Tag Archives: The Killing

The Intel: S.G. MacLean

S.G. MacLean

Photo: Jerry Bauer

And we’re back. Because we can’t keep away. Not really. Because we love hearing what crime authors have to say. Especially when they’re award winners!

S.G. MacLean has just won the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger for the first in her series about a man who makes Ross Poldark and his scythe look like Charles Hawtrey, the manly and ruthless Damian Seeker.

The Seeker, published by Quercus, is set in Oliver Cromwell’s London of 1654. Cromwell is at the height of his power and has declared himself Lord Protector. Yet he has many enemies, at home and abroad.

The city is a complex web of spies and merchants, priests and soldiers, exiles and assassins. One of the web’s most fearsome spiders is Damian Seeker, agent of the Lord Protector. No one knows where Seeker comes from, who his family is, or even his real name. All that is known of him for certain is that he is utterly loyal to Cromwell.

We’re absolutely chuffed here at CTF that Shona MacLean is here to give us the lowdown on how she met Seeker himself, about why the English Civil War is such fertile territory for novelists, and how sometimes — if you want to be a writer — you just have to go nuclear with your word count.

Who is The Seeker?

The Seeker is Damian Seeker, an officer in the intelligence services of the Cromwellian Protectorate. He is an agent-handler and enforcer in the vast spy network headed by Cromwell’s Secretary of State, John Thurloe. Seeker is a Yorkshireman, taciturn, unflinching, much feared and utterly loyal to Cromwell. However, in the tradition of all good detective stories, he has a seldom-glimpsed softer side and a few secrets of his own.

Where did the inspiration for Damien Seeker come from?

Ah. Well, the story, the mystery, centred on the inhabitants of the Palace of Whitehall and and the patrons of a City coffee house. I was so taken up with the setting and the story, I hadn’t really considered the question of the detective character until I was explaining the idea to my editor over the phone. It was when she said, ‘of course you’ll need to think carefully about your detective character’ that I first realised I didn’t have one. Cue a long rant to my husband, followed by hauling the Labrador out to the woods in an effort to work out what on earth I was going to do about this.

It was a typically dreich Highland December day, and I can still remember the place on the path where, in my mind’s eye – I was perfectly aware I wasn’t actually seeing this – a large man dressed in black leather boots and a long black cloak stepped out from the whin bushes and presented himself to me. He was like a cross between Darth Vader and Brix, Sarah Lund’s boss from ‘The Killing,’ and I knew his name was Damian Seeker. Believe it or believe it not, that is where Damian Seeker came from. I think it was probably that location and situation that contributed to his background and his character, but he really did step in to my mind’s eye at that moment more or less fully formed.

Why is the English Civil War such a rich period of history to mine for a novelist?

Humanity. Be it good or bad, no-one could deny their own humanity in the English Civil War. People from all walks of life suffered, lost everything. But people with very little also rose to the top, in a manner that must have utterly astonished their contemporaries. And it is a time when the people of England really found their voice – religious radicals, lawyers, newsmen – there was a mania of opinion and a mania for rumour and news. There were instances of extreme bravery and complete barbarity in the course of the wars, and of course, the establishment of an endless game of espionage and counter-espionage between Royalists and Republicans. It is, for an historical novelist, an embarrassment of riches.

The SeekerHas Oliver Cromwell got a rough deal from history or was he really such a formidable character?

Mmm. I don’t think he has had a rough deal – he still ranks pretty highly in ‘Greatest ever Englishman’ polls. As a Scot of partly Irish descent, I am pre-disposed to see him in a quite different light. Quite aside from his Irish atrocities and his attitudes to the place of the Scots and the Irish in his vision of a united commonwealth, he seems to have verged on megalomania as time went on, and as more reasoned voices were dismissed or fell silent and his power increased. However, I think he was undeniably a military genius and must have had a tremendous force of personality. Despite my personal antipathy, I found that when I wrote Cromwell, whenever he strode on to the pages of The Seeker, I was writing him sympathetically, as someone I liked. I think this may be because I had decided Damian Seeker would be unwaveringly loyal to him, and so any criticism of Cromwell in the books comes from other, subsidiary characters.

Congratulations on winning the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger – do you feel extra pressure on writing Seeker’s next adventure now?

Thank you. And Oh, Yes, I do. However, I was feeling the pressure before that. If I am happy with one book, I instantly worry that the next will not be as good and that people will be disappointed. If someone has something nice to say about my writing, I get a flutter of pleasure and then wonder if I should warn them not to read anything else I have written. Apparently this is not particularly good PR, so I am trying to reign in the impulse.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Sometimes you just have to press the delete button and start again. You have to decimate your carefully nurtured and much-cherished word-count and be honest with yourself if a character, a scene, a chapter just isn’t working.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Oh, crime first? My favourite series are Craig Russell’s Hamburg-set police procedurals featuring the elegant and intellectual Jan Fabel. I love the portrayal of the city, I love Fabel’s elegant, tasteful apartment, clothes, lifestyle (grisly serial killings aside). I love the cleverness and the depth of research. The series has all the qualities of Wallander and I would love to see it televised in this country.

I also love Anne Cleeve’s Vera books. Vera is a magnificent creation, and my 15-year old daughter’s heroine. A beacon for feisty women. The mysteries are utterly intriguing and all the characters so well drawn.

Not specifically crime? Alan Warner, Andrew Greig, James Robertson, Janice Galloway, Ali Smith, James Kelman: they show me my country in its past and present in ways that buzz with authenticity, life, and the potential of human beings.

Give me some advice about writing…

Inspiration when it comes, and it does come, is fantastic – gives you a buzz, sets you alight with the desire to tell a story. But the rest is a job of work, and you have to treat it like a job of work, be exacting with yourself and don’t take sloppy short-cuts. You won’t like yourself if you know your book isn’t as good as you could have made it.

What’s next for you?

Almost finished the First draft of the second Seeker book – working title: Gethsemane. But really next is the holiday packing – ugh!

The Seeker is published in hardback by Quercus Books.

The Intel: David Hewson

David Hewson

Photo credit: markbothwell.com

Earlier this week we reviewed acclaimed author David Hewson’s latest foray into Eurocrime, his second Vos and Bakker thriller, The Wrong Girl. You can see that review right here if you so choose, or you can just scroll down and save your most important finger a lot of unnecessary work.

Hewson is a restless soul, the author of the Nic Costa series, set in Rome, and the adaptations of Scandi crimes The Killing I, II and III. His latest series is set in Amsterdam. So, yes — you know where we’re going with this — we’re delighted that Hewson has agreed to give us the intel on his work. He talks Dutch cops, adapting The Killing, and how he sets about getting under the skin of a new city…

Who is The Wrong Girl?

The Wrong Girl (and I know there are a lot of books with ‘girl’ in the title at the moment but in this case it is a girl) is Natalya Bublik, the eight-year-old daughter of a Georgian single mother working as a freelancer prostitute in the Red Light cabins of Amsterdam. She’s been snatched at a huge public event in October, the arrival of Sinterklaas – St Nicholas, a bit like our Santa Claus – which is a public holiday that ends with Sinterklaas addressing the city’s children from the balcony of the theatre in Leidseplein. It appears the kidnappers – a terrorist group trying to force the release of one of their supporters – have seized Natalya in mistake for the daughter of a wealthy Amsterdam family. But it soon becomes apparent all is not as it seems.

Tell us about Vos and Bakker…

I wanted to write a book which has a man and woman in it without any hint or possibility of romantic attachment. There is no ‘will they? Won’t they?’ in any of this. They’re both likeable slightly dysfunctional characters in their own right. Vos a loner with a failed relationship in the past, happy to live in his houseboat and his dog, wary of getting close to anyone. Bakker, fifteen years younger or so, comes from Friesland in the north of the Netherlands so she’s treated like an outsider – a bucolic idiot – by some, even though she’s very smart. Vos is a city chap, sophisticated, liberal, easy-going. Bakker is judgmental and uneasy in the city at times. They both think the other needs fixing so it’s a relationship that at times can be a bit edgy, though there’s genuine affection and respect in there too.

How do Dutch cops differ from our own?

They don’t. All the things British police moan about – management, bureaucracy, targets, political correctness – happen in the Netherlands too. Probably everywhere.

The Wrong GirlYou’re known for your European thrillers – how well do you have to know a city and a culture before you can write about it?

Personally I have to know it pretty well – and that means taking an apartment, reading a lot about it, talking to people, taking photos. With the Vos books I had my Dutch publisher on board from the outset which was incredibly helpful and saved me from lots of stupid mistakes. However much you work at it you’re bound to let something through that you couldn’t possible spot. My Dutch publisher saved me that embarrassment thank goodness.

Your research must be extensive — how do you organise it all?

Logically. A camera, a smart phone, lots and lots of notes, 90% of which probably won’t be used. Research is the bit of the iceberg you don’t see though so I never know whether something really was wasted. I do have a little bell that rings when the research is taking over though. It’s important to remember the story comes first, and you don’t have to put in an interesting fact simply because it’s interesting.

You recently completed your novelisations of The Killing series – how does it feel to be once again working on your own characters?

It doesn’t feel terribly different to be honest. The Killing adaptations were just that: adaptations. I made lots of changes, killed some characters who lived on TV and vice versa, and for the last book I revived a character, Troels Hartmann, who didn’t even appear on TV. I wanted the books to work as a trilogy about the character of Sarah Lund and I was writing with hindsight. The TV people didn’t have that advantage.

All of the challenges I have with my own books were there. Even down to the dialogue which doesn’t follow the TV much at all.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

I don’t know if it’s the hardest lesson but it’s the best lesson – you never learn this craft. You’re always a beginner in some ways, because if you’re not you’ll start turning out books that are just like the last one. I wipe the slate clean with every book and start with a blank page determined to do something that’s not like the last book. The Wrong Girl is quite different to The House of Dolls in many respects. That first book was introducing Vos and Bakker and in a way was about Bakker rescuing Vos from his solitary life. In The Wrong Girl they’ve got a real and nasty case on their hands, and it’s only personal because they’re the kind of people who care about the dispossessed and the downtrodden – unlike some others in authority.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

I only ever mention dead authors in this respect because if you mention living ones the living ones you don’t mention can get punchy. Robert Graves for writing one of the best examples of pure tragedy around – I, Claudius. Crime/thriller is simply a new name for what the Greeks call tragedy so there’s lots to learn from there.

Ed McBain for introducing the idea that books can work with an ensemble cast, not just a single all-knowing, all powerful protagonist.

Robert Louis Stevenson because he managed to get away with some fantastic genre-crossing, from horror to kid’s stuff to out-and-out adventure. Something it would be very hard to repeat today.

Give me some advice about writing…

It’s easy really. All you have to do is find the right words and put them in the correct order.

What’s next for you?

A new Italian standalone set in 1986 Florence, The Flood, from Severn House in July. Then a nine or ten hour audio adaptation of Macbeth for Audible in Germany (it’s not yet recorded so I’m not sure of the finished length). It’s not an adaptation of Shakespeare but an adaptation of an adaptation of Shakespeare I wrote into book form with A.J Hartley, a Shakespeare professor, which was recorded by Alan Cumming a few years back.

This adapting thing seems to be catching.

The Wrong Girl by David Hewson is published 7th May by Macmillan, priced £12.99 in hardback.

The Wrong Girl – David Hewson

The Wrong GirlWe’re reviewing today. Bring your passport and a change of pants. David Hewson’s The Wrong Girl is the second in his series of novels to feature his Dutch cops Vos and Bakker.

The blurb loves a bit of argy-bargy:

Sinterklaas, a beaming, friendly saint with a white beard, was set to mark his arrival in Amsterdam with a parade so celebrated it would be watched live on television throughout the Netherlands. Today the crowds would run into three hundred thousand or more, and the police presence would top four figures. The city centre was closed to all traffic as a golden barge bore Sinterklaas down the Amstel river, surrounded by a throng of private boats full of families trying to get close.

Amsterdam is bursting at the seams with children trying to get a glimpse of their hero and families enjoying the occasion. The police are out in force, struggling to manage the crowds on one of the busiest days of the year.

Brigadier Pieter Vos is on duty with his young assistant, Laura Bakker, when the first grenade hits. As Sinterklaas prepares to address the crowds, a terrorist incident grips the heart of the city. In the chaos a young girl wearing a pink jacket is kidnapped.

But the abducted child isn’t the daughter of an Amsterdam aristocrat as the terrorists first thought. She’s the daughter of an impoverished Georgian prostitute, friendless and trapped in the web of vice that is Amsterdam’s Red Light District. As the security forces and the police clash over the ensuing investigation, the perpetrator’s horrifying demands become clear. Vos, trapped in a turf war with state intelligence, tries to unravel a conspiracy that reaches from the brothels of the city to the hierarchy of the security services.

And at its heart lies an eight-year-old girl, snatched from a loving mother and then ferried from one criminal lair to the next. Her life in the balance as Vos and Laura Bakker struggle to uncover the shocking truth behind her abduction. What is the life of one immigrant child worth in the greater political game emerging around them?

So David Hewson has got form for this kind of European thriller. He’s the king of Eurocrime, the guy who wrote the Nic Costa thrillers, set in Italy, and three adaptations of The Killing TV series. If you’re going on a coach trip across the continent, he’s the guy you want behind the wheel. He never takes any unnecessary detours, the story slips into automatic and it carries you towards the climax with barely a bump in the road.

Amsterdam is at once familiar and strange in The Wrong Girl. Hewson doesn’t overload the story with research, but drops the odd cultural detail into his precinct. The little girl is abducted at Amsterdam’s annual Sinterklaas celebration, with its traditional — and increasingly controversial — parade of blacked-up helpers, the Black Petes.

The political backstory in The Wrong Girl never becomes a drag on the forward momentum. The dialogue is crisp and excellent, and the characters are sharply drawn. Pieter Vos, who was introduced in The House Of Dolls, is a stoic and melancholy protag, and his team of Dutch coppers are admirably human in their failings.

But it’s the guest cast who compel. Hewson gives them depth an pathos. The wrong girl proves to be a handful for her captors, and her stricken — and determined — mother Hanna Bublik gives the pages an unpredictable energy whenever she appears. Hewson imbues another of his characters, Henk Kuyper – a cold and manipulative fellow – a sorrowful dignity. Minor players – such as the vile Thompson Twins – get their moment to shine.

If I’ve got a criticism, it’s that everything in The Wrong Girl unfolds with the same steady rhythm, whether it’s Vos smoking a cigarette on his canal boat or a police raid on a house, a scene that comes and goes with the blink of an eye. I’d like to have seen Hewson mix it up a bit. Take the narrative out of cruise. Speed it up, slow it down, tensely build forthcoming events, but this brisk rhythm only really changes at the exciting climax when he provides a final sting in the tail to send the reader on their way.

But you’re in safe hands here. The Wrong Girl is an engrossing and intelligent thriller, and something of a page-turner.

Thanks to Macmillan for the review copy. I’m delighted to say that David Hewson will be here later in the week to give us the intel on Vos, Bakker and the dark heart of Europe.