A Deeper Shade of Blue
by Paul Johnston
Published by Hodder & Stoughton UK
384 pages, 2002
The Quintilian Dalrymple Novels:
The Alex Mavros Novels:
Born in Edinburgh in 1957, author Paul Johnston attended the Scottish capital's Fettes College, just like Tony Blair. Unlike the British prime minister, however, Johnston took his first opportunity to blow up that distinguished old school -- at least fictionally, integrating this combustible twist into the plot of his John Creasey Award-winning, 1997 novel, Body Politic. The broader story painted an ironic and questioning vision of Edinburgh in 2020, after drug wars had torn the United Kingdom (and much of Europe) apart and convinced locals to re-create Edinburgh as a low-tech, crime-averse, independent city-state ruled by a supposedly benevolent dictatorship, the Council of City Guardians. Body Politic also introduced readers to Quintilian Dalrymple, a maverick former senior cop-turned-private eye. That book worked both as a crime tale and as political satire, and spawned four "Quint" sequels in as many years.
Johnston's path to full-time novel writing was circuitous. He studied Ancient and Modern Greek at Oxford University, where he befriended another future crime writer, Robert Wilson (A Small Death in Lisbon, The Blind Man of Seville). After graduation, he worked for several shipping companies in London, Belgium and Greece, and then did a journalistic stint at a newspaper in Athens. Finding that Greece agreed with him, Johnston moved with his wife, Vigdis, and their infant daughter to the small Aegean island of Antiparos in 1989. There, he taught English in order to pay the bills, and at the same time tried to fulfill his long-held ambition to compose fiction -- a dream undoubtedly fed by the fact that his father, Ronald Johnston, was a successful thriller writer (Black Camels of Qashran, Paradise Smith, Flying Dutchman, etc.). Paul Johnston has since said that living away from the UK helped him to cut through the familiar myths about Scotland and write about his ancestral land with a freer hand.
He returned with his family to Edinburgh in 1995 to work on a master's degree in English. Curious to understand just how different people experience reading, Johnston undertook academic research into that subject, but found it was too distracting from his novel writing. So in the wake of Body Politic's critical and commercial success, he turned his full attention to working on fiction. Johnston has since produced not only the futuristic Quint mysteries, but also A Deeper Shade of Blue (2002), the debut installment of a new series, this one featuring Alexandhros "Alex" Mavros, a Scots-Greek P.I. based in modern Athens. In A Deeper Shade of Blue, he's hired to locate Rosa Ozal, a comely Turkish-American woman who has gone missing while traveling alone through the eastern Mediterranean. Mavros, playing the role of innocent Scottish traveler, heads to Rosa's last stop, the Greek island of Trigono, where he finds the inhabitants in mourning over the recent deaths of two teenage lovers, and clues that link Rosa's disappearance to a vandalized World War II memorial, ancient statuary and an unidentified woman being held captive by violent sexual abusers. Scotland on Sunday described the novel as "a sensual portrait of modern Greece, as well as a great page-turner."
Johnston, an active member of the British Crime Writers Association, now divides his time between Great Britain and Greece. During his most recent book tour through England, we took the opportunity to speak with him about that "underrated" author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; his fondness for the Aegean culture and science fiction films; and the real-life war tragedy that inspired A Deeper Shade of Blue's plot.
Ali Karim/Simon Kernick: We often forget how important our parents are in the development of our own lives. Your father, Ronald Johnston, was in the merchant navy prior to his work as a writer of thrillers, and you worked in shipping (among other jobs) before also becoming a thriller writer. Could you talk about what your parents brought to you as a writer?
Paul Johnston: In some ways, having a father who is a writer is somewhat of a poisoned chalice. You don't want to do what your father did, consciously, but a lot of people end up doing that because of the subconscious. If anything, it probably took longer for me to emerge as a writer because of it. I tried to find other vocations initially, but there is no getting away from the fact that growing up in a household where there were often lots of writers around, often making fools of themselves, was broadly interesting. Also, the household was a place where everyone read, so there was no question that it was important, but in a kind of ambivalent way.
Who really encouraged you as a writer?
My father encouraged me, and still does. In fact, I often send him my work before I send it to my editor -- to get an early opinion. It is useful to have someone who can influence you in a professional way, but without the emotional hang-ups that occur when you let your friends read your work. That is a very dangerous area, as people will only tell you what you want to hear, or they blow your brains out.
I was speaking with another writer recently, and he noted that our psyche is often determined by a significant event or events. What significant events in your childhood influenced you as a writer?
I don't think I had any such events. I think for me, it's more a question of long-term development, as opposed to a singular event. I had the misfortune to be sent to a public school [the British version of an American private school], and that definitely influenced my political viewpoint.
You mean it gave you an anti-authoritarian ethos?
Absolutely. But I guess that was in my character anyway, and I'm sure my father would admit to that. I would also point out that it was not coincidental that my old school was blown up in my first book, which I guess is why they've never invited me back.
I've read that you discovered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle early on in life, and picked up on the darkness and depth in his works that many people fail to recognize -- partly, in my opinion, because the old Basil Rathbone movies downplayed the politics and social commentary in Conan Doyle's work. Could you talk about Sherlock Holmes' creator and the influence he had on your writing?
I think Conan Doyle is a massively underrated writer, which sounds idiotic when you consider that Sherlock Holmes is the single most famous fictional character in the history of the world. However, I consider him underrated as a writer, and although he did indeed comment on the social as well as the political sides of his era, he seemed (more importantly) to a have a deep subconscious grasp of the dark side of life.
I am also a huge Conan Doyle fan, and I think that some of the elements of his work are reflected in your Quint novels.
Definitely, and there are hidden references to Conan Doyle characters throughout the series, but particularly in the second book, The Bone Yard. That actually starts with a classic Holmes opening, with Quint looking out the window and commenting on someone walking, "... and I wonder if he's coming here" type of thing. That is an absolute open homage to Conan Doyle. The Holmes stories all technically take place in London, and mine are based in Edinburgh, but the atmosphere is very similar.
I understand that in Oxford, you were close to Robert Wilson, whose thrillers are now very much in vogue. Could you talk briefly about that period, and tell what you think of Wilson's writing now?
The funny thing is that Robert and I lost touch for about 15 years or so, and I only discovered him when I saw one of his early books about five years ago. At the time, I thought, Well, "Robert Wilson" is quite a common name. So I looked at the biography within the book, and it mentioned that he studied in Oxford and that he had lived in Greece, so I realized that it was in fact him. The interesting thing is that, having been friends in Oxford -- though not terribly close (as he was in a different college), we did muck around together quite a bit, and we were both in Greece after university -- we actually went the same route and both ended up as novelists ... As it happens, I do highly regard his writing. Even if I didn't know him personally, I would still find his work very interesting, and his work most definitely deserves to be in vogue.
I saw both of you at the Crime Scene film festival in London last summer. Did you find some time to have a few beers and chill out?
Yes, we did ... and the sad thing is that these type of events are the only time that we really spend time together. He spends most of his time in Portugal, and I'm often in Greece. So geographically speaking, we don't often get the opportunity to meet. Saying that, I have to admit that we did have a bit of a laugh last year at Bouchercon. The meetings do become rather surreal, as we find ourselves in some obscure bar in Washington, D.C., reminiscing about playing rugby in Oxford some 20 five years ago!
Many people think that crime novels consist of nothing more than a fast-moving plot and some interesting or flawed characters. Your Quint novels, as well as A Deeper Shade of Blue, feature all of those. But I think that you -- and Wilson, for that matter -- use location and landscape in an equally important manner. Could you speak to that point?
I think [location is] part of the whole make-up of your writing, and you can't separate these segments: character, setting and plot. They are all organically linked. But I've always had a particularly strong feeling for landscape. I think that, part of the reason why I've been involved with Greece is that it's such a beautiful, but a hard landscape -- very unforgiving, even more so than Scotland, where the hills are soft and covered in heather. In Greece, it's a killer landscape. So it's something that I've always been interested in. In fact, I did some academic work when I was in Oxford on the works of D.H. Lawrence, which touched upon the importance of landscape in fiction writing, as Lawrence wrote with one eye on his location at all times.
I also feel that landscape is something that is not always given enough attention in general fiction, while one of the wonderful things about crime fiction is that landscape/location is highly important in this genre. ... I think also that landscape can often act as a character, as landscapes have been affected by human beings in their shaping, mining, building; or, alternatively, [the landscapes] may not have been affected but can still potentially impact the lives of the humans around them. Like if you're in a mountainous landscape, there are certain dangers associated with that, so you can't but help bring that into the story.
Moving the landscape subject back to Scotland, if I may: Some popular crime writers, including Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Quintin Jardine, Chris Brookmyre, Denise Mina and you, just to name a few, were reared in the country's central belt [Edinburgh-Glasgow]. What is it, in your opinion, that breeds a need to write crime thrillers north of Hadrian's Wall?
I have discussed this point a great deal over the last year or so at various events ... and I put it down to pure coincidence. I know that sounds kind of glib, but in actual terms of these writers coming to prominence all around the same time, from the same region, I just don't think it has anything to do with interaction, the environment or whatever. I don't think it's anything organic or a literary movement -- just happenstance.
I understand you discovered Homer as a very young child. Was that when your interest in all things Greek began?
I found a Penguin translation of The Odyssey when I was around 5 or 6, and I was totally fascinated by it. I think I opened it at the chapter that featured the Cyclops, which is a superb bit of violence, but also it was such a wonderful story, with Odysseus disguising himself and pretending his name is No-Man. So when the Cyclops starts yelling, "Someone is attacking me, someone's taken my eye out," the other Cyclops asks, "Who is it?" And he replies, "It's No-Man" -- a superb bit of crime-writing from a very oblique angle. Also, the whole narrative is so captivating.
But you continued to be interested in the Aegean culture. You went on to study Ancient and Modern Greek at Oxford.
I was lucky between school and university to have spent six months working in Greece as a tourist guide. You were asking about formative influences in my past, and that period of six months was most definitely a formative influence on my early life. I was 18, and it was the first time that I had spent any serious period out of the country and on my own. As a tourist guide, we were basically treated as adults and under minimal supervision; you can imagine the kind of mayhem that we got up to. But at the same time, we were going around these spectacular and beautiful ancient sites and all the rest of it. So that period was a massively influential one for me as a young man. Of course, the problem with that is that when I eventually started to write, my first three unpublished novels had a lot of stuff about Greece. And that, in a perverse way, damaged my early fiction.
I remember, too, that in Body Politic, you had a subplot revolving around these Greek folks who'd come over to Scotland in 2020 looking for the sex industry, and I thought when I was reading it, Why?
That's true, and it actually came to be very handy when Body Politic was translated into a Greek edition ... It is wonderfully surreal, a novel written about Scotland with Greek characters set in 2020, now being available in Greek translation.
But you have a good point. [The novel] was written in Greece, and so there were hangovers from Greek culture that I was grappling with, but at the time was not mature enough as a writer to realize fully. In terms of filling a whole novel now, I feel I am able to mold [a story] much more analytically ... The big issues in life are very hard to filter through to your writing when you are young.
Eventually, you moved to the Greek island of Antiparos and worked there. Could you talk about that period and what it brought to your writing?
We moved to Greece to drop out of the rat race, as I had been working for a shipping company and it was very high-pressure. At that stage -- I was in my late 20s -- I had given up on kidding myself that I didn't have a writing vocation in me, and therefore was trying to find a way to get time to work at the "type-face." We were lucky, as we had a flat in Bethnal Green, East London, around the time of the property boom at the end of the 1980s. Once we sold that, we had enough money to build a decent house out in Greece. So I came from Reggie and Ronnie Cray territory to the Aegean. Initially, my wife and I were doing English lessons on the island; we were, in effect, on "job-share," each doing 50 per cent, so I had a great deal of time for my writing, fitted around our baby. I was able to produce three unpublished novels before Body Politic came to me. So it was planned, as far as anyone can plan to become a writer.
I guess two to three are needed for the practice, as a rough number. It is a process you have to go through, and it's interesting, as I have been recently looking at my second one, which I now find so incredibly ambitious; I didn't really understand my own limitations at the time. Your limitations will be reduced, the more you write. So, to quote Clint Eastwood in The Enforcer, "a man's gotta know his limitations." In fact, that is another issue: young writers in their 20s who attend writing seminars and have read very little, and have done nothing in their lives apart from watching thousands of movies. But they have this burning desire to be novelists, which is a good desire -- but they really need to experience life as well as read widely themselves.
You've mentioned before that those three unpublished novels of yours were "literary" works, not genre fiction. What did writing them teach you?
I don't like to dwell too deeply on that time, as it was a rather depressing period. But I did get some wonderful rejection letters, one of which said that "this was the strangest novel I have ever read!" But like we said earlier, it is a stage that all novelists have to go through, and it was a learning process in terms of techniques, style, et cetera.
One good thing I did learn at that point was focus. As an unpublished writer, you have immense freedom to write what you want to, but eventually you do have to focus on something that will sell, and the way to do that is to focus on the type of reading you enjoy yourself. I still have a catholic taste in reading, but have always read widely in crime fiction. When I really started writing seriously, it was 1992/1993 and it was well before the real boom in crime fiction, before Val McDermid, Ian Rankin -- and thank God, because if I had read Rankin then, I don't think I would have pursued the genre with my own work. I was really reading/re-reading [Raymond] Chandler, Conan Doyle. In general terms of the UK genre at the time, it was not that interesting, whereas in the U.S. there was [James] Ellroy and the others emerging, so I guess I was not put off the genre by these writers blazing the trail for the genre today. The genre now, I feel, would be quite daunting for anyone entering it.
Why did you return to Edinburgh in 1995 and re-enter academia, after having lived and worked on Antiparos?
Things had changed, economically, in Greece. Also, I was still unpublished, though not for long, as Body Politic had started to come together. ... A voice in my head used to say that "you have no chance of being published, living out in the middle of nowhere." One of the reasons why Body Politic was set in the future was to cancel out that effect of living "in the middle of nowhere." I used to disagree with that voice, but I recall John Fowles said a very interesting thing about Greece in the introduction to The Magus, a pivotal novel that I read in 1976, when I was first in Greece. He said, the Greek Islands are "no place for the artist-voyager to linger long, if he cares for his soul." Greece seduces you, I guess, and like a dangerous nymph, keeps you there. It is a very difficult place to write, as the light is so blinding, the landscape so imposing -- it makes you feel very small. To some extent, I got very oppressed by this and needed to get away and regain some objectivity about who I was, and what I was doing. You have to be very strong to live in a small, isolated place year on year. You also have to be incredibly self-reliant, and that began to cause me problems. So I felt that perhaps I needed to re-enter civilization. Now, I shuttle between the UK and Greece, and that I find much more appropriate.
Are you influenced by the urban orientation of U.S. crime fiction? That seems to have been the case in your Quint novels, whereas in A Deeper Shade of Blue, you are dealing with more rural menaces.
A Deeper Shade of Blue was a deliberate attempt to subvert urban noir. We often forget that the U.S. crime genre has a strong rural subgenre, with writers such as Jim Thompson. I feel the polarization between urban-noir and rural-noir to be more prevalent in noir movies, as opposed to the novels. The Postman Always Rings Twice, by [James M.] Cain, is a good example of "middle-of-nowhere" noir. So A Deeper Shade of Blue was a deliberate attempt to look at a small village location and to see how noirish you can get -- and, of course, you can get very dark indeed.
You tour with many writers, but you seem very close to John Connolly, the Irish crime/horror novelist (Every Dead Thing, The Killing Kind). Why does that partnership work so well?
Well, I think these things develop with time. To some extent, we are chalk and cheese ... I'm an academic and he's more a stand-up comic in terms of presentation; though having said that, John is a much more literary writer than I think he gives himself credit for.
You like Connolly's work?
I think that he is a very accomplished writer, and I was particularly impressed by The Killing Kind. I was so pleased to see him win the Sherlock Award for his main character, Charlie "Bird" Parker. It was ludicrous that it wasn't shortlisted for one of the [UK Crime Writers Association] Daggers. It was a great book, and in my opinion one of the best in the genre. He is a very interesting writer, because he is doing something that few others are doing: weaving horror within crime. Take his second novel, Dark Hollow. It is almost a lyrical fairy tale, while Every Dead Thing, his debut, is a more straightforward serial-killer novel, but with a very strong noir feel about it. His books are full of ideas and thoughts that make for interesting reading, and his themes of religion and redemption, and his vision of the world are completely unique. He always starts his books with a first line to die for. I read his first paragraph and think, You bastard! [Laughs]
I think what is most interesting about his work is its left-of-field approach.
Good point. What he does is take the conventions of the crime genre to the limit. For instance, in the beginning of The Killing Kind, he starts with all this forensic stuff, but then the novel twists along a very lyrical and literary path and skirts around the horror of his world, but with such amazing writing skill.
You've also mentioned before that you have a high regard for the work of George P. Pelecanos (Hell to Pay, Soul Circus). What do you find so seductive about that Washington, D.C., writer's novels?
Well, the Washington books are some of my favorite crime stories. I think he's like a lot of the American crime writers, insofar as he's very convincing in what we would call working-class or blue-collar life. He's obviously from that sphere.
What I particularly liked about the The Big Blowdown  was the whole immigrant experience -- [Pelecanos'] Greek background obviously interested me greatly. The interface between the immigrant life and crime, like in The Godfather, I found wonderful, as we don't have that in British crime fiction to such a degree. In fact, the French have this subgenre in their crime fiction, too, especially in the south [Marseilles], and again I am attracted to that area. There, some of the North Africans have to form criminal gangs to survive, and it's the only way they can live -- that mirrors the work of Pelecanos. I think that he started on a small scale with the [P.I. Nick] Stefanos books, which are focused on male relationships, and perhaps that series makes him a little inaccessible to female readers. But I think he broadened his field with the [Derek] Strange and [Terry] Quinn novels. He's tackling the whole race question, which is a minefield, but he's a quiet guy, with a lot going on his head.
You were on a panel at Crime Scene last year, trying to define with some difficulty "noir," and wound up throwing Nietzsche and all sorts of things into the mix. Could you talk about what noir means to you as a writer of crime fiction?
This goes back to the inaugural year of Dead on Deansgate [an annual crime fiction convention, held in Manchester, England]. The first panel I ever did there was about noir. It was actually reported in The Guardian, as we ended up talking about postmodern-noir, micro-noir, macro-noir. There was one strand that came out proposing that you could only write noir if the whole book was noir; that noir was a vision, and that it had to infuse all the work, like a movie might. Like it had to be raining all the time, and that all the action had to occur at night. So if you wished to work in noir, the whole vision had to be noir. Which I do not accept ... My view is that if you want to use elements of noir -- be they symbolic ones like rain, or women as femme fatales, or whatever -- then I feel you can use what is permitted by the conventions, rather than let the conventions swamp the entire narrative. Simon [Kernick], your novel, The Business of Dying, has been described as noirish, but you certainly didn't have it rain all the time, and it wasn't immersed in all the conventions that come from noir. I feel writers don't write that way, whereas critics may well look at it that way -- that's where the distinction between critic and writer comes in. ...
Going back to Conan Doyle, I feel he is a massively noir writer, and you can argue that point for hours, but in terms of his general view of society, the politics of the downtrodden masses, he's noir in my book. Raymond Chandler's another example. Many Chandler purists would deny Chandler the noir label, and restrict it to someone like [Dashiell] Hammett. But The Thin Man -- is that noir? Whereas something like Red Harvest (despite having red in the title) is massively noir -- the tale of a small town taken over completely by violence. Having said that, we could argue it all night, so despite many books not being noir from start to finish, they may well have elements of noir. Only you [the readers] can truly make the distinction as to whether a book is noir or not.
Which crime or thriller novels would you define as noirish?
Well, I would first go back to Pelecanos, as he has a very interesting take on life, for instance, with The Big Blowdown, which is very noir on the surface, especially as it's set in what we would define as "the noir era." If you look at his more contemporary novels, they too have very strong noir elements, like their political set-up, the corruption and so forth. I wouldn't classify Pelecanos as a noir writer, even though he uses noir elements. Walter Mosley is another such writer, but in terms of political correctness, no one would ever refer to Walter Mosley as a noir writer. Yet there are elements in the Easy Rawlins series [Bad Boy Brawly Brown, etc.] that are most definitely noir, as he's looking at Chandler's world from the point of view of people that live and die on the other side of the tracks.
I want to talk more about your Quintilian Dalrymple series. Those books are set in Edinburgh in the 2020s, yet you try to avoid making them classifiably "science fiction." You're a Blade Runner nut, I understand, but have you ever really been interested in writing SF? And why set a crime series in the future?
The real reason that they are set in the future was that I wasn't in Edinburgh at the time, and the objectivity thing was becoming a problem for me. ... So moving the story into the near future was a way of overcoming that.
The whole SF thing is difficult to define, as [George] Orwell, for instance, is often referred to as SF. Then there's [Aldous] Huxley with Brave New World, which is much more high-tech and much more SF than 1984, by Orwell. And I guess the latter is more where I am coming from -- if you want to be divisive, you might even call it "literary SF." Other kinds of SF I don't read, and it doesn't interest me. ... I have always been open-minded as a reader and tried many SF books, but just couldn't get into them. I literally couldn't read them. On the other hand, I enjoy and have always enjoyed SF movies, which is somewhat weird. The visionary aspect of SF I do find interesting, but more from a sociopolitical perspective, rather than from the high-tech side, as I was always hopeless in science at school. I think that when I was young, and trying to read these SF books, the problem for me was the quality of the prose. Now, the quality of the prose is very high, like in the crime genre. But back then, 25 years ago, a great deal of SF was dreck, and it didn't have any pretensions to be anything other than that. ... [Today], I read Iain Banks' SF and really enjoy his work ...
What was it like to create a whole new world and landscape for the Quint novels? Did the freedom in itself become a burden?
[Laughs] Yes, it became a complete pain in the ass.
I found that I literally couldn't write Body Politic as a contemporary crime novel. It was a complete logjam. Then, I suddenly had the brainwave of setting it in the future, and suddenly I was freed-up. The next day, I realized the downside: I had to invent a whole new society, as it was pointless moving the story into the future if the society then was exactly the same as present-day. Having said that, I did want to set the spotlight on contemporary society, anyway. The Quint books are really not meant to be futuristic, but contemporary social commentary -- and that is the Orwellian side of it, insofar as the society is not very high-tech. It did take me a couple of months to invent the society, and that was a lot of extra work, but what that actually meant in the long run was it provided a good backdrop for the five novels.
About the Quint character: What is the genesis of his name, and how much of you is reflected in Mr. Dalrymple?
I guess [the name] started way back from a conversation with a friend in a pub, where after a few beers we thought it would be amusing (as you do after some beer) to have a character whose initials would be Q.E.D. ... An old professor of mine in Oxford was an expert on [the ancient Roman orator] Quintilian, so we had the "Q." Then the Dalrymple was quite easy, as it was a very good and fine Scottish name. But for the "E," we really went very puerile and used "Eric" [the name often given to the village idiot in Monty Python sketches] ... But when I got round to writing the book, I thought, Sod this, and I dropped the "Eric" and decided that Quint doesn't have a middle name. The important point was that I was looking for an unusual name, something beginning with a "q" or a "z," like Aurelio Zen [Michael Dibdin's Italian series detective]. I was messing around with various permutations, so it was quite consciously planned.
Going back to your original question, where you raised an interesting point on where these characters come from, and to what extent they have elements of the author in them: The interesting thing about Body Politic is that I wrote it in the third-person initially, and it failed to come to life. What I felt was lacking was the private eye, Marlowe-esque voice, so I rewrote the entire book, but in the first-person. The reason that I mention that, is that when you write in the third-person [as in A Deeper Shade of Blue], you inevitably put more distance between you and your characters ... So Quint was realized with several degrees of separation from me ... [but] when it transformed into first-person, there is no question more of me went into his character, like his anti-authoritarian views [and his] sardonic humor, to some extent. But I do think you try consciously not to write too much in terms of yourself.
Did you envision Quint as a series character right off the bat, or was his premiere adventure originally supposed to be a standalone?
No, I was unpublished at that point, struggling just to finish the novel I was writing, let alone thinking about a series. However, by the end I did leave some loose ends, as I had decided that the character, as well as the story, had legs, and perhaps I would revisit that world and its social setting. Body Politic and its follow-up, The Bone Yard, were both around 90,000 words, but subsequent novels were considerably longer. If I was given my time again, I would make both of those [first two] longer, sort of expanding the backstory. Both novels are very lean, in a wham-bam style, and in some ways that's good for the pace of the books, as well as reflecting the minimalist nature of the society that they feature. ... I have rationalized that perhaps Body Politic and The Bone Yard could be seen as two halves of the same book. I even mentioned that at my Web site.
Quint listens to a lot of blues music. Where did his love of the blues come from? Is that the kind of music you listen to when you're writing?
I actually don't listen to music when I write. I avoid any sound, even traffic noise, when I write. And even in Greece, there are a lot of building noises, especially from millionaires building mansions nearby, and flying in by helicopter. I'm pretty sure some of these people will die a gruesome death in a novel someday ...
Actually, I have a very catholic taste in music, and I do like the blues. But with Quint, the reason he likes the blues is that it's subversive and banned by the state, so it was an obvious thing for him. ... I guess the blues also signify the melancholic side of Quint's nature, which is an important facet of his character, and is, coincidentally, in Mavros' character also. And "mavros" means black or noir in Greek. So we're back full-circle again.
One theme that you explore in the Quint series, as well as in A Deeper Shade of Blue, is violent or twisted sex. Where does that come from?
I don't think these themes are explored in my work -- they are presented as issues. There is no question that in the Quint series, there are various perversions of sex and violence, in general, which are presented in a symbolic manner towards the politics. The whole metaphor in Body Politic is of a regime working on a theoretical level, in terms of laws and rules; but on street level, these laws are translated into violence and damage to individual bodies -- which in itself is a fairly old chestnut as metaphors go, but it does have some legs within the crime genre. However, it will be up to individual readers whether they buy into that or not. [In A Deeper Shade of Blue], the violence that takes place is very much linked to the past, harking back to the Second World War. There is, again, an underlying political comment, which is that in a war scenario the only politics are "power politics" -- inevitably, what happens is that such a power set-up is translated into violence and sexual brutality. That's the nature of the world, or at least as I see it.
What I was thinking of here was the opening scene from A Deeper Shade of Blue. When I first read that, it appeared pretty strong in terms of sexual violence, but when I re-read it, I discovered it actually wasn't that visceral, and that it was my imagination that made it appear more brutal than the way it was presented.
That is an interesting point, as what I normally do in public readings is to read from the beginning of the novel. I can't do that with A Deeper Shade of Blue, as the opening is a scene that I'm pretty uncomfortable with myself, and it wasn't actually the initial opening scene in the book. Again, this is a difficult point, as by having a strong, even brutal opening risks putting people off the book. It's pretty revolting, and that theme runs through the book. But you are right: the most brutal moments are inside the reader's imagination, rather than in ink on the page.
Hypocrisy is something that seems to catch your satirical eye. Why did exposing hypocrisy become a theme for you, especially in the Quint stories?
Well, that's what satire does, as we've seen in the revelations ... about [Conservative former British Prime Minister] John Major's affair with Edwina Currie [an ex-Member of Parliament and novelist]. That's just one in a long line of things that have come out of the closet. Readers accept that writers are in the business of demystifying authority and, perhaps, using satire as a tool.
One of the reasons that I moved away from Quint is that satire, at times, is very negative; that's the nature of satire, and because of that it is rather soulless. Most satirists "put the boot in," which is fine, as we couldn't live without them. But it is one-sided and not at all constructive, as satirists rarely tell you how to conquer the ills of society. They usually just give you a list of all that is wrong in society and leave it to others to find ... solutions to those problems. I'm not suggesting that the Mavros books are doing that, and actually I don't think that's the role of the writer -- that's the role of politicians, and I'm not a politician. But eventually the caustic power of satire exacts its price on the writer, and that's why in A Deeper Shade of Blue there's a love story, which many readers of Paul Johnston novels would not expect. And the love story doesn't have any "twisted sex," as you mentioned earlier ... But then again, you still have deep tragedy and melancholic themes -- so you can't have it all ...
Conspiracies are explored extensively in your work. Are you a big believer?
I'm not, and I don't see my work in that light at all. The Quint books could easily be seen as conspiracy thrillers -- there's little doubt about that. But that's not the way they were envisioned by me when I started them. I don't plan them in that much detail, they grew up organically. But consciously, I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories. In fact, I think the majority of conspiracy theories are deeply "bonkers." There is a French guy who published a book stating that the Americans sent a missile into the Pentagon [on September 11, 2001], and that it wasn't a hijacked plane. This is deeply mad, yet in Greece [the book is] a bestseller, as there is a strong anti-U.S. element that feeds on this sort of nutty theory. ... But there will always be the exception that proves the rule, like the [John F.] Kennedy assassination, which shows that credible conspiracies do, perhaps, exist in the real world.
Water of Death was the last book you wrote while holding down a "day job." Apart from the practical issues, what's the difference between writing full-time and writing part-time? How, as a full-time author, do you deal with procrastination and discipline?
I guess there is not too much of a problem when you have a year's deadline to produce a book -- you just have to do it. Lack of income is a pretty strong incentive [to finish]. ... [As a full-time novelist], you do have to watch out for losing touch with reality; but with promotional work and writer events, there is little chance of that. For instance, over the last 12 months, I've spent three of them on the road, on and off, and that's when you get to maintain your contact with the real world, talking to booksellers, readers and other writers. Given the nature of modern publishing, that's where authors are going to be spending increasing chunks of their time.
Water of Death bristles with irony and concern over environmental issues. But its style is more akin to the traditional mystery, à la Hitchcock and the male-female relationships that make us who we are. Would you care to comment?
Until A Deeper Shade of Blue, that book -- Water of Death -- was the one that I had the most problems with, because I was still doing academic research at that point, so there was a structural time problem when doing the actual writing. The plot of that book was also really intriguing to me. I had consciously set out to do an homage to Hitchcock, in terms of the male-female, transsexual-transgender issues that turn out to be integral to that plot. That became very difficult for me, and I had some incredible problems with the murderer! It was just a nightmare, and I think most of the problem was that I wasn't working on it full-time. More recently, I had a lot of problems with A Deeper Shade of Blue, editorially, because of working in third-person for the first time as a published writer. Maybe it was because I'm not that experienced writing in that format after five Quint books, all written in first-person. When you write a book in third-person, with the access to five people's thoughts, plotting becomes a real mine field. My editor did sterling work on that book, and that was essential, as it was just so complicated. And for the writer, it becomes difficult after draft upon draft to have any sense of objectivity. That's when the editor comes into their own in sorting out the structural aspects of a multi-angle view.
Your fourth novel, The Blood Tree, which incorporates the cloning issue into its plot, seemed to move more toward being science fiction than its predecessors. Can you comment on that?
It was a conscious decision, because if you set your books in the future, you eventually have to face the conventions of that futuristic genre. The Edinburgh that I portray is relatively low-tech (in an Orwellian sense); it was good to contrast it with other more hi-tech regimes (as portrayed by, say, Huxley) that weren't. It's like viewing the Soviet Union, which in the end was rather "grungy" and low-tech. The fact of the matter is that, even if one place is low-tech and grungy, others will power on and be more high-tech and glossy. Because of contemporary life, like Dolly the cloned sheep, which was a major Edinburgh-based issue, it was just impossible to not pursue more high-tech issues, and I wanted to look into the characters beyond the kid who was cloned in the story. That was an attempt to bring this technology to a human level. ... [But] I did find writing about the cloned child -- especially a female child (having a daughter myself) -- rather difficult.
That's right, you have a teenage daughter, Silje. How has that influenced your writing, in both a practical and psychological sense?
In practical terms, it means you have great difficulty in working when the child is very young and in the house, so until the child is in nursery school, you can only work at certain times. But the bottom line is that you work when you can.
I guess what you're getting at is that when you have a child, there are certain themes that perhaps you'd rather not explore. I don't tend to write about child abuse, although I guess there is a backstory in Body Politic that alludes to that; but on the whole I tend not to explore those themes. It's not something that I like to analyze in depth, but that's not because I have a child myself. I guess it's just my nature. I accept that there are writers who do explore that territory and don't have children, and I'm not sure if they are really entitled to do that, from an ethical point of view. It relates, I guess, to the extent that they can truly understand the emotions that they are dealing with. In summary, it all comes down to personal taste.
The relationship between Quint's two sidekicks -- Katherine Kirkwood, his on-and-off lover and a fierce critic of Edinburgh's regime, and Davie, a brawny guardsman (i.e., policeman) -- is at its most acute in The Blood Tree. Crime fiction seems to have become known for its plethora of sidekicks, from Spenser's Hawk, to Myron Bolitar's Win Lockwood, to Elvis Cole's Joe Pike. Can you give me your thoughts on the use of sidekicks in crime fiction?
I think it's an integral part of genre. The original sidekick was Dr Watson. Davie, in the Quint novels, has a lot in common with Dr. Watson, but not in the narrative structure. I did consider using a different voice to narrate these stories, but settled on the Marlowesque voice to tell them ... Having a slightly dumb (that is unfair to Davie, as he isn't stupid) but more muscular enforcer type of guy was handy, and the whole thing with Katherine pivoted on her fraught relationship with Davie. Elements of jealousy and emotion come into play, especially as Katherine is a difficult person anyway ... Katherine is clearly someone who doesn't want to fit in. The role of the enforcer or tough sidekick was needed, as Quint was ... more of a thinking man's tough guy, if you follow. Mavros is not a tough guy, either. I'm not very interested in detectives who are "boot boys."
The sidekicks you mentioned from other peoples' writing illustrate the concerns and structures of contemporary detective fiction. Also, when writing in first-person, you do tend to find less reliance on sidekicks, as the story is told through the main character's eyes; however, saying that, the Quint books were in first-person and did feature sidekicks.
On the other hand, P.I. Alex Mavros doesn't have anyone around who can protect his back.
That was a conscious decision, as I didn't want to do what I had already done in the Quint books. But also, with a third-person, multi-viewpoint narration, the whole point was to develop the other characters to almost replace the need for a sidekick. I did, however, feel at times that Mavros was kind of exposed, and maybe I'll look and see how Mavros copes in later books.
The last of your Quint novels, The House of Dust, finds the detective leaving Scotland, and entering yet another conspiracy -- this time in the utopian university-state of New Oxford. Why the shift of location?
It was a big decision for me to take him out of Scotland, because once he leaves Scotland, it would prove harder for me to put him back. Having done Edinburgh and Glasgow, I felt that perhaps he needed to venture further, and the Oxford thing came about because I knew the city well and had certain political feelings. The nature of the real university/ city dichotomy there allowed me a broad canvas for satire. Also, there are so many crime novels set in Oxford, that I was drawn back to the city in a perverse kind of way, and it allowed me to tweak a lot of the conventions within the genre.
Will we see Quint return in a future novel, or have you explored that area enough?
Well, there is no rush to make a decision on whether he will or will not, as the next two books are going to be in the Greek series. Then, we'll see. I'm having a lot of fun and stimulation writing the Greek series, and so I don't feel a desperate need to return to Quint. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of people want to see Quint again.
Can you tell me more about Alex Mavros' genesis as a protagonist?
He was not initially conceived as being half-Scottish, as I had always thought of him as pure Greek, though I was slightly worried about springing a fully fledged Greek protagonist upon the British public ... [He's] somewhat of an outsider, as his Greek father is dead, but his Scottish mother is still alive, although living in Greece. So again, like all good investigators, he lives and operates at the margins of society, which is vital in order for them to do their jobs properly. Like Quint, Mavros can't be in the system, as they would get corrupted by it. Or if they are in the system, then they are fighting not to be corrupted by it. ... Mavros is an expert in finding missing people, but the one person he's never found is his brother; and by implication, the other person he's never found is himself. So if you're going to write a series, then I think you owe it to your readers to build up interesting facets to your main character, and many of these may get resolved along the journey, while others may not.
Like Quint, Mavros is rather angst-ridden.
I guess. But then again, [angst] is a feature of the genre -- there are a lot of elements from "unreadable" novels, like [Albert] Camus' The Outsider, that creep into crime writing indirectly. What I mean by "unreadable" is that they are very deeply philosophical and introspective as well as laden with subtext; that makes them hard to read as novels ... I really think a number of that type of book influenced crime writing gradually. With that came melancholic thoughts and angst within the characters that populate crime fiction. The interesting thing about the Greek national character is that they are often very jovial and lively on one side, and quite melancholic on the other, so it's quite logical for me to explore this with Alex Mavros.
Again, you raise the issue of divisions, dichotomies. Without spoiling the story, there is a feud at the center of A Deeper Shade of Blue's plot that relates to cultural/national divisions, and Mavros is divided between his Scots and Greek halves. Why do divisions and dichotomies interest you? And why it was important for Alex to have division in his nature? Or am I being too esoteric?
No, I don't think you are. I realize it exists [in my work], and I did put it in consciously, I guess, even with Body Politic. It's at the central metaphor of the controlled state and of Quint being a pain in the butt to the faceless state. So I think that is true, that I have dichotomy in my work, and I guess I mirror life, which is full of division and dichotomy. I think in real life, though, [the divisions] tend to be more blurred at the edges and are a way of rationalizing life. The whole point of perhaps the Greek/Turkish and the American/Turkish thing is that I was making a point about the divide, but in the book it turns out to be irrelevant. I do play games, and with Mavros he sees these divisions; but again at the end of the day, they actually don't matter. I think that I actually subvert the idea of the dichotomy and division that I initially construct.
Can I assume, given the title A Deeper Shade of Blue, that you are a Procul Harum fan?
Well, I have to hold my hands up and admit that I did have a few Procul Harum albums in my early music collection, when I was 17 or 18 or so. In fact, the later stages of Procul Harum are not as "naff" as some of their early work. But moving swiftly away from "prog-rock" ...
This novel features a mystery rooted in the events of World War II. Why do you think that so many recent crime novels -- whether it's Stephen Booth's Blood on the Tongue, Robert Wilson's A Small Death in Lisbon or others -- have featured that war so heavily in their plots?
I didn't realize that Stephen's latest book has a World War II theme, but Robert's work has a lot of this. In fact, his take on contemporary Portuguese life is analogous with my take on contemporary Greek life and history. With regard to the Second World War, I feel that there is a millennial factor, like we got to the end of the last century and are putting away these memories and fragments of our past. Our parents are getting older, and that also plays a part when they tell us about those dark days.
I think for me, the World War II theme was crystallized in A Deeper Shade of Blue when I discovered a weird and interesting series of events that took place on the island that is my home. This tiny island was a secret submarine base during the war, and I only discovered this by complete fluke. There was this British soldier who sort of conned his way into special operations in Cairo. He originated from the pay corps, so he had no clue whatsoever about special operations, but somehow he became an operative. It was ultimately tragic. The operative managed by "cack-handedness" to attract the attention of the Italian occupiers, who sent a raiding party to the submarine base. The agent was badly wounded in the legs. Then the Italians got the Germans involved, and they captured this guy plus half a dozen locals, all of whom were sent to the SS prison in Athens and were shot by firing squad. There is a memorial on the island, separate from the main war memorial, which lists all the people killed, and I noticed a British name at the bottom in Greek letters: "Jon Akinson" [a misspelling of "John Atkinson"]. I saw this and wondered, Who the hell is this guy? So I did some research and discovered his story, which is an integral part of the island's history. I have drawn from this and invented my own British "cock-up," which in some ways is even more tragic. Considering what happened to John Atkinson, who was strapped to a chair to face an SS firing squad because of his leg wounds, that is saying something. I find the interface between reality and imagination quite fascinating. It's an area we haven't discussed, but is pivotal to the crime-writing genre, where reality and imagination merge.
As do, so often, the past and present. Connections between the two are integral to this first Mavros yarn.
All the characters in A Deeper Shade of Blue are haunted by their pasts and by the lives of people who lived before them. The role of the family in crime fiction also interests me, in part because the relationships between different generations cast light on the past-present-future issue. I have deliberately given Alex Mavros a lot of emotional baggage bound up with his family, reflecting the importance of that institution in Greece.
By the way, I thought you captured the Greek ethos very well in this novel. Were you cautious in writing about your new, adopted homeland?
Yes, I was, considering that I have spent nearly 15 years off and on in Greece, and I do view it as a new homeland. I was so cautious, that I invented an island [Trigono]. There was no way I was going to use the real island, because too many people would pick up on it. No matter how hard you work to shade the characters and locations away from reality, you will always end up constricted in terms of being able to tell the story you want to tell. It is really a question of practicality, like when I set the Quint novels in a future Edinburgh, because I was living far away in Greece. Now, I use a fictional island in Greece. The second book in the series, to be published in September 2003, is called The Last Red Death. (It has to do with terrorism -- a very hot topic in Greece, as it is all over the world.) That takes place on the mainland, and I haven't changed the locations there, as it wouldn't have worked so easily.
A Deeper Shade of Blue received some very good reviews. How important are reviews to you as a writer?
Getting a good review is deeply satisfying. But then again, it's not why you [write], and the extent that it helps your career is more limited than people think. Where it is most important is when you start. I was very lucky with Body Politic, getting (a) a lot of reviews, which is often the main problem for writers -- getting any reviews; and (b) the majority were positive. That helps your confidence as a budding writer. It helps you to make a decision as to whether you head to full-time writing and that sort of thing. ... But after that? Sure, you want to see good reviews, but as you have more self-belief or self-confidence, then I guess it becomes less important to you. I realize that by changing tack from five Quint novels to the Mavros series, it has meant that I have been keen to see what the reviewers have made of the transition. ... Amazingly, the Scottish press has been very good, but then again I have stopped writing about Scotland, at last. [Laughs] | February 2003
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist and freelance journalist living in England. He contributes to Shots magazine and the Deadly Pleasures Web site, and is currently working on Wreaths, a techno-thriller set in the world of plant viruses and out-of-work espionage agents.
Simon Kernick is the London author of The Business of Dying, a police thriller released in the UK last year and due for U.S. publication in the summer of 2003. Kernick is finishing work on his second novel, The Murder Exchange, scheduled for publication in Britain in July.