Published by drpladm on Sun, 05/29/2011 - 15:51
Pompey, says me, is God’s gift for the working crime novelist. Number one, it’s an island, surrounded by water on three sides and cut off to the north by a fold of chalk (aka Portsdown Hill). This gives the place an insularity you can feel in the streets. People look inward. They’ve turned their collective backs on the mainland. And the result is a hugely distinctive city vibe: claustrophobic, heads-down, deeply private. Pompey can be a rough old place, but it has humour and warmth if you know where to look.
It’s also very crowded, one of the most densely-populated cities in Europe. It’s never been a city over-cursed by money, but the sheer number of people living here mean that the poor and not-quite-so-poor are banged up together. This naturally leads to a degree of social tension but that’s no bad thing for the crime writer.
Another chapter in the Pompey story that has always fascinated me is the history of the place. An accident of geography has been kind to the city. Portsmouth Harbour, plus ready access to the English Channel, made it a natural home for the Royal Navy. Generations of Pompey men (and occasionally women) have sallied forth to defend the empire and do battle with their enemy of choice and the result – I suspect – is the emergence of what you might call “the Pompey gene”.
Aggression therefore goes with the territory - and the appetite for a decent fight has survived down the centuries. If he’s not battering the French, or the Spanish, or rival football crews up and down the country, the Pompey mush is looking for a ruck rather closer to home. More grist for the crime writer’s mill….
There are now eleven books in the series. Is it difficult to come up with new ideas?
When I started the Faraday series, to be honest, I was pretty clueless. I’d published a series of nine one-off thrillers and it was only at the insistence of my publisher, Orion, that I moved into series crime fiction. I invented a lead cop – D/I Joe Faraday – and tried to make his backstory as distinctive as possible. By Chapter Two of the first book (Turnstone) I knew that Faraday needed a fictional foil, a very different kind of cop, and that made room for D/C Paul Winter.
At this point, I was anticipating a maximum of three books but the more cops I met, and the deeper I embedded myself in the seedier corners of Portsmouth, the more it dawned on me that I was writing about a city, and hence a society, in the process of disintegration. To this extent, Pompey has become an island within the bigger island of the UK, a testbed for the playing-out of all the social pressures that are putting us to the test. Whether you’re talking family breakdown, or substance abuse, or crap education, or the frustrations of simply making ends meet, it’s all there in Pompey. And when it leads to the spilling of blood, it’s cops like Faraday and Winter that have to tease justice and order from the enveloping chaos.
So has it become difficult, over eleven books, to come up with new ideas? The answer is no, because the problems (and hence the plots) are endemic – and growing. Having said that, my guys are starting to age. Which means that Book Twelve will bring the series to an end.
What made you decide to become a novelist?
I’m not sure decision is the right word. It’s a strange process, almost viral, and it started with the acquisition of a library ticket when I was nine. We didn’t have a telly and in winter months I’d retire early and read for most of the night. I devoured books by the armful and I became hooked (exactly the word) on the power of story.
A bit later, when I was fourteen, I had a go myself. The result was probably the world’s worst novel (mercifully unpublished) but in the process I learned how hard it was to put the right words in the right order, and how that strangely magical process of conjuring story from the stuff of language can become seriously addictive.
People sometimes say that novel-writing is the last refuge for the ultimate control freak. Why? Because only novels give you the real space to play God. You chose (i.e. invent) your company. You set your characters impossible tasks (we call that plot). And then you sit back and see what happens. Fascinating.
Where do you gather inspiration for your books?
Pretty much anywhere. Sometimes it’s what American film writers call “high concept”….an over-arching idea that seems to hold immense promise for author and readers alike. One example of this might be the rumour I picked up back in the early Nineties that the first Gulf War (to kick Saddam out of Kuwait) had been fought to a pre-agreed time-table negotiated in top secret meetings between the Americans and the Iraqis in Paris before the bombing campaign began. That may, or may not, be true but it sparked an entire book (Thunder in the Blood).
Other times, it might be a face in the street, or a snatch of conversation overheard on a bus or in a pub, or a story recounted by a mate, or maybe a combination of all three. Writers, in my experience, are born magpies, always thieving little bits of other people’s lives and putting them together in strange (and hopefully compelling) combinations. A Frankenstein thing, really. Scored to the crazy tread of modern life.
Where is your favourite place in Hampshire to visit, and why?
I have to say Spice Island, in Old Portsmouth. This is a little spit of shingle at the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour that curls north, enfolding the Camber Dock. Historically, this tiny area – flanked by water - lay outside the walled old town and became home for umpteen pubs and brothels, frequented by soldiers and sailors alike. At one point, in the eighteenth century, it won a reputation as the most wicked square mile in Europe.
It’s very different now – quiet, wealthy, gentrified – but it’s still possible on a wet winter evening to stand outside the Still and West (one of the few surviving pubs), and hear the lapping of the water at your feet, and savour the splash of light on the greasy cobblestones, and imagine yourself back in the stink and clamour of the old Pompey. This is where you can put your finger on the ageless pulse of the city. Magic.
The French TV series.
The interest of French TV in the Faraday series has come as a big surprise. They’ve always been keen on the books – my wife and I attend endless crime festivals in France – but the decision to adapt the entire series is – on the face of it – strange. Pompey, after all, is the essence of a certain kind of Englishness and you might start to wonder how much is going to be lost in translation.
But I’ve since talked to the film-makers and it turns out that the attraction for them has been the social elements I’ve talked about earlier. They’ve chosen to set the French version of the series in Le Havre, keeping the characters and the plot lines but adapting them to the policing realities of contemporary French life. Which turn out, surprise surprise, to be very similar to the world of Joe Faraday. Strange, that.
What has been your proudest achievement in your life so far?
Getting books on the shelf has been a blast. Despite a twenty year detour into TV work (mainly documentaries) I always wanted to be a published writer but it’s desperately hard to get into print. Only in my late thirties did I finally make it, and it’s been a book a year since then. 25 novels later (plus a couple of non-fiction titles) I’m the happiest guy in the world.
But what’s made me really proud? Getting on top of French. I was rubbish at it at school but now it’s falling into place. To do anything substantial in life you have to sometimes frighten yourself. And addressing French audiences in their mother tongue does exactly that. Big time.
Are you a Pompey supporter?
In spirit, definitely. Fortress Fratton, on a wet mid-winter relegation tussle, will tell you everything you need to know about the city.
Are you currently working on another novel?
Yes. I’m lucky enough to be able to write quickly so I fence off a couple of months at the end of each year for the writing of the next book. Book Twelve, that ends the Faraday series, is now finished. Orion have given me a two-book contract for a spin-off series, to be set down in the West Country (where we now live), so this month sees me starting to gather the research I’ll need to bed the series in.
Faraday has given me a wealth of police contacts and the guys down here, in the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, have been amazingly helpful. Just now I’m working alongside the Det-Supt who runs their Major Crime Incident Teams, awaiting the next homicide. That’s always the spark that fires up the investigative machinery and for guys like me this is a priceless opportunity to acquire huge volumes of material by simply listening and watching.
The first book in the series is called Western Approaches, and is set in the world of offshore rowing. As it happens, my wife and I have become a bit manic about the sport. We row for fun rather than research but it’s become a real passion which will, I hope, bleed into the book.
The last film I saw at the cinema?
The King’s Speech. I thought it was totally brilliant in every respect: the performances, the direction, the period feel, but above all the script. This movie is flawless. God Save The King.
Would you ever change the genre of your writing?
I’ve made a couple of excursions into non-fiction and really enjoyed them. One told the story of a young quadriplegic (Lucky Break?), while the other offered a fly-on-the-wall account of the making and shaping of the world’s biggest air tattoo (Airshow).
Writing non-fiction is much harder work than spinning yarns because you have to get every detail right – and that takes serious effort. Plus you have to coax interest and page-turning drama from stuff that might, just occasionally, seem banal. But these are interesting challenges because you have to look very hard beneath the surface of things, and what you find is consistently interesting.
I’ve also just penned a novella called Strictly No Flowers, which is a kind of black comedy set in the world of crime fiction. It was an absolute delight to write – wholly different to the Faraday series - and will, fingers crossed, make it into print.
What’s been the best gift you’ve ever received?
What’s been the biggest crime you’ve ever committed?
I burned down a field of wheat when I was a kid. I’m blaming my mates.
What is your favourite book and why?
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (by John Le Carre). Why? Because – like The King’s Speech – it was brilliantly conceived, tightly written, genuinely revelatory, and deeply moving. How’s that for starters?