Many years ago, as a young boy, I fell in love. I was in my local library, a place that had long fascinated me and that I haunted for an hour or so every evening after school. It was housed in the town hall, an imposing red brick and Portland stone Victorian building, erected when London swept east and what had been a small, rural community became a suburb of the Great Wen. But it wasn’t the faded grandeur that attracted me: it was the wonders that crammed every shelf – the books.
The object of my affections on that particular day in the early 1960s was the black statuette of a bird. It was only about a foot tall and rather unprepossessing but it was love at first sight.
Of course, I’d had mild infatuations before. Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, the great Gallic ratiocinator of ‘The Purloined Letter’, was more than exotic enough for a young schoolboy from the East End of London, and there had been the adolescent crush on the one-time resident of 221B Baker Street. Fond though my memories are of those two great detectives (and it’s worth remembering that Dupin’s first case, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ was solved before the word ‘detective’ appeared in the English language), it was Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon who really won my heart.
There was something refreshingly liberating about Sam Spade and his uncompromising approach to life. He isn't’t motivated by money and he can’t be sidetracked by sex: the forces of law and order don’t intimidate him and he is free of the baggage we all customarily carry. He isn't’t, of course, a wholly admirable hero – Somerset Maugham rather harshly described him as ‘an unscrupulous rogue and heartless crook’ – but he does what he has to.
And his story is told with such economy, in that lean, vivid, muscular prose.
I’ve never fallen out of love with Dashiell Hammett, Sam Spade, that unprepossessing statuette or the detective novel. So it was inevitable that, when I finally came to write, it would be to crime fiction that I’d turn.
However, by that time, I was, somewhat surprisingly for a completely urban person, living very happily five miles down a single-track road in the middle of a forest in Argyll and my first novel, After a Dead Dog, was not set on the mean, paved streets of a major city but in the soggy fields of the completely beguiling Kintyre peninsula. I enjoyed wrestling with the particular problems of ratcheting up the tension and suspense in a laid back and essentially rural community, and some people – critics among them – were kind enough to say that I’d been reasonably successful. But I always knew that I’d have to return to the city, the natural habitat of the crime novel.
I didn’t just return to the big city for my second novel, though. I returned to my childhood and to the place where my love affair with detective fiction began. So No Hearts, No Roses begins in Leyton, where I was born, on the day in 1955 when Winston Churchill resigned as prime minister (something that is entirely coincidental and has no bearing on the story at all). Again, there is something inevitable about my being drawn to the period.
Tony Gérard, my protagonist, is a little more exotic than me, having been born to French parents and seen active service in the Second World War. Now that I think about it, it could be that his French background is an unconscious tip of the hat to Poe and Dupin, but it came about because his grandfather moved to London to work as a cameraman for one of the new film companies in the early years of the twentieth century and ended up at a studio in Walthamstow.
Tony also works for a film company but not in a creative role. He spends his time trying to keep the indiscretions of studio’s wilder ‘stars’ out of the papers or quietly sorting out their problems, and so, far too often, finds himself in places he’d rather not be, with people he’d rather not know.
I was always disappointed that there was only one Sam Spade novel. I did, with the assistance of a stern but helpful librarian, find the Continental Op and, of course, Philip Marlowe and Maigret but I always felt there was more to be learned about the ‘blond Satan’. I can’t help but think that I’ve returned to Leyton and an earlier time to rummage around in that marvellous, magical library again, hoping to find a novel or a story that everyone has overlooked, where Sam Spade still prowls the streets of San Francisco.
Published by Severn House, 28th January 2011 Hbk RRP £18.99