Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Cross Worth Bearing

I have to admit that the name “Neil Cross” wasn’t a familiar one to me, at least until early last year, when bestselling crime-fictionist Peter James recommended that I pick up Burial, Cross’ first foray into this genre. Cross (shown on the right in this photo, with yours truly) had previously penned half a dozen other novels of the more literary sort, together with a childhood memoir titled Heartland (2005). He’d been lauded by the London literati, and long-listed for the distinguished Man Booker Prize. None of that, however, commended him to a genre hound like me.

And then I learned that he was the lead writer for the BBC-TV series Spooks (U.S. title: MI5), one of the few TV shows I take the time to watch.

Suddenly the man had cred.

I’m so glad that I finally gave his work a chance. Burial (which is due to be released in the States in March by Forge) is a wonderful gem, and an uneasy tale of the consequences paving our lives. This simple, amoral yarn could have been plucked from the dark imaginations of Patricia Highsmith or Barbara Vine. During a party thrown by an obnoxious right-wing radio host, one of his employees, the definitively unaccomplished journalist, Nathan, encounters another loser named Bob. After getting stoned, they head out to a parked car with an equally out-of-it young woman, Elise, and engage in a ménage à trios. The trouble is, Elise winds up dead at the end of this encounter. The two men decide, in their brilliance, that the best thing to do is bury Elise’s body and then head back to the party, as if nothing untoward had happened. But Nathan’s conscience thereafter plagues him with images of the deceased. Years pass and Nathan partners with another woman who can keep his ghosts at bay. But then one day, Bob steps back into Nathan’s life, warning him that builders are about to start construction of a social housing project on the wasteland that conceals Elise’s remains.

While this plot sounds like something of a cliché, Cross rescues it from that fate by deftly exploring the strained relationship between Nathan and Bob, as they deal with the aftermath of their long-ago actions. As in Highsmith’s best work, there is dark comedy at play here, combined with Cross’ fascinating view inside the personal hell that is Nathan’s fevered mind. Burial’s climax is splendidly choreographed and cathartic, bringing closure for both Nathan and readers who’ve given themselves over to the narrative.

After enjoying Burial so much, I just had to read Cross’ follow-up: Captured, another urban thriller, being published this month in Britain by Simon & Schuster. Like its predecessor, Captured contains a plot that, in less-skilled hands, might have come off as unoriginal. It focuses on a portrait painter named Kenny, who has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He has mere weeks to live, so he decides to find the four individuals who helped add meaning to his life over the years, and thank them before he kicks off.

The first two people he seeks out are fairly insignificant, though Cross freights Kenny’s get-togethers with them with such compassion and meaning, it makes you stop and think about your own existence, and how some people you’ve interacted with at random actually made dents in your reality. The third person on Kenny’s benevolence list is his former wife, Mary. And the fourth ... well, it’s a girl who showed him extraordinary kindness when he was simply a lonely, misfit schoolboy, Callie Barton.

Kenny’s efforts to locate the fondly remembered Callie lead him along a dangerous path. He discovers that his old school chum has in fact vanished. Her husband may or may not have murdered her. With the clock of cancer ticking down in Kenny’s brain, he sets out to pay back a kindness by taking the law into his own hands.

I read Captured, with its short chapters, in just two sittings. Cross avoids detailed descriptions and expositions; nonetheless, his spare sentences left unsettling and very real-seeming pictures in my mind. The author’s sympathy for humans in trouble is manifest. And his tale’s anxiety level heightens as Kenny’s trip to the grave grows shorter, and the truth about Callie Barton becomes clouded in murky morality. This is one book that ought not to be missed.

Thanks to his publisher, Simon & Schuster, I had a chance to speak with Cross not only about his books, but also on the subjects of Marvel Comics, Patricia Highsmith, his screenwriting work, and his entry into the crime-fiction genre.

Ali Karim: Considering that you’re renowned for both your screenwriting and your novels, let me ask: Which came first?

Neil Cross: The novels, I guess, because I’m a novelist “by trade.” But that being said, I really became a novelist by writing comics when I was a kid. I wrote my own superhero comics in my youth, which, looking back, is not that far removed from screenwriting, if you understand storyboarding.

AK: So you like comics. Marvel? DC? Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, all of that stuff?

NC: Absolutely, I think Steve Ditko’s Machine Man is a great under-appreciated classic.

AK: That’s a surreal coincidence. Last year, during the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, I interviewed Robert Crais, and we talked about his love of American comics. It turns out that his first published work--like my own--was a letter in Marvel comics, and we both won the No-Prize.

NC: Very cool! For me, Marvel comics taught me a great deal about storytelling, about character [development], about conflict. In fact, I have to say that anything of worth I learned as a fiction writer came from Marvel comics.

AK: Would you care to give some examples? For instance, what about Frank Miller’s Daredevil?

NC: Absolutely. Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil in the 1980s was seminal. There’s one [comic] in particular, when Daredevil faced a really psychotic villain …I think he was called The Gladiator.

AK: Speaking of psychopathic villains, what about Bullseye? Kingpin?

NC: They were well-known; The Gladiator was someone who was really not a well-known super villain, and the fight was in a museum; a battle in which there were no words, just art. It was beautiful, and I remember that in my opinion [it] was the first emergence of Frank Miller as Frank Miller, now better known for his film work on Robocop II and III, The 300, Sin City, The Spirit, etc.

AK: Miller also did a couple of early Batman comics before Daredevil, and well before The Dark Knight and Batman Year One. Sorry, I could talk about comics--especially Frank Miller’s comics--for years, as I met him back in the 1980s in London. Do you remember when he wrote an issue in which Daredevil fought The Hulk? Can you imagine a blind guy taking on The Hulk?

NC: Hey, that was one of my favorite comics ever, Daredevil fighting The Hulk. That brings back great memories, man. I remember that Daredevil got the shit kicked out of him.

AK: And at one point, he’s flung out of a moving subway train.

NC: Yes, you really feel the violence of that almost absurd situation--a blind superhero heroically battling something as menacing and as powerful as The Hulk. And they started the next issue in a hospital--genius, sheer genius.

AK: Sorry we’ve digressed. So, back to Neil Cross. After several non-genre novels you penned Burial, which knocked my socks off. The book carried the same themes of morality and trust that, incidentally, are also themes you mine in the BBC-TV espionage series, Spooks. Would you agree that morality and trust are themes of special interest to you?

NC: Absolutely. One thing that interests me about American crime fiction, particularly, is it has a unifying theme--it is “free will exercised as sin.” This is opposed to much British crime fiction, especially during the Golden Age, which is about the restoration of order; someone’s been killed, things are out of whack, for Christ’s sake let’s get things back to normal, so things can run smoothly. I’m more interested in “free will exercised as sin,” as opposed to the “restoration of order.”

AK: I’m guessing you must have read Patricia Highsmith, then.

NC: I’m obsessed by Patricia Highsmith.

AK: [Laughing] So am I. I am totally obsessed with her Tom Ripley books. In fact, I have what my wife terms my white “Tom Ripley suit.” Coincidentally, a number of critics have described your first novel, Burial, as being distinctly Hitchcockian. And it was Hitchcock, of course, who made a movie from Highsmith’s 1950 debut novel, Strangers on a Train.

NC: Yes, there’s a psychological marriage between Hitchcock and Highsmith; they suit each other very well.

AK: So, going back to Highsmith, is it just her Tom Ripley novels that you enjoy, or do you find pleasure in her other amoral tales?

NC: I’ve read many of her books and short stories, though not all of her canon, and of course there are a few that are just not up to her best work. But one non-Ripley novel that sticks to my mind is Cry of the Owl [1962], which features a woman who falls in love with her own stalker. It would barely be publishable today, but in Highsmith’s world it makes perfect sense.

AK: The weird thing about Patricia Highsmith was that she was highly acclaimed in Europe, but rather less so in her native America; in fact, she lived for many years in the UK before making Switzerland her home. Maybe Tom Ripley was the precursor to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the amoral, but charming psychopath/sociopath--the sort of figure who doesn’t settle as well in the American psyche as he does in the European one.

NC: That links to my theme of “free will exercised as sin,” [something that] must be punished. And Highsmith just doesn’t punish, she observes; in fact she was known to sign books as Tom Ripley from time to time.

AK: Going back to Burial, the two main characters in that book, Nathan and Bob, are not very appealing as protagonists go, but the book is certainly riveting. How did you manage to pull off such an engaging story with two unattractive leads?

NC: That in itself was a difficult contrivance. Part of the genesis of Burial was to see if I could make characters as amoral as Patricia Highsmith did, and get away with it; and to some extent that answer was no, because I just couldn’t, as I am so exercised by morality, but I can write about guilt. So to a degree Burial was an intellectual challenge to see what I could get away with and still make people side with the main characters.

AK: Well you pulled it off. Burial definitely drags you along, even though there are moments that make you cringe.

NC: Thank you, you’re very kind.

AK: I hear that, while you were born and reared in Great Britain, you relocated to Wellington, New Zealand with your wife, Nadya, and your family. How long have you lived in New Zealand?

NC: Six years now.

AK: And how exactly did you get hooked up with Spooks? Did you know that series’ writer and creator, David Woolstencroft?

NC: No, it was a series of accidents and coincidences. In order to teach myself to write screenplays, I adapted my [2004] novel, Always the Sun, and the right people saw it. I had a literary agent and that helped get the script read. A film and TV agent then agreed to take me on, and he took my screenplay of Always the Sun to several people, who all liked it and that got me the job to write for Spooks.

AK: Since Spooks doesn’t offer any credits on screen, I have to ask which episodes you’ve penned.

NC: Well, I did episode 9 on series 5, and then I became the lead writer on series 6 and 7.

AK: I watch very little television, but Spooks is a must-see for me. I was captivated by the two-parter in series 7, in which the Mossad agents impersonated the Arabs in the embassy siege. That was like a mini-movie, with the end sequence when the lead Mossad agent is sent to Guantanamo Bay--truly mesmerizing.

NC: Thank you, it means a lot to me.

AK: But how do you manage to write Spooks while living in the South Pacific? Tell us a little about the writing process for that series.

NC: Well, I’d come to London for the initial story conferences, where I would sit with the producers and a couple of the other writers in a room, and we’d discuss what the stories for the series would be. These conferences would be really broad brushstrokes, themes, so for the most recent series I was very interested in exploring Cold War themes, which the producers were very responsive to and interested in. Then, from these brushstrokes, we’d discuss what would happen to the characters during the series, and what we’d like to do to them, [again] in very broadstrokes. An example would be, I’d like to see this character fail, so what would that character do in a situation like this … And from these broad outlines, you’d come up with story ideas. But specific episodes appear by a mysterious process, which I don’t really fully understand. It’s part inspiration, part algebra, and part sheer reading of the news.

AK: I recall the Spooks series that focused on Iran. It was bang up to the minute, in terms of what was happening in the real world.

NC: Well, Spooks is an entity, and not attributed to any particular person. What it has to be, in order to be a success, is to be one step ahead of the news broadcasts. This means that we almost have to predict, when were writing it, what’s going to be in the news … The hit rate is not 100 percent, but it is remarkably high.

AK: But hey, you had the episode all about a financial crisis, about the run on that British bank. I thought, Holy shit, do these writers on Spooks have sources among the “men behind the curtain”?

NC: [Laughing] Precisely. You do find yourself reading newspapers more intently when you’re gearing up to write a series of Spooks, and you just look for throbs of the future.

AK: Pardon the pun, but it is rather spooky! But back to the subject of your books. You have another one coming out, right?

NC: The next one’s finished--Captured, out this month. And although it’s very different to Burial, it delves into similar territory.

AK: More trust and morality themes?

NC: Yes, trust and morality and the terrible things we do for love.

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