Published by graham on Fri, 08/16/2019 - 15:00
Q&A for Tom Leins
Considering your reputation as one of Britain’s finest police procedural writers, I was surprised to learn that the early Joe Faraday books were written at the behest of your publisher – not because of any particular enthusiasm for crime fiction. In hindsight, does it surprise you that the series went on to span twelve novels?
The short answer is yes. I agreed the first three-book contract because there was nothing else on offer. I didn’t (and still don’t) like crime fiction, and rarely read the stuff. Prior to the Faraday books, I’d been writing so-called international thrillers – nine in all – but Orion were unhappy with their sales performance and thought they could do better for both of us by repositioning me in the commercial marketplace. The challenge, of course, was what to put on the page. Without any knowledge of the genre, I was obliged to take a different approach. Happily, in a previous life, I’d spent twenty years making documentaries for ITV and loved the process of putting real lives, and real stories on the screen. This, especially at the research stage, involves getting into other people’s heads and winning their confidence – exactly the same approach I’d used as a novelist – and so I set out to become a working detective. The research was the toughest assignment I’d ever set myself, but the harder I looked, the more I realised that the real drama lay not in serial killers and high-speed car chases, but in the minor key. Sit in a volume crime CID room for weeks on end, and you begin to figure out just how these guys stay sane. In a teeming city like Portsmouth, drug-ridden, full of feral kids on the make, that isn’t easy. But day by day, I began to recognise and understand the undercurrents – both professional and deeply personal – that flowed through that CID office, and I was very happy to stir some of that stuff into the fictional mix. There’s a nice irony here. Workings cops are what it says on the tin – deeply suspicious of any outsider – but after the publication of the lead title in the series – “Turnstone” – they decided I’d got their world right, and after that there was no longer a problem. To my delight, Orion recognised that there was something new here in cri-fi, and began to put serious resources behind the books. That led to climbing sales figures, excellent reviews, a deal for a wonderful series of adaptations on French TV, and three more three-book contracts. My biggest asset by far, aside from an exploding list of contacts, was Portsmouth itself. It’s an extraordinary city in all kinds of ways and in the end, thanks to Faraday and Winter, I had the feeling of writing about a society caught in freefall, as all the post-war support structures fell apart. I’d invested a huge amount of time and effort in research and was determined to make those books as authentic – almost as documentary – as I could. In this respect, I guess the final irony was that it was me who brought the series to an end, not because of sales (which remained buoyant) but because my lead cops had aged year by year, book by book, and were now due for retirement. Shafted by my own USP? Well, yes…
Your books are widely praised for their authenticity – how hard is it to maintain the required level of realism? Presumably research is crucial?
Absolutely right. You’ll guess from the above that I don’t put pen to paper until I’ve got to know everything I can about the world my characters will inhabit. In the Faraday series, that applies equally to the cops and the Dark Side. The best cops, before policing became impossibly risk-averse, had a little of the successful criminal about them and I was lucky enough to get to know some of these guys. They understood the criminal mentality, the juice that fuels the successful drug dealer, and it showed in the way they drove an investigation. That was a pleasure to watch, full of the best kind of surprises, and I think it began to show as the series developed. For me, writing fiction – by definition – is an act of trespass, and unless you want to get nicked (mostly by the reader), you have to get it right.
Nowadays, what type of books do you read for pleasure?
I read all the time, and always have done. I’m addicted to current affairs, especially now, and I hoover up anything that might shed fresh light on what’s turning out to be a huge moment in our island story. With this, unsurprisingly, goes a passion for recent history, especially the Thirties and Forties. I’ve been lucky enough to find a publisher to indulge this passion, and I’m currently penning a series of WW2 novels, set in the shadows of the intelligence war (see below). Research-wise, as you might imagine, this demands reading on an industrial scale, and I love it. Fiction? My tastes were framed by Graham Green, Ernest Hemingway, John Le Carre, Len Deighton, and now Robert Harris. You get the picture…
I understand that the Jimmy Suttle series started after you relocated from Portsmouth to Exmouth after more than 20 years. How long had you been living in Devon before you felt comfortable working on these books?
We’d been down here a couple of years before Orion agreed a two-book contract for a Faraday spin-off. East Devon very definitely isn’t Pompey – one of its charms – and I knew from the start that the books would need a very different focus. That focus lay in the relationship between the lead cop – D/S Jimmy Suttle, a young survivor from the Faraday series – and his wife, Lizzie. Book by book, the crimes were important, and I constructed them carefully so they were full of back story and the invitation to trespass (yet again) into other peoples’ worlds, but Suttle carried a lot of narrative weight and towards the end, much like Faraday, I sensed he was starting to struggle.
The Suttle books tackle crimes in locations such as Exmouth, Topsham and Lympstone. During the creative process what typically comes first, the location or the crime?
The location. One of the first things Lin and I did when we moved down to East Devon was join the local rowing club. We’ve both been water babies all our lives – swimming, dinghy sailing, kayaking – but this was a new adventure. Thirteen years later we’re still at it, part of a crew of five reprobates, and we row silly distances twice a week. Conditions permitting, these outings either take us out to sea or up the river Exe, where Lympstone and Topsham await. I owe the last book in the Suttle series, “The Order of Things”, to a breakfast call we made a while back. We always take coffee and stickies and we were parked on the beach at Lympstone, just in front of a terrace of cottages. I’ve no idea why but the upstairs window on the end one took my eye. It was obviously a bedroom with an incredible view out over the water, probably small, probably over-furnished. Maybe the house belonged to a divorcee. Maybe she lived alone. Maybe she’d met a guy from the Met Office (in nearby Exeter). And maybe there was more to him than she’d ever realised. Read on….
Devon feels curiously underexplored by contemporary crime writers – why do you think that is?
I’ve truly no idea except, perhaps, one. Writers, as a breed, need a little grit in their oyster and it often helps to live somewhere that winds you up. Big cities – especially the likes of Pompey – can do this in spades. Too many people in your face. Too much pollution. Too much clamour. Devon, thankfully, has none of these things. Low blood pressure, in short, can be no friend of the writer….but would I ever live anywhere else? No way….
You have amassed a significant back catalogue – do you have a favourite title among your own books, and if so why?
My favourite book is always the one I’ve just finished. It’s called “Amen” and happily it’s set in – yes – Exmouth. It’s number three in a series I began last year, featuring a 39 year-old Anglo-Breton actress called Enora Andressen (she was once married to a Scandi film director). These are first person accounts, contemporary settings, and a revelation to write. In “Amen”, Enora makes a very bad call and falls in love with a man called Deko. Six weeks ago, I’d never heard of him. Now, he commands an entire book. And that’s why I write.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans?
Severn House have just recommissioned me for the Enora Andressen series (see above), which will mean at least four books. My other fictional adventure, very different but equally important, is “The Wars Within” series for Head of Zeus. To date, I’ve published four novels - “Finisterre”, “Aurore”, “Estocada”, and “Raid 42”. “Blood of the Wolf” will be published next year, and I’ve just started work on “Kyiv”, which is already deeply promising. After that will come “Yalta”.
Bio: Born Clacton-on-Sea. Wrote a number of mercifully unpublished novels before ending up at Cambridge. Spent twenty years making documentaries for ITV, winning a number of awards. Sold my first novel to Pan/Macmillan in 1986 on the back of an ITV commission to write a six-part contemorary drama, “Rules of Engagement”. To date, thirty six published novels.