The Disappearance of Tom Pile
Volume one of The Casebooks of Captain Holloway - Happy Publication Today!
I had the first shadow of the idea for The Disappearance of Tom Pile in 1978. In fact, I remember clearly it was New Year’s Day. I was staying at my parents in law’s house in the same remote part of West Dorset featured in the book. We had stood out the night before in the cold churchyard with my Father in law, my brother in law and an Oxford Don from All Souls. It was very near midnight. The sky was clear and the stars looked particularly bright unaffected as they were by any light pollution. The church stands halfway up the steep hill that surmounts the village of Litton Cheney in the Bride valley. My wife’s family had lived in the village since the early 1950s... Their house was The Old Rectory. It sat close by the church and the graves just as its fictional counterpart does in my story.
We stood marvelling that night at the clarity of the stars and the intensity of the winter night sky. There were philosophical mutterings about the terrifying infinity of space and so on. A great bank of cloud rolled in just on midnight. The church bells rang in the new year. When we went back into the house the first flakes of snow were already falling. By morning the snow was banked up to the top of the hedgerows. We were effectively snowed in. We spent a happy day looking through the family photograph albums. My Mother in Law, Janet Stone, was a keen photographer. Among the many portraits and images in her albums were photographs of their old gardener from the 1950s. His name was Tom Pile. He was a Noah like figure, with a big white beard. He wore collarless shirts, wide braces and farmer’s corduroys. They said the only time he left the village was to go and fight in the First World War. Later that afternoon moved by the beauty of the night sky from the night before I wrote
down a few hasty notes about a boy in the same village in the early 20th c who witnesses strange lights in the sky and sets out to investigate. This was long before I had made any books for children at all (my first wasn’t until 1982). I was at that time a freelance commercial illustrator.
Even as an art student I had the itch to write. When I moved to London A few years later I attended creative writing classes at the City Lit. The tutor was very much an avant-garde novelist. There was little encouragement of what you might call traditional narrative. This effectively put me off and I think stopped me writing anything for a while. It was only after making several picture books that I was encouraged to write my own stories to illustrate by my then-editor David Fickling. I cut my teeth so to speak writing and illustrating many picture books. Then I began to think that perhaps I could attempt the longer form. I started and abandoned things for a while. I had no real sense of urgency, I was busy and had a young family to support. I toyed with ideas, including attempting a few more pages of the lights in the sky in the 1900s Dorset story. All were put firmly away in a plan's chest drawer.
Then in 2003 a very close friend died. It concentrated my mind. I was older than him. My time really could be limited. If I was going to do it I had better get going. So one of my many ideas Tom Trueheart was the first item out of the drawer, and he grew unexpectedly into three books. Other stories followed, some for older readers such as Pastworld, and some for younger like The Haunting of Charity Delafield and The Hidden Kingdom. Finally, I saw a way to revive and write the Dorset based ‘lights in the sky’ story. I took the name of the real Tom Pile from the photo album and gave him a whole new alternate life and strange adventure.
I set the whole thing in the context of a fictional investigative bureau of the unexplained in World War 2. This gave me a chance to introduce extra characters, Jack Carmody the
cockney savant and the kindly Captain Holloway keeper of the secrets. I always liked these kinds of stories when I was a young reader. However, I would always feel short-changed if there was a tedious rational explanation to the weird or supernatural events; ie it was crooked pretending to be ghosts and so on. I wanted real ghosts.
I hope I have avoided any such dull rationality in this first book about Tom Pile. I have more or less completed the second book now. It is called The Miraculous Return of Annick Garel, you can read the opening chapter as an addendum at the end of the first book. The action has moved forward a year or so and mostly happens in Brittany in occupied France. I have no idea at the moment if there will be a third book. I would like to think that the characters have at least one more story in them. I suspect we shall have to wait and see if Tom Pile gathers any readers.
Ian Beck March 2015 - Ian Beck Wordpress Website
Published by Corgi Children's (26 Mar. 2015)