UK crime writer Ed Chatterton has earned plaudits with his books A Dark Place To Die (2011) and Down Among The Dead Men (2013). Following the publication of Remission (2016) – the third book in the Frank Keane series – Tom Leins caught up with him to discuss brutality, Brit Grit and (James Patterson’s) Bookshots.
Remission is an often brutal book, which takes an unflinching look at some dark themes. Do you think that crime readers’ tastes get more extreme every year?
I don’t know about that, mainly because I don’t read much crime fiction. I don’t really have any interest in brutality (in fact I don’t like it!). What I think I do is to write unflinchingly about characters and situations: in my stories violence hurts, no-one is bulletproof, and consequently it feels real. Perhaps that is brutal. The most brutal moments in this book are probably psychological – I’m thinking of the scene at the zoo, and of the scenes involving Frank Keane’s cancer.
What starts out as a standard British cop thriller quickly evolves into something more ambitious in terms of narrative and geography. How important is it to broaden the horizons of British crime fiction?
Although these books (the ‘Frank Keane’ novels) start out in the UK, in Liverpool, I’m always anxious to get the characters out of the local confines of the story. I don’t see myself as a British crime writer which is probably because I have lived in Australia and the US as well as the UK on and off for the past 15 years. Most of the ‘crime’ writers I admire are American, I have to admit – Richard Price, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard, Don Winslow, Carl Hiassen. As I said earlier, I’m not fully ‘up’ enough on British crime fiction to speak with much authority but if pressed I’d say it might be a failing of many that they are tied so closely to characters in a narrow location. In terms of horizon, I can only say I’m trying to push past the perceived expectations from crime fiction. I’m approaching the end of a PhD on the legacy of the slave trade in Liverpool, the bulk of which consists of a novel called ‘The Last Slave Ship’ which is a dual narrative beginning with a race-hate crime in contemporary Liverpool paralleling events on the final slaving voyage to leave Liverpool in the early 1800’s. One or two characters from the ‘Keane’ novels re-appear but this is not in any way a conventional crime novel. Whether or not this makes it ‘better’ remains to be seen but it is certainly more ambitious than most.
Which of your contemporaries rank as must-reads for you? What was the last crime novel that really impressed you?
Like I said above, most of them are Americans. And, for me, the best writing being done now is happening in film and TV, again mostly in the US. I thought Anthony Horowitz did a great job with The House of Silk – he’s a writer I admire (and who I’ve worked with wearing my illustrator hat) and I’m looking forward to reading Moriarty. A lot of the ‘big’ contemporary crime names don’t do much for me. If I see another book with ‘girl’ in the fucking title . . . Jesus. There’s a lot of energy in the ‘Brit Grit’ world that I like.
There are a number of scenes in the book that panned out in surprising ways. How important is it to confound readers and try to offer a fresh slant on the tried-and-trusted police procedural dynamic?
That’s good because I loathe books which telegraph the narrative. Every book I’ve ever written (both for children and adults) has had one primary impulse: to be a book I would have liked to read. That’s it. Surprise is part of that but it’s second to character. I don’t really care that much (as a reader) about the plot. I love spending time with Sherlock Holmes for example but I don’t actually care about the fine detail of what he did. I didn’t know I was writing police procedurals until someone at Random House told me but I don’t mind that. I’m not sure I could keep writing them. Which, of course, without giving anything away, Remission ends as it does. There’s another direction this could go.
The ugly rise of right-wing politics in Europe dominates the book. Do you think that these kind of themes will increasingly come to the fore in contemporary crime fiction? How effective is crime fiction in addressing these issues?
I’m not sure the themes will come to the fore. My feeling is that crime fiction is, very broadly, conservative: the dominance of ‘strong men’, masculine power, narratives of sadism, the triumph of ‘good’ over ‘bad’, the bolstering of institutions. These are all conservative impulses and most crime writers shy away from a political stance. I’d hope there’d be more polemical writing but I’m not convinced we’ll see it. As we know, recent events have shown us to be in a new era of fascism or proto-fascism. Writers have a part to play in this but I suspect the part we’ll see more of is it (crime fiction) shifting further to the right.
I noticed on your website that you are co-writing a book with James Patterson as part of his new Bookshots series. How did that assignment come about, and can you explain a little bit about the logistics of the project – and the division of labour?
We share a publisher (Random House) and about five years ago I was asked by my editor if I’d like to work on a crime novel with JP. I said yes but then various events prevented it happening. Shortly after I was asked to co-write a book in Jim’s massively successful Middle School series, which I did. That led to me co-writing two more and I’m now coming to the end of our fourth in that series. When the Bookshots idea began, Random House must have seen we’d make a good fit for a crime collaboration which has been the case. Absolute Zero will be published in 2017. It’s a story that revolves around an ex-services Australian living in London who, in the wrong place at the wrong time, is framed for an arson attack and who then doggedly pursues those responsible to Iceland and Vermont. It’s loosely based around a Viking saga of vengeance: the Vikings were big on vengeance! Absolute Zero is sort of ‘Rambo in the snow’! The Bookshots series harks back to the glory days of pulp fiction – short, fast-paced novels, heavy on action and driven by excitement. I love the idea. With Middle School, I write to an outlined brief which may be quite small but must be centred in the world established by Jim: the world of Rafe Khatchadorian, an artsy kid in smalltown America. He populated that world with great characters and themes and my job as co-writer is to develop those in fresh ways. When I’ve written a synopsis it gets batted back and forth until everyone’s happy. Then we write and the same thing happens at various stages. Absolute Zero was slightly different because there wasn’t a ‘world’ the book had to conform to so it was more of a fresh page. The book has been written now and Jim is applying his touch to the final draft. I’m looking forward to working on more.
How is The Act of Killing TV show coming along? Which TV cop shows would you file it alongside?
It’s coming along slowly but surely. Escapade Media, the production company who own the rights are doing a great job of getting it on to the screen. They brought in Tally Garner, a massively experienced UK producer last year and that’s kicked things on I think. They’re now casting the leads and the directors and they’re certainly aiming high – it’s a surreal thing when I’m getting asked my opinion on A-list actors! The writers of the scripts, Rob Cawley and Paul Duane are two Irish writers who have had some previous success with Amber, for RTE and, I’m sure, will do a great job. I’m hoping it will fit alongside things like Happy Valley and The Fall.
Finally, can you tell us a little bit about the projects that you are working on next? Can we expect to see more of Frank Keane in the future?
While I’m definitely continuing to write novels, I’ve been making a conscious move into writing for film and TV over the past couple of years. I’ve co-written a TV crime/comedy drama series called Dotty with a mate, Brian Viner (fellow Evertonian and the movie critic at the Daily Mail). Dotty is centred around a refined Herefordshire countrywoman who somehow, semi-accidentally becomes a hitwoman. We’ve got some excitingly high level interest in that series and we’re hoping there’ll be an announcement we can make pretty soon. I’ve also written a feature film called The Last Train To Sugartown with a Canadian film-maker based in Vancouver. The Last Train To Sugartown revolves around two unsuccessful movie makers who drift into armed robbery to fund their film. It’s a comedic road movie that will be shot (we hope) on location this year in British Columbia with a score by a mate, rising British singer/songwriter, Lapsley. The Last Train To Sugartown is also going to be a stage play (something I’m doing now in Australia with co-writer, Susan Bradley-Smith) and, if I get time, I’ll write it as a novel.
I’ll be polishing my PhD novel, The Last Slave Ship, and sending that out to publishers very soon. As far as Frank Keane goes it depends on time. Myself and my creative partner in Vancouver, Michel Duran, have set up a production company over there with a view to developing more projects once The Last Train To Sugartown is done. That may cut my time to do much speculative fiction but I’m hoping to write the next Keane instalment sometime in the next year. I’m also working on a standalone crime book with Random House aimed at the Young Adult sector called RAZr about a kid growing up in a Sydney crime family.
And, lastly I’m working with an animation company, Blue Rocket, on scripts for the animated series based on Alexander The Elephant, a book/music collaboration between myself and Aussie rocker, Pat Davern. Pat and me are developing a couple of other ideas/projects…including writing some songs! All in all, pretty busy.
For more details visit: http://www.edchatterton.com