Scoundrels is an incredibly funny comic novel that tells the story of two disreputable spies, Majors Cornwall and Trevelyan. Their daring, outrageous and surreal escapades begin at public school in the 1930s and stretch through the Second World War and beyond. Along the way, Nazis are defeated, pandas are hunted, and Cornwall and Trevelyan suffer some extraordinary indignities.
Having recently read and thoroughly loved the book, I spoke to authors Duncan Crowe and James Peak…
Hi there. Can you tell us how this book came about? Where did the idea come from?
DUNCAN CROWE: The idea evolved from a series of extremely rude, insulting emails James and I sent each other. Both of us replied as though we were outraged and the Majors developed from there.
JAMES PEAK: Yeah, the structure came about pretty organically. I wrote to Duncan, as an old Major, explaining that on my travels in Africa I’d persuaded the Ga People of Ghana to design his coffin in the shape of a giant phallus. He immediately wrote back, as another Major, accusing me of embezzling money from a children’s charity. The tone was set from there.
While still feeling fresh and original…
…Scoundrels reminded me of a few things – the Flashman novels, the Ripping Yarns TV show, the books of PG Wodehouse. Were any of those specific influences? Or did anything else inspire you?
JP: Yes, you’re bang on with all those. Also some adult, racy Roald Dahl books like My Uncle Oswald. And the brilliant Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Mordecai Trilogy. He’s like a dirty Wodehouse. We were both very influenced by spy fiction like Graham Greene and Ian Fleming, but also the daft brilliance of Viz comic.
DC: A mention should probably go to Blackadder too, and to the sorts of films, TV shows and books where British people are comically portrayed with ridiculous stiff upper lips – Bullshot, Bridge on the River Kwai – or capable of the sort of skulduggery familiar to Terry-Thomas or Peter Sellers.
I was initially picturing the lead characters, Victor Cornwall and St John Trevelyan, being played by Michael Palin and Terry Jones – perhaps because of the Ripping Yarns-ness of the settings. But the more I read, the more I started to imagine Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. Do either of those fantasy castings ring true for you?
JP: That’s because of the horrific violence that they bear with fortitude, right? The Majors are, at root, a pair of grotesques who deserve everything they get. The other thing that’s great about Mayall and Edmondson is that the joke was always on them, which is (almost) always the case with the Majors.
DC: Michael Palin and Terry Jones: bang on. I also think Jason Isaacs would make a good Cornwall and Matt Berry, Trevelyan.
JP: Actually, I think Trevelyan would have been well served by a young Oliver Reed. Cornwall should be played by someone with the sheer physicality of Charles Hawtrey from the Carry On films….
DC: Oh, is that right?
The characters’ adventures cover a large sweep of 20th-century history, from a public school in the 1930s, through the Second World War, and into China, Japan, Africa, Mount Everest… What kind of historical research did you do?
DC: A little more than the casual reader might think. I suppose we wanted the Majors to support a version of history that was broadly historically accurate right up until the moment it moves into complete nonsense, and that line is not always signposted at the moment you cross it.
The two lead characters write alternating chapters of Scoundrels, which gives the reader two differing points of view on the events. Did you write everything together, or did you divvy up Cornwall and Trevelyan’s accounts?
DC: We start off writing in character – I write as Cornwall and James as Trevelyan, but by the end of the editing process it’s difficult to unpick who wrote what.
JP: We would always write chapters alone, originally, with the express aim of really antagonising the other, putting him in a situation he’d have a real job to write his way out of. We wrote for about six months without ever mentioning the project out loud, when we met socially in the pub or what-have-you… Of course, that worked for a while, but then the chapters needed fashioning into a narrative that would actually form a single, coherent story, so we had to start communicating about it. Then the editing process started and we tore each other’s sentences to pieces, adding jokes, details, reworking anything and everything that wasn’t solid. The ownership of each chapter became very muddled and, like the record collection of a long-married couple, impossible to pull apart without a long and protracted legal battle which would render both parties bankrupt.
It must have been fun knowing that each story could have a bias depending on which character is telling it…
JP: Yes, that’s the heart of it. We wanted readers to be faced with chapters spun entirely from self-interest and an eagerness to write something inarguable (as history is written by the winners) and that this is utterly rejected by the other Major. I love, writing as Trevelyan, putting Cornwall in really brutal situations, as once they are on the page, that’s it. They happened.
DC: Exactly – both Majors have massive egos and are determined that history shows them in the best possible light – but it was great fun putting Trevelyan through the wringer. No more so than the events at the end of chapter one. I didn’t set out to write something as horrendous as that, but as soon as the idea developed I couldn’t get it on the page quick enough. I couldn’t wait for James to read that. And weep…
JP: It came as a complete surprise – we’d not talked about at all. I actually wandered around the room shaking my head at what Duncan had done to him. It took me a long while to come back with a decent response.
DC: And what was great, though, was how Trevelyan dealt with it and then came back with a story of his own. I have to give him respect for his response.
JP: So I suppose its equal parts combative and collegiate. We’re setting each other up, but always confident that the other can deal with it.
The chapters are interspersed with letters from Cornwall and Trevelyan commenting on the writing process. Where did that idea come from?
JP: Well, we searched for a ‘wraparound’ to place their stories in, and settled on the idea that the Majors had sent the two of us, as editors of boutique publishing house Black Door Press, a manuscript which we HATED. We attempted to return it, but then found that by signing for it with the courier, we’d actually entered into an unbreakable contract to publish. It sounds convoluted, but makes the sort of sense we needed to give them the chance to communicate outside the chapters that make up their life stories, and the letter format worked well for that.
Was it fun to work out the structure of the book?
DC: Initially the structure was less linear as we were having fun plucking out random stories from the Majors’ history, but we soon realised that we need to follow a more coherent timeline so the narrative broadly follows their lives.
One of the best things about the stories is how brilliantly surreal and violent they can be – there’s a real sense of ‘anything can happen’. Was that an important part of the storytelling for you?
JP: Yeah, it was challenging to put each other in really grim situations from which the other had to escape. That said, it was really key that the violence, although horrific, has to be survivable and medically possible.
DC: Or at least just about medically possible…. One of the reasons the Paris-Dakar chapter comes first is that we wanted to set the boundaries early on for the reader, and establish how far we were prepared to push it. Once you’ve read that you know what you’re in for.
Do you have a favourite segment of the book?
JP: I’m fond of the whole Second World War section, where you start to realise that as well as a brooding enmity that has lasted a lifetime, the Majors have a grudging, brotherly respect for each other that explains why so much of their lives have been shared. I think Duncan did a bloody good job on the Fuffy Morningdew chapter, where we learn why Cornwall’s heart has calcified and that he can never love another woman.
DP: When I read James’s first draft of Around the World it literally made me cry with laughter. I tried to read some of it out to my wife and couldn’t finish the sentence. I also like it any time the Majors spend time in the club. I love the detail, the obscure rules and the other members.
What can you tell us about Black Door Press? The company was founded specifically for this book – is that right?
JP: Yes, although it’s owned by the Majors now, unfortunately. And they are terrible bosses.
What about the book cover? It’s superb. Who designed it? Did you have specific ideas what it should be?
JP: Michael Gambriel, the man’s a genius. He’s a Bristolian artist who is ridiculously accomplished. Everyone thinks Banksy is the best thing to come out of Bristol. Well, that’s bollocks: it’s Mike.
DC: Mike was very patient with us. The Flashman books was one of the references we gave him, and we mocked up some dodgy covers that we’d drawn… Thankfully he was good at interpreting our ideas and making them, you know, good.
And can we expect a sequel? This book is labelled Volume One: 1931-1951, and contains references to other escapades for Cornwall and Trevelyan…
JP: You can expect two! Their autobiography spans three volumes, each more eye-opening and wince-inducing than the last.
DC: Yep – we’ve planned the whole trilogy. By the end you’ll be crying hot tears of joy with an afternote of melancholy that two bona fide British heroes have been forgotten by the nation.