The Disruptive Novel



When I was a high school student, I was often sent to the principal because I was a ‘disruptive’ student, because I challenged the teacher’s premisses, rebelled against my uniform, and the way things were done. I doodled in my workbook, turned blots into illustrations, wrote stories instead of essays. I was punished back then for my behaviour, but nowadays ‘disruption’ is a positive word, and maybe these days I would have been regarded as the Uber or Amazon of the classroom, someone who challenged the status quo and found a new way of doing things. Disruption is a good thing, challenging us to constantly re-invent things, be innovative, undermine tradition, get ahead of the game.




The novel has been the naughty student of the classroom, disruptive from the very beginning: the very definition of the ‘novel’  as a ‘new’ thing is that it constantly reinvents itself, is innovative by its very nature. Disruption is what the novel does.




The history of the novel is a history of disruptive literary behaviour, its first appearance an affront to the elitism of the exclusive sacredness of literary texts. The printing press democratised the written word, and the novel was born, touting individualism, common people as heroes, and soap opera style narratives: the first novels were gaudy romances. And then the novel by its very nature began to disrupt itself: Don Quixote rebelled, ridiculed the premises of the Romance novel, and posited a more realistic view of the world. And so it began: If Robinson Crusoe feted individualism and capitalism and entrepreneurship, and colonial expansion of the glorious British Empire, Gulliver’s Travels, (literally) belittled such concepts, mocked the pettiness of political life. If Samuel Richardson’s Pamela rewarded virtue, then Fielding’s An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews parodied its cultural pretensions.


And so on. The realist novel disrupted by the modernist novel, which was in turn disrupted by the postmodernist novel. Nowadays, it is fashionable to declare the novel dead, but it stubbornly rises again over and over in ‘novel’ iterations, as an anti-novel, a un-novel, but always a new thing. Why? It seems the novel mirrors our ceaseless attempt to define ourselves as humans, describes our restlessly churning ‘human condition’, mirrors our ever-expanding consciousness. As soon as we think we have nailed these things down, the novel escapes, disrupts our definitions, moves on, spits out its critics. As the brain grows new dendrites, make new connections, reconfigures itself, so the novel constantly reconstitutes itself, eluding prophecies of doom: the printed novel, film and television and social media were predicted to make the novel redundant, the eBook was supposed to kill off the hard copy, but the novel twists and turns and survives. More than 180,000 titles are published each year in Britain alone, compared to China’s 450,000, and the USA’s 300,000. People are still reading the novel; the novel is still reading people’s ever growing consciousness.


What critics often mean when they say the novel is dead is that the serious literary novel is dead (Will Self: ‘The novel is dead [this time it's for real], The Guardian, May 2nd, 2014; Tom Gatti: ‘The slow death of the literary novel’, New Statesman, January 2018), and that what we now call the novel is a tasteless lacking in nutrition McDonald’s pulp genre fiction burger. But literary fiction is reinventing itself constantly, making itself new. Experimental Pulitzer and Man Booker prize winners are also number one best sellers, pushing boundaries; and even genre fiction, that conservative formulaic embarrassing literary fictional brother, is disruptive and radical too.



For example, I write across genres and recently I have been writing crime horror. Nothing disruptive there, surely? But my novel is a palimpsest of Agatha Christie, an intertextual Poe, playing off and parodying earlier forms of the horror story. And what is also disruptive here is that I am being published not by a mainstream crime publisher, but an independent ‘garage band’ publisher, husband and wife team who have now cornered the Amazon market and have become the leading independent crime publisher in Britain, pushing out crime best sellers every week, chalking up millions and millions in sales, harnessing the needs of a readership still hungry for the new, for the sensational, the radical and the disruptive.



The novel is more stubbornly alive than ever. We can send it out of the classroom, punish it, but it will never conform,

or keep quiet, or behave itself.  



 The hidden messages in THE song 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'


We don’t celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas much anymore. What are the twelve days of Christmas anyway? The first day of Christmas is Christmas Day (25th December) and the 12th day is the Epiphany (5th January) the ‘manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12).


An Advent calendar marks the passing of the Twelve Days of Christmas, though these days few know what the 12 days of Christmas are. My child Advent calendar was a series of little doors containing chocolates for each of the days.


As I began to write crime, I thought- wouldn’t it be interesting to have a novel that is like an advent calendar, where you read a chapter for each of the 12 days of Christmas, and each chapter contains info telling you about that day and its significance.  Twelve Days is that book- it has 12 chapters and each chapter reveals another day of Christmas and its significance. But it has a twist…. It is a serial killer who is playing the Advent calendar game, murdering a victim on each of the days and planting the clues to the significance of each day in his (or her) vicinity for the others to figure out.


 Again, I grew up singing the Twelve Days of Christmas ever festive season without know what the song actually meant. It was fun to sing because it was a memory game, challenging us to remember the right sequence, and learn numeracy as well. And this was probably the origin of the song to teach numeracy and memory retention. But a theory began circulating a few decades ago that the song was encoded- each of the twelve days of Christmas signified something, and each gift ( hens, doves, lords, etc) represented something else. Common belief has it now that the song helped persecuted Catholics in 16-18th century Protestant England where Catholicism was outlawed, to learn "the tenets of their faith", revealed as follows:


 A Partridge in a Pear Tree - Jesus Christ

 Two Turtle Doves - The Old and New Testaments

 Three French Hens - The three virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity

 Four Calling/Collie Birds - Four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

 Five Golden Rings - First five books of the Old Testament

 Six Geese-a-Laying - Six days of creation before God's rest on the seventh day

 Seven Swans-a-Swimming - Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit

 Eight Maids-a-Milking - Eight Beatitudes

 Nine Ladies Dancing - Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit

 Ten Lords-a-Leaping - Ten Commandments

 Eleven Pipers Piping - Eleven faithful disciples

 Twelve Drummers Drumming -Twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed


 What if, the writer in me imagined, I could write a novel where a preacher isolates 12 of his flock in a castle and plays a game with them where each of them has a card with one of the gifts on it, and each day the meaning of the card is revealed through some dramatic event.


 Twelve Days is that book, again with the twist that each day the person with the card for that day of Christmas is murdered.


Further I thought about some sermons I had heard as a child where one preacher had done research on the early church martyrs and documented which martyrs died on each of the twelve days of Christmas, and how they died.


Twelve Days uses this device too- the preacher decides to use the (conveniently located) medieval torture instruments in the castle to illustrate how each saint was martyred on each of the twelve days of Christmas. For example, John the Baptist was beheaded on the first day of Christmas. But again, because this is a crime horror novel, one of the twelve guests in the castle is actually murdered and tortured in the same way as the early church martyrs on the corresponding day.


 I invite you to read Twelve Days with this background information in mind. I hope you have as much fun reading it and playing detective as I had writing and researching it!