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Is There Life After Crime Fiction?




Is There Life After Crime Fiction?


Here’s the challenge.  You’ve made a bit of a name for yourself in crime fiction.  After picking up Orion’s cri-fi invitation you’ve written sixteen books, sold the TV rights, and enjoyed yourself.  But the prospect of penning yet another police interview is driving you insane and you badly need to explore another genre.

So what do you do?

The answer, as so often in life, ghosts in from left field.  We happened to be on the Galician coast a couple of years back, in a sleepy little fishing village called O Barqueiro.  Inlaid on the harbour wall was a plaque commemorating the loss of a U-boat and most of its crew on an offshore reef. That story, the way I imagined it, nested deep in my brain and several days later I had the plot to a big novel, set in 1944, that begins off this very same Galician coast. 

On board the doomed U-boat are a handful of top Nazis fleeing the equally doomed Reich.  The only survivor of the storm that starts the book is the U-Boat’s highly decorated young Kapitan, Stefan Portisch.  He’s lost his entire family in the ruins of Hamburg and has had enough of the killing.  After struggling ashore, he seeks refuge with a local family who take care of him.  This, of course, is an act of desertion, compounded by the fact that when the most senior of the SS officers, a non-swimmer, begged to be shot rather than drowned, Portisch complied.  The officer’s body is recovered.  He has a bullet in his head.  The hunt for Portisch begins.

The plot is ambitious and expands to embrace the Manhatten Project – the American atomic bomb programme – and the widespread Allied belief that the Germans, too, are working on a nuclear weapon.  The book is an ensemble piece, with a lively cast of characters, many of them real.  Players on both sides of the Atlantic, like Robert Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, FBI Director Edgar Hoover,  MI5’s Guy Liddell, and Himmler’s SD genius Walther Schellenberg, flit from page to page.  Unless you subscribe to the belief that WW2 was the biggest crime scene ever, this new fictional departure is very definitely not cri-fi.

The book fininished, I gave it a name: Finisterre. My agent liked it a lot but was unsparing about the difficulties ahead.  I’d become a crime writer.  My books were successful.  Why was I straying off the reservation?

                Happily, Nic Cheetham at Head of Zeus – a fellow WW2 buff - saw the potential of the book and handed me another challenge.  Everything at the commercial end of publishing these days sells in series.  I needed a lead character who’d survive from book to book, someone my readers would sign up to, a name to badge the books to come.  From my point of view, this was a no-no.  In my head, the whole rationale of the series would be its sheer reach, something to mirror the scale of this monumental war. So how about books laced together by a number of characters, recurring in book after book, sometimes doing the fictional heavy lifting, sometimes not.  Fancifully, I called this notion “soft linkage”, but it did the trick.

                And it seems to be working.  The series as a whole is titled The Wars Within.  It shines a light into the murkier shadows of the tussle between rival intelligence services.  Finisterre, was followed by Aurore, and Estocada.  This summer sees the publication of Raid 42, a brand-new fictional take on Rudolf Hess’s dramatic flight to Scotland in 1941, while Blood of the Wolf, Book Five, publishes next year.

                So far, so good.  These books have attracted excellent reviews and a growing readership.  They answer my need to get stuck into serious research, plus all the other challenges of trying to tease page-turning fiction from recent history.  But as the current mood darkened both here and internationally, I began to wonder about drawing a different fictional bead on what I saw around me.

                Then came the moment when I awoke in the middle of the night in a tiny hamlet in the Touraine, south of the Loire Valley.  In my head, for whatever reason, was a single sentence:  The neurosurgeon has a fondness for metaphor.  I made a note and went back to sleep.  By the morning, an Anglo-Breton actress called Enora Andressen had arrived, fully formed, page-ready. 

She was in her late thirties.  Recovering from the brutal end of a seventeen-year marriage to Scandi scriptwriter and director Berndt Andressen, she’d just been diagnosed with a brain tumour.  Her neurosurgeon might, or might not, be able to save her life.  Her only son, Malo, was living with his father in Stockholm. Her career was on hold, pending developments.  Her prospects, in short, couldn’t have been worse.

                The business of the launch title, Curtain Call, was to somehow conjure a flicker of hope from these ashes.  I was still getting to know Enora but this was to be a first-person account and I liked her voice on the page.  She was an easy woman to write. She was gutsy.  She was good company. Deep down, she was as fragile as the next woman but had no time for self-pity. Best of all, she had a slightly acid, bitter-sweet wit that worked well in passages of dialogue, and when the plot pushed her to her limits, she found comfort in the conviction that the world, and not her, had gone crazy.  In short, I was lucky to find her.

                Curtain Call confronts Enora with a barely-remembered face from her past, a wealthy ex-cocaine dealer, Hayden Prentice, who turns out to be the father of her only child.  After the nightmare years with her husband, Berndt, this is a blessing in a number of unexpected ways. H, as he’s widely known, has invested his millions in a gorgeous Georgian pile in the depths of West Dorset.  He still holds a candle for the young actress he briefly bedded all those years ago, but Enora keeps him at arm’s length, still preoccupied with the battle against the tumour. Only gradually, as her son Malo bonds with his real dad, does Enora realise that this retired gangster is writing large cheques to a Brexit organisation, in a bid to make even more money from the chaos that will envelop the country he claims to love.

                I always wanted Curtain Call to work on a number of levels.  Most obviously, it’s the story of a woman embattled on every front.  Her personal story, her feelings, her worst fears, had to be credible, especially to a largely female readership.  She also had to be sufficientlysympa to win not simply our attention, but our support as well.  Page one finds Enora in a very dark place.  We need the plot to get her out of there.

                But beyond the rawness of her situation, there lurks another theme, altogether more complex.  My interest in current affairs, in what’s starting to overwhelm this poor country of ours, is near-obsessive, and like any working novelist I’m always looking for ways of using character and plot to explore – forgive the cliché – The State of the Nation.  Don’t get me wrong.  The Enora Andressen books, bravely published by Kate Lyall Grant at Severn House , are first-person narratives.  If Enora doesn’t speak to you, if she doesn’t get through, if you don’t sign up, then the series is dead in the water.  But if those bits of special magic cast a spell, then you might find yourself discovering a great deal you maybe didn’t know about what we loosely call “issues”.

                Brexit is the sub-plot that binds Curtain Call together.  In the sequel, Sight Unseen, Enora – braver, more sorted, definitely still alive – gets herself involved in the brutal world of County Lines.  County Lines is police and dealer-speak for the drug distribution networks that have penetrated every corner of the UK.  And thanks to her wayward son, Malo, Enora is obliged to take these people on.  The third book in the series, Amen, finds her fighting a different battle, equally personal, equally dangerous, but this time she’s at risk from the yawning gaps in the nation’s provision for the mentally ill.

                I’m guessing you’re starting to get the picture: a strong central character, deeply contemporary plot lines, and a healthy appetite for both hazard and resolution.  Enora, I’m starting to realise, has to emerge more or less intact from book after book….and here’s the irony.  She may have got the better of the tumour that nearly killed her, but real life can still eat her alive.


                Just now, with the first draft of Amen finished, and a couple of months in hand before I must start the next book in The Wars Within series, there comes a moment when I can ponder the opportunities that these two very different genres offer me. 

The past, as historians ceaselessly tell us, offer countless lessons in cause and effect, in the perils of miscalculation, and in the often-terrifying powers grabbed by a variety of psychopaths, liars, hypocrites, and merchants of death.  To plunge into these bloodbaths and emerge with a tale to challenge the contemporary reader, is – to put it bluntly – exhilarating.  Equally, to my delight, Enora has offered me a fictional key to a number of doors that would have otherwise remained firmly shut. 

And therein, I suspect, lies the real pleasure.  Every new book I read should surprise, delight, and occasionally frighten me.  And every new book I write should conjure exactly the same magic. 

No more police interviews.  Unless strictly necessary….