David Palin discusses his latest novel ‘Let The Game Commence’. A captivating and vengeful exploration of greed, human nature, and the enigmatic allure of a cult board game.
David Palin’s latest novel may begin on a humdrum residential street, but Let The Game Commence is far from ordinary. A dark and twisted thriller, Let The Game Commence is centered around a cult board game and the vast fortune of its deceased, reclusive, creator. In the book, Palin explores the murkier corners of human nature and how greed can make people do terrible things. In this interview, we discuss David’s influences, and his willingness to explore humanity’s more sinister side. We also find out how truth can often be stranger than fiction.
Let The Game Commence centres around the fictional board game of Chancery. What first made you consider making this game the crux of this dark thriller?
If there is one thing that unites large swathes of humanity, it is the desire to get rich. Money is an ideal bait. Many people also love board games. So, for Arthur, his creation, Chancery, provides the perfect opportunity to lure in his prey; a scenario in which his disparate bunch of neighbours can be drawn together with a common goal. The fact that creating Chancery was an obsession for Arthur, to the point where it had a negative impact on his life, adds to the irony of him using it for revenge on people whom he believes have let him down.
How about its creator, Arthur Du Fuss. Was there anyone in particular that inspired him?
‘Inspired’ might not be the appropriate word, but I can remember very specifically what got me thinking. When I moved into a pedestrianised close many years ago, the first Christmas, I popped a card through everyone’s letterbox. One of the neighbours who lived on his own, and whom another neighbour described as weird, came to thank me and said I was welcome to pop over for a drink sometime. Like the best-laid plans of mice and men, it never happened and then I heard a few months later that he had died. I felt very guilty. Now, the character of Andrew Hansen in Let The Game Commence is not based on me, but you can see a clear connection with that incident.
Then, I got to thinking about the nature of people’s interactions. One of the conclusions I came to, was that beneath the sometimes superficial niceties of society, there is often a dark underbelly.
The other influence for me came from having read Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus where the eponymous hero sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge. The idea of someone doing the same, but in exchange for vengeance, had a lot of appeal.
How do you think the concept of Arthur’s post-mortem invitation adds to the tension and suspense of the story?
It feels like his words and instructions are coming from the ‘other side’, which gives some creepiness and edge to things. Also, by the nature of the game and its demands, certain characters find ‘ghosts’ from their own pasts rising again. I think a key player in creating this atmosphere is the solicitor Sepp Stoehlheim. His presence is commanding, unsettling, and throws shadows — literal and metaphorical — across the entire event and the lives of the participants; indeed, across the whole novel.
There’s a lot of emphasis on human nature and the darker corners of it throughout the story. What made you want to explore that in this book?
As I mentioned above, there is often a darkness at the heart of human activity – let’s face it; the history of humanity doesn’t exactly follow a path lit by acts if joy! However, I allow some flexibility in the way my stories develop – they are organic for me – they have a life of their own to an extent and often create the characters they need. I know the direction in which the ending lies, but the route towards it can often bend, change and adapt – just as in life.
Some writers like to plan every detail of a story, as do some people with their lives; that’s not for me, as it leaves little room for imagination. So, in summary, I guess I explore wherever the story is leading me. After all, ordinary events can become extraordinary, depending on circumstances. I was delighted to read in The Guardian about the technique of Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl as it mirrors what I believe and how I try to write. If I may quote:
It’s surprising – given the way that the denouements of Flynn’s novels make you feel as if the truth had been hiding in plain sight all along – that she doesn’t plot them in advance, instead pursuing numerous dead-ends and “writing the equivalent of two books for every one that gets published”
Your work has often explored these darker elements. Would you say that Let The Game Commence is your darkest work to date?
A tough question! I think you have to define darkness and that’s often in the hands, or imagination of the reader. For example, I was told by one person that he had to stop reading Let The Game Commence for a couple of days because a certain part of it made him think about things he had done and it terrified him, whereas a participant at one of my writers’ workshops at the Cookham Literary Festival told me he couldn’t put it down!
It seems darkness is in the eye of the beholder. I think people like to be on edge when they read. I loved the tales of The Grimm Brothers when I was growing up and one of my novels, set in 17th Century Bavaria, definitely doffs a cap to them. Also, my parents were born in India and some of the tales they told of their upbringing were full of mysticism and drama.
Did you face any challenges whilst writing the book and exploring the more visceral side of these otherwise ordinary characters?
I have touched on this a little above, but just to mention, when you are describing the actions of characters who are, shall we say, lascivious, greedy, or in any way despicable, you hope the readers are not assuming it is based on personal experience! A big part of writing is observing the everyday world. Truth is stranger than fiction! For anyone who has read the book, may I take this opportunity to assure them, I am not a peeping-tom!
The book has an overarching focus on revenge and human nature, but what message do you want readers to take away from this book?
In many ways, I believe that people should take from stories whatever has the greatest impact on them. Of course, as a writer you want to lead them down certain paths and everyone needs closure of some elements of a plot, but I have always been a believer in the idea that life goes on and things don’t all tie up in some convenient knot. Sometimes, the bad person gets away with it. To try to illustrate this at recent workshops, I have referenced the ending of the brilliant movie The Usual Suspects. Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but the fact that there is a second ‘ending’ and Keyser Soze walks away makes it an outstanding finish for me.
However, if I have to nail down a message for readers, then I think it is to take note of Sepp Stoehlheim and of his observations. He is what he is, from beginning to end, in all senses of that timeframe! The other characters are all slaves to their weaknesses and ultimately, that makes them all slaves to him. He is the rock on which all their ships founder. He represents something ancient and unchanging, i.e., the worst in all of us. As he says towards the end of the book: “…there will always be a place in this universe for me.”
Let The Game Commence has a very unique hook. However, were there any authors whose work helped bring this story out of you?
As referenced earlier, Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ made a big impression on me, but it’s the only work that has had a direct influence. Setting that aside, I have always said that writing is the flip side of reading, so I assume every writer has been an avid reader. I’ve had a lot less time to read since the writing took over! I’ve always enjoyed the work of Robert Harris and Ken Follett. In my younger years, I read a huge amount of Stephen King, as well as the usual bible for lovers of dark fantasy, The Lord of the Rings. I am also very grateful that my parents had a copy of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Shakespeare as it opened my eyes to some of The Bard’s great plots and concepts without me becoming confused by the language.
My university dissertation was based on the work of Joseph Conrad, so my theme of the amoral world in which individuals find themselves, or indeed create for themselves, may also have been influenced by him, with his exploration of the dark psyche at the core of some of humanity. Where non-fiction is concerned, Antony Beevor and William Dalrymple have always appealed. If any book illustrates, as I mentioned above, that truth is stranger than fiction and reveals the shadows in which some elements of mankind can skulk, then Beevor’s Stalingrad is it!
If faced with the proposition of Arthur’s neighbours in the book, would you choose to play the game yourself?
I guess anyone would be intrigued by the invitation to attend a mysterious event, if for no other reason than curiosity. Otherwise – and I know I will sound self-righteous here! – but unless I was Andrew Hansen, who had always dreamt of playing that cult board game, then no, I would not be participating.
Finally, what can readers expect from you in the future? Do you have any upcoming projects or works in progress?
I have four published novels out there now, plus three further completed novels that I hope will see the light of day soon. I have also written a couple of screenplays, one of which is for Let The Game Commence, so fingers crossed!
I am currently reworking two novels from my earlier years, hoping to benefit from what I have learned in the intervening years to make them candidates for publication.
Recently, I was asked to run some 4-week writers’ workshops in Windsor Library and at the Cookham Literary Festival. There will be others in the coming months. During these workshops, I was taken back to the days when I was first trying to get published, I didn’t let the rejections, the chance that it would never happen, stop me from being creative. In fact, it took a kick up the backside from a work colleague of mine to help me try to become a success.
I mention on my website that I was driving up north and chatting with a colleague twenty years ago. In the car, I told her I had handwritten a story and she was amazed that I had written, in her words, ‘a novel’, which I had shoved into a box somewhere and pretty much forgotten about. She set me a deadline; gave me a week to dig it out and start trying to do something with it. I have written fourteen novels and novellas since, so I owe her!
I tried to deliver that metaphorical kick to others, to encourage their creativity, and will be beta-reading their work as a result.
Thank you to David Palin for taking the time to answer our questions.
‘Let The Game Commence’ is a dark, twisted, and thoroughly gripping thriller, unlike anything you’ve read before.