R.J. Ellory :: Saints of New York (VO)

My first question : How are you ? And when will you come to France ?
I am very well, and thank you for asking. I am currently on tour in the US promoting Vendetta which has just been released here, and then I will be in Norway and a couple of other places. I am coming to France in March to do some touring with the new book, Les Anges du New York. I will be in France for about ten days, and we are going to try and visit as many places as we can in that time.

How did you find the research for writing your novel, Saints of New York ?
Well, as you know, I love to research when I am writing a novel. I am always fascinated by the subjects I take on, and Saints was no different. The really tried to understand what it was to be an NYPD officer in the 70s and 80s while the Mafia still possessed a significant degree of influence in New York, and at the same time I did not want to make the novel a work of non-fiction.

Please tell us about your main character Frank Parrish ?
Well, when I wrote Vendetta I tried to create a character – Ernesto Perez – who was the very worst kind of person I could think of, and yet also create some empathy and understanding for him, so by the end of the book there was almost something you could like about him. With Frank Parrish it was similar, but here I wanted to create a character whose personal life – his family, his ability to engage with others – was really problematic and troublesome, and yet he still possessed this tremendous sense of personal integrity and a necessity to find the truth. I wanted to make him care about people that no-one else cared about, and in that way make the reader care for him even though his life was such a disaster.

There is also at the beginning of the book, this bath’s scene which is extremely violent, how did this idea come to you ?
I really wanted to create a very specific atmosphere and feeling with Les Anges. As a child I remembered watching films like French Connection, Serpico and Klute. Also, more recently, there have been films like Seven and The Flock (with Richard Gere). The common theme through these films is a sense of bleakness, a gritty feeling of desperation and darkness, and I wanted to try and create that same feeling here. That opening scene, well I hoped to create an immediate and terrible image, a sense of horror in a way, and yet make it really real and close to the truth of what these police officers have to contend with in their day-to-day lives. It is true that real life is always far darker than the life we create in fiction. I have spent time with police and investigators, and I have researched actual homicide cases and serial killers, and I can honestly say that the things that people do to one another in real life are far worse than the things you find in novels. I have read about crimes that were just too dark and grim for even me to write about ! I just wanted that scene to be like a slap in the face to the reader. Suddenly you are there, in this room, and this terrible event is playing out before your eyes and there is nothing you can do about it. I wanted to make it really real to the reader that Frank Parrish experiences this kind of thing all the time, and therefore give you some explanation as to why he is such a mess personally.

You like getting into your characters’ minds, is it a trademark of your writing ?
Yes, absolutely. Life is people. Life is just people. There is nothing more important or more interesting about life than people. If you don’t have time for people in your life, then you have no time for living. The psychology of the criminal mind, the psychology of those who investigate crimes – these things intrigue and fascinate me always. I always hope to create characters that feel like real people, and whether you like them or not, I hope that they are memorable people, people that you can still sometimes think about when you have finished the book. In a lot of crime fiction there are investigators who are always right, who always figure out the right answer, who make wild guesses about things and discover that they’re right. I understand that fiction can be escapist, but this is not the kind of fiction I like to read, or hope to write. I want to put people in your head and make you feel like you know them, and that is always a great challenge for me.

If you were not writing crime novels, what kind of novels would you like to write ?
I think I would write human dramas.  I think I would write stories about the generations of a family and the way people influenced the lives of other people around them. I think I would always gravitate towards subjects which gave me as much opportunity to create real characters as possible.

What are your plans for 2012 ?
I am doing quite a lot of travelling this year – USA, Canada, Norway, France etc. – but I also plan to finish the current book I am writing (called The Devil and The River, and due for release in the UK in 2013), and also I also hope to complete the book for 2014. We have just released a book in the UK called Bad Signs (October 2011) which has been received very well, and we have a new book out in May called A Dark and Broken Heart. I am also releasing some other shorter stories between now and then. I am working on a proposal for an original four-part television crime drama set in England. I hope to do some more work with the band, get out and play some gigs and maybe record some more songs, but all three of us are very busy and have families, and trying to get all of us together in the same place at the same time to rehearse and write material is a nightmare !

Could you tell us about The Whiskey Poets ? The history of your band ?
Well, there is not a great deal of history because we are very new ! Music has always been a great passion for me, and I have always wanted to do something creative in this field. When I was a teenager I played guitar for a couple of years, but very badly. About three years ago I decided to take it up again, and I have been working hard to attain some level of competence. I also started writing songs, and decided to get together with a couple of friends, and see what we could make happen. We were very surprised how quickly we made these songs our own, and we went into a studio for a couple of days and recorded a version of four of them for a CD. We are now using that CD to promote ourselves, and we hope to be playing live gigs soon. We have a little website where you can get the CD, and we have some plans to really start working hard in this area of live performance in 2012.

If you had to go on a desert island, what book will you bring with you ?
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

What part of New York would you like us to discover ?
Oh, that’s such a tough question ! I love so many parts of New York – Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, SoHo, Chelsea. The thing about New York is that it feels like many cities inside one city. New York is not representative of America, just as London is not representative of England, just as Paris is not representative of France. These are huge cosmopolitan places that bring so many different cultures and nationalities together, and they take on a life of their own. The thing I love most about New York is that I can go and do a signing at a bookstore, and then I can go and see some great live music, and then go have a great dinner, and still it is early. I can hang out with friends and meet new people, and the city is always alive and awake and ready to receive you. I am on a short US tour and have only one night and one day in New York, and that is very sad for me !

Could you please explain this quote : « Holiness is also a temptation » ?
The quote, if I remember rightly, is « Saintliness is also a temptation », and my understanding of this is that by trying to be a saint, you can fall into the trap of disassociating yourself from reality, of disconnecting yourself from real life, of establishing standards of conduct and behaviour for others that you do not uphold yourself, of wearing two faces for the world. So often we hear that some personality who has always appeared to be « saintly », perhaps even perfect, has actually been very corrupt and deceitful. So, for me, this is what it means. I feel that it means that anyone can be open to corruption and temptation, no matter how they might present themselves to the world.

Do you have an anecdote about Saints of New York ?
In early 2009, just two days after Obama was inaugurated, I arrived in Washington DC with a BBC film crew. We were there to make a documentary piece about my book, A Simple Act of Violence (Les Anonymes). I spent a day with the FBI, another day at the offices of the Washington Post, but there was one interview that stood head and shoulders above the rest.

We drove up into Fallschurch, Virginia, and here I met June Boyle, a thirteen-year veteran Homicide detective. June was immediately charming, and on benches near a snow-covered playground she spoke of her life in the Fairfax County Police Department.

June was the lead Police investigator in the Washington Sniper case, the most important investigation on the east coast for as many years as anyone could remember. June was the detective who secured a confession from Lee Boyd Malvo, the younger of the two assassins. She spent six and a half hours with him. She gained his confidence and his trust. She arranged his food; she sent out for veggie burgers, for boxes of raisins. She got him to open up, to really start talking, and with that information the case had a foundation and a grounding that could never have been possible without her.

Despite the fact that the US Attorney General authorised Malvo’s trial to take place in Virginia, thus giving the jury the opportunity to invoke the death penalty, they in fact gave him life in prison. Asked about this, June’s expression changed completely. « Malvo should be dead, » she replied, so coldly, so matter-of-factly. « There are some people in this world that should be dead, and Malvo is one of them ». It was a glimpse behind the face she wore for the world. In that moment I realised that despite her generosity of spirit, she was first and foremost a police detective, and had been witness to some of the very worst kind of people the world had to offer. This was a lifestyle, a vocation that one could never leave behind. She, of all the people I met, gave me the greatest insight into the minds of characters I chose to write about.

Towards the end of the interview I asked her to summarize her life as a homicide investigator. She smiled wryly, and then she produced two cellphones.  She held them out, one in each hand.  « This one is my personal phone, » she said, « and it never rings.  Whereas this one is for work, and it rings all the time. » That simple demonstration seemed to say everything.

« I take a call, » she went on. « And there’s always a dead body at the other end. My day starts when their day ends. And I go out to that murder scene, and there’s some twelve year-old girl in a dumpster, or it’s a hit and run or a domestic, and while I’m there the phone rings again, and someone else’s life is over. After a while that’s gonna get right inside you. »

Then we talked about missing persons. We spoke of the 850,000 Missing Persons Reports filed every year. We spoke of the vast majority of reports that were resolved, and then small percentage that were not. The forgotten victims.

And it was that conversation that gave birth to the idea of Frank Parrish and Saints of New York. The forgotten victims. The ones that were never found. A single man’s obsession to find the truth of what had really happened to a girl. A girl that no-one even missed.

Frank Parrish, the lead character in Saints, is asked by a colleague. « Why, Frank… why are you so determined to find out what happened to this girl ? For Christ’s sake… no-one else even cares. »

« That’s why, » Parrish replies. « Precisely because no-one else does. »

Saints, however, is not about police procedure. It is not about the kidnapping of teenagers and their exploitation into the sex industry. It is not about the way in which this job is done.

It deals with these subjects, of course, but really it is about the men who do that job, about one man specifically, about the effect that such a job has on his life.

It is about how far one man will go to find justice for those who’ve been forgotten by the rest of the world.

You know how the Concierge Masque is curious… after Saints of New York, which one of your book will be the next to be translated in French ?
I honestly do not know ! This is a decision made not by me, but by my publisher in Paris, and I don’t think this has been decided yet.

The last word for your French readers… ?
I am very excited about the released of Les Anges du New York, and I am really looking forward to coming back to France in March. It is always so excellent to be in France, and I love to travel there. The bookstores, the readers, the friends I see again are wonderful, and I feel very honoured and privileged to have been accepted so warmly by such great people everywhere.