Monday, July 18, 2011

Paul Johnston: Inconstant Star

I’ve followed British author Paul Johnston’s work ever since he debuted in 1997 with Body Politic--a book that went on to win the Crime Writers’ Association’s prestigious John Creasey Memorial Dagger for Best Debut Novel. Body Politic was the first in a series of highly acclaimed crime-fiction works, all featuring maverick former cop-turned-private eye Quintilian Dalrymple, and all set in a near-future, low-tech, and crime-averse Edinburgh, Scotland. (The other four installments were The Bone Yard [1998], Water of Death [1999], The Blood Tree [2000], and The House of Dust [2001]). I remain quite fond of that quintet of tales, with their amusing insights into human nature and their dystopian elements. Johnston (shown at left) describes the series’ set-up this way:
The United Kingdom (and much of Europe) has been torn apart by drugs wars in the early years of the twenty-first century. Gangs of criminals run wild in most areas, but Edinburgh is different. In the last election of 2003, the people vote in the Enlightenment Party, a small grouping of university professors that promises to get rid of crime. They succeed in doing so, forming themselves into a Council of City Guardians backed up by a powerful force of auxiliaries (policemen and bureaucrats)--their ideas came from Plato, that well-known thinker and proto-fascist. The ordinary citizens, as the bulk of the population is termed, benefit from guaranteed work, housing, welfare and lifelong education. They also attend a compulsory sex session every week. On the downside, the regime has banned cars, computers, smoking, television, private phones and popular music--and your partner in the weekly sex session is chosen for you by the authorities. Of course, things are not what they seem in this supposedly benevolent totalitarian system. Far from doing away with crime, the guardians have only pushed it underground. They are too busy looking after the tourists who come to Edinburgh for the year-round festival, the gambling, the licensed brothels and the marijuana clubs. And where there’s sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, you can be sure that crime will raise its ugly head ...

Enter our hero. Quintilian--Quint, for short--Dalrymple is a former senior policeman who was demoted after refusing to accept orders. At the start of the series he works as a laborer, handling missing-persons cases in his spare time. He is tolerated by the guardians because he takes some pressure off the overworked City Guard--and because he’s good at what he does. Quint is a maverick who gets up the regime’s collective nose, a lover of whisky and the blues. You can trace his roots back to [Philip] Marlowe and Sam Spade, to the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes, and to any hard-nosed cop you care to name (Bullitt, Popeye Doyle, whoever)--though he has a softer, more intellectual side to him.
Then, in 2002, Johnston launched a new, modern-day series, this one set in Greece (to which the author himself had by then moved) and starring a private eye named Alex Mavros. The character’s surname is an in-joke, since “mavros” is Greek for “black” or “noir.” But the books are serious, and eminently readable. There are three of them so far: 2002’s A Deeper Shade of Blue (recently retitled Crying Blue Murder), 2003’s Sherlock Award-winning The Last Red Death, and 2004’s The Golden Silence (2004). Crime novelist Simon Kernick and I interviewed Johnston back in 2002, and he talked at length about using the Greek backdrop in his Mavros adventures:
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.
But still, Johnston wasn’t satisfied. In 2007 he started yet a third series, this one hyper-violent and centered around a crime writer named Matt Wells, who is originally based in London, but eventually relocates to America. The first Wells thriller was The Death List (2007), followed by The Soul Collector (2008), Maps of Hell (2009), and his latest, The Nameless Dead--a novel I tore through. Reviewing The Nameless Dead, I wrote in the e-zine Shots:
Partway through the book, I swore I smelt cordite as I whipped through the pages, as it has no let-up in the action. There are myriad twists, with an interesting insight into the banality of the deranged. As Wells and the FBI search for Hoffmann, we get philosophical insights into the history of evil with mentions of the philosophers, the artists who captured the context and workings of Hell ...

Despite the violent and action-orientated trappings of
The Nameless Dead’s plot, there is an existentialist air to the proceedings that provokes thought and introspection. I would also watch out for Wells’ improvisation in a violently amusing final act. In fact Johnston’s sense of humor peppers the darkness of the narrative, making Wells’ journey bearable in a world filled with hate and evil. Highly recommended, but a warning to the faint of heart: Matt Wells’ world is a dark place.
After running into Paul Johnston at Bristol, England’s CrimeFest in May, I cornered him in a bar and recorded a short interview for The Rap Sheet. During our exchange, we talked about The Nameless Dead’s backdrop, his fondness for paranoiac 1970s conspiracy thrillers, his recent brush with the big “C,” his interest in confronting the existential questions about life and death, and why he’s back now penning a fifth Alex Mavros detective novel set in today’s troubled Greece.

Ali Karim: There are plenty of plot strands in the fourth and latest Matt Wells novel, The Nameless Dead, that can be traced back to the previous books. Had you planned this series well in advance?

Paul Johnston: Absolutely not. I wrote The Death List in a fit of extreme anger about the behavior of my former agent and publishers, with no contract or advance. When it was picked up for publication, I decided to go on in self-reflexive fashion, although very few people have noticed this. The books are really exercises in genre-questioning and reader-challenging. For a start, Wells is a crime novelist. Would you believe anything he says? So, he’s the classic potentially less-than-reliable narrator. The Soul Collector was an attempt to jam as many genre tropes in as possible--crime novelists as murder victims (and murderer), gang warfare, Satanism, aristocrats as baddies, sibling rivalry, a serial killer also as a professional assassin. Oh yes, and Agatha Christie-style crossword clues. I like ideas and think that there aren’t enough of them in the average crime novel.

AK: I have found the Matt Wells books to be the most violent and disturbing of your works, when compared with the more cerebral Quint Dalrymple novels or the later Alex Mavros series. However, the Wells stories are also filled with dark humor. Would you care to comment on the links between noir and humor?

PJ: Well, it’s a pretty obvious one, from cops’ gallows humor to Chandler-esque one-liners. My take on humor is that it’s much more important to our lives than we think, especially in times of difficulty (which most crime novel protagonists are now undergoing). I’d even go as far as to say that humor fulfils some of the functions that religion, especially rituals, did in the past--catharsis, redemption, alternative takes on the human condition. That doesn’t mean feeble jokes in the writing, rather it’s a philosophical underpinning--that life is so shit, that we are nothing if we can’t laugh at it. In that respect, humor is (a) very serious and (b) heroic.

AK: How did the plots of Maps of Hell and The Nameless Dead distill in your mind, vis-à-vis Nazi occultists and their plan to make Matt Wells and his lover-turned-wife, Detective Chief Inspector Karen Oaten, into “Manchurian candidates”?

PJ: Er, by reading [Richard Condon’s 1959 novel] The Manchurian Candidate (along with The Bourne Identity--boy, [Robert] Ludlum’s prose style is glutinous) and pushing those ideas to the extreme. What really attracted me to the situation Wells finds himself in at the beginning of Maps of Hell--no reliable memories, not even of who he is; locked up, abused, forced to undergo a fake firing squad--was the idea of him having to find himself: in effect, to reinvent himself from scratch. Beyond that, he’s against a deadline, as he’s being framed for killings, so the tension gets ratcheted up even more. I love reading and writing pacy fiction. There isn’t enough of it. By the way, although both film versions of The Manchurian Candidate are interesting, the novel is something else--amazingly sexually frank for its time (mother-son incest, anyone?), and a brilliant political satire. Predictably, it’s only available from a small press, at least in the UK.

AK: Have you also watched other 1970s political paranoia movies, or read the books on which they were based: Winter Kills, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men?

PJ: Oh yes. Except Winter Kills, which has escaped me (the book, too). The last three were all classic ’70s paranoia thrillers, and that was the time when I grew up as a cinephile. They’re all brilliant and daring--and, of course, few movies of that sort are made these days, at least by major studios. Still, we don’t need them, given that the global financial/political system is an open conspiracy now, and so is not attractive to creative types. Hang on--that means we need them even more!

AK: The plot of The Nameless Dead, like all of your work, is complex and convoluted, with many twists and a very wide array of characters (some of whom boast multiple identities), so I assume you are a detailed plotter. Is that right?

PJ: I fall somewhere in the middle. I do have an outline--for Maps of Hell and The Nameless Dead, they were more involved than I would normally do as that’s what my then-editor wanted. But I tend to go off-message whenever I can--not deliberately, but because that’s how the story develops.

AK: You refer in your Wells books to artists such as [Pieter] Bruegel, [Hieronymus] Bosch, and [Hans] Memling, as well as many philosophers. So how much research did you do into the ideological world that your author protagonist confronts?

PJ: A lot, but most of it was unnecessary. I’m an academic manqué (whence the Ph.D. in creative writing that I’ve been doing for years) and tend to do far too much research. There’s an argument that the research gets into the text in some indirect way, as if by osmosis. I think that would apply more to my overtly political novels than the Wells books. The bottom line with novelists is “make it up.” I certainly had fun inventing the Antichurch of Lucifer Triumphant (donations gratefully received). My basic feeling, first made clear in the Quint novels, is that everything in life is to do with power structures--family, friendship, school, university, workplace, government, etc. The ways we are encouraged to think about death (particularly by organized religion)--involving redemption, eternal life, paradise, etc.--all contribute to highly unequal power structures. Crime novels often take this on board without questioning it. I think that alternative approaches to how we think about and handle death (and serious injury and/or illness) are essential if we are to live full, in every sense of the word, lives.

AK: And the authenticity of the American backdrop?

PJ: I’ve been to the vast majority of the places I write about. For the rest, there’s plenty of info on Websites and in guidebooks. If in doubt, make it up ... I had the good fortune of having an American editor, so a lot of basic stuff was sorted out by him, especially as regards American English expressions, etc.

AK: I know you have had some health concerns. So I’m delighted to hear that you’ve overcome those. And I presumed that one of the reasons the Matt Wells books were so violent and filled with anger was related to that difficult period you traversed. Am I correct?

PJ: Health nightmares would be more accurate: two different cancers, which turned out to be linked by a faulty gene, which I may have passed on to my kids and means that I have a lifetime of intrusive tests ahead of me (better than being dead, of course--marginally). The anger is doubtless at least in part related to that. I have a different take on the human body, post-cancer, and to be honest not a particularly uplifting one: We are just lumps of meat, though I don’t go the whole hog, so to speak, and think that our minds and/or souls are run by our nerve synapses, or whatever. I have a different take on death as well, but that would take a very long time to go into. It’s in the weave of both Maps of Hell and The Nameless Dead. The latter, in which Wells has to come to terms with the deaths of people he cares very much about, is a kind of meditation on death in its many guises and tries to raise some major existential questions under the surface. How far should revenge be taken? Are killers different from other people and thus deserving of different deaths? What is hell and where is it? In the underdeveloped southern states of America? In Washington, D.C.? In Boston? Or in an underground training center modeled on the Inferno and run by a private army, that just happens to be owned by a minister who believes in the Rapture?

AK: The ending of The Nameless Dead gives you something of a fork in the road. So, will Wells return, or are you taking a break from his adventures? I heard on the grapevine that you’re busy penning another Greece-based Alex Mavros thriller.

PJ: I’ve nearly finished the fourth Mavros novel, The Silver Stain, which will be out in January 2012. Never say never, as regards series characters. I’m definitely not doing any more Wells in the immediate future, but might reanimate Quint Dalrymple.

AK: Are you still alternating residences between Greece and the UK? And can you tell us what it is like to be in Greece now, given all its economic austerity, civil disorder, and Euro crisis of the moment?

PJ: I spend more time in Greece--thankfully, no longer in Athens--than I used to, though I’m still a UK/Scottish resident, technically. Our little seaside town, Nafplio (for which spell check suggests “Nipple,” instead), hasn’t had riots or anything of that sort, though people are definitely beginning to feel the squeeze. My wife’s civil -service salary has been slashed by nearly 30 percent, and we’re waiting for more cuts and price rises. Personally, I think the leaders of Europe know perfectly well that Greece will, in effect, default and are just papering over the cracks in the Euro. What they call the “scissors” here--the gap between rich and poor--will cause enormous social unrest, a large increase in crime, and a huge amount of unhappiness. Unchecked global capitalism has a worm of corruption in it and tends towards entropy. We live in worrying times.

AK: Are the Greeks a nation of readers? And do you read Greek or any other languages?

PJ: The Greeks read a lot of newspapers, but only the upper middle-classes have the time to read books, in general. I read Greek (and have a couple of degrees in the language and literature), but I couldn’t say I see much good stuff around, either prose or poetry, at this juncture. Still, one can always fall back on the greatest poet and thinker of them all, Aristophanes.

AK: It’s good seeing you here at CrimeFest. What all have you been up to during your visit to Bristol?

PJ: Er, I can’t really remember. Wasn’t there a bar? It’s always great to catch up with fellow writers and with fans, plus to meet new ones. I’ve done a couple of panels, came second in the pub quiz ...

AK: You also won the CrimeFest “Criminal Mastermind” challenge. Can you tell us why you chose Sherlock Holmes as your “specialist topic”? And to what do you attribute the enduring appeal of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian sleuths, Holmes and Dr. John Watson?

PJ: I chose dear old Holmes because I grew up with the stories and actually regard them as under-rated works critically. Conan Doyle was a much more complex man than he’s often given credit for, and this is visible if you scratch beneath the surface of the stories--Holmes is a paradox: a dope-head and a paragon of the establishment; a musician and a scientist; a cold fish but clearly deeply “in friendship” with Watson. There are also a lot of contradictions--the roles of women, opium dens, dysfunctional families, etc. The [Holmes stories] are actually great and challenging literature if you dig far enough. On the other hand, two of the novels--you know which ones--are structurally unbalanced, while one other is actually a novella and, The Hound of the Baskervilles, though great fun, is all over the place technically. The man was a short-story writer of genius, but no novelist. No matter. I still love him.

AK: I heard that you were considering penning an “overt” science-fiction novel, the Quint Dalrymple books having been more futuristic than hard SF. What’s the truth behind that?

PJ: I’ve been thinking about doing an SF book for years--largely because SF is full of ideas, as mentioned above. I might still do it, but the science side of it is beyond me. Dystopias are my limit, and there’s plenty of material for those in the current economic climate.

AK: You are a bit of a film buff. So what films you have enjoyed lately?

PJ: With small kids, I rarely get to the cinema. I recently saw Duncan Jones’s Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenhall and Vera Farmiga, and thought it was well done. Thor, on the other hand, was embarrassingly awful (I won’t reveal here which top-ten crime writer talked me into going to see it).

AK: And what books have passed over your reading table recently that you’ve especially enjoyed?

PJ: I’ve been reading a lot of ghost stories recently, which might give you a hint of what I’m thinking about doing--or might not. The problem is, I just don’t get scared by them. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter is a beautifully written account of the Arctic winter, but the supernatural aspect of it I thought very weak. Ditto the ghostly stuff in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. Even Susan Hill’s work doesn’t chill me, while Kingsley Amis’ The Green Man has one of the nastiest protagonists in all literature--you can see where his son got that aspect of his writing from--but isn’t very scary. It may be that sustaining a ghost story to novel length is technically impossible. The best crime novel I’ve read recently is Malcolm Pryce’s Don’t Cry for Me, Aberystwyth, which is brilliantly funny and bursting with bonkers ideas. I liked Philip Kerr’s Field Gray too, but it’s less of a novel than a large amount of back-story being filled in. Great if you’ve read all the previous [Bernie] Gunther books.

AK: What are your plans after completing the fourth Alex Mavros novel?

PJ: A “mystery” mystery project, so to speak, and then Mavros #5, which I’ll be starting in January (when The Silver Stain will be out in hardback). I also have my World War I Gallipoli novel to do for my Ph.D. Some deity (Chronos?), please give me more hours in the day ...

1 comment:

Winifred said...

Thanks for this interview. Another author I must add to my list of "must reads".