Could you tell us about your childhood , and about how you started writing thrillers ?
I always wanted to write crime novels, ever since I discovered Conan Doyle as a 12 year old boy. I had always loved to read detective novels, and my first hero was undoubtedly Sherlock Holmes, long before I began to discover and love the edgier, darker, more hardboiled American writers, like Ed McBain, Joseph Wambaugh. I can still vividly remember the first Holmes short story I read, in which Holmes revealed to an astonished Watson, that he could tell on which side of the bathroom a suspect had his window – and therefore light source – as he always shaved the right hand side of his face more tidily than the left! Immediately, I know that one day I wanted to write a character myself that had such a great eye for detail. Yet when I began writing, I thought there were so many great crime writers, there could not possibly be room for another one!. I also felt that in the UK detective story, there were certain conventions that a writer had to adhere to, that would be too constricting – taking the traditional Agatha Christie for instance, the country house setting, a wide number of suspects, the merest hint of sex, a little violence and perhaps a little religion – I liked these books, but they were mostly “puzzles” rather than “thrillers” – I always loved the US crime writers, my modern favourites are Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly, who in my view write real, page-turning thrillers. These are the kinds of writers whose work I tried to emulate when I began writing my crime novels.
Tell us about your main character : Roy Grace, whom I find very endearing.
Fifteen years ago I had been introduced to a young Detective Inspector called David Gaylor, a rising star in Sussex CID. I went into his office and found it full of plastic crates bulging with manila folders. I asked him he was moving offices and he replied with a sardonic smile: “No, these are my dead friends. »
I thought for some moment that I had met a total weirdo! Then he explained to me that in additional to his current homicide investigation work, he had been tasked with reopening cold cases and applying new forensic developments to them. He said something that really touched me: “Each of theses crates contains the principal case files of an unsolved murder: I am the last chance each of the victims has for justice, and I am the last chance each of their families have for closure.”
I loved the deeply human aspects of this man. During his work he saw the most terrible sights imaginable (and unimaginable) during his work, yet he retained a calm gentle humanity – and this aspect is one of the key characteristics of almost every homicide detective I have met: They are calm, kind and very caring people. In very many cases they develop a close relationship with the victim’s loved ones, and solving the crime becomes personal to them. It is the reason why so often, even years after they have from the force, that many detectives still continue to work away on any case they could not solve during their career.
FBI founder, J Edgar Hoover, said: “No greater honour will ever be bestowed on an officer, nor a more profound duty imposed on him, than when he or she is entrusted with the investigation of the death of a human being.”
At this first encounter with DI David Gaylor, he asked me about the novel I was then working on, and immediately started coming up with creative suggestions involving the policing aspects – and other aspects too. I realized that to be a good homicide investigator you had to have not only a very analytical mind, but also a very creative one. This is because the solving of every major crime is a massive puzzle, usually with a key bit missing. From that day onwards, I would discuss the plots of my next novels in advance with him.
At the time Macmillan approached me to create a fictional detective, David had risen to become Detective Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, in charge of Major Crime Reviews. I asked him how he would feel about becoming a fictional character – and he loved the idea! He now reads every hundred pages as I am writing, and gives me his view on how a real detective in Roy Grace’s position would think.
Tell us about your novel A deux pas de la mort (Dead like you) published by Fleuve Noir Editions, how did you get the idea to write that story ?
I was at a lecture five years ago given by the Senior Investigating Officer on a horrible serial rape case: Between 1983 – 1987 a man in South Yorkshire, England, dubbed The Rotherham Shoe Rapist brutally raped a series of women in the Rotherham and Barnsley area. He would strike late at night as they were leaving pubs or nightclubs, truss them up, and after he had finished, would take their shoes as trophies. Suddenly, he stopped offending, and the trail went cold.
In 2003 a woman in the Rotherham area was stopped for drink-driving and as is standard procedure, her DNA was taken. There was a familial – partial – match with the rapist. The police went to see her and asked her if she had a brother. She replied that she did, James Lloyd, but he could not possible be their man as he was a very successful and respectable businessman. When the police had gone she phoned her brother and told him about this strange visit. That night he tried to hang himself in his garage.
James Lloyd was 47, nice looking, the manager of a large printing company, a freemason, married with two kids who adored him, and generally a pillar of his community. When they police raided his office the next day, they found a trapdoor beneath the carpet, under which was a cache of 126 stiletto heeled shoes, all lovingly wrapped in cellophane.
I was captivated by this story – because I found it so chilling. I’ve always been fascinated by how the most seemingly normal people often are the most monstrous criminals. The UK’s worst ever serial killer, Dr Harold Shipman, being a classic example, but there are many more. James Lloyd fitted this mold exactly. I was also interested to explore how attitudes in the police toward rape have change dramatically in the past decade, yet still rape has an appalling clear-up rate, large because so few victims actually report it. The clear-up rate for murder in the UK is 98%, for rape it is just 6&.
I also realized by having two time frames in the book – now and 12 years back, I would have the opportunity to show a little more of Roy Grace’s life when he was with Sandy, before she disappeared – and also to show for the first time, a little of their live together through her eyes…
You love to surprise us, and suddenly brilliantly take our breath away at the ending : how do you do that ?
I think the following are essential when I create a new book. Firstly, it is important always to remember that people read books to find out what happens to characters they get to meet and care about. Secondly, research is crucial. If the writer does not fully understand every aspect of the subject they are writing about the book will lack a crucial element of underpinning, and the readers will feel that. Thirdly, the first line and the last page are absolutely vital: You must have opening line that instantly grabs the reader. For a reader to pick up a book is a massive time commitment. It is also a huge commitment to me, the author. If I take that reader through a journey that may occupy him or her for many hours, days or even weeks, so much about how that person will feel about me as an author will depend on how I end the story. On the last page of all my books I try to make my readers go “Wow!”
About your novel Dead simple, which I think is your very first : is it hard for Mickael to take the plunge into married life ? Tell us about the price you’ve won for this novel.
It was a huge honour for me that one of the first literary prizes I ever won was in France, the Prix Polar International in Cognac. And then I won a second one also in France, for this same book, Le Prix Coeur Noir. It felt truly wonderful – for a humble rosbif!!!
Which are your writing habits ? (in the morming, the evening , sitting at a desk …)
I have a totally back-to-front working day! I divide my week between my house in Sussex and my flat in London, but in either my working day actually starts at 6pm with a large vodka martini with four olives, and music – either jazz or opera arias, mostly. I write until around 10pm, then have supper on a tray and watch junk telly – something like Desperate Housewives. Then I read until around 12.30 (non fiction when I am writing). At 6.20 I get up and run – 2 -5 miles depending how I am feeling, on my own in London, with the dogs when I am in Sussex. Then at 9.30 having had breakfast and read the Times and Mail, I read what I wrote the night before, which is normally one complete chapter, or two if very short, do a second draft, then start preparing the next chapter. I break around 1.30, have some lunch, get some air, maybe play a game of tennis, then spend a couple of hours on correspondence – mostly replying to fan emails. Then back to work on the manuscript at 6pm. I work six days a week and try to break as much as possible on Sunday, but my email load is so high that I find I’m spending half my Sundays just coping with that.
Could you tell us an anecdote about your last novel Dead like you published by Fleuve Noir Editions ?
The subject of the novel is a rapist who targets women wearing expensive “designer” shoes. I have had several emails from men thanking me for saving them a fortune, because their wives have now stopped buying expensive designer shoes!!!
Tell us about your passion for cinéma, as, if I’m not mistaken, you also are a producer and a scriptwriter ?
As a film student in the late 1960s I was in love with the French Nouvelle Vague cinema specifically and the French cinema in general. I loved the movies of Duras, Alain Robbe Grillet, Godard, Renoir, Resnais, Chabrol. All of these have been big influences on both my writing and my movie making. But is writing novels that I love the most. The thing is I think I have learned a great deal from my start in life as a scriptwriter which helps me to write engaging novels. In screenwriting there are three invisible words in the mind of the author all the way through the process. Three very simple words: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? It is almost like a mantra. For me the biggest lessons I have learned from film and TV production are pacing and intercutting more than anything else. I love using a technique of intercutting between different characters and converging storylines, which is a very cinematic technique and I have always loved reading novels constructed in this way. There is a different experience between film and TV in that because the audience is captive, films can afford to start more slowly than TV dramas. I worked for a time on a sitcom in the US and learned a big lesson from that: In a sitcom the US rule is that you must have a laugh every 12 seconds, because they figure otherwise they will lose their audience. I have translated this into my crime writing – not a laugh every twelve seconds, obviously, but the realization that to keep my readers interested and hooked, I need to constantly surprise them. Laughter and fear are very close emotions and they compliment each other. You laugh to shrug off fear. Then when the laughing stops, the fear is even worse. Many of the greatest crime thriller novels and films have humour in them – Silence Of The Lambs is a great example of this. Polanski’s early film, Cul De Sac is a wonderful example of tension, terror and pure comedy.
But above all the great joy of writing a novel compared to writing a script or a screenplay is this: With a movie or TV production you are part of a huge committee-like process, where a whole bunch of different people all lay claim to the finished product. You have two or three producers each claiming it is their movie! The director claims it is his. The Director Of Photography claims it is his film because without him, it would be nothing. Your 2/3/4 lead actors each claim that really it is their film. The Production Designers says it is his or her film! The editor claims it is his film. The composer says the film would have been rubbish without the music. And so on…. You end up with a compromise on almost every film, because creatively they are one long fight from beginning to end. With a novel it is totally different – it is just me! I don’t have to change one single word, if I don’t feel like it. And I love that!
What books would you take with you on a desert island ?
Brighton Rock – Graham Greene Graham Greene is my favourite novelist and this is my favourite books of his. Set in my home town, where I set my Roy Grace series of crime novels, Brighton Rock is a wonderfully gripping dark book about the criminal underbelly of Brighton, about religious faith and about human nature. And it has one of the darkest and most poignant endings to a novel I have ever read. This is the novel that made me want to be a writer. My dream is to, one day, write a novel that comes even remotely close to being as good as this book.
Get Shorty – Elmore Leonard They say he is the man and you just have to read him to understand why. Characters, characters, characters. Elmore Leonard’s characters are just so vivid, so engaging, you don’t even need plot. You could have a group of his characters reading the phone directory for three hundred pages and you’d still be gripped. And this is the favourite of his novels.
The Hound Of The Baskervilles – Arthur Conan Doyle I started reading Sherlock Holmes as a teenager, and instantly wanted to be writer of detective novels. Another thing I admired about Conan Doyle was his lifelong interest in the paranormal – something I share. This book exquisitely combines the detective story with the supernatural – or so you think… Without ever resorting to any deus-ex-machina stunts pulled on the reader, and a brilliant twist at the end.
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut Jnr I read first read this book when I was 23, and it changed both my perception of the world, and my perception of the boundaries of the novelist. Paradoxically this insane, insanely funny novel is the default book I return to whenever I feel the world – or my world – has gone mad!
Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin This is the most beautifully written scary novel ever – a gem. It is a masterpiece of spare, economical writing, of characterisation, emotion and quiet understatement. There is no horror on the pages, Levin puts it all straight into your mind.
Bonfire Of The Vanities – Tom Wolfe
In my view, one of the greatest riches of the novel is when it is examining and questioning the world and the society in which we live. I cannot think of any modern novel that has done it better than this biting, intensely human and gripping satire on life in New York during the 1980s boom time. Ambition, class, greed, racism, politics, infidelity – and brilliant writing. This is a book I can never tire of.
Practical Homicide Investigation – Vernon J Geberth
This is an essential reference book. But it has gruesome illustrations – do not read before eating a meal!
The Concierge is curious , could you tell us about your next novel ?
In English the title is “Dead Man’s Grip”. Carly Chase is hurrying through Brighton in her car, late for work. Her phone rings, and she glances down, but sensibly does not answer it. But when she looks back at the road, a young man on a bicycle is coming straight at her. She swerves and crashes into the wall of an empty café. A van behind her clips the cyclist, sending him flying across the road and under the wheels of a heavy lorry, which kills him. Carly is breathalyzed at the scene and found to be over the limit from what she had drunk the night before. The van has vanished from the scene. The lorry driver has driven 18 hours – illegal without a break, all the way down from Aberdeen. The dead boy is identified. He is from New York and has come to Brighton to be at university with a girl he met in NY the previous year. Then the police discover that his mother is the daughter of the New York Mafia Godfather. She flies to England to identify her son, crazed with grief. When she learns that Carly was over the alcohol limit, that the van driver has disappeared and that the lorry driver was out of hours, she vows revenge. Returning to New York she engages a hit man to torture and kill each of those three drivers.
What do you like about France when you come to see us ?
Everything! I have always loved France with a passion. My parents had a summer apartment in Cavalaire, near St Tropez and that is where I learned to speak your language, a little!
What are your passions in life ?
Skiing, tennis, fast cars, motor racing, wine, food, stimulating conversation, and I love going out with the police – I spend one day a week with them on average. I find their world and the way they look at the world fascinating.
Have your family read your novels ? What do they think about them ?
I always remember being very worried what my mother would think about my first novel, which had a steamy sex scene. She phoned me aftter it came out and I thought “Oh no, this is it.” But she told me she loved the sex scene and wondered where I had learned that from!!!!! All she said was “Please ask your publishers to take your age off the back of the book – people will be able to work out I am over 40 years old…!”
What are your favourite music and song ?
My single favourite song is “Mr Pleasant by the Kinks. It is so wonderfully nasty!!! But my favourite singer of all is the jazz singer Marla Glen. I often write to her music. She has an amazing voice.
Which topic in the news makes you angry ? And which makes you laugh ?
Health and safety stupidity makes me angry. Like a regulation that prevents police officers climbing a wall higher than 2 metres during a chase, unless they have been specifically trained in working at heights!!! What makes me laugh? When people create their misfortune by doing something really dumb. My favourite story was the American inventory Reuben Tice who decided more people would eat prunes if they were not wrinkled. So he build a steam-compressor to dewrinkle them. He was killed when the machine exploded…
A final word for your french readers ?
Merci a vous!