Published by graham on Mon, 01/16/2012 - 11:59
More than decade ago, thanks to an invitation from Orion, I became a crime writer. This wasn’t a corner of commercial fiction I’d ever regarded with much enthusiasm but the fridge was getting emptier and – to be frank – I couldn’t afford to say no to a three-book contract. But where to start? One answer would have been the crime shelves of my local library but that would have been a short cut to pastiche fiction and so I fenced off a couple of precious months and set about getting alongside working detectives.
Tough call. Some of these guys, the least reliable, were brimming with war stories. Others regarded me with tight-lipped suspicion. One or two let slip the dark secrets at the heart of most CID work: that it’s repetitive, hideously bureaucratic, and often immensely frustrating. To my intense disappointment, none of these sharp-end detectives had ever had dealings with a serial killer. Neither were they up to speed with torture, anal rape, or any of the other staples of post-watershed TV crime drama. Welcome, I thought at the time, to the world of the minor key.
And yet not all was lost. By the end of my two months, I’d become to sense the kinds of pressures these guys were under. Many were intensely paranoic. Collectively, they’d circled the wagons against the marauding armies of real or imagined enemies. These included local politicians, Home Office civil servants, Health and Safety ninjas, their own line managers, the suits at headquarters, New Labour ministers besotted with moving the legislative goalposts, plus the likes of you and me with our bleats about pisshead youths and the night-time economy. This was bad enough, but in-house the knives were often equally sharp. The buzz words were transparency and risk aversion. You kept your eye on the clock and and your back to the wall. God help the detective who took a gamble or two.
None of this stuff – undoubtedly real - did much for my vision of page-turning fictional drama and yet a larger truth was beginning to dawn. That these guys, along with the silent armies of para-medics, firemen, and – would you believe – teachers, were prime witnesses of a very different kind of drama. Call by call, job by job, especially in a city as intimate and tribal as Portsmouth, they were watching a society tearing itself apart.
But how to draw a fictional bead on this process? The answer had to be through character. And so I invented a D/I – Joe Faraday – and a rogue D/C, Paul Winter. Faraday stepped onto the page as a solitary, a single-parent who’d spent the last twenty years bringing up his deaf-mute son, a working cop who found solace in the world of bird-watching. Winter, on the other hand, came fully-formed from a D/C I’d known in the seventies.
His name was Dave Hopkins. I met him first on the football field. He was centre forward for the Pompey CID team. He broke every rule in the book, kicked you half to death, and blagged offside goals when the referee wasn’t looking. Pompey CID were the poster team that year and they owed the championship to Dave Hopkins. On the field he was a monster. In the bar, afterwards, he made you forgive every bruise, every wind-up, every foul. He was ruthless, effective, and had immense charm.
The first book, Turnstone, appeared in hardback in the autumn of 2000. The guys in the CID room, the ones who’d buttoned their lips, liked what they read. This stuff wasn’t pretty. It didn’t make them look heroes. On the contrary, the book often painted an alarming picture of just how often things go wrong. But that was the truth of it, as they were the first to admit. My contacts list fattened by the week. As did my liver. Faraday and Winter, to my immense relief, were definitely doing the biz.
The series began to gather speed. A second three-book contract followed the success of Angels Passing. By this time I was on more than nodding terms with Faraday and Winter. Story by story I was trusting them with more of the narrative decisions and they repaid my faith in spades. In their very separate ways, both characters became prisms through which the books – and therefore the readers – could explore the kind of society we’d become. And as the top dressing of procedural acronyms fell away, I began to feel a real curiousity about where these two guys were leading me.
Early on, it had become obvious that Faraday had sacrificed his private life to J-J, his son. As a direct result he was clueless with women. Here was a guy with the kind of emotional intelligence that scores big time in the interview suite, yet he couldn’t hold down a proper relationship. Woman either mothered him or fled in despair (this trait, incidentally, went down well with French female readers who definitely regarded him as a worthy cause). Winter, on the other hand, bedded a small army of inappropriate women and rarely spent a second regretting it (this went down less well with the same French readers, for whom Winter was un Ros-Bif typique). But either way, in my head or on the page, a strange dynamic had begun to work, making these two very different men allies in the on-going war against the encroachments of civic and emotional chaos.
In this respect, Winter was always going to be the survivor. In mid-series, with a typical disregard for possible outcomes, he turned his back on his colleagues and crossed to the Dark Side. This, I have to tell you, was Winter’s idea and not mine. In fictional terms it offered all kinds of richness and for that I was deeply grateful. My rogue cop was at last driving a decent motor. The Men in Blue became The Filth. And as drug baron Bazza Mackenzie’s irreplaceable lieutenant, he even had a laugh or two.
Faraday’s growing disenchantment with the Job, essentially no different to Winter’s, led him to a bleaker place. As book followed book, he became more and more isolated. J-J had fled the nest. His emotional life was a car crash. The Job was becoming impossible. Even a summer evening with the night-jars in the New Forest offered little more than the long tramp back to the car. Was this man becoming a depressive? Just a bit.
Then came Borrowed Light, book eleven. Lin and I happened to be in the Middle East when the Israelis set about the Gaza strip in earnest. It was a bad moment to be white and Anglo-Saxon in Syria and Jordan, and worse still in the Sinai Peninsula. Ruined Palestinian kids, some of them with terrifying burns, were shipped out to the Egyptian hospital at El-Arish. Hearing about this stuff, watching the graphic al-Jazeera feeds in countless cafes, it was impossible not to think about Joe Faraday and the three-book relationship with a French anthropologist that had come to mean the world to him. Her name was Gabrielle and she was with him when he decided to snatch a week’s birding under the migration routes that criss-cross the Sinai.
The outcome of some books is cemented in the first line. Joe Faraday was asleep when he went through the windscreen. From that point on, I now realise, he was doomed.
In hospital, in El-Arish, Gabrielle was at his bedside as he fought his way back to consciousness. Already, she’d toured the wards of maimed kids. And already, she’d chosen the one she wanted to adopt.
In due course, mended but not whole, Faraday found himself back on the Major Crime Team. Four bodies in a farmhouse fire on the Isle of Wight kicked off a particularly challenging enquiry. Gabrielle was still in Sinai, way beyond his reach. Even his son appeared to have become a stranger. Page by page, as the darkness thickened, it began to dawn on me that I was writing a book about a man going mad.
At this point came another realisation, equally bleak: that my sole responsibility was to shepherd my series lead to an end of his choosing. Not mine, you understand, but his. And as the finale of the book approached I became increasingly curious about what lay in store. What would Joe decide? What would he do? The answer, all too suddenly, came in the shape of two dozen Co-Proximal and a decent bottle of Cotes-du-Rhone. I wrote this terminal scene and stared in disbelief at the PC screen. After more than a million shared words, our ways had finally parted. Life had ganged up on Joe Faraday. The man, bless him, had called it a day. It was August 4th, 2009.
The volume and sheer vehemence of reader reaction came as another surprise. A long-term fan in California accused me of murder. A reader in Stevenage said I’d been responsible for a month of sleepless nights. A woman in Wellington, New Zealand, pleaded for some kind of Reichenbach Falls miracle resurrection. As the e-mails kept flooding in, reader after reader was aghast that I could be so unfeeling, so clincial, so cruel. As best I could, as you might imagine, I pleaded the case I’ve tried to outline above. That every author must go with the grain of the characters. Regardless of the consequences.
Happy Days drops the curtain on the Faraday series. The man deserved a decent send-off and he gets it. As do Paul Winter and Bazza Mackenzie. But with the loose ends knotted and a spin-off series under way, Joe Faraday’s death remains a source of deep, deep regret.
Do I miss him still? I do. Do I mourn his passing? Of course. Could I have done anything about it? Alas, no.