English crime fiction used to be deeply rooted in traditional murder mysteries, country house investigations and character-driven police procedurals. If Colonel Mustard didn’t do it in the library with a candlestick, then DCI Tom Barnaby would have any Midsomer murder wrapped up by the time the parish clock chimed for tea. Yet the sudden popularity of Nordic noir – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge and the rest – shows that the British audience has previously unexplored appetites for something a little darker. Something a little stronger. Something a little stranger.
That’s why the Killing Sisters series of crime-thrillers from writer Frank Westworth are a long way from the cream teas and cucumber sandwiches of old-style cosy crime. The first novel in the series, ‘A Last Act of Charity’ was published last year to considerable critical approval. Although it takes place in a recognisably English environment, the book combines the stripped-down style of a Scandinavian thriller with the sharp edges of modern American hard-boiled noir.
So we grabbed five minutes with the author, to investigate this most perplexing mystery…
There’s a huge resurgence in the popularity of traditional crime characters, like Sherlock Holmes. Why did you choose to do something so different?
Short answer? Because I wanted to. Longer answer? I’ve never really understood why a new author – or any author, really – would want to adapt / adopt another author’s characters. Think about the sundry subsequent James Bonds; none is anywhere near as good as the original. Or the lead character in Trevanian’s ‘Shibumi’, Nikolai Hel; the sequel is nothing like so fine, even though it was written by Don Winslow who is a superb writer. It must be like trying to repaint the Mona Lisa; you’d only do it for the money.
And I wanted to discuss issues which are interesting in a way which isn’t possible or acceptable outside fiction, without the constraints imposed by using someone else’s universe. In fiction it’s easy to exaggerate, to be extreme, to pull bits out of a character and to push them to an absolute limit as they work out what’s happening either to them or around them. Not just in the traditional ‘cherchez la femme’ approach, but in setting two or more strong characters in a situation where co-operation is the best approach (as it usually is) but where for whatever reason it can’t happen. We’ve all of us been in situations where the best solution is obvious, but at the same time is impossible.
Sherlock Holmes is an impossible genius; I’m not, so how could I write a character like that? I don’t even know characters like him in real life! JJ Stoner, the male lead in ‘Charity’, is a composite of real people, so will work for me. The female lead (her name’s in the title of the book, in case you were wondering) is also a composite of several real individuals.
In any case, isn’t it true to say that fiction is a method of safely discussing genuine issues – political, emotional, whatever you want? Cosy crime is a total escape from reality, a gentle and comfortable thing; noir is a way of confronting our worst fears, facing up to demons. And if you don’t have your own demons, why are you reading about them?
Several readers have compared your protagonist, JJ Stoner, to Jack Reacher and James Bond. How accurate do you think that is?
Stoner is nothing like James Bond. Bond is suave, sophisticated and a senior naval officer; Stoner’s an early-retired infantry sergeant with no social connections, no exotic tastes in cocktails or cars. The current Bond drives an Aston Martin; Stoner a VW Transporter and a Harley-Davidson.
Reacher is different. Jack Reacher is a stunning contemporary creation from Lee Child. But he’s too good at everything. This is probably because his creator is that way too. I’m not! So any character I produce is at least as hopeless as I am.
But… it would be simplistic to claim any originality, especially given that all my characters are derivative and composites. They’re composites of real people, though, not of other fictional heroes.
You live on the North Cornwall coast. How influential has the area been to your writing?
The Cornish Atlantic coast has lots of similarities with the Scandinavian Atlantic coast, and both – which I know well – are inspirations in themselves. Anyone feeling too filled with their own self-importance should take a motorcycle and ride up to any of the superb cliff paths and sit there while the Atlantic Ocean storms beneath them and its gales try to blow them away. Our own place in the world is inescapable then.
I travel a lot, and as every journey out has a balancing journey back home, when that home is Cornwall arriving back is never an anti-climax. When I’m travelling by motorcycle I find myself speeding up as I head down through Somerset, Devon and towards Cornwall. The roads over Exmoor are like a vast welcome mat…
Bude itself is an interesting place to live; rammed with lively people for the summer, quiet and maybe introverted in the winter. In between those two extremes it’s just comfortable and calm. Mostly. Holidaymakers are sometimes extreme; they behave in ways which would be unacceptable and alien in their real lives. I steal lots of oddnesses for my characters from watching them.
It might be true to suggest that the novel would never have staggered to completion without regular coffee at the Olive Tree, down by the canal, and weekly curry overload at Bude Tandoori!
Unusually, you’ve chosen not to set your story in an identifiable big city like London, Birmingham or Manchester. Several of the sequences in ‘A Last Act Of Charity’ and the sequel, ‘The Corruption Of Chastity’, take place in a blues club in a town, but we never know quite where it is. Why is that?
The anonymous city is a composite again. It’s based around Exeter, Norwich and Chester. The Blue Cube – the jazz’n’blues club in the book – is based around an establishment in Norwich back in the 1970s. There’s a personal thing here – is it OK to be personal? I get very bored very quickly reading books set in cities where the author explains every street name, every junction, provides brilliantly accurate descriptions of local landmarks … if I want to know all that I’ll buy a guide book. It’s like road stories which read like the index to a road atlas. I just don’t understand the appeal – of either reading or writing like that. One of the best writers I know – and the most successful – wrote a brilliant book set in New Orleans, which is a stunning city. He describes it in careful, affectionate and grimy detail, with totally accurate navigational instructions. He’d not been there when he wrote it. He used books and maps.
There is nothing wrong with that; I doubt that Iain M Banks was ever a physical visitor to his superb sci-fi Culture universe, but I would rather read fiction which is actually fiction, rather than a good description of a street map. It’s just a personal thing. Many excellent authors use their cities as characters – Colin Dexter’s Oxford is a good example; they do Inspector Morse holidays there I believe – but I’m more interested in people than in the places they inhabit.
Stoner – my books’ male lead – lives in an old out of town industrial unit, even though he owns several houses which are rented out. Which is of course another story…
Although there are three books in the series (Charity’s book is the first, her sister Chastity titles the second, which is out this autumn, and Charm is the focus of the final heave, which I’m writing at the moment), there is also far too much going on to get squeezed into a conventional set of novels. Lots of the characters in the books have stories all their own, as you’d hope! So I’ve started a series of short stories showing who those characters are, how they work, fit together and meet.
And then, just to contradict myself; the second book, The Corruption Of Chastity, takes place in several identified and recognisable overseas locations. It moves around all the time, while ‘Charity’ is static and intense. Locations do influence the action and transactions. It really is all a mystery.
There are a lot of dead bodies in ‘A Last Act Of Charity’. Could there really be that many murders in a short space of time in England without people putting the pieces together?
Yes. No. Possibly. Everybody dies – a little-known fact. The sequence of killings in ‘Charity’ around which the story is based only becomes visible when the deaths are plainly neither natural nor accidental. The earlier killings – which are hinted at rather than described – were all disguised.
Overdoses, simple accidents, heart failures… there are lots of those every single day. And then there’s all the gang violence reported in the news every night; aren’t they a perfect way to disguise an official action? How’s about that fit young woman who fell to her death from a Cornish cliff? The older guy who must have suffered a coronary in the cinema? And so on. And don’t even mention Dr David Kelly and others like him.
Although it’s only hinted at in the first book, part of Stoner’s earlier active life was spent arranging ‘natural’ deaths…
There are several sexually explicit and violent scenes in this series. Are they there to provoke controversy, or to wake up the reader, or for a more serious purpose?
The violence defines the book – without it, no story. The sex defines the characters – without it, no interest. All species – including humans – exist to breed. All species compete to win the best partners and then mate with them. This is supposed to be Darwin in action, where the strong shall inherit the earth. Everything follows from that. Speaking entirely personally, I’ve always enjoyed all the rituals of competition and indeed the mating. Other positions are of course possible.
Your writing style shares many similarities with Scandinavian, American and European authors. Have you been particularly influenced by any English writers?
Yes! RJ Ellory, probably the most. His quietly solid intensity is something I tried to emulate, and failed spectacularly. And John Harvey, who is simply brilliant. Iain Banks was Scottish, but deserves credit for the originality and inspiration he always provided.