Tall, dark, handsome, FHOH, GSOH.
How would your best friend describe you in a sentence?
Delusional, bald git.
Crime fiction is at its best when…
urging readers to put themselves in the place of the combatants, guns and all.
The worst literary vice is…
Pages teeming with similes like shoals of sardines.
The highest order a writer can aspire to is…
The Garter of the Knights Templar
Plot or character?
It’s got to be character.
What’s your favourite word?
If you could remove one word from the parlance of our time, what would that be?
If you could remove one celebrity from the planet, who would that be?
If you could remove one profession from the business world, which would that be?
Which fictional character is going to be shot come the literary revolution?
Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby for a start, and I’ve always found Hercule Poirot rather irritating.
Which fictional character would you most like to meet?
What’s the best pickup line you’ve ever used?
At a grand function I was going through the pockets of my dinner jacket looking for a pen and I came across a recipe for apple crumble and I said to my companion: “Now that must have been a fascinating dinner party.” Not the greatest line, but it must have worked because I’m married to her now.
An American, an Englishman and a Scotsman walked into a bar…
and engaged in a long conversation about national stereotypes while the Scotsman bought the drinks, the American took the piss out of himself, and the Englishman genuinely complimented everyone on their appearance.
Who are your five favourite party guests?
Raymond Chandler (as long as he brought his own drink), Julianne Moore sitting next to Mick Jagger, Lorrie Moore, and Ed Milliband.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
What’s the most amusing situation your writing has got you into?
I’ve maintained total anonymity so far.
Do you write for a specific reader?
I have no specific reader in mind when I write but I am aware of trying to make the reading experience as flowing as possible. So I have ‘the unknown reader’ in mind. I’m also conscious that my wife is going to be my first reader.
What value does reading have for you?
I used to just love it. There is nothing like the grip of a great book, one where you put life on hold because you have a whole alternative world in which to live. Now I find that that experience is very rare and that being a writer has made me more aware of the artifice. Once you become aware of that, the experience is diminished and it becomes more like study than an alternative world. I do still get it, though. The last book to do that to me was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
Whose crime writing are you drawn to?
My interest is mainly in the writing so I’m drawn to the stylists like Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy rather than the plot meisters like Connelly or Deaver.
Why do you write crime fiction?
One of the reasons I write crime fiction is that it’s a literature in which the characters are almost constantly under some kind of pressure. In real life it is rare for people to reveal themselves when they are carrying on with the banality of their every day existence. One’s morality and ethics are very far from the surface as one trawls the shelves of Tesco’s. But it’s almost impossible (unless trained) not to reveal yourself when under the real heat of, say, someone’s corruptive influence. It is only under extreme circumstances that we find out who we truly are.
What reader feedback have you found most surprising?
I’m always amazed by who reads what. I was stunned to be told by an Australian bookstore buyer, who had professed a complete lack of interest in my type of crime novel, that the most violent slasher novels are written by women for a primarily female audience… and she was one of them. I know there have been plenty of readers who found the beginning of The Blind Man of Seville (in which a victim has had his eyelids removed) unacceptable, but that was because they only saw the literal rather than the thematic. My fascination with the genre as a writer is to put people in extreme situations and see how they react.
What do you make of the current reviewing culture?
My father-in-law, a writer, knew Alistair Maclean back in the 60s and 70s and reported that the Scot was always furious that he sold more than any other writer but was never reviewed, because reviews were strictly for literary works or non-fiction. Not much has changed. Most crime novels are given a couple of column inches in round-ups of varying pithiness. Big name writers are given solus reviews regardless of their books’ quality.
Why is that?
Much of this is to do with giving the buyers of newspapers what they want and expect, rather than serious criticism.
So where do readers get their reading recommendations?
Many crime readers access their new buys from browsing the various crime fiction blogs on the internet, which are not only tuned to the bloggers’ tastes, but can offer more in the way of insight than a column inch or two in a broadsheet, whose sales are dwindling anyway.
What do you think of that?
I think there is a point in giving a crime novel the benefit of serious criticism if the writer is doing something particularly original. I say ‘particularly’ because most new crime novelists soar to fame and riches through small twists or ‘takes’ on well established formulas/sub-genres, rather than through truly groundbreaking work.
Can you give me an example?
A writer like David Peace, for instance, established a completely different type of British crime novel with his Northern Noir trilogy but was mostly ignored by readers and critics as being too difficult an entry level for the average crime reader. His work would have benefited from good criticism to show readers what he was accomplishing with these weird and wonderful novels. So I think extraordinary writing, depiction of place, insight into society and historical view would merit critical attention because this is what crime writing, at its best, does, and people’s attention should be drawn to it when it’s being done at the highest level.
Do you write about crime to reveal structural violence as a contributing factor?
I think that’s what all crime writers are doing, wittingly or not. Even the most basic crime novel reveals a time, a place and a community in which an aberration takes place. This is, after all, what happens in real life. Look at Soham. A close community in which everybody believed they ‘knew’ each other only for them to discover that their safe middle class society had produced an aberration. What crime novels can usefully do is to place these aberrations in a context and allow the reader to ‘understand’ how they can happen but at one remove from the horror of reality. This might not help the inhabitants of Soham, though. There is an enormous difference between the reality of evil’s proximity and its fictional shadow.
Can you give me an example of this from your own work?
My two novels, A Small Death in Lisbon and The Blind Man of Seville, both started with murders but then proceeded to examine through the investigations not just the social context but the historical context. In those books I was teaching myself about Portugal and Spain, trying to understand what these countries were about and why their people were so different, not just to each other, but to us in Northern Europe. To understand why a people are as they are, you have to look at their history otherwise you’re just getting a snapshot in time.
Does the genre’s popularity indicate a general desire for ersatz justice?
On a global scale, as we pick over the leaks from the Lockerbie investigation, trial and appeals, we get an idea of how international relations, the demands of business, diplomacy, intelligence services and police work can distort and be distorted to the extent that the truth (which is what the layman believes justice is all about) might never be recoverable. (I was shocked to find when I was in business before becoming a writer that justice was not about the truth but about the law). At a more local level, we see miscarriages of justice, when it was expedient to find a guilty party in high profile cases such as the murder of Jill Dando and the even more bizarre shenanigans around the investigation into the murder of Rachel Nickell. Just the notion of ‘inadmissable evidence’ creates an enormous grey area.
There probably are whole rafts of readers who are looking for satisfaction in a crime novel and that means, if not legal justice being meted out, then at least someone getting their just deserts. The sophisticated readers of the genre seem to be looking for a more precise reflection of society where things can’t be tied up quite so neatly. A lot depends on whether your mind enjoys thought-provoking questions or neat answers.
Is the genre’s appeal rooted in its examination of certain core principles?
Most people are reading crime novels as an extension of television, which is why they represent 60% of book sales. Once the point of a crime novel swerves too sharply towards pointing up ‘certain core principles’ you lose your readership. The readers who are extracting the moral points from a crime novel probably don’t need help in this dimension. Stieg Larsson’s first book in the Millenium trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was called in the original Swedish, ‘Men Who Hate Women’. The UK publisher knew that this original title was completely unacceptable to a British crime reading audience. Readers would reel away from such a title, expecting it to be concentrating on ideas and themes that are not palatable to those seeking entertainment. Instead, the publisher concentrated on the most engaging aspect of the books, which is the character Lisbeth Salander. She features on the cover of each book. Readers still take on board the underlying theme of the book, as can be seen from reader reviews, but it wasn’t what made them buy the book or kept them reading it.
Does that make the ‘crime novel’ the new ‘social novel’?
It depends whether you think that Charles Dickens was a writer of ‘social novels’ or a ‘crime writer’, whether you believe crime novels fall into a very narrow definition or are broader than the publishers would have you believe. As I said earlier good crime novels can give an insight into a time, a place and a community. They are therefore ‘social novels’. However, once the point of a crime novel becomes ‘society’ and the entertainment element is buried you lose readers exponentially.
Does crime fiction tell the primal human story of Innocence, Experience and – by dramatising the climax between them – the Fall?
I think it does tap into this. Almost all genre fiction draws on this Good/Evil, Innocence/Experience, Rise/Fall dichotomy. It might even be a definition of genre fiction.
So is crime fiction formula fiction?
It’s formulaic because readers desire the formula. Having said that the formula has been stretched every which way so that you’d have a hard job saying what the precise formula was. Maybe there’s a mathematician somewhere who has reduced crime fiction down to algebra. Shane Maloney (Aussie crime writer) when asked to write a sex scene for one of his books came up with: “Her nipples were as hard as Chinese algebra.” I would think the crime fiction formula might be as tricky.
Do you see formulaic contributions to the genre as a liability to its reputation?
There is a place in the genre for all kinds of writing as long as there are readers who will buy. We are in the commercial world, here. So-called ‘formulaic contributions’ attract an enormous number of readers because the majority of crime readers are rather conservative in their tastes. They ‘know what they like’ and can become quite angry if they believe they’ve been mislead. (There’s nothing worse for a writer than to be compared to John Le Carré). My description of the core crime reader is someone who wants ‘the same but different every time’.
So, for instance, there is dismay when John Rebus gives up drinking for a novel, because his dipsomania is seen as part of his character, even though, in real life, big drinkers quite often flirt with teetotalism because they are characters of extremes. So ‘the formula’ is what keeps the genre going rather than being a liability to its reputation. This is not to say that one can’t find good, strong writing within the formula and to a certain extent we all accept the formula: a crime novel has to have a crime or at least the appearance of a crime. Even such original writers as James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard and David Peace have to go along with that. If they don’t the product ceases to be a crime novel.
We have become more sophisticated and realise that we are actually in cycles of order and chaos and therefore anything that returns us to a neat and perfect order is a ludicrous simplification of the human condition.
So does the crime writer still sit at the table of literature like a transvestite cousin at a family gathering? Does political correctness compliment him while studiously ignoring his fabulous hat?
I remember walking to make-up before a TV book show with an American female literary author who asked me what I wrote and when I said crime thrillers she said: “Crime thrillers?” with such profound disdain she turned the head of the producer who, I’m sure, just wanted to make sure I didn’t hit her. I said as mildly as possible: “Yes.” That was the end of our relationship. I’m still published. She isn’t. Who cares?
What were your concerns when you turned to the topic of terror in The Hidden Assassins?
The fear I had was that readers were not interested in terror and particularly not interested in Islamist Terror. I defined the problem as the reader having no way of relating to it. I tried to give the reader a way of being able to relate to terror by creating a situation that they would find easier to identify with. That being ‘domestic violence’. I’m not sure it worked because nobody, neither reviewers nor readers of The Hidden Assassins, mentioned it. In that book I had one chapter (20) in which I tried to lay out the terror problem and why it was there. Very few readers appreciated it. Most thought it boring; others said it was ‘preachy’.
Whose work returns you to yourself enlarged?
I think from the USA that Jim Thompson took me somewhere I really didn’t want to go and made me feel extraordinarily uncomfortable, and that’s an interesting experience. He did not, however, return me ‘enlarged’, but rather ‘diminished’. I think from the UK, John Le Carré achieved what you’re talking about in his espionage fiction and David Peace has the makings as long as he maintains accessibility. A new and upcoming writer, who I believe will be great, is Olen Steinhauer. He has insight, sensibility and outstanding technique and his novel, The Istanbul Variations, did return me to life ‘enlarged’.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known when you started writing?
How long a ‘long time’ was going to be when my agent said: “It takes a long time to generate cash flow as a writer.”
If God exists, what will you say to him at the pearly gates?
You’re much better looking than in the paintings.
If you had to start all over tomorrow, what would be your last thought before going to bed tonight?
If by this question you mean starting something completely different, not necessarily writing, I would think: “What a relief.”
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