rider myself. When I'm writing about riding, especially tackling cross-country work, I draw upon the excellent instruction included in novels by the Pullien-Thompson sisters: Christine, Diana, and especially, Josephine. They didn't just write about riding, they taught, and competed successfully too. So although Alec doesn't think in the formal terms of impulsion, tempo and collection, he instinctively rides with those techniques. Just as Wedge has a feel for flying things, so Alec has the sympathy of a top horseman.
Though Alec loves horses, he's quite happy to use new methods of transport and other new technology. He uses the trains to make longer journeys while searching for information about Haylock and Ford. Train travel wasn't necessarily a trouble-free way of travelling though. His first trip in this book involves a break-in-two, as at the end of Silver Express. This time, there are cars full of passengers for Alec to worry about. His second, long journey doesn't have such drama, but features the mundane problems of trying to sleep in your seat, and snatching a meal during a short stop. On the way back, he's delayed by a landslide, misses his connection and spends four hours trying to sleep in a hard chair in a noisy station. Getting about, especially in the mountain country, was no easy matter, even by train. While this journey was partly plot necessity, and partly to show what travel could be like, and how much effort Alec was putting in, it turned out to serve another purpose. It was natural for Alec to need a lot of sleep after his trip, and this downtime gave Ford the chance to realize that Alec was uncovering the truth, which caused him to flee. This led nicely to the climax of Ford being on the train with the explosives, with the lawmen following behind on the Express. It was one of the happy things about writing this novel, that so many elements just fitted into place like this.
Alec also benefits from photography and the telegraph. It seems obvious now to use a photograph to identify someone but it wasn't commonly done in the 1880's. Alec gets the idea from seeing a photograph of an outlaw recently killed by the lawmen, being sold as a souvenir by a local photographer. This kind of sensationalism was quite popular: songs and pamphlets about notorious murders were popular in both America and the UK, as well as souvenirs of murders. When Clell Miller and Ben Chadwell were killed during the James' Gang's failed robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1876, their bodies were photographed by Ira Sumner. Sumner, who was a professional photographer, made postcards of his pictures, The interest in the James gang was so strong that Sumner sold 50,000 postcards in the two months after the raid.
The telegraph plays both an important role in solving the mystery and in the train wreck at the end. It allows messages to be sent quickly, so the lawmen recieve messages about outlaws within hours, rather than days. Alec learns about the potential ambush on the stagecoach at the beginning by telegram, and about the moonshiners selling poisonous whiskey in another telegram. He learns about Ford's connection with the Pretty Boy mine by telegram, and when on his way to Ouray to visit the mine, he telegraphs the local sheriff to arrange a meeting. When following Ford on the express train, Alec takes advantage of a watering stop to send a message to the marshal at the next stop, asking him to look out for Ford, on the freight train ahead of them. As he learnt telegraphy while in the cavalry, he stands in for the operator while he goes to the toilet, and so Alec receives the message that the two cars of explosives have been detached from the freight train and are rolling back down the track to the stationary express train, with cars full of passengers. The telegraph gives the lawmen the chance to save lives, and provide a suspenseful scene as they try to evacuate the train.
It took slightly less than two years to get from the first ideas, to actually starting to write Dynamite Express. During that time, of course, I'd completed both Darrow's Gamble and Trigger Point. I started Dynamite Express in March 2013 and wrote fairly steadily, completeing it in early September. This time, I simply submitted it electronically, which saved a lot of faffing around with the printer, and getting to the post office. I very quickly got an acceptance, also by email, rather to my surprise. All the proof-reading was done on electronic files. The first time I saw a word of it printed was when I recived my published copies. My share of the editing was done late in January 2014. There was little I wanted to change, though there was a minor tussle over whether sheriff should be capitalized when Alec was being addressed directly by his title alone eg "I'm glad you're here, Sheriff.". I insisted it should be, as has been done before in my other books, and got my own way.
I happened to be visiting my parents in March when I was asked to write a blurb, which was slightly awkward as I didn't have the files with me and so couldn't re-read the book or even really just check names. I wrote one anyway and sent it.
ďMy partnerís been murdered !Ē
Ford met Sheriff Lawson and his deputies out on the trail, claiming it was the rancher, Morpeth, who had killed his partner. Lawson finds the body, but things donít quite match Fordís account. Did Ford remember things wrong, is he lying, or is Lawsonís instant, irrational dislike of the man colouring his judgement ?
Thereís a wild ride through the Colorado mountains on an out-of-control train, and a search for bootleggers making poisonous moonshine before Lawson uncovers the truth about Ford. In pursuit of their suspect, the lawmen end up on a train full of passengers, but when it has to stop for water, the Sheriff gets an terrifying message. Goods wagons full of explosives are rolling down the track towards them ! In the heat of the moment, Sheriff Lawson must keep a cool head.
I don't know whether the email got lost, or whether they simply disliked it, but the blurb that appears on the book is completely different. I'd found it very difficult to produce one, and wasn't wildly convinced by what I'd produced in the end, so as I didn't mind the one that Hale wrote, I let it stand. The page proofs were done in June, and I was also sent an image of the cover. Now, I didn't much like the one for Silver Express, and I wasn't that impressed by the cover for Dynamite Express either.
Although the focus of the picture is no doubt meant to be the gun being drawn, the eye somehow seems drawn to the belt and the crotch framed by the belt and chaps. It's natural to look at the human body, rather than what may be held in the hands. The gunbelt catches my eye first, and as the torso is obscured by text, the tendancy is therefore to look downward, to the part of the body that's not obscured. I can't say I'm too fond of the pink shirt being worn by the headless figure, either. And once again, although the book is set in the mountains of Colorado, the cover shows a desert and adobe location.
Fortunately, when the large print edition came out in August 2017, the cover was more appealing. Alec doesn't wear black, or have a beard, but it's a good, if rather generic, painting.
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