Envy The Dead - interview 2
August 2009 sees Envy The Dead, your sixth Crowby novel, appearing in paperback. I think it is the first where Jacobson and Kerr talk about previous cases – is that to help continuity, or to help new readers coming fresh to
I think there may have been the occasional back-reference to earlier cases in previous books but I’m sure you’re right that there’s more of that this time – and for both the reasons you suggest. Like you say, this is the 6th book in the series - so there’s quite a lot of accumulated back-story to cue new readers into and to remind existing readers about (previously on Crowby …). The books have always had a self-referential element of course in that specific locations and institutions recur from story to story and (I think) help to flesh out the overall portrait of a modern British town and the changes it undergoes over time.
In an earlier interview with Shots Magazine, you said that you seemed to be exploring new areas of the city in each new book. Are you still exploring? I ask because Envy The Dead also has major explorations of the past as if you have started to explore time as well as place.
I’ve always been aware that Crowby has a history as well
as a geography but this is the first time I’ve delved substantially into its past. I’d had an idea for a while to tell a story about what Crowby – and the rest of the country – was like in the 1980s and Envy The Dead is it – anti-nuclear protests, the Miners’ Strike, Two-Tone ska-punk et al. It’s important to keep your writing fresh when you’re working
on a series and I enjoyed drawing the contrast between life then and life now – and the ways in which the past reverberates into the present. I’m still exploring geographically too of course – and sharp-eyed readers
may have noticed in the last book (Cut Her Dead) as well as in this new one, that Jacobson and Kerr have spent more time out in Crowby’s rural hinterland than they’ve ever done before.
As each of your books appears the subjects come as a surprise. Not only have you not repeated yourself, your themes have not appeared elsewhere. Are you naturally inventive? Have you found some ways of working which specifically help you?
You’re too kind, Les! I’m certainly bored easily – and the idea of banging out essentially the same book over and over again is one that I find very non-congenial (although it can be a highly lucrative career move for a crime writer to do so). Those who know me personally also know that I have a stubborn tendency to plough my own furrow, regardless of what others are up to or what is or isn’t meant to be currently fashionable. So I think those factors go some way to answering your question. Beyond that, there’s the issue that every writer has to ask themselves – why am I doing this? Crime fiction is primarily an entertainment genre – and none the worse for that – but that doesn’t mean that it can't deal with the real world or provoke readers to think about stuff that they might otherwise prefer not to think about. I spend a lot of time between books reflecting on what the next theme should be. I don’t think there’s a particular trick to originality in terms of subject – it’s mainly a matter of keeping your eyes and ears open, reading the newspapers a lot and (especially) thinking about what they’re reporting on.
You have a technique of changing points of view, so that readers see and hear things not known to the police. That is significant in Envy The Dead, because by the end readers are aware of a major act of betrayal which is not known to the police. What are your attitudes, technically, to endings?
Real life doesn’t have ‘endings’ (except for individuals when they die). My idea of the Crowby series is that each novel gives you a snapshot of what’s going on there at a specific point in time. That’s the ongoing story it interests me to write about. So in a sense the ending of a given novel is a distraction from that. Also more often than not in real life, serious criminal cases get ‘solved’ and prosecuted without anyone except the perpetrators and possibly the victims having any very clear idea of the true motives and context behind the crime. I’ve always liked the idea of putting the reader in a privileged position over what’s going on. By the end of a book, Jacobson and Kerr may know enough to make an arrest but often only the reader with their privileged access to everyone involved in the story actually understands all of its implications and consequences. I
loved the controversial ending to the final episode of The Sopranos. I won’t recount it here just in case there’s a reader who’s been on Mars these last few years and hasn’t seen it yet – but that’s the full-on writerly way to wind up
I used the word “technically” there, because sometime after I had finished my review for Shots, in which I expanded on current events which show that the specific type of betrayal you described (I’m trying to avoid “spoilers” here) is still possible today, I wondered if I had let myself be carried away by that sudden synchronicity with the news bulletins. A lot of the publicity for the book has concentrated on the continuing legacy of miscarriages of justice – which is the subject of which all the characters in the book are aware. Would you prefer that attention stays on the miscarriage of justice issue?
All of the story elements in Envy The Dead matter to me. But the miscarriage of justice which befalls Martin Grove is the unifying element linking the 1980s narrative to the present-day narrative so I think it’s a sensible-enough focus for publicity. In personal writing terms though, it was an element that came later as the book developed. I wanted to look into some of Crowby’s history and also to give the reader an insight into Jacobson’s back-story as a much younger detective without actually setting the entire book in the past. So initially the miscarriage of justice idea was a mechanism to link the past to the present. The way these things go when you’re writing of course, it then took on a much bigger life of its own.
Do you ever feel a pang of grief at creating relatively pleasant people and then having them die unpleasantly, with the threat that the cause of their deaths will never be known? Or are they all just puppets manipulated for your own purposes?
If a story doesn’t hit me on an emotional level I don’t see how I can expect it to hit the reader that way. Inevitably, as a writer, you’re manipulating your characters in order to tell your story and to explore themes and issues. But that certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t care about them. Specifically, in Envy The Dead, it would have been great to have allowed life to work out for Martin and Claire - but if it had, while I might still have been able to write some kind of novel about them, it wouldn’t have been crime fiction any more!
You’ve described the Crowby series as “Condition of England” novels, and Mat Coward, the Morning Star reviewer, has praised your “political” edge. What is it about crime fiction that makes it so suitable to explore the “Condition of England”?
A policeman can go anywhere, access any layer of society, in the course of an investigation. So the police procedural, in principle, is an ideal vehicle to tell realist stories about here and now. In a sense, as I’ve said elsewhere, I use Jacobson and Kerr as human scalpels to scrape away at whatever aspect of modern Britain I feel I want to tackle in a particular book. Crime fiction’s only useful in this way of course if that’s how you want to use it – and it’s not a
non-problematic usage. We seem to be going through a period again in the UK when some elements of the police (with high-level political encouragement) are more or less out of control (the De Menezes case, the policing of the
G20 demonstrations etc, etc). As a politically-engaged writer to a certain extent – and using a couple of police detectives essentially as some kind of ‘heroes’ – that can make writing difficult. There was a point earlier this year where I thought I might need to abandon the police procedural format altogether for this kind of reason. But recently I’ve seen a way to keep it going without lapsing into hopeless non-realism. I’m pleased about that – especially as I’m also reluctant to abandon the field to the gung-ho merchants for whom the police can do no wrong and for whom the world divides too neatly and simplistically between ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
How much feedback do you receive from readers – via
email or face to face or at signings? Has it ever affected what you wrote or planned to write?
My email address has been public on my website since day one so over the years a core of regular correspondents has built up. I’m usually pleased to hear from them! – and, likewise, to say hello when I venture out for live gigs. Writing is essentially a solitary activity and the professionals that you’re in contact with (editors, publishers, publicists etc ) don’t always share – or even understand – your creative vision. So it’s a lifeline to have regular contact with those readers who actually ‘get’ the books and who properly appreciate what you’re trying to do. As to the question of influence – I think it’s possible I’ve softened Kerr a little in response to readers’ comments. But in terms of the bigger issues no. You have to write what you want to write – and nobody else can make those decisions for you.
Do you find that readers get out of the books what you intended to be in them? You are now available I guess in most of the English speaking world and in translation in several European countries. Do those foreign readers experience only horror, or would they come and visit a
I remain enough of a post–modernist from my academic
days to continue to believe that texts always transcend
the original aims of the author and that different readers
will appreciate the same text in very different ways. In the last couple of years, reviewers have tended to emphasise the political aspects of the Crowby books – but there’s a
lot going on there beyond politics and for many readers those are the more important elements. I’ve always had a certain personal interest in New Age ideas for instance – which has found its way into the books at various junctures. Readers with a similar interest pick up on those aspects easily enough – but other readers probably don’t even notice them. All of which gets even more complicated when you start to think about foreign readers accessing your work via translation. I love the way the Germans in particular have taken to the books. I think maybe that the Crowby project sits more easily in a European context where crime novels are allowed and encouraged to be serious as well as entertaining.
© Iain McDowall and L.J.Hurst, 2009. All rights reserved.