Modern crime fiction is so much more than simply means, motive and opportunity. A new murder-mystery set in Belfast and beyond explores the landscape and wartime history of the area, alongside the architecture and inhabitants of the city. It also casts a chilling eye upon the contemporary realities of coping with disintegrating mental health, of medicating against mania, of social isolation and exclusion, of ratcheting fear and paranoia in the most mundane, everyday situations. Crime fiction isn’t just about catching a killer.
Simon Maltman’s debut novel, A Chaser On The Rocks, is an ambitious tale of intrigue which contains two mirror-image plots, one historical thread in WW2 and one in the present day. In these different time-zones we follow a pair of private detectives into the murky worlds of espionage, drug dealing, blackmail and murder. Based in the real-world backstreets of Belfast, their investigations end up overlapping in an extraordinary fashion. After reading ‘A Chaser’, we wanted to know more, so gave the author an old-fashioned grilling…
When fiction is set in Northern Ireland, it typically revolves around The Troubles rather than traditional crime / thriller themes. What inspired you to write a classic noir thriller based in Belfast? Is there much of a crime scene (ahem) in Ireland these days?
When I first started writing crime fiction, I consciously decided to avoid The Troubles. I figured that enough had been done around them and I like that Northern Ireland has a different image now. I try and show some of the natural beauty of the country alongside noirish stories. At the same time it’s a wee bit of an elephant in the room, so I do make reference to things like the divided communities and paramilitaries.
I’m a fan of various types of crime fiction, such as 1940’s noir like Chandler and heist type stuff like Richard Stark. It seemed natural for me to write in the realm of the type of fiction that I love.
Yeah, there’s a lot of crime writing going on in Northern Ireland these days. There’s great stuff such as from Colin Bateman and Stuart Neville.
The action in ‘A Chaser’ takes place in two separate time-streams and with two private eye protagonists. Which of these characters, Billy in the 1940s and Brian in the 21st century, did you prefer writing?
That’s a hard one, ha-ha! I enjoyed them both. Billy is meant to be the creation of Brian and also the more romantic hero protagonist if you like. Brian is darker and flawed and really the focal point of the novel, so I’d say Brian.
And if it were possible to time-travel, which period would you prefer to live in? Here and now, or 75 years ago?
I’d say now for sure. I wouldn’t fancy living through WW2 and the Belfast Blitz. Although maybe the 1950s or 60s might have been pretty cool.
There’s a lot of writing about writing in this book, your debut novel. One of the stories is contained within the other, like a Russian doll, and Brian even attends a creative writing group. It can be extremely tricky to write about writing in a fictional setting – Stephen King* pulled it off masterfully in ‘Misery’ but then he’s Stephen King! Why did you choose to tell the stories in ‘A Chaser’ this way? Did you encounter any problems pulling the converging storylines together?
I had been originally approached to write a novel, which after concentrating on short stories, was something I had maybe been putting off… ha-ha! I had both characters in mind to use in the novel and also I wanted to try something a little different. The idea then just hit to explore Brian writing the Billy character and for it to be a story within a story. When I started to get into it, it became a big part of Brian’s character and a big part of how the novel would develop. I enjoyed trying to link the two through Brian’s own experiences. The hardest part was to develop both and to let them have their own time, while hoping to keep the reader invested and enjoying them both. I hope it works, ha-ha!
You write with exceptional detail about the city streets and their architecture, all the cafes and pubs which Brian visits – even down to which type of coffee and sandwich he has at Starbucks or Caffè Nero! How many of these places are your own regular haunts?
I am no stranger to going out for coffee and cake, ha-ha! It’s something I do a lot with my wife and kids. Not so much time for pubs and gigs these days! There are certainly a lot of my favourite haunts in there ha-ha. Generally all the places I write about are places I know well, I find it really important for my writing. I don’t know how some writers can create vivid, imaginary places, I’m quite in awe of that.
In the story, Brian also spends some time in the city library, researching and writing. He even comes into conflict with the librarian over the milk supplies! From the descriptions of the situation, the staff and the other users, it sounds like this too could be somewhere you’re intimately acquainted with. Did you actually write much of ‘A Chaser’ in the library?
I did write some of the novel in a library and parts in cafés and that. I actually started writing the beginning set at the Giant’s Causeway when staying up there on holiday. Most of it though I wrote at home – usually in the garage and after the kids were in bed!
There’s also a very intense sequence where Brian is challenged by a concerned parent when he inadvertently raises suspicion at a children’s playground. Is that incident also based on real-life experience?
No it wasn’t. I kind of wanted that exchange to show a few parts of Brian’s character and also be a bit funny in a dark way in the way he responds. I think I took inspiration from an episode of Peep Show where Mark is heckled by kids calling him ‘clean shirt’ and ‘paedo.’ He’s aghast and doesn’t know how to react – it certainly plays out as very funny in that show. At the same time it was in my mind how sad it is that these days that there is such suspicion of everyone. Although I’ve felt it certainly as a father too; that innate feeling of needing to protect.
Brian is an ex-policeman who turned PI after leaving the RUC. Is he based on anyone or inspired by anyone you know personally – or is he entirely your own creation?
He’s not really based on anyone. Some characters are and I can’t say on who, ha-ha! No, he’s someone I’ve just tried to really work on as hopefully a realistic and interesting character. Some have told me they don’t find him that likeable, but I think it’s often better if the main character is pretty flawed. I don’t think he’s that bad a guy. I still like him anyway!
And Billy served with the Irish Guards who got tangled up in the defence of Boulogne and the subsequent evacuation of Dunkirk. Any family history there, perhaps?
Not really on Billy. I carried out a good bit of research, visiting lots of local museums and reading a few books on the period. I mention an RAF fighter pilot though, called uncle Victor. He would have been my real life great-uncle and was sadly shot down shortly after the Battle of Britain.
In the great tradition of crime noir, the story revolves around some pretty bleak subjects – blackmail, murder, corruption, treason – but also deeply intimate and personal problems like psychosis and suicidal urges, as seen here: ‘I walked out to the edge of the rock face and had a smoke. My mind glazed over for a while and I drifted. What would it be like to fall from here or to jump? Would I cry out?’
How big a problem are mental health issues in modern Ireland, and why did you want to incorporate them into your story?
I think from early on it was going to be a key element of Brian. It also is a hook that much of the novel hangs on. There certainly is a big problem in the country and a difficulty in delivering how best to support people. It’s a shame that there is still a negative social stigma. I think that these days we need to recognise that everyone has mental health which is always good, bad or somewhere in between and always fluid. I’ve worked with people with mental health problems and learning disabilities professionally for many years and that was certainly a huge basis for my understanding for trying to best write about it.
Your passion for the Irish landscape and its history shines through in the scenes set around the Giant’s Causeway. If you could suggest a single place in Ireland which people should definitely visit, where would it be?
Oh that’s a hard one! I’m glad it comes through that I’m passionate because I do love Northern Ireland and I think there is a lot of beauty and unique quirks here. I’ll have to say my home county of Down. There’s the Mountains of Mourne, St Patrick’s trail, Strangford Lough. There are many old stately homes to visit, castles and great coffee shops! If you include East Belfast which is arguably part of Down, you also have coming out of there; CS Lewis, Van Morrison, Titanic, Geordie Best and the mighty Glentoran FC!
And finally: Love/Hate or The Fall?
I haven’t actually seen Love/hate, but I hear it’s good. I like The Fall, I’ll be interested to see what they so with the third season. I have to say I’ve been sucked into GOT too, which is filmed near me and it’s fun to spot all the local places that are used in it. I’d love to see someone make a TV series of Colin Bateman’s PI in the Mystery Man books that are set in the real life No Alibis bookshop in Belfast. That could make a brilliant show.
Thanks very much for sharing your time and insights with us, Simon.
Thanks very much for having me, Rowena!
Interview by Rowena Hoseason
A Chaser On The Rocks by Simon Maltman is available at Amazon
If you’re intrigued to learn more about the author, find him on Facebook
*OK. Another noteworthy example of writers successfully writing fiction about writing is Karin Fossum’s chilling Scandi crime story, Broken, in which an author is haunted by unfulfilled characters. That book is flat-out brilliant. Most self-referential ‘author in the story’ books struggle to match it, and can all too easily feel as if the writer is having a lot more fun than the reader…