Wednesday 21 April 2021

Jonathan Pinnock 'Bad Day In Minsk' interview

You may recently have spotted my review of Bad Day In Minsk, the fourth in Jonathan Pinnock's Mathematical Mysteries series starring (if that's the appropriate word) the rather hapless PR executive-turned-sleuth Tom Winscombe. It's a series I really enjoy for its mix of  action adventure, comic mishaps, and quirky characters, so I'm delighted to have been able to persuade Jonathan to join me today to answer some pressing questions ...

Firstly, I've read (and loved) all the Mathematical Mysteries series but for anyone who hasn't could you please give a little introduction to Tom Winscombe and his adventures so far ... 

 A chance encounter on a train leads disillusioned junior PR executive Tom Winscombe into a rabbit hole where he is joined by on/off girlfriend Dorothy Chan in pursuit of the secret behind the deaths of the Vavasor twins, mathematicians Archimedes and Pythagoras, ten years earlier. He is still blundering around that rabbit hole four books on, although it seems to have expanded into a full-blown warren the size of the London underground. On the way, he has faced certain death at the hands of various people, including renegade financiers, psychopathic monks and more than one faction of the Belarusian mafia. Somehow he is still alive, a sadder but not necessarily wiser man.

Obviously Tom's latest escapade takes place in Minsk, but it's not a place you've visited. How did you go about research? Lots of time on Google maps? Contacting the local tourist board? 

Google Maps certainly played a large role in my research, along with maps of the Minsk underground and images of the stations. The Minsk Metropole hotel is, however, a complete invention. Outside of Minsk, Google Maps was helpful in finding a route from the airport to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and the camp where one of the mafia gangs hangs out is actually based on images of an abandoned children’s summer camp in the Ukraine. The cottage where Tom subsequently hides out is inspired by a YouTube video I saw ages ago made by one of the many lunatics who explore the Exclusion Zone for fun. That episode in the book very nearly didn’t happen, in fact, because in an early draft of the story he ended up in the abandoned fairground, but the trouble is, that one’s quite a tourist attraction these days and in the end I decided that I wanted him to be somewhere where there weren't many other people.

I had only the vaguest idea of Minsk's location - somewhere between Poland and Russia - so DID end up on Google maps, and thought it looked an interesting place for a weekend, though Tom doesn't really get to see the city. Are you planning to put it on your destination wishlist once restrictions are lifted?

Yes, I do quite fancy going to Minsk now, if only to see how horribly wrong I’ve got everything! However, Belarus isn’t in a good state at the moment. The regime is getting ever more repressive and there are occasional outbreaks of unrest, so I might leave it for a year or two.

The Belarusian mafia families, perhaps like all mafia families or indeed all of us, are interested in ways of making money, specifically in their case by trying to use mathematical formulas and chaos theory to profit on the world's stock markets. Is this a 'real' thing? If I were clever enough and rich enough in the first place could I do it, or is it just a writer's fantasy? 

Hmmm. Good question. Certainly the algorithms behind automatic trading are horrendously complex, and if you had enough capital you might be able to start things swinging about in a fairly chaotic manner. Mind you, the amount of capital required would be vast, and you’d need to be able to predict how the other players in the market (including the regulators) would react, so it’s edging towards “writer’s fantasy” territory. Then again, I might be saying that to put everyone off the scent while my secret fund gets down to business...

There were a couple of things that seemed to mark a change in direction from the previous stories - one being Tom left to muddle his way through on his own more than usual. I was a little disappointed to see less of Dorothy. Was she always intended to sit this one out, or did the plot just develop that way? 

Interesting question. This is going to sound a bit weird, but stick with me here. One of the continual problems that the modern writer has is how to dispose of the hero’s mobile phone. You’ll notice that Tom is pretty good at either smashing his phone up, having it taken away from him or ending up somewhere with no signal. From a purely technical point of view, Dorothy’s presence has a similar effect on the plot, in that she is WAY better at problem solving than Tom. So if we want life to get as challenging as possible for Tom, we need to sideline Dorothy at least for some of the story. So in The Truth About Archie and Pye, she doesn’t arrive until page 100. In A Question of Trust, she doesn’t actually appear properly until page 220. She is there for most of the time in The Riddle of the Fractal Monks, but even then she is missing for quite a while during the sequence with the alpacas. So it’s not unprecedented for Dorothy to be absent for much of Bad Day in Minsk, although - without wishing to give too much away - their rift is a little bit more significant this time. I feel quite bad for spoiling a lovely relationship like this, but that’s what writers do, I’m afraid.

And, related to that question, do you believe in planning every move of your hero and villains in advance, or just throwing Tom in at the deep end and seeing what happens?

I’m very much a pantser rather than a plotter. My approach to planning a book is to chuck a load of stuff up in the air, see where it lands and then try to work out how they connect. The amazing thing is how often things just pop up that afterwards seem completely planned. There was one thing that happened this time which I can’t mention for fear of spoilers that I’d done subconsciously and turned out to be hugely significant.

What's next for you (and Tom)? Are there more Mathematical Mysteries on the way, or something entirely new?

I’ve certainly got ideas for further Mathematical Mysteries, but I’m overdue for a chat with my publishers to see what they think! I’ve also had an idea for a proper airport blockbuster psychological thriller, although I doubt if that will ever see the light of day. It does have an excellent title though, which is always promising.


If this interview or my review of Bad Day in Minsk have intrigued you, more can be found out at

Jonathan has also asked me to mention his new podcast, It’s Lit But Is It Funny?, where he and his guests take a critical look at one of the most neglected genres in literature: the funny book. So far they’ve covered Lucky Jim, 1066 And All That, Heartburn, Cold Comfort Farm and Emotionally Weird. There’s more information, along with buttons to enable you to subscribe here [link:].

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