Peter Guttridge :: City of Dreadful Night (VO)

PETERGUTTRIDGECould you tell us about your childhood, and how you started writing crime litterature ?
My childhood, in a working class industrial town in the north of England, was full of sport (particularly soccer and that odd English sport, cricket). I thought of making sport my career. (I had noticed in my early teenage tears that in my town well-known sportsmen got the most beautiful girls.) Then I became a hippy and competitive sport was a no-no so I switched to yoga. By then I was trying to write the Great Novel. This was not a crime novel but it was Art. (Not that crime novels cannot be art.)

I worked on the Great Novel in California. I worked on it in India. I worked on it in France and Italy and Spain. Wherever I wrote the result was the same: merde.

I switched to journalism. I interviewed many celebrated authors (trying to figure out how they did it). A number were crime writers – for example Elmore Leonard, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, Michael Connolly, James Ellroy (in a Paris brasserie – Ellroy looked so lost!).

I interviewed famous film directors and movie stars. Depardieu, Jean Reno, Isabelle Adjani, Fanny Ardant, Emanuelle Beart and Juliette Binoche were among the many movie stars who tolerated my stupid questions. (Depardieu drank a bottle of wine with me too.) Claude Berri, Patrice Leconte and Rappeneau were three terrific film directors I was pleased to interview but my journalism career started too late for me to meet my favourite French film director: Jean-Pierre Melville.

My crime-fiction writing career started when I reported on the comedy industry. I attended annually for four years Juste Pour Rire, the Montreal bi-lingual comedy festival. Backstage I saw comics who would kill for a chance to be in films or have a television career. I saw managers and agents for whom comedy was a business and who would kill to make sure they made as much money as possible.

I had the idea for a crime novel – No Laughing Matter – set in the comedy industry. Voila – my crime-writing career had begun.

For 10 years you were crime litterature critic for The Observer, the most read in UK, is it hard to step on the other side of the line ? As a writer, can you stand being reviewed ?
I had three satirical-crime novels published before I was offered the Observer job so I was accustomed to being reviewed. Comic-crime is a minority interest so it was rare there was any conflict between my fiction writing and my reviewing. When City of Dreadful Night was published I was arrogantly confident about it so reviews did not worry me!

I like being reviewed – as long as the reviews are good! My worst review was from a colleague at the Observer, in the Observer. He disliked my fifth novel « Foiled Again » so much he even gave away the ending. The third of the Brighton trilogy, The Thing Itself, has got excellent reviews from professional critics in America, where it has just been published but only one review on Amazon – a one star review. Reading that review is hard because the reviewer makes no sense yet that one star drags the book down the ratings until customer reviews with more stars attached come along.

How did you get the idea of the Brighton trilogy , and how did you make your researches for the novels ?
Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is one of my favourite novels and films (I mean the black and white version with Richard Attenborough as Pinky not the dreadful 2011 remake.) Six years ago I read a strange biography of Greene in which the biographer said that Greene might have been the Brighton Trunk Murderer.

At the time I didn’t know what the Brighton Trunk Murder was. I looked it up. In 1934, a man – never identified and never caught – left the naked torso of a woman in a trunk at Brighton railway station. Greene was regularly in Brighton researching the razor gangs for « Brighton Rock » at that time. He apparently told friends he’d been having nightmares about travelling in a taxi with a dead woman in a trunk.
At the same time I was familiar with a contemporary story of Brighton’s head of police who had been forced to resign when he had supported a squad of his armed officers in controversial circumstances. During the armed invasion of a house they had shot an unarmed man in bed with his girlfriend.
The two separate things coalesced in my head. And, then, over subsequent months, the plot got very complicated!
Research into the 1934 story involved research in police archives, newspaper archives and government archives. I even tracked down the unnamed grave where the victim is buried. I hope to write a non-fiction account of the Brighton Trunk murder soon.
Research into the contemporary story involved more archive research and interviewing serving and retired police officers. I then loosely used all this to create the Milldean Massacre that features in the trilogy.
The trick then was not to let all this research get in the way of a dramatic narrative!

In your first novel published in french, City of Dreadful Night, publisehd by Rouergue Noir édition, you tell us about the Brighton trunk murders , that happened in 1934. Could you tell us about those gruesome murders ?
There were two trunk murders. One was solved – although the murderer was found not guilty in court. (He admitted he had done it in a newspaper 30 years later.) The other – the one that features in my novel – remains unsolved. At man deposited a trunk in the baggage room of Brighton railway station. Six weeks later, the smell from the trunk was unbearable. The police opened the trunk and found a dead, naked woman, without arms or legs or head. The legs and feet were found in a suitcase in the baggage office of Kings Cross, London railway station a day after the trunk had been found. Despite strenuous police efforts – remarkable for pre-computer days – the woman was never identified so the killer was never found so the case was never solved. Except in the Brighton trilogy…

Could you describe the city of Birghton for us, the way you see it ?
Gaudy and glamorous, sexy and sordid, exhilarating and exhausting, stylish and sleazy, cutting-edge and crime-ridden. The past impinges on the present because it is all around you whether you are on Brighton’s major boulevards or on its back streets. Brighton is the wicked sister of Nice and the very wicked sister of Deauville.

In City of Dreadful Night , three characters are essential: Robert Watts, Gilchrist and Tingley. Could you describe these characters for those of our readers who haven’t read the novel yet ?
When « City » starts Robert (Bob) Watts is aged 40, the youngest head of a major police service in the UK. He is liked by the media for his frank and refreshing views about policing. He is marked for even greater things. Then, abruptly, he is disgraced and loses his job. He spends the trilogy trying to figure out why and attempting to bring to justice those who were behind his downfall. At the same time, he is concerned that his father, best-selling thriller writer Victor Tempest, was involved somehow in the Brighton Trunk Murder.

Sarah Gilchrist is an ambitious young policewoman who had a brief affair with Bob Watts. She is also part of the armed response unit involved in the illegal shooting known as The Milldean Massacre. She did no shooting and she too wants to find out what really happened. She is out-of-her-depth but determined.
JImmy Tingley is an unlikely warrior. An ex-SAS man, seemingly mild-mannered but deadly – a capable, reliable, enigmatic man and the best friend of Bob Watts. I mentioned the films director Jean-Pierre Melville earlier. Although physically Tingley is nothing like him his character is partly based on that of Lino Ventura’s character in L’Armee des ombres. (The mood of parts of the trilogy was also affected by Melville’s « Un Flic » – especially the opening sequence of a bank robbery in a rainy, windswept seaside resort.)

{06BCDE29-543E-4E39-8824-89A0BE72944D}Img100Do you have an anecdote to tell about your Brighton trilogy ?
I have many anecdotes. But here is one. When I started the first novel there were no contemporary crime novels set in Brighton. But as the story became more complicated I realised I would need more than one novel. Before I could write the first I had to plot the other two. That took a long time. Whilst I was plotting all three novels, Peter James came along with his Roy Grace novels. He was immediately successful. By the time the first of my trilogy, City of Dreadful Night, was published Peter had a massively successful Brighton series in print. Ayee!

Le Concierge is curious! When will the second novel of the trilogy be published in France ?
« Le Dernier Roi de Brighton » will be published before the end of 2012. My excellent translator, Jean-Rene Dastugue, has just finished his translation. It is a faster read than the first novel, partly because it takes a step sideways to make gangster John Hathaway, a minor character in the first novel, the major character – the first half of the second novel is about his evolution as a gangster in the 1960s. (Melville movies again!)

What are your writing habits ? (in the morning, the evening, in an office, at a desk…)
My ideal is to write all day with a lot of breaks. I write anywhere. (I am composing this in a cafe in London’s National Gallery over too many cups of black coffee.) I rise very early in the morning – I am often writing by 4.30am – this probably explains why I am a single man!

Another great writer writes about Brighton in his novels, his name is Peter James. Did you ever talk about Brighton together ?
Peter and I talk often about Brighton – and other things. We are friends. I was with him just this weekend at a crime-fiction festival in Stirling, Scotland. Our first meeting in Stirling was early in a morning in the festival hotel as he was heading out for his daily run and I was heading for my daily swim. I have known him almost 20 years since we lived in adjacent villages on the South Downs above Brighton. He was writing horror novels and I was writing my first satirical crime novel when we first met.

The launches of his novels in Brighton are fantastic – he took over the Brighton pier once and most recently had about 500 people in the Grand Hotel. He is a lovely man as well as being talented. I wish I could dislike him – because he sells many more books than I do – but I can’t!

Which novels would you take with you on a desert island ?
A lot of them if I’m going to be there for a while! But probably not many crime novels, much as I love the genre.

1) Big books:
Terra Nostra by the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes is one of my favourite books – the Spanish Empire in the New World.
Gravity’s Rainbow by American genius Thomas Pynchon – probably my favourite author. This book has everything in it!
Collected Fiction by Jorge Luis Borges. Not a novel but great, great, thought-provoking collection of short stories – and his first ever published short story was published in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
The Avignon Quintet and The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Durrell is out of fashion but his plots are fantastic as are some of his descriptions of landscape. The unfolding of his complicated plot for the Alexandria Quartet was a model for me with the Brighton trilogy.
2) Short books: Fred Vargas will be on the list. Chandler – The Long Goodbye? I like Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. Raymond Queneau’s The Flight of Icarus I would want alongside Flann O »Brien’s The Third Policeman (and At Swim Two Birds). I would have all of Andre Gide plus Camus’s L’Etranger. Then, to remind me of the passions of youth (as opposed to the follies of maturity): Raymond Radiguet’s Le Diable au corps and Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes.

What topic in the news makes you angry ? Which makes you smile ?
Anger makes me angry – but also makes me smile (derisively). Life is wonderfully and horribly absurd, isn’t it? I guess my constant anger is for manipulative people encouraging/persuading poorly educated people to commit violent acts against innocent people.

Do you know a british writer you wish were discovered in France ?
Not English but Argentinian. If it is not already known in France: Andres Neuman’s « Traveller of the Century » is brilliant. Set in 19th century Germany (post-Napoleon) it is a love story based on a Schubert song cycle but it is also post-modern: it is set in a city which keeps shifting geographically and cartographically. The habitués of one cafe are named after the German football team that once beat Argentina in the World Cup.

brighton-pierWhat is your favourite music ?
Mostly jazz. Pat Metheny can do no wrong. Bass player Charlie Haden is a god. Cassandra WIlson clearly went down to the crossroads to get her wonderful voice. But I also have every album Tom Waits has ever made – and he still owes me for three hours of drinking cognac and coffee in a London cafe when he had no money on him and I had to pay the whole bill when I was very poor and he was not. John Martyn’s version of Johnny Ace’s Never Let Me Go is the most beautiful love song ever – although Martyn and I got off to a bad start when he tried to brain me with a pool cue in the Arts Club in Chelsea, London because he thought I was flirting with his then-partner. (I was not. And he missed with the pool cue because he was very drunk.) And I used to love reggae – and, indeed, played five-a-side soccer twice with Bob Marley – but that is a very long story…

Which is your favourite movie ?
It depends what day it is. For a long time it was Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac – my partner once hired an entire cinema for my birthday for a private screening of the film because she knew I loved it so much. That was a special moment. I still love the film – Depardieu is amazing – but I have not watched it for a while.

Francesco Rosi’s Sicilian bandit movie Salvatore Guiliano goes head to head with a film it influenced – Ken Loach’s IRA thriller The Wind That Shakes The Barley. But in my head Rosi’s Innocent Corpses is better but it isn’t on DVD so I have not seen it for years.
In the same way, I loved Bertolucci’s The Spider Stratagem but it isn’t on DVD whilst Il Conformista is available. (God – how beautiful is Dominique Sanda in that? I only interviewed her over the telephone, alas.)
The end shot of Antonioni’s The Passenger makes the whole film worthwhile. I do not particularly like the Melville collaborations with Alain Delon – too mannered and focused on style. (Although I thought Delon was good in Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil, the Highsmith adaptation.)
Okay – I should stop now – though I just watched Double Indemnity last night…

What will your final word be for your french readers ? When will you come to France to meet them ?
My final words? Sorry I talk so much. Enthusiasm is one of my sins (virtues?). You know (actually, you do not know) – I have lived in France twice. Once in Varengeville sur mer (which features in the second novel in the trilogy) and once in Homp on the canal du midi. However, my French remains very poor.

I hope to be in France next Spring. Look for me at Quais de Polar in Lyons, if I am lucky enough to be invited.