Being Scottish, why did you choose to set the Jacobson and Kerr series in the Midlands?
When you’re starting out as a writer – as I was back when I invented the core locations for the Jacobson/Kerr books – it can be a good idea to use the voices and landscapes you’re surrounded with on a daily basis. I was living in the Midlands at that period of time so it just felt very natural to be re-creating Midlands settings on the page. ‘Crowby’ came to life for me quite easily so I’ve stuck to it as my main location even though subsequent books have taken readers elsewhere on occasion – Barcelona, Los Angeles, Zurich, etc. DS Kerr has Scottish parentage, of course – which was a deliberate manoeuvre on my part since one of these years I’ll give him a Scottish case to deal with. Meantime it’s looking as if a big chunk of my next book will be London-based.
The plot of Envy the Dead is set in the 1980’s around the same time as the Miner’s Strikes that plagued Maggie Thatcher’s stint as PM – was the motivation for this setting political, personal or both?
Envy The Dead is the sixth book in the series. Previously, I’ve set the books more or less in the year/s I was working on them – I like the immediacy that comes from writing about right now. This time though I decided I wanted a story that would also stretch back into the past. In a series you’re always looking for ways to keep your writing fresh so going partially ‘historical’ felt like it would be an interesting writing challenge. There’s also the element of being able to look at Jacobson’s past as a much younger detective and therefore revealing from that more of the motives which still drive him in the present. Suddenly there seems to be a lot of interest in the ‘80s – on TV and in journalism as well as in books. I think there may be a phenomenon with some recent history that it takes a couple of decades to get sufficient perspective on what was really happening at a specific time and in a specific place. So Envy The Dead is my version of the ‘80s. Radical politics. Mass protests. Cruise Missiles. The Miners’ Strike - and The Specials’ Ghost Town blaring out on every jukebox in the country. All as opposed to wide-boy bankers milking it in the City and hailing Thatcher as a demi-God - which has been the emphasis in too many recent recreations of the era, in my opinion. There’s no such thing as objective history or objective historical fiction of course - just the concerns of the present mediated through the past. But I’m damned if I’m going to let the Thatcherite nostalgists and apologists have the last word on that dark decade.
At the end of the book you kindly provide a brief chronology of events; amongst which is the murder of Claire Oldham, around whom the entire plot pivots – but isn’t she just a figment of your imagination?
Claire is entirely fictional (like Martin Grove and the other central characters). But it was another good challenge to set the sequence of fictional events in the story very accurately around the sequence of related, actual historical events during 1983-1985. You need to be relatively old now to have any kind of proper adult memory of those times – so I thought the timeline in the appendix might be a useful addition for my more youthful readers. Both as a quick mini-history and as a starting-point for anyone who wants to do their own deeper research into the period.
Clearly a large portion of the novel surrounds the issues of miscarriages of justice, with the police force being especially culpable – is this a theme that simply interests or motivates you personally?
Crime fiction – mine included – exists primarily as an entertainment genre. But that shouldn’t mean that the reader has to check-in their brain or their interest in the real world at the door. My novels are designed to be ‘realist’ and thought-provoking as well as entertaining – and in most of them I’ve fictionalised crimes of the kind that really do happen in modern Britain. Race killings (Killing for England) and familicides (Perfectly Dead) for instance unfortunately come under that heading – and so do miscarriages of justice. So I’ve always had it in mind that one of the Jacobson/Kerr books would need to focus on that topic – and Envy The Dead has turned out to be that book.
Jacobson has a rather (in my opinion) endearing set phrase – I am, of course, referring to his “Tourettes” use of “Old Son” – why this phrase?
The way characters talk can be difficult for the writer to analyse. You write one line for them and it sounds wrong, you alter it a little and suddenly it sounds dead right for that particular character. Jacobson has a number of verbal tics that just seem to suit his personality somehow. One of the key things about him, I think, is that while he functions effectively in a hard, tough world he’s also capable of inner reflection about that world. There’s a lot going on with him underneath the surface which only the characters closest to him – Alison, Kerr, maybe Emma Smith – ever discern - plus the reader of course. Maybe that’s why we like his ‘old son’ persona – because we also get privileged access to the deeper stuff which he tries to hide under his bluff, down-to-earth exterior.
You say that Jacobson is misunderstood – how?
More complex than misunderstood perhaps. Jacobson isn’t instantly likeable or instantly understandable. You have to invest in him for the long term to appreciate his many qualities. Every now and then an over-keen editor will try to persuade me to bland him out and make him (and my books in general) more appealing to the ‘average reader’. No dice, I’m afraid. I loved it when David Simon, the creator of The Wire, commented “f**k the average viewer.” Ditto for me: to hell with the average reader - I’m trying to write for the discerning reader.
Kerr is a tough character to like as he has been unfaithful to his wife and doesn’t particularly come across as a brilliant husband or dad. Is this a deliberate attempt to create an anti-hero, or simply a method of reinforcing the fallibilities of the police?
Kerr is a good policeman but a fallible and conflicted human being – but he’s fallible and conflicted about things that I think are of interest and importance to a lot of people: the difficulties of parenthood (including ‘parenting’ his own ageing, elderly dad), the difficulties of long-term relationships and so on. There’s a ‘soap opera’ element to his life which enables the books to be about more than just police and criminals.
Cops get a pretty rough ride in general in Envy the Dead – what with over-zealous beatings of protestors, fit-ups, poor investigatory work and turning a blind eye – does this reflect your personal view of our police force?
It reflects my view of how some police have undeniably sometimes behaved. But you need to set that depiction against the potrayal of Jacobson, Kerr and their team across all six books. Whatever their personal failings outside of their work, Jacobson and Kerr are actually pretty good role models for how to do a difficult job with diligence and integrity.
Moving from lecturing in philosophy and computing to writing crime fiction seems like a huge leap – what prompted the jump? Did you always know you wanted to write?
I’ve always been interested in what makes people and the world around us ‘tick’. For a long time that curiosity took a mainly academic form. I’m still not entirely sure why or how it transferred itself into an interest in creating fiction – but it feels as if I’m still engaged in the same underlying activity of trying to make some sense of things. When I was sixteen I wanted to be a rock and roll star - so I’ve still not really made it in life ...
We understand that you have political opinions, so – Labour, Tory, Lib Dem or other – and why?
Unless or until they clean up their acts then here’s to a plague on all of their houses ...
© Iain McDowall and Sarah Rudd, 2009. All rights reserved.
This interview first appeared on the book review website, The Truth About Books.
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