Interview with M M Kaye on 22 December, 1982
Part 2 of 4

And it was shortly after that - before you could write another one - that you went back to India, am I right?

M M Kaye: Well, Hutchinson gave me an advance, you see. The 65 pounds was more than enough to pay my passage. I didn't take a return fare, which I could have done - I took it one way only, hoping I would make enough on the books to be able to get back. I got to India and went straight up to Simla to see my sister, who’d been married before my father died, as I wanted to see my first nephew. I'd also been invited by a girl whose parents were going out to the Andaman Islands, because her father was being sent as chief commissioner of the Andamans. Oddly enough, my father, years before, had had a very great friend who was chief commissioner of the Andamans (who) used to write these lyrical descriptions of the islands to daddy - so I had a very romantic idea about the Andamans, which was quite correct, as it turned out.

So I jumped at the chance, and I went out and stayed with her. The setting that gave me the idea for a story was this appalling typhoon that suddenly came out of nowhere and hit us on a Christmas Eve. We got back with one or two others to the little tiny, tiny island called Ross, which had the Government House on it. We had got back on the ferry, but the ferry couldn't make it out again - it had to take refuge in a place called Fire Island - and we were completely cut off for about a week. We'd had a party planned that didn't turn up, because most of us were stuck on the other side. On the following day, which was Christmas Day, we were going to have a big dance at Government House, but there was hardly anybody there, and no good dancing, and I remember very well sitting; in this completely deserted club with leaks all over the place. You've no idea how depressing it looked with nobody in the place, and the electricity doing rather badly. Although we were quite some distance from the sea, the wind and the spray were so great that the spray kept on dashing against the windows as if somebody were throwing gravel against them.

…It was then that I said, "Wouldn't it be a Grand time to have a murder?" Because everybody who would have had anything official to do with a murder was over on the other side, one could have got away with it! So we invented a murder as a sort of a parlour game - we decided we'd use everybody on the island - the real people, who had the real jobs - and we said, let’s make so-and-so, the murderer, and let's make so-and-so the victim, and let's do it this way. So we worked out the story then and there, sitting in the dreary, flickery light, with this frightful storm howling outside. Rosemary Cosgrave was my friend's name - I dedicated the book to her. I didn't actually write the story until much later - I wrote it in late '39 when we were in Khorramshah, in Persia. I was bored rigid, so I thought I might as well use my time writing this story. We'd worked it all out that year before.

When I got back to India I got it typed, and I sent three copies back to England, at quite long intervals - none of which ever arrived. I did not put it down to enemy action - that would have been too much of a fluke - I put it down to our censorship department, who I think put the whole thing in the fire every time they saw a chunk that heavy. Finally I did get it printed, in 1944, because I wrote to Hutchinson and asked permission to hand this thing to the only publisher I knew in India, because obviously Hutchinson would never get the manuscript as long as the war went on. That must have been in 1943, because I should imagine it took roughly a year to have it printed and brought out and published. It never saw daylight anywhere else but India. They paid me something for it, but I can't even remember what. I know that it got rather good reviews, largely, I imagine, because there were such few books out at the time. 

In fact, you re-wrote that book in the 1950s, transmogrifying the Andaman Islands into a mythical chain of islands, didn’t you?

M M Kaye: I did it in a great hurry - to fill in a gap - and I turned it into an imaginary island instead. I can't remember whether I put the imitation islands off the coast of Africa or in the Mediterranean; I think off the coast of Africa. I kept the essentials of the story, and kept the same people in it, but set it on an invented island. At the time, my publishers were saying right-o, write one up, because they wanted to publish another M. M. Kaye - any M. M. Kaye - because it was obviously going to be some time before I finished Trade Wind. So I said, O.K., if you’ll accept it, I’ll throw this one in.' So I gave them an extremely truncated version of the island story.

Going back just a bit: that was when you met Goff, about 1940?

M M Kaye: I met him in 1941, up in Kashmir. By then I had started, having got my book pushed off - sending it hopefully away. Then I began on another one. I thought, "Obviously this is the thing to go for - I've managed to sell one book, and I've managed to write another one - I'll write a third." So I started writing the Kashmir one then. And I'd actually put down about two and a half chapters of the darn thing when Goff strolled into my life, and that was that. By the time I picked it up again, not only was the war over, but the Raj was over too, and I had a couple of children - that was in about 1952.

Now, the reading that you did - of people like Mignon Eberhart and Mary Roberts Rinehart and Agatha Christie - had actually started back when your father was alive?

M M Kaye: Oh, yes, I'd always liked their stories. They were about the only good ones that ever came out of that tuppenny library. If you could get your hooks on one of those, you knew you were in for a good read.

And those were the ones of which you said, "They made me look under the bed!”

M M Kaye: Well, they certainly did, all of them; I think in particular Eberhart: I think she's very good. I've got one solitary book of hers left over from the dim and distant days. It's called The House on the Roof, and I still think it's a classic. It's a very old one, and I think it's absolutely fascinating. I haven't read it for years and years and years, I still cherish it; mine's a very old and battered copy. She wrote a charming one called The Glass Slipper, which really made me look under the bed. She's a great girl for atmosphere. Then she married this British engineer chap, who took her off to all sorts of weird places, so she would set her books in very odd places. They all had this sort of exotic background, and a love story, and a murder story mixed up, and I thought this was a very good pattern to write a book on. I wonder if she is still alive? I'd love to meet her. Mary Roberts Rinehart was the same sort of stuff. Mary Roberts Rinehart always caught you on the hop, but you could see the places she was writing about; you could smell them. You had an accurate picture in your head within five minutes of exactly what the house was like, and the scenery around it, and the layout. Without doing it in detail, without as far as I remember ever including a map - you knew the place.

But in any case, Mollie, it was not Eberhart and Rinehart and Christie that made you say, "I couldn't write worse."

M M Kaye: Oh, gosh, no - those were, to my mind, extremely entertaining books and I liked them. But there were so many sort of imitation ones - they didn't even imitate, they were just murder stories, but they were so boring. I'll tell you another who was a jolly good thriller writer too at that time, and who had a bit of an impression upon me - that was good old Edgar Wallace. He wrote an enchanting book that was obviously a takeoff of A1 Capone. It's about time that came out again; it was a very good book.

Let me recap a bit here, Mollie: in 1952, in Glasgow, you did the work on Death in Kashmir. And then you went to Berlin, and wrote Death in Berlin, in 1954. And Goff was then assigned to Korea, and you were where?

M M Kaye: I was left behind in Salisbury Plain. While I was staying there I sat down and wrote Shadow of the Moon. I'd always wanted to write an historical novel about the Indian Mutiny, and I'd asked my agent, "I want to stop writing thrillers for a bit and get down to doing this," and he said, "Well, you've got your foot on the ladder. They've started serializing the thrillers in magazines. Write a few more first. How much time do you want?" I said, "Well, I rather fear to write a book of this size - about two years." He said, "Well, wait until you've got another book under your belt, and another in the can, and then I'll give you the two years." Well, Goff had gone straight off to the Suez Canal Zone, and I'd gone with him - in 1948 - and I went across with a friend of mine to Cyprus. We were there for about a month. I painted and she painted, and at the end of that time I got an idea for a story - but we had really only gone over there to paint. When we came back, we gave an exhibition of our painting at the French club in Fayid and I sold the whole damn lot. I wish I'd kept some of those paintings!

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