(Editor’s note: Today we bring you the 52nd entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series. It was submitted by Australia-born Scottish author Tony Black, and tells us about his newest work of crime fiction, Artefacts of the Dead. Black wrote last month on this page about his collection of author interviews, Hard Truths: Cross-Examining Crime Writers.)
For all the excitement and sense of relief that comes with releasing a new book into the world there is also a feeling of dread at the thought of the one unanswerable question people always
“What’s it about?”
For a novelist, there can hardly be a more difficult question to answer. Few will admit to feeling comfortable with the fabled “elevator pitch” summary, during which the months of labor to
produce a count of, say, 100,000 words, is reduced to a few short, snappy sentences.
It’s not easy because a lot of what a novel is “about” can be below the surface--much like Ernest Hemingway’s description of the novel as an iceberg. The plot or even the story is much simpler to define. Perhaps that’s why so many novels’ descriptions carry a mere retelling of events on the back cover.
If you look at the front of my latest novel, Artefacts of the Dead (Black & White), or go by the title, you’ll likely identify it as crime fiction, but I’m not sure that’s what it’s about.
My last two books, both released earlier this year, were not crime fiction at all. The Last Tiger (currently shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize) and His Father’s Son had no crime content, and my readership seemed to hardly notice the difference. As
a writer, certainly, both of those novels just seemed part of the same body of work. Could this be because all writers actually write about the same thing? It’s something that’s been said before and seems to have its adherents.
All my novels so far have, broadly speaking, covered the same themes of families in strife--especially fathers and sons at war with each other--and been strongly character-driven. I generally start by uncovering my main character and then putting him through the mill; the stuff of all fiction is about a character with some kind of problem in the end. William Golding put it nicely when he said writing fiction was about chasing your protagonist up a tree, and once there, throwing stones at him.
In Artefacts of the Dead, my protagonist, Detective Inspector Bob Valentine, is heading a murder investigation. It focuses on a particularly grisly impaling of a middle-aged banker on the municipal rubbish tip--something which a vocal audience in Glasgow enthusiastically applauded last week; some wish-fulfillment, perhaps? So there is murder in the novel, for sure, but that’s not what the story’s about either.
If I was to take a punt at it, I’d say the novel is partly about a man who’s come back from the brink of death--Valentine actually died several times on the operating table after a stabbing to the
heart. He’s had a near miss. He’s also seen the consequences of this event up close, what it’s done to his family and those around him, and it has changed him.
Valentine is a man who has stared into the abyss--always dangerous territory, as Nietzsche said, because the abyss stares back into you. He starts to re-evaluate his years of experience, his life, and the lives of others. His place in the world around him starts to feel uncertain.
The detective’s gaze takes in the aftermath of not only his traumas, however, but those of others. His sympathies, previously buried under the necessities of being a police officer, are prodded by a family that’s been robbed of its life and soul through crime. The Coopers lost a child a decade ago but time has not healed the wound. Janie was their only child, taken from them at the school gates; their lives have been frozen since. They tread through their days like ghosts, waiting for release from their misery. But it never comes. For a man troubled by the thin line between life and death, the Coopers, and their lost child, haunt Valentine.
Watching Janie’s parents trudge through life is like witnessing a kind of hell on earth for the detective. Valentine feels for them, understands their massive burden and wonders how they go on.
Simply boxing up his emotions, as he had learned to do in the past, is no longer an option; it’s as if the knife’s incursion into his heart opened him up both physically and mentally. Outside events have changed the man, made him look differently at himself and the world; but at best, that’s only part of
what the book’s about.
As Valentine continues to sift through the Artefacts of the Dead he unravels another complex relationship a family has tried to hide. As the son of a murdered father this time, however, Adrian Urquhart, isn’t wallowing in grief for the deceased. My old preoccupation of a bold son testing the boundaries lain down by a traditional paterfamilias are almost turned on their head here. Urquhart knows his late father’s secrets, and finds them so shameful that he can’t bear to have the same blood running through his veins. His life, too, then has become wasted as he endures an existence that he knows there is no escape from. As Valentine uncovers this fact it seems to chime, once again, with his own situation and it solves his personal investigation within the wider investigation.
There is crime then in my latest novel, dark, unflinching, life-stealing crime; but that’s not what Artefacts of the Dead is about. Valentine’s investigation is as much an investigation into human nature. An existential investigation as much as a murder investigation. An exploration of life and death but also an exploration of life versus death, when one option seems little better than the other. Don’t expect to see that on the back cover, though. It just doesn’t fit into a few snappy sentences, but to the best of my knowledge, and when anyone asks, that’s what I’ll say the book is about.