Absolutely delighted to introduce a Q&A with Ed Chatterton. Ed is the prize-winning author of more than twenty children’s novels (published under the name Martin Chatterton). A Dark Place to Die is his first crime novel and he is already hard at work on the second novel in the DI Frank Keane series. Here’s what he had to say and read my review of this gritty debut here: A Dark Place To Die.
Obviously this is a bit of a transition of style going from a successful career as a children’s author to a gritty crime novelist. How cathartic was it as a writing process as the book is brilliantly visceral and earthy in tone? And why the change of direction or have you always had a hankering to write in the crime genre?
It is a big change, that’s true. I have always been a massive crime fiction reader and always felt I had a crime book (or more) ‘in me’. It took a long time for that book to arrive but I like to think that while it was gestating I was getting better and better at being a writer. Several of my children’s books were for a Young Adult readership and were, essentially, crime fiction. The difference was that there was no sex and definitely no swearing. I’ve written thirty one books prior to ‘A Dark Place To Die’ so I must have learnt something along the way. My children’s fiction is all surreally comedic so this was a definite shift in tone and content. And yes, it was extremely cathartic to let it all hang out after years of editing out the grit. Another reason for the change was that I felt I had a significant amount of life experience to give weight to the book.
As with my beginnings as a children’s writer it started by thinking I could do better than a lot of stuff that’s out there. I’m aiming high: my writing heroes are Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos. If I can get within touching distance of Leonard I’ll die happy.
How fully formed were the differing characters of DI Frank Keane and his former boss Menno Koopman in your mind when you started writing? Were they the starting point for the book?
I stole the names for most of the characters from friends. Menno Koopman is a Dutch guy I play football with (I did ask him and everyone else for permission). He bears no relationship to the character of Koopman but I wanted to give him a ‘non-Liverpool’ flavour of some sort. This was because I didn’t want the series to be too ‘scouse’. I have ambitions for the books that extend beyond Liverpool and giving Koopman Dutch heritage – not to mention having him live in Australia – helped with that.
Keane is based on a number of cops I know or who I used to know. They were, usually, self-contained, undramatic and professional. They don’t like to be showy and I was determined that while he should be human he shouldn’t be laden with deep character flaws and ticks as so many crime characters seem to be.
The real starting point for the book was the idea of writing about someone who, like me, had emigrated. I’d done it twice; first to the US and then to Australia. There’s something about moving away from your home city/country that gives you a perspective on the place. I have a foot in both places (painful, sometimes) but that was important in the development of the story. I also wanted there to be several strong characters who could (and will) become lead characters. Without being too much of a George Pelecanos worshipper, that’s what he does so successfully. So while Koopman might arguably be the dominant character in ‘A Dark Place To Die’, in the sequel it is Frank Keane who I focus on. Further down the line I’d like Em Harris to become a lead character.
One thing I loved about the book was how the differing locations of inner city Liverpool and the lush green rolling landscapes of outback Australia took on a character of their own. How important was this to the book in the light of you personally uprooting in the same direction as the character of Menno Koopman?
I heard from a detective friend of mine who lives locally that the area I live in (the Northern Rivers) has the highest murder rate per capita in New South Wales. Given that this area is all very lush, with white sand beaches and clear blue ocean that might be surprising. But I subscribe to the view that wherever humanity is there is violence. We are a violent species and our surroundings don’t stop that. From a dramatic point of view there was a nice counterpoint between the two locations. It’s hard enough to write a book of this complexity and have it take place in an unfamiliar setting so it made a lot of sense to place the action in both Australia and Liverpool. And I placed the Australian sections in the areas closet to me. The Gold Coast is about an hour north from where we live and has a thriving criminal fraternity. Once I had a plot device that made sense – a large scale drug deal between Liverpool and Australia – then everything else fell into place. Clearly too, because I had emigrated, there was empathy with Koopman’s mindset which made him easy to write.
At times the book strayed from the normal conventions of crime writing with the emphasis on critical theories and art as expounded by the wonderfully evil character of North. How did the idea of having a well-read if totally psychotic killer come about? And is art a particular interest of yours?
I am interested in art, yes. In fact, the character of North came about as a device in which I could discuss the locations that are important in the narrative. I needed someone who could talk about or reflect on the artistic content so making him an ex-art student made sense. The opening location which takes place amongst Antony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’ sculpture installation was a vital component of the book. Without giving anything away this artistic setting is echoed later in the book. I’m a big admirer of Gormley’s work, particularly ‘The Angel of the North’ and I wanted a way to express that. As a reader I’m always a sucker for art-themed crime fiction (although I was bitterly disappointed by ‘The DaVinci Code’). I went to art school and became an illustrator; something that I still do for both my own children’s books and for other people.
A quite standard question but who are your writing influences and any crime writers in particular who really ‘shake your tree’ so to speak?
I’ve already embarrassed myself by fawning over Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos so I won’t add to that particular eulogising. There are tons of other writers who I admire: people like PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Richmal Crompton. Many of the writers who I think are truly incredible are comedy writers; Larry David and Ricky Gervais spring to mind.
In crime fiction I love Patricia Highsmith – the Ripley books are incredible – and I also have a fondness for some of the Nordic writers. I’m enjoying Asa Larsson’s ‘The Black Path’ right now which might also be because I shared a panel at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival with her last week (she’s terrific). I like Carl Hiassen and Don Winslow and Joe Lansdale. I have something of a man crush on Elliot Perlman after crossing paths with him at a dinner although again I think this may simply be fan madness on my part. Michael Connelly is a wonderful crime writer too. It’s one of my biggest thrills that I was recently taken on by the same agent in LA as him and Dennis Lehane. And I can’t namecheck crime writers without mentioning Arthur Conan Doyle.
What next for DI Keane- is there another book in the pipeline as this was such a strong and punchy debut?
Frank is back, yes! I’ve just completed the first draft of the sequel to ‘A Dark Place To Die’. Myself and Random House are still arguing over the title so I can’t help out on that, but I can say that in this one the action is split into two distinct halves; the first part takes place in Liverpool and the second in Los Angeles. Keane has been promoted to DCI and is a little uncomfortable in the role. When an apparently simple murder-suicide in a leafy Merseyside suburb takes place, he doesn’t imagine for a moment where it will end.
The Liverpool sequences centre on an edgy movie being shot in the city (Liverpool has long been a thriving movie location). the movie centres on the Williamson tunnels. These tunnels – which are real – were built in the 1800’s by an eccentric philanthropist called Joseph Williamson to provide work for unemployed builders. Instead of creating something useful, Williamson built miles of pointless caverns and tunnels under the Edge Hill area of the city. Some of the tunnels are still to be explored. The location echoes the theme of the book which is loosely based on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.
I’d like Frank to run for a number of books and I think Random House have every intention of doing that. If not, I guess I can always keep drawing.
‘A Dark Place To Die’ has been optioned by a movie production company so I guess that if that eventuates we’ll definitely be seeing more of Frank.