I’m guessing you didn’t just turn up here by mistake. Nobody comes this way, along that rickety bridge, down into the gaping ravine and then through those caves. Nobody in their right mind would make that journey, not with all the stories about what lives in the woods, not unless they’re really interested in new crime authors and new crime books. Or unless they’re deluded.
But, look, now you’re here, don’t feel bad about it. We’ve got a real treat for you. Chris Lloyd is the author of the new thriller City Of Good Death. It’s the first of a new series about Catalonian detective Elisenda Domènech. who must battle sceptical colleagues and bureaucratic stonewalling to catch a killer who is prowling the myth-soaked streets of Girona.
Author Chris Lloyd lived in Catalonia for over twenty years. Now back in South Wales, he works as a Catalan and Spanish translator. A generous and fascinating interviewee, Chris gives us the intel on Elisenda, Catalonia’s turbulent past, and how, as a writer, you have to make friends with the delete button.
Tell us about Elisenda Domènech…
That’s a tough question as I’m still learning about her. Initially, she’s very straightforward and down-to-earth, but the things that have happened to her have made her tremendously complex. At first glance, she’s a middle-class, well-educated Catalan woman who loves her family, is loyal to the people she cares for, has a huge respect for her culture and traditions and longed to return to her native Girona after years in Barcelona. But when I dig deeper, I see that even with all of that, she’s rebelled in her own way against other people’s expectations of her. She was expected to have a glittering career as a lawyer, but chose instead to go against everyone’s wishes for her by joining the newly-formed Catalan police, one of the first women to enlist, at a time when most middle-class, well-educated Catalan women still had to be convinced it was the career for them. She’s irreverent and sharp-witted, a hater of hierarchy and ceremony, but so much of her nature, her innate sense of fun and enjoyment of life, is hidden under layers of grief and guilt at the death of her daughter.
How did you get the idea for City Of Good Death?
Really, it was a series of moments that found their way to each other. I was researching in the municipal archives in Girona when I came across the history of the Virgin of Good Death, a statue over one of the old gateways into the city. In medieval times, she was there to bless convicted criminals as they were led out of the city to be executed. The statue was not far from the archive, so I went straight outside to look at her and I was immediately enchanted. I couldn’t help wondering what she had witnessed over the years. The same week, in the same archive, I also discovered dozens of legends about the city I’d never heard before. One was about a face carved into a wall, which I found, and showed to a friend, someone from Girona, who’d never seen it. Those two finds pretty much sowed the seed of the idea of how easy it is to forget the stories of our own culture, and of how someone might act in an extreme way in the face of that.
All of this happened at the same time that policing was being devolved to Catalonia. Essentially, a new police force was being put in place. They knew how they wanted the police to be and were working hard at breaking with the past, but they were still finding it difficult to change history and the perceptions of their role. And they were having to learn as they went along, handling change the best they could. It just seemed the perfect counterpoint to the whole idea of change versus tradition and the rights and wrongs of them both.
You lived in Catalonia for twenty years – why is it such a good place to set a crime series?
There should be an easy answer to that, but it’s so hard to pin down. And that’s probably why it is so perfect as a setting. I think it boils down to contradictions. Once in Girona, I saw two cars parked side-by-side being loaded, one with skis and the other with an inflatable boat. The first was two hours from the Pyrenees, the second was half an hour from the beach. For me, it sums up a variety – or a contradiction – that I think you’d be hard pushed to find in many places in the world. Catalonia’s had a turbulent past, it’s known wealth and poverty, supremacy and oppression, and that breadth of experience and history distils into a character and a mood that’s so abundant in stories and that can switch from one extreme to another. On a purely practical level, it also means I can base one story in a beautiful and bustling medieval/modern city, with all the contradictions inherent in that, and the next on an isolated winter headland overlooking the Mediterranean.
It’s changed greatly over the years. Spain never really had a tradition of police procedural novels, or heroes, and that’s largely because of the way policing was seen for so long. Throughout the Franco era and for some time after, the police weren’t perceived to be there to solve crime or protect the public, but as a force for control and punishment. And I think that was reflected in what readers chose for their crime fiction. People wanted escapism. So, when I first went to live in Spain, there was a taste for cosy crime stories, a real escape from reality. Agatha Christie was hugely popular, as were the more traditional or established British crime writers, such as GK Chesterton and Conan Doyle. Probably more so than the American writers, although the greats like Chandler and Hammett were popular. Home-grown writers were few and far between, and for years Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, with his very politicised private detective Pepe Carvalho, writing against a backdrop of post-Franco changes in Barcelona and beyond, was very much a lone voice. And a sign of what was to come, I think.
But as the country’s changed, so have tastes. Spanish society and the roles in it have shifted. As the country prospered and became more confident, so readers were more open to trying new writers and new sub-genres within crime fiction. Things shifted from the cosy to the socially critical. From the tea-and-deduction type of fiction to the more hard-boiled and realistic, with modern British and American writers, along with the Nordic authors and new generations of Spanish writers. And this has deepened since the financial crisis. Now, instead of books that escape reality, we’re seeing a taste for fiction that uses it as the setting. Interestingly, we’re at the point where we’re seeing a lot of home-grown police procedural crime fiction. On the one hand, cops are steadily becoming more acceptable as heroes, and on the other, readers in Spain want stories that reflect the reality of their own country, more so at a time when there are so many problems. Crime fiction is a way of trying to understand what’s going on in tough times.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Patience. With yourself and with the process. First of all, you have to be patient with yourself: it was a shock to realise that I was never going to write a 90,000 word novel in one sitting! I’ve had to learn how to break the story down and concentrate on the bit I’m working on, then move on to the next bit and then the next bit, and keep going until I have a first draft. And you have to be patient with yourself when you have those moments where you write 2,000 words one day and delete the lot the next. You also have to learn patience with the whole process, over which you have no control. Once you send out your work, you simply have to get on with a new story. Don’t sit around waiting because everything takes a lot longer than you think it will, and you can drive yourself up the wall trying to second-guess what’s happening to your manuscript.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
For crime, I’m a great fan of the Nordic writers, especially Mons Kallentoft and Arnaldur Indridason. I love their sense of place and how that forms the character. The same holds true for my other favourites, Stuart MacBride, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Philip Kerr, David Downing. They all have an extraordinary ability to create a powerful protagonist and a world that’s unique to them. I also admire writers who can break down the conventions of crime, like Malcolm Pryce with his amazing stories set in an alternative Aberystwyth, and Christopher Brookmyre, who is constantly surprising.
For non-crime, I love the exquisitely layered stories of Jonathan Coe and Robertson Davies, the intense atmosphere of Milan Kundera and Michel Faber, and the off-the-wall world of Hunter S Thompson and Tom Robbins.
Give me some advice about writing…
You have to learn to kill your babies. And to save them. That beautifully-crafted piece of prose simply might not work in your story or a character you love writing might just be getting in the way, so you have to make friends with the delete button. But before that, learn to use the paste button. I save everything I cut in files in an offcuts folder and check back from time to time in case something there gives me an idea for later on. One of the characters in City of Good Death was a development of one I cut from an earlier draft but saved in the offcuts folder. A snippet of dialogue helped form the basis of another completely different scene.
What’s next for Elisenda and her team?
They’re still reeling after the events of City of Good Death and still fighting for the survival of the unit, so Elisenda is doubly annoyed at being given a cold case, which she sees as a forerunner to their being closed down. But the case, a thirty-year-old murder that echoes an ancient Iberian form of ritual execution, proves to have repercussions today. It throws up a trade in illicit antiquities, while also revealing a past practice under Franco of destroying archaeological sites if they didn’t fit in with the official history, or simply because of economic expediency in the hotel building boom of the early tourist industry. The people who benefited from that want to protect the secrets of the past.
City Of Good Death, published by Canelo, is available as an ebook from places like this.