PAUL JOHNSTON on Writing MAPS OF HELL

Written by Paul Johnston

PAUL JOHNSTON

Not many people know this, but third novels in series are important. The first book establishes protagonist and context, while the second expands on those bases. I often think the first two novels in my Quint Dalrymple series (Body Politic andThe Bone Yard) are two halves of the same book. But on the third outing, the author has a dilemma – either go on in the same style and setting (and let’s face it, many writers are still doing that in their tenth books) or change the parameters.

I favour the latter course, in spades. Water of Death, the third Quint novel, altered the environment – Edinburghwas hit by global warming and became ‘Sweat City’ (the locals are still laughing). With my Greece-based novels featuring Alex Mavros, I changed the sub-genre in each one – Crying Blue Murder (a.k.a. A Deeper Shade of Blue) was a noir story, set on a sun-drenched island with white buildings, The Last Red Death was a political thriller, and The Golden Silence was my take on the criminal family/Mafia theme.  

For those unfamiliar with my current series, Matt Wells is that standard hero of private eye fiction, a crime novelist. As smart observers have pointed out, this is, a) not original (step forward Agatha Christie, the creators of Murder, She Wrote, and several other luminaries, none of whom I wished to send up in any way, oh no); b) verging on the post-modern – along the lines of Paul Auster, whose New York Trilogy is filled with self-reflexive trickery and author-hero-killer-victim entanglement; and, c) about as realistic as, oh I don’t know, Nick Clegg becoming deputy prime minister. Wish fulfilment is a wonderful thing.

Matt Wells, crime novelist and columnist, has a penchant for attracting deeply disturbed killers, namely the John Webster fan who calls himself the White Devil (in The Death List), and his successor the Soul Collector in the eponymous novel. The action in both books is centred on London, and Wells is helped by friends with useful skills and a shared interest in rugby league (I know, another crime fiction cliché).

For Maps of Hell, I decided that ‘All Change’ would be the watchwords. A major aspect of the planning process for me is to zero in on previous fictional creations, often using them as sacred cows to be subverted – thus, Body Politicpresented a view of society that Orwell and Plato might have found challenging, while The Bone Yard took on the nuclear apocalypse beloved of SF writers. Subsequent Quint novels messed with Block and Hitchcock’s Psycho; that ur-Scottish play by an Englishman, Macbeth; and Blade RunnerDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick’s book having, to my mind, the best title in the history of fiction, though In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead runs it close).

As regards the Wells books, Webster’s White Devil lurks beneath the surface of The Death List, while The Soul Collectorplays with motifs from Marlowe’s (not that one) Doctor Faustus, as their epigraphs make clear.

With Maps of Hell, things changed from the very start. The epigraph is from Goethe’s Faust, which may seem like an obvious step from Christopher Marlowe, but it has a more cunning undercurrent (note the nationality of the author). The story initially treats Wells as a tabula rasa, in that he wakes up to find himself naked and imprisoned, his brain having been washed and his memory flirting with total amnesia. This struck me as a good way to stimulate my own imagination, as well as that of the reader – what do you do/ how do you feel when your past life is taken away from you? Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun. The sacred cattle in the spotlight here are Richard Condon’s Manchurian Candidate (a surprisingly risqué novel, much more interesting than the two films it inspired, though the original by John Frankenheimer, starring Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra, has its virtues); and that old war horse, Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity– ‘old war horse’ in the sense that the prose style is as congested as an elderly nag’s intestines and the plot as wandered as the said creature’s thought processes. Perfect material for tweaking and twisting.            

Another major change is that all the action takes place in the USA, specifically the East Coast from Maine toWashington DC, with a brief trip to the Shenandoah Valley. Why did I do this? Well, the US is the home of noir (my default mindset) and gritty police procedural (which I have also shoehorned into Maps of Hell). What crime writer wouldn’t want to emulate the great masters of the genre and explore their locations? Also, I have actually been to (most of) the places I write about. To some extent, the book is a riff on trips my friend and fellow-crime novelist John Connolly have taken in the US, including a drive in a Morse-style (blue) Jaguar from Boston to Maine and back.

Matt Wells comes up against Nazis and devil-worshippers, too, the former for the first time. As regards the latter, I read the recent biography of Dennis Wheatley after I’d finished Maps of Hell, but I guess his spirit is floating around it – like everyone, I devoured his spectacularly turgid efforts as a teenager. Ludlum’s as well. I hasten to emphasize that my own prose is as lively and light-footed as a rugby winger (which, appropriately, I used to be – though union rather than league).

Finally, there’s the issue of genre. Although Maps has a pair of wisecracking DC cops, I wrote it as a thriller as much as a crime novel, which means maximum jeopardy for Matt. Achieving pace that makes the reader turn the pages automatically is a stern challenge, and successful results are often under-rated by critics. I’m still panting from the effort, though that may have more to do with my age.

Oh, and there are maps (of a sort) for the first time, drawn by my own fair hand.

Buy Maps Of Hell by Paul Johnston 
Maps Of Hell by Paul Johnston

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Paul Johnston



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