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The Vulcan Who Got into Print: a new whodunnit by Cambridge author John Phelps

Cambridge author John Phelps’ latest novel is set in a provincial newspaper office – a setting with which he’s very familiar.

John spent more than 30 years as a journalist in local newspapers, though The Vulcan Who Got into Print – published at the end of September – is actually a whodunnit which uses a newspaper office as a backdrop.

John Phelps. Picture: Keith Heppell
John Phelps. Picture: Keith Heppell

“It’s based in a fictitious town called Bridgetown, which I suppose is a bit like Brighton,” explains John, 81, “and the story is about a new company secretary being brought in by the newspaper proprietor to sort out the newspaper’s ailing finances, but the bloke who’s brought in is very ruthless and in fact is murdered.

“He’s murdered in the story quite early on and a detective is hired by members of his family to find out who did it, as the police weren’t able to. The story is about this new company secretary, who is nicknamed ‘the Vulcan’ because of his appearance, and the detective who tries to find out who did it.

“The private detective’s name is Willard Shakespeare and he happens to be dyslexic. Obviously I have to say a little bit about dyslexia so as not to make fun of his condition. He meets various newspaper characters, some of whom are quite similar to people I have known in my time as a journalist, and some of the incidents are based on incidents I have experienced as a journalist.”

The book should appeal to anyone who likes a murder mystery and, John hopes, to other journalists: “I like to think a lot of journalists will recognise the sort of scenario which crops up in this particular book, which is of a paper having ailing finances and journalists not feeling very secure in their jobs – and certainly during the time approaching my retirement and certainly since then, the number of jobs for journalists has gone down quite dramatically, it seems.”

John Phelps. Picture: Keith Heppell
John Phelps. Picture: Keith Heppell

John notes that he started working in newspapers at the end of 1967, on the Scottish paper The Sunday Post, and took early retirement at 62, having worked at another newspaper for about 33 years. He started work on the novel and then left it alone for a while, returning to it and doing most of the writing during the pandemic.

“I was doing other things at first during the course of Covid,” he recalls, “and when I say ‘Covid’ that suggests Covid’s stopped, and of course it hasn’t, but I did most of the writing during the first onset of Covid.”

The Vulcan Who Got into Print is John’s fourth novel (A World Ruled by Mice and Underbelly of Cambridge are his previous two) and he has also written two collections of short stories, the second of which – A Kind of Magic – is due out in February.

“All these books were written after I retired, incidentally,” says John. “One reason I took early retirement was so I could write a novel. I had this lifelong ambition to write a novel. The first novel I wrote was called Agent from Hell and that must have been about 12 to 15 years ago now.”

John has also started work on another novel, which ties in with his first, but admits that he “hasn’t got very far”. He says: “For a long time, I had it in mind to write a sequel to Agent from Hell, but never quite got on to it. But I have now thought of a way of doing it, so I have made a start but I’m only on chapter three – and I haven’t touched it for a while because of all the other things that have been going on.

“But I hope during the new year to crack on and get it done before the year’s out.”

The Vulcan Who Got into Print is out now.

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