THE EVIL THEREOF - INTERVIEW
First of all, I have to ask you – there’s been a long gap between The Evil Thereof and your last book, Envy The Dead. Were you keeping your readers waiting deliberately? Was it a case of writer’s block? What happened?
Yes, that’s a question that keeps coming up. Envy The Dead came out in 2009 so there’s certainly a big gap between the two books. No, I wasn’t blocked – other areas of my life just became more important to me for a long time. Something had to take a back seat and in this instance it was writing.
One of the consequences of the gap of course is that we return to Crowby after a considerable time has passed. How did that affect your writing?
I never completely stopped – so I was always still connected with the Crowby universe. Whenever I was working on the new book, I could pretty much dive straight in. That said, there were some practical consequences of a longer production schedule. One feature of the Jacobson series is that mainly the books have been written close to, although not identical with, real-time. Another is that my characters often comment on real-life issues and events. All that worked fairly well when I was taking around eighteen months or two years to finish a book but I discovered with The Evil Thereof that if you take longer then you can get into a cycle of constant revision – not with regard to the fundamentals of your story but in incidental terms of the music that might be likely to playing when someone walks into a café or the TV show that a character might choose to watch.
I believe you once said that you’d never write a serial killer – yet one of the protagonists in The Evil Thereof might be said to fit many of the well-worn serial killer tropes. What made you change your mind?
Yes, I believe I did – although I can’t remember exactly where. Equally, of course, he exhibits a few brand-new tropes as well. I quite liked the idea of following a more bog-standard story-line in some respects than I’ve adopted in the past but still doing it in a truly Crowby-esque way.
Your handling of police culture and the background details of how the police work is always very convincing. Do you have personal contacts in the police that help you achieve this realism?
I’d no such contact before I became an established writer. But subsequently I’ve benefited from a few contacts who are usually happy to answer some of my questions at least. That’s obviously helpful. But I don’t think that realism is just a matter of facts and procedures (like every other crime writer I take liberties with procedural details). It’s more to do with conveying ‘feel’ and ‘atmosphere’ and – paradoxically – that’s primarily achieved by imagination and empathy rather than empirical research. The basic question I’ve asked myself over and over with regard to Jacobson and Kerr (and Emma Smith in the new book) is ‘how would I feel if I had to do this job – what would be going on in my head if I had to look at a murder scene or break the bad news to relatives?’ Which is another way of saying that anybody can find stuff out but the main skill a writer needs is the ability to write.
Although Jacobson and his team are key characters, your books are not really traditional ‘police procedurals’ in as much as the police are only ever one part of a bigger story. You seem to spend at least as much time on the other characters and so readers end up knowing much more about what is going on than the police ever do. Why do you take this approach and does it cause problems for you as a writer?
I wouldn’t say it causes problems – I would say that it makes the books more challenging and ultimately more interesting to write. The more characters you use – and especially the more character viewpoints you work with – then the more work you have to do to tell your story fully. The pay-off, I hope, is a much more complex and nuanced book than would otherwise be the case. In real life, the police don’t have to understand one iota of why someone did what they did in a criminal context. They just need to establish the basic chain of events. In the kind of crime novel I’m interested in writing why is paramount – and the only way to show that is to delve directly into every life that intersects with Jacobson’s cases, even the ones he himself barely glimpses.
One of the pleasures for the reader of the Jacobson series is to be able to return to Crowby and meet characters from previous books again – for instance Kenneth Grant and Billy Marsden in the new book. How do you decide which characters to use more than once and which to abandon?
Sometimes the plot makes that kind of decision for you in that a lot of characters may be dead – or otherwise ‘incapacitated’ – by the end of a specific book and aren’t therefore available for a return appearance. Amongst the others, there are just some characters that I feel I haven’t said in the past all that I wanted to say about them. It’s almost like meeting an old friend again when I spend time with that kind of character in a new book. Plus which, for me, Crowby itself has many of the attributes of a recurrent character. A fictional town based on real towns – or my perception of them anyway – and my take on how the UK has changed over the last twenty years or so and keeps on changing. That’s another reason characters reappear – in the same location viewed over connected time it would be very odd if they didn’t. Buildings, landscapes and institutions in Crowby do the same too – they morph over time from one use or purpose to another and they resonate with memories for everyone who lives there – just like in your town.
A controversial aspect of your writing is the swearing and ‘bad language’ which some readers may find off-putting. How do you justify this?
There were some fairly blood-curdling oaths and graphic obscenities in the Shakespearean era too, to take one obvious example from literary history. It’s simply the passing of time that has rendered them ‘archaic’ and to a certain, untutored way of thinking ‘harmless’. No modern British novelist with any claim to be working in a realist tradition can avoid at least some use of swear-words. Some people in modern Britain swear a lot - in every social class and on every social occasion. The important point is to match the style of language to the specific character. Many of my characters never swear, some only rarely and a few recurrently. If you don’t put those words in you’re self-censoring. My books cut a swathe through the class structure and one of the things I like to do in them is to juxtapose characters from very different backgrounds with very different ways of speaking and thinking. What might surprise some readers, I guess, is that it’s actually much easier to express complex emotions and ideas via an articulate character with a wide and varied vocabulary than it is when you’re working with one who doesn’t have those over-educated ‘advantages’. The thoughts and the feelings are still there but it’s a much bigger technical challenge for the writer to communicate them successfully on the page. Maybe that’s why some never bother and why so much modern ‘literary’ fiction confines itself to the viewpoint of a ludicrously narrow and restricted social milieu. Sorry – end of lecture!
The Evil Thereof includes an array of unpleasant and unsympathetic individuals; readers will thoroughly despise several of them, yet it’s hard not to feel a reluctant sympathy with some of the others. Is this deliberate? How do you yourself feel about those kind of characters?
‘Evil’ is a tricky concept that has eluded successful definition by generations of thinkers and philosophers. But let’s just use it here anyway as a short-hand term. So in the Crowby books I’ve told the stories of several downright ‘evil’ individuals towards whom contempt and loathing are highly understandable human responses. I’m guessing, though, that you’re referring here to some of my more morally ambiguous characters?
That’s right. In your new book the drug dealer, Fat Stuart, for instance – or a troubled youth like Chris Thompson.
The short answer is that I’m delighted you feel that element of sympathy. Too much crime fiction – and too much of our culture and media in general – posits an easy distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ when of course the reality is more complex than many people seem to realise. Especially those for whom social background and psychological disposition has made it easy to lead comfortable, conventional lives. Brecht’s famous question (why rob a bank when you can own one?) is as relevant now as it ever was.** In the interests of marketing of course I suppose I should point out that my books do also feature some unambiguously decent and brave characters.
No spoilers but I think one of the themes which emerges strongly in your new book is the force of families in people’s lives and how important parents can be in determining the kind of lives their children are able to lead. Was that a deliberate decision on your part?
Not in the early days anyway. Every writer’s experience is different but for me the book I think I’m writing at the beginning very often turns out to be a different book altogether – or to be about themes I’d not remotely glimpsed initially. Maybe it’s about listening to your characters as they emerge onto the page or letting your conscious mind get out of the way of your mind’s deeper levels as you work on it. Either way, after seven books I think I’d be worried now if I wrote a book that never seemed to run away with itself or insist on changing its direction.
And finally – and again no spoilers – but in terms of certain developments in your new book, can we still look forward to an eighth Jacobson novel?
This stuff is hard work for uncertain material reward and I’m not making promises. But I refer you to the advertising slogan we’re using for The Evil Thereof - Inspector Jacobson is BACK…
Thank you, Maddy – and thanks to everybody who’s been kind enough to let me know recently that a new Jacobson is something they’ve actually been waiting for. Your support means more than you know.
© Iain McDowall and Madeleine Taylor, 2014.
All rights reserved.
**Pedants’ corner: the more accurate translation is “what is
the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?”
See also Woody Guthrie: “some rob you with a six-gun and
some with a fountain pen.”