Tuesday, August 04, 2015

“Heads” and Other Tales

Chances are it’s escaped your attention until this moment, but I have devoted my new Kirkus Reviews column to an interview with Paul Johnston, the Scottish-born author of Heads or Hearts (Severn House), the sixth entry in his award-winning series starring near-future Edinburgh investigator Quint Dalrymple. The fact that Heads or Hearts exists is a real treat for Quint fans, most of whom probably thought Johnston had given up on this sardonic ex-cop after 2001’s House of Dust. That Heads or Hearts is also an excellent thriller portending the release of still more Quint tales is further good news.

It’s not necessary that you be familiar with the previous five entries in Johnston’s series before tackling Heads or Hearts; the author provides ample background to help newcomers understand the fictional world in which this story’s action takes place. But reading those earlier works--Body Politic (1997), The Bone Yard (1998), Water of Death (1999), The Blood Tree (2000), and The House of Dust--would still be worthwhile, if only because Johnston clearly had fun imagining what Edinburgh might be like as a corrupted utopia. On his Web site he provides a bit of background to this series, which starts off in the year 2020, the setting for Body Politic:
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.
With all of that in mind, here’s my brief synopsis from Kirkus of the plot offered in Johnston’s new novel:
As Heads or Hearts opens, the year is 2033. The guardians have loosened some restrictions: citizens can again listen to blues and rock music, watch previously banned movies and acquire “half-decent coffee.” There’s also a referendum in the works to reconstitute Scotland. That reunification might be endangered, however, by a rash of crimes beginning with the discovery of a human heart in the middle of a football stadium. When a headless corpse is later found close to another playing field, the guardians summon Quint’s help. Once more paired with his old police colleague, the violence-prone Davie Oliphant, Quint sets out to determine whether these grisly finds are linked to a rise in local gang activity and sports betting, black-market dealings that implicate the guardians themselves or perhaps the upcoming referendum.
If Quint is a multifaceted character, his creator seems hardly less so. As Johnston explained in this top-notch 2003 interview with January Magazine contributors Ali Karim and Simon Kernick, he studied ancient and modern Greek at Oxford University, worked in the shipping industry, did a turn as a newspaperman in Athens, Greece, and taught English before embarking on a career penning fiction. For years he divided his time between the UK and Greece, but is currently residing in London. He’s now 13 years into his second marriage, his wife a Greek civil servant (“that much maligned breed”) named Roula.

Although Johnston started his career as a novelist turning out Quint yarns and winning awards for those works, he has since branched out into two other well-known series--one starring Alexandhros “Alex” Mavros, a Scots-Greek private eye based in modern Athens, the other featuring Matt Wells, a crime writer turned P.I. In addition, he’s composed a police procedural under the nom de plume Sam Alexander and is planning to launch another pseudonymous series.

Being an enthusiastic and curious interviewer, I tend to ask authors many more questions than I have room to accommodate their answers in my Kirkus columns. I followed that same path in my recent e-mail exchange with Paul Johnston and wound up with plenty of extra, intriguing material, covering everything from his interest in science fiction and his thoughts on Greece’s financial bailout to his author-father’s help in getting him started as a storyteller. Consider what follows to be Part II of my interview with Johnston, Part I being contained in this week’s Kirkus column.

Oxford friends-turned-authors Robert Wilson (left) and Paul Johnston at CrimeFest 2014. (Photograph by Ali Karim.)

J. Kingston Pierce: Are you still dividing your time between homes in southern Scotland and southern Greece’s Peloponnese region?

Paul Johnston: No, I’ve recently moved back to the UK to set up base camp in advance of getting my kids out of Greece in the next few years--no future for them there. I’ve also disposed of the Scottish house and have the use of the family flat in Edinburgh from time to time. Not sure where I’ll end up yet as I’m looking for a university creative writing job. Which does not mean that I’ll stop writing fiction. It was useful to have two homes in the past. Often I’d write about Scotland when in Greece and vice versa--there was a degree of objectivity that was advantageous. My family--and my 5,000-plus books and 1,500 CDs--are still in Nafplio so I will be back …

JKP: It would be understandable to regard the Quint Dalrymple series as science fiction, since it is set in the future--or at least a dystopian future as you imagined it in the 1990s. But do you think of it in that way? And are you a big SF fan?

PJ: The House of Dust was actually shortlisted [in 2002] for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, a major SF award. The thing is, anything that’s set in the future, even a few years hence, is classified as SF, whether you like it or not. So the Quint novels were crossover crime/SF, not a great place to be in terms of marketing. I do read SF--more now than I did when I first came up with Enlightenment Edinburgh--and I love it because it’s full of ideas; much more than crime fiction. On the other hand, I’m no scientist, so hard SF is beyond me. I also have to say that the pulp origins of much SF, primarily American, led to poor writing. There are plenty of exceptions--[Philip K.] Dick and [Kurt] Vonnegut are favorites. I think Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. I also have a high regard for Nineteen Eighty-Four, even though it’s a problematic novel. The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau are also great--and unusually short for [H.G.] Wells. But my favorite SF novel of them all is my fellow Scot David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus [1920], an almost forgotten, highly original, hugely poetic and doom-laden masterpiece. Oh, and I love SF movies. Blade Runner and the Alien series (even the rickety ones) are hardy perennials.

JKP: A variety of things have changed in your imagined Edinburgh since the story told in Body Politic. For readers who haven’t yet discovered or at least haven’t been keeping up with this series, could you describe the city’s evolution over the period about which you have written so far, 2020-2033?

PJ: Generally the regime--protectors of an independent and supposedly benign totalitarian city-state--has veered between tight control of citizens’ lives and more liberal periods. At the beginning there was no TV, phones, smoking, popular music, cars, or photos (too egocentric); this was balanced by guaranteed work for life, housing, lifelong education, and a compulsory weekly sex session with the partner chosen by the Recreation Directorate (lovely…). Ten thousand auxiliaries enforce the City Regulations and make sure the tourists attending the year-round festival are treated like royalty. Many of the auxiliaries are police officers, known as guardswomen/-men. By 2033 the Council has become unable to maintain its hard-line stance and citizens are treated more humanely--they can wear their hair and facial hair how they like, start (small) businesses, listen to blues and rock music (for your information I’m currently listening to the magnificent American band WhiskeyDick’s “Fallen Heroes”) and watch previously banned movies. The result is an increase in crime and gang activity. So much for the original Council’s proud--if self-deceiving--boast that there was no crime in the city.

JKP: And in what respects has Quint himself changed over the course of these now half-dozen books?

PJ: I find that difficult to answer as I have very little objectivity. Last year, before writing Heads or Hearts, I reread the five earlier novels. I couldn’t remember a lot of the action or characters--and some of the jokes really grated. I’d like to think that Quint develops as a character. He has some pretty awful experiences so it would be weird if he didn’t. But deep down he remains the maverick with the big mouth that I first envisaged and people enjoyed reading about. He’s more in touch with his emotions now, I think, but still smells a rat every time the Council involves him in a case. Trust no one in authority is his--and my--motto.

JKP: Heads or Hearts has much to do with murders and cover-ups and Quint’s investigation, but while all of that is going on, there are votes scheduled to determine whether the Scottish city-states should begin gathering again into a larger country, for the benefit of all. This seems an intriguing turn, especially in light of last year’s Scottish independence referendum. You must’ve been writing Heads or Hearts in the midst of that political debate. Did it inspire or flavor your plot?

PJ: Yes, it’s my take on the referendum for Scottish independence. I was writing the book during the debate and after the result. [In Heads or Hearts] Edinburgh citizens have to decide if they want to rejoin Scotland, though the referendum doesn’t happen in the book. The plot revolves around certain factions’ opposing views on independence, so I used a lot of elements from the real debate. In a novel, though, everything comes down to character. My position in Heads or Hearts is that people get overly committed to single positions and are unable to empathize with those of others. Coalition is a way forward, but not in my Edinburgh. In any case, (some) Scottish politicians are as flawed and avaricious as those in other countries. Satire is still essential, which is how I present things in Heads or Hearts. The title refers, among other things, to whether you allow your emotions free rein or whether you apply reason to problems--very enlightenment. There’s too much emotion in public affairs and political parties need to become more intellectually coherent.

JKP: Did you support the 2014 independence referendum?

PJ: I was fine about there being a referendum, but I imagine your question is really directed at what result I wanted. I was hugely conflicted. Most Scottish writers--including myself--were pro-independence because the country is culturally very different from the rest of the UK, especially southern England. On the other hand, I spent time in business and I wasn’t--and still am not--convinced that the Scottish National Party’s economic plans are credible. It’s a rough world for small countries--see what’s happening to Greece, which has more than double Scotland’s population--and being part of a larger state may be more secure. More recently the Nationalists won a huge majority in the Westminster election, doing the Labour Party no favors at all. The advantage is that Scotland will get more devolved powers. That may well lead irrevocably to independence, especially if the rest of the UK votes to leave the European Union; Scots are in the main great Europeans. Economics aside--which is, of course, ridiculous--I would be happy with a Scottish passport. So, I’m on the fence …

JKP: Although the Quint yarns are set in the near future, you enrich them with Scottish history. Is history a prime interest of yours?

PJ: Yes! I studied British (not Scottish) history at school, but my main concern was ancient Greece and Rome. I’ve since educated myself about Scotland’s past, although it isn’t an easy task for an atheist. The church--or rather, different churches--played such a large part in Scottish history that I needed to suspend my disbelief, so to speak. There are many cracks about the deleterious effects of organized religion throughout the series. The Council runs an atheist regime, though churchgoing is permitted. As in modern Britain, no one much cares to go.

JKP: Following the publication of your fifth Quint Dalrymple novel, The House of Dust, you turned to composing two other series, one set in Greece and starring P.I. Alex Mavros, the other led by a crime writer named Matt Wells. What did those ventures teach you about storytelling that you didn’t know from working on the Quint books?

PJ: The Mavros series--starting with the original trilogy of A Deeper Shade of Blue (later republished as Crying Blue Murder), The Last Red Death, and The Golden Silence--was very educational in terms of the narrative. I went to third-person [viewpoint], thus distancing myself from the narrator, and I also cut from Mavros to other characters, making the texts more complex and multi-focal. Which I learned a lot from. That distancing was also important because, unlike the slightly futuristic Quint books, those novels dealt with a society I’d experienced, that is with “real” history (in quotation marks because everyone has their own reality). I needed a hands-off approach to maintain some objectivity and the third-person did that.

As for the Matt Wells quartet--The Death List (easily my most successful book commercially in the UK, U.S., and several other countries), The Soul Collector, Maps of Hell, and The Nameless Dead--it went back to the first-person, with crime novelist-turned-hard-nosed P.I. Wells talking the talk, but again there were sections from other characters’ points of view in the third-person. So I was learning how to combine multiple ways of presenting material, and I hope I became a more rounded writer as a result.

JKP: Are you also working on another Alex Mavros novel?

PJ: No. I’m taking a break from Mavros, mainly because I’m out of Greece now and, frankly, have been ground down by the country’s problems. I imagine he’ll be back, though.

JKP: Since you have brought up Greece and its current financial difficulties a couple of times now, let me ask what you think of the country’s recent bailout referendum and the eurozone’s subsequent deal giving Greece money in exchange for pension cuts and tax increases. Do you think the Greek people got as good a result as they could’ve expected?

PJ: It’s a nightmare, but one that’s been going on for five years now. Many extended families [in Greece] live off one salary or pension. Many people work without being paid in the hope that their companies will survive. My wife’s civil-service salary has gone down by 40 percent and will be cut further soon. The lenders clearly decided that Greece was going to be punished for its reluctance to apply the austerity measures that many renowned economists see as discredited and completely unrealistic. There’s bound to be debt relief, so it should happen sooner or later. The crisis is partly Greece’s fault--it should never have joined the eurozone--but foreign banks lent very irresponsibly. The irony is that Germany has destroyed the markets for its goods in southern Europe and will be in crisis itself in a decade. The Chinese and other tiger economies will be laughing all the way to their highly profitable banks.

JKP: I asked earlier about the future of the Mavros series. But what of novelist Matt Wells? You left him behind in 2011’s The Nameless Dead. Will he be resurrected sometime in your fiction?

PJ: Wells was always the wild card in my “oeuvre.” The first two books were very successful, but then the publisher stopped promoting them, so the best one--Maps of Hell, which is set in the U.S.--withered on the vine. The conceit of turning a mild crime writer into a freelance Black Ops specialist appealed to my self-mocking side. Never say never. Quint and Mavros both came back from the realm of Hades, and so might Matt.

JKP: Are there other books you’re working on that have nothing to do with any of these three series?

PJ: Last year Carnal Acts, a quasi-police procedural that I wrote under the pseudonym Sam Alexander, was published by Arcadia Books. I say quasi, because I was really taking the tropes of the subgenre and of my own writing past and playing with them as much as I could. The hero is a female, mixed-race cop who moves from London to northeast England, where she joins a police force that I invented in a town that I invented. I like cop movies and TV series--well, the offbeat ones--but I have absolutely no interest in obsessing on procedural issues. Joni Pax isn’t a drinker or one-night-stand type, though she does have issues. The book is really about people-trafficking and an Albanian sex slave, Suzana, who kills a pimp and escapes. I link this to the landed gentry, whose families made a fortune from the 18th-century slave trade. Big themes, as usual … At least the novel and the lengthy critique I wrote about it got me a Ph.D. in creative writing. “Always look for something different to do” is another of my mottoes. I’ve started yet another series, but I can’t talk about it yet, sorry.

JKP: Will that new series also be by “Sam Alexander”?

PJ: No, but it will be under another nom de plume, decided upon but as yet still secret.

JKP: Your father happens to be Ronald Johnston, the author of such popular thrillers as The Black Camels of Qashran, Paradise Smith, and Sea Story. Is he still with us, and how influential has he been in shaping your development as a fiction writer?

PJ: No, he died in 2009, aged 82. He was a great help and mentor, always the first reader of my drafts. He was very practical and gave me a lot of useful advice about publishing. He had no time for purple prose and believed firmly in page-turning stories. He would write comments on my printouts. The best I ever got was a single word for The Last Red Death: “Wow!” I treasure that. I’m not sure how much he influenced me. For my sins, I’m much more of an intellectual than he was (he trained and served as a master mariner). But he kept my feet on the ground and extolled the virtues of simple plots, strong characters and convincing settings. Two out of three ain’t bad …

JKP: I also want to inquire about your health. As I understand it, you’ve already survived two different cancers, but are not free of cancer concerns in the future. How is your health now? And how have your cancer scares affected your fiction?

PJ: Thanks for the concern. I’ve now had four different types of cancer, thanks to a malformed gene that makes me more vulnerable. Three of them required major surgery and two needed chemotherapy afterwards. The last was thankfully pretty minor. But the threat is always there. I’ve come to terms with it to some extent--it’s 12 years since the first one so, like Ripley’s alien, cancer seems to have been my companion for a long time. I’m OK now, which is something to drink several glasses to! My view of life has changed completely since pre-cancer. Dark thoughts and impulses prevail. I still don’t know what drove me to write a novel about the fate of the Greek Jews in Auschwitz (Alex Mavros’s sixth case, The Black Life). I still haven’t recovered from opening that Pandora’s Box. I’m on the trail of Hope, who supposedly was hiding under all the ills that flew out, but she’s proving elusive. Still, anyone who thinks crime writing’s easy isn’t taking it seriously enough.

JKP: Finally, I want to ask you a question I have posted to other authors in the past: If you could’ve written any book that doesn’t already carry your byline, what would it have been?

PJ: How long have you got? I know--Aristophanes’ The Birds. Bet no one else gave that answer …

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