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CRAIG RUSSELL In the Spotlight

Written by Ayo Onatade

Craig Russell is the author of five police procedural novels featuring half-Scottish, half- Friesian police officer Jan Fabel, and a new series set in 1950s Glasgow featuring shady private eye Lennox. In 2007 he was awarded the Crime Writer’s Association of Great Britain’s Dagger in the Library for his body of work. His books have been translated into twenty-three languages and his second novel Brother Grimm is due to make into a film that will be shown in 2010.  Brother Grimm was also shortlisted for the 2008 Prix Polar in France.

 

 

Ayo:         For those who don’t know much about you, would you like to give us a bit of background information about yourself?

 Craig:        My name is Craig Russell and I am a full-time novelist.  I have written five novels in the Jan Fabel series set inHamburg Germany and Lennox set in 1950s Glasgow.  I was born in Scotland.  My interests are wide and varied: from history and linguistics to painting, cooking and keeping fit.  I’m also a bit of a film buff and have a full screen-and-projector cinema at home.  I’m married with two kids, two cats and a dog.  Before becoming a full-time novelist I was a freelance writer and creative director; before that, I worked in advertising; and before that, I was a police officer.

 Ayo:          Your first series is the Jan Fabel police procedurals, which are set in Germany.  What made you decide firstly to write police procedurals and secondly to set the series in Germany?

 Craig:        I didn’t really make up my mind to write police procedurals as such – and, of course, Lennox isn’t about a cop or told from the police point of view.  I wanted to write a thriller, first and foremost, and I wanted to say something about the Europe we live in today.  I suppose having had some experience as a policeman led me naturally down the road of writing a crime thriller.

 The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever did, in my own mind, think of myself as a crime author.  I still see myself more as an author who happens to write about crime.  I haven’t ruled out that I may write something completely different in the future.  I am also lamentably ill-informed about crime fiction, not having read a great deal of it myself.  My influences tend to lie outside the genre and I suppose I worry that I might be influenced by another author’s work.

 That said, crime fiction offers me, as a writer, a fantastic form of storytelling.  A good crime novel is a journey of discovery.  The journey starts with the commission of a crime and ends with its resolution.  What makes a goodcrime novel is the twists and turns that journey takes: the detours and points of interest on the journey.  Crime fiction also allows us all to escape into another world inhabited by ordinary people like us, but in extraordinary circumstances.

 As for setting the series in Germany: I wanted to base my fiction somewhere away from the usual.  Hamburg is a fantastic city and the ideal location for a crime series.  It is Germany’s richest city and is very ‘British’ in feel.  I knowGermany very well and spend an enormous amount of time there.  Part of my decision was based on the fact that almost all of the depictions of Germans and Germany in fiction or film are still based on old stereotypes and the Nazi era.  I wanted to write something about the Germany I know.

 Also, as an East Coast Scot there is a lot about the northern German character and culture I can relate to – even the language: the dialects of Low German spoken there are very similar to Old Scots.  I was able to use these similarities to build a cultural bridge and immerse myself in a very similar culture, but with a totally different and infinitely darker history.  Also, being a port city right at the heart of the ‘New Europe’, East meets West in Hamburg and there are a lot of comings and goings through the port.

 Ayo:         The main character Jan Fabel is a former historian turned police officer, and is half-German and half-Scottish. Is this any reflection on your own heritage?  He is also a man of conscience and imagination and he shows us things about the times we're living through in a thought-provoking way. Where did the character Jan Fabel come from and were these characteristics that you gave him intentional when you created him?  Is he based on any police officer that you know?

 Craig:        I think there’s a fair bit of me in Jan Fabel.  We tend to share some of the same views.  He is perhaps a little more serious than I am (hardly surprising, given his job).  We do both spend a great deal of time looking for answers to problems by interrogating contemporary society and the history that shaped it.

He isn’t really based on any real life police officer – although I have met his real-life counterpart in the Hamburg Murder Squad.  Jan is Jan, to me.  He has developed his own, distinct and, for me, very real personality.

 Ayo:          Whilst the first book – Blood Eagle –is rather graphic, it is my favourite, although there were times when I had to put it down.  It is based on the dark world of ancient Viking beliefs as well as twisting and turning its way through Germany’s past and present.  What was the impetus for this story and did you have any complaints about how graphic it was? 

 Craig:        I think this is an example of where having been a policeman in real life has played a big role.  I don’t go out of my way to make the books graphic – I just tell it how it is, if you know what I mean.  It goes back to attending scenes of death as a policeman: I guess I try to communicate the (often literally) gut reaction we have to violent death.  Murder is never clean or tidy and I merely describe it as well, and as accurately, as I can.  I know that Mo Hayder has sometimes been given stick about her novels being graphic.  I think it’s simply that she is a writer of immense power and paints a very vivid – and truthful – picture.  I like to think I do the same.  As for complaints … I was in Germany doing a Blood Eagle tour when a very large man – and I mean six foot six and three hundred pounds – came up to me to complain that I had given him nightmares. 

 Ayo:          The cases that Jan Fabel and his colleagues in the Murder Squad investigate tend to involve a strong historical or mythological element.  In Blood Eagle there is a strong mix of history, politics and crime, forcing us to ask ourselves timely questions about what it means to be German and/or European in these post-war times.  Meanwhile Brother Grimm revolves around the dark origins of fairy tales. You have interwoven history and mythology into your books – are they a strong interest for you?

 Craig:        I am absolutely fascinated by cultural history and mythology.  I think that the strong presence of these elements in the Fabel books comes from my own personal enthusiasm for the subjects.  And, of course, Jan Fabel trained as a historian before becoming a police officer.

 In each of the Fabel novels there tends to be three ‘periods’ explored: the present, relatively recent history, and more distant history.  In Eternal, for example, the present-day action is shaped in part by events in the German Autumnterrorist atrocities of the 70s and a sacrificial act carried out a thousand years before.

 Ayo:          The third book in the series is Eternal, in which the squad investigate a killer who believes he has been reincarnated to exact revenge on a bunch of 'trendy lefties' who betrayed him in a previous life.  But you have gone a bit further and dealt with issues that some of the other characters are going through, especially by juxtaposing a few hours in the life of police detective Maria Klee, who is Fabel’s deputy, and that of civilian Kristina Dreyer.  Furthermore, the personal doubts that Fabel has are surprising and a little unsettling, which adds to the richness and realism of his character. But at the end of Eternal there are cracks appearing in Fabel's personal life. Was this calculated and do you believe that it had the intended effect?

 Craig:        I always find it hard to believe in a character who, during a series of novels, has been exposed to all kinds of dangers and horrors, yet starts each novel exactly the same as they were before.  It simply stretches credibility too far.  It’s obvious that if you are dealing with violent death and human tragedy as part of your day-to-day work, you will become deeply affected by it.  From the beginning, I had it in my mind that Jan Fabel should be touched by all that he experiences: that he should begin to question and doubt what he does for a living.

 Ayo:          Some very shocking things happen in The Carnival Master, not only to Fabel but also to his deputy Maria Klee.  What made you decide to set the case in Cologneinstead of Hamburg, and how difficult was it to write about what was going on with Maria Klee?

 Craig:        There is a concept in Britain that a German is a German is a German.  The fact is thatGermany is an infinitely varied country, socially and culturally.  Northern Germans really do experience culture clash when they visit the south, and vice versa (and everybody experiences it when they visit Cologne!).  Cologne is a unique city with a very special character.  Cologners even speak in a dialect impenetrable to all other Germans. I wanted to take cool, collected, northern German Jan Fabel and drop him into the tumult and chaos of Cologne during Carnival.

 And yes, Maria Klee really does have a rough time of it.  That was not easy to write, as Maria is a character I care about and who has developed her own very distinct personality.  But this goes back to what I said earlier about how the events in the personal history of each character has to have had an effect on them for them to be believable as people.  With everything that happened to Maria in Blood Eagle, it is no surprise she has been taken right to the very edge.

Ayo:          The latest title in the Fabel series is The Valkyrie Song, which conjures up determined females.  In this case determined females are part of what is troubling Fabel; he also has a female assassin to track down.  What made you decide to have a female as your main protagonist this time around, and was it difficult to write compared to the earlier books in the series?

Craig:        Each of the Fabel novels has a ‘theme’ running through it.  In Brother Grimm it was our shared cultural histories and the common fears that have inspired fairy tales the world over.  In The Carnival Master, it was the theme of ‘flesh’: both literally and in the sense of the body as opposed to the mind.  Indeed, Maria Klee seeks to separate herself from the flesh she is composed of (and which has gone through so much suffering).  In The Valkyrie Song, the theme is women: specifically violence against women and violence committed by women.  I didn’t find it difficult at all to write about female characters.  I like to think that the Fabel series, generally, has been consistent in having strong, credible female characters.

Ayo:          All the books so far in the Fabel series are not only dark and menacing but are also thrilling, intelligent and compelling; how would you therefore describe your Jan Fabel books to someone who is about to read them for the first time?

 Craig:        I would say that the Fabel series is something different.  Hopefully I have created something fresh and new.  It takes you to a new and different location and is rich in cultural and historical detail.  I would say that Jan Fabel is a sympathetic and, most of all, credible investigator.  He is smart and insightful; is politically liberal but a little conservative socially.  The cases he investigates are dark and woven through with social and cultural significance.

 Most of all, I think I would say that the Fabel series is intended to be intelligent and not patronize the reader.

 Ayo:          Lennox, published by Quercus, is the start of a new series and is set in Glasgow during the 1950s. What made you decide to start a new series set specifically in that period and do you intend to continue with the Jan Fabel series?

 Craig:        The Fabel series is continuing.  The German national TV broadcaster, ARD, is screening the first Fabel-based TV movie next year (shooting starts next month).  The series has been enormously successful in Germany and acrossEurope and, to be honest, I am very comfortable with Jan and look forward to writing more Fabels in the future.

 I wanted to write something parallel but completely different to the Fabel series.  I also wanted to write something completely noir.  Lennox evolved from the creation process and pushed his way onto the page.  In many ways, Lennox is the anti-Fabel.  He is, deep down, a good man with a conscience, but his war experiences have totally changed him and he is, let’s face it, a bit of a scoundrel.  He is also enormous fun to write.

 Ayo:          Having read Lennox, one cannot help having a sneaky liking for the character.  He is certainly a charmer and has very black humour but he can also be extremely violent and is a cynical protagonist. How did the character come about and has he turned out how you hoped he would?

 Craig:        There is something dark about Lennox’s genesis.  I really wanted to create a morally ambivalent character; someone who had been damaged by their past.  In a contemporary context, Lennox would be diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

 I also wanted to write something that allowed me to introduce a little more humour into the writing style and dialogue.  Lennox is an intelligent and witty man, but his sense of humour is pitch, pitch black.  And yes, he did turn out the way I wanted him to.  I’m pleased with him as a creation, flaws and all.  Especially flaws and all.

 Ayo:          In Lennox we see him investigating the murder of a very brutal gangland killing. He is also in the frame for a murder that he did not commit.  Not only does he have to contend with corrupt police officers but he also has to gingerly make his way through and survive a labyrinth of gangland inner city rivalries amongst the Glaswegian crime bosses.   How much research did you have to do for your new series and what was the motivation for the story?

 Craig:        As with all of the Fabel novels, Lennox was research-intensive.  I don’t know why I make life difficult for myself by setting my novels in distant places or periods!

 I think the motivation – or inspiration – for the story came from wanting to write about ‘the returned man’.  There is a fantastic short story by Heinrich Böll Die Blasse Anna (Pale Anna) which is about a German ex-soldier returning to the ruins of his past life after the war.  Since I first read that story I wanted to write something set in that ‘war-shadowed’ period.  Added to that are the Chandler novels I have read and growing up with a love of noir.

 Ayo:          Lennox is also very Chandleresque in the way it is written.  Was this intentional and was this the reason you decided to make your main protagonist a private eye?

 Craig:        I think the Chandleresque tone is unavoidable as much as intentional.  I wanted to write something truly noir and the voice came out the way it came out: a natural product of the period, setting and nature of the tale.  I love Chandler’s prose and I suppose it’s inevitable that it has had a huge influence.

The fact that Lennox is a private eye owes much to the noir genre, I suppose.  But one of the reasons I wanted to set Lennox in the 50s was to get right away from DNA testing, mobile phones, computerized crime databases, etc. I wanted to write something where the protagonist has to rely on his instincts and wit, rather than resources, to get to the bottom of the case.  For the same reason, I wanted him not to be a policeman, following procedures and investigative protocols.

 Ayo:          What made you decide to write Lennox in first person?

 Craig:        I wanted to make the action more immediate.  I also wanted to make it a tight protagonist-based point of view.  I know it’s not a particularly insightful answer, but the truth is: it just felt right.

 Ayo:          Which do you prefer?  First or third person?  Why?

 Craig:        I have no general preference.  It’s just whatever is right for the novel and character I’m writing.  Obviously it’s much, much easier to write in the third person omniscient, but I try to avoid that.  The Fabel books are a mix of third person limited and alternating view, and the Lennox novels are first person.  Each book has, for me, its own mood and character and that tends to determine the voice.

 Ayo:          The Long Glasgow Kiss is the sequel to Lennox; the title is also very reminiscent of old 1950s pulp novels. Can you tell us about it and what sparked off the idea for the story? 

 Craig:        The Long Glasgow Kiss starts with the murder of Jimmy ‘Small Change’ MacFarlane, Glasgow’s most successful bookie.  Lennox tries to avoid getting involved in the case, particularly because he has been warned off by Superintendent McNab.  However, he is romantically involved with Small Change’s daughter, and the case of a singer’s missing brother and a boxer receiving death threats leads Lennox back to the case.  The idea came from a black-and-white police crime-scene photograph of a successful boxer lying murdered in a Glasgow back alley.

 Ayo:          Cities (in this case Hamburg and Glasgow) and culture always play an integral role in the gradual unravelling of a detailed and intense plot of mystery and intrigue in both series. How important is setting for you? 

 Craig:        Setting is all-important.  I have this guiding principle when I’m writing that the city in which each particular novel is set should not just be a setting but an actual ‘character’ in the novel.  And a major character at that.  I think it has to be a very special kind of city: Hamburg and Glasgow could not be more different, yet they both have an incredibly powerful and distinctive identity.

 Ayo:          What makes a character real for you?  Must you work out everything about them or do you just let it flow?

 Craig:        As I mentioned earlier, the characters tend to live their own lives and develop almost independently of me.  I start out with a name, a rough physical description and some biographical detail.  Then, when I start writing them, their personalities emerge and develop almost automatically.  Each character has his or her own distinctive identity for me.  I feel that to write credibly about a character, they have to be real for me.

 Ayo:          If you could pick a character out of each of your series that have you enjoyed writing about the most, which ones would it be and why?

 Craig:        Probably Lennox.  Because he’s a bad boy sometimes and has a cruel sense of humour.  Also Bennie Scholz in The Carnival Master.  He has a refreshingly laid-back and   informal attitude which made him the perfect foil for Fabel.

 Ayo:          When you start writing do you already have the complete story in mind or do you just see where your writing takes you?

 Craig:        I start off with an idea of where I want the novel to go.  I usually have a conclusion in mind, as well as some of the issues and themes I want the book to be about.  But even though I have my destination in mind, I keep my route plan rough, so that I am free to take as many diversions as I wish along the way.  And for me, it’s sometimes the diversions that make the novels more interesting.

 Ayo:          Some authors say that when they write, the characters take on lives of their own.  Is this thecase with your characters?

 Craig:        Absolutely.  As an author, you like to think you’re the little god of the universe you’ve created and that all of the characters are there to do your bidding.  The weirdest experience for me is when I’ve planned for a character to do something or say something in a certain scene or situation and it’s like they refuse to do it.  Every one of my characters has his or her own special personality that has evolved and developed almost independently of me.

 Ayo:          What were you looking for as a novelist that made writing thrillers so attractive?

 Craig:        As a literary form, I think that thrillers offer the best opportunity for dynamic and engaging storytelling.  I think the best thrillers are about ordinary people placed in extraordinary contexts – usually life-and-death contexts.

 When I was a kid, I grew up reading Stevenson and Buchan.  Great adventure stories.  And there were always Alistair MacLean novels lying around my parent’s house.  I suppose the thriller form was hardwired into me at an early age.  I think that thrillers are the modern equivalent and are just such fun to write.  Also, I wanted to write in a form that allowed me to entertain and excite, but which also permitted me to explore concerns and events that were very much part of the real world.

 Ayo:          Plot or character?  Which do you think is more important in your writing and why?

 Craig:        Plot is vital, but I think the characters are more important.  The plot gives you the situation; the characters allow you to explore how they respond to that situation.

 Ayo:          It is said that if you can write a short story then you can write anything. Do you believe that this is true and have you written any short stories yet and, if not, are you planning on doing so?

 Craig:        I believe it totally.  Nothing is so difficult, or so rewarding, to write than a short story; and nothing tests your skills as a writer more.  I have written several short stories and I actually set myself a target of getting a literary short story published before writing a full-length novel.

 Ayo:          Who were your influences when you decided to start writing in general?  Do other books still influence your writing and if so, what other types of writing are you attracted to?

 Craig:        Gosh … there’s a question that demands a long list.  I would say the authors who influenced me most would be Heinrich Böll, Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury (when I was a teenager), Gunther Grass, D. H. Lawrence, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, as well as Guy de Maupassant, Poe, Gogol, Chekov, Kafka, James Joyce, Mikhail Sholokov, William Trevor …

 Ayo:          Do you listen to music whilst you are writing, and if so do you listen to different music depending on the series?

 Craig:        Definitely.  My kids are driven mad by it.  There’s a lot of Mel Tormé, Edmondo Ros, Nat King Cole and Julie London being played when I’m writing Lennox; Herbert Groenemeyer, Annette Louisan, Wolfgang Haffner, Lars Danielson, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio and countless other German and Scandinavian acts when writing Fabel.

 Also, my wife and kids say they always know when someone’s being murdered by the music I play.  Which is a bit worrying …

 Ayo:         Were you a big reader of thrillers before you started writing, and if so can you remember the very first thriller you read? Do you still find time to read?

 Craig:        Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson was the first I read (I consider it to be a thriller).  As I mentioned, I read a lot of adventure fiction as a child.  As an adult, I didn’t really read a great deal of crime or thriller fiction. That may sound strange, but I feel that having influences outside the genre keeps your voice fresh and different.  Those thrillers I did read, like The Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, The Vanishing by Thomas Krabbe, The Pledge byDürrenmatt or Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg, made a big impression on me.

 Ayo:          Is there a book that you wish you had written?

 Craig:        First and foremost: Wo warst du Adam? (And where were you, Adam?) by Heinrich Böll.  More of a novella than a novel, but one of the most powerful and affecting pieces of literature I have ever read.  Ironweed by William Kennedy or 1984 by George Orwell. 

 Ayo:         What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing and do you have any guilty pleasures?

 Craig:        Spend time with my kids, walk my dog, paint, cook, eat, try to improve my German, moan about the world going to hell in a handbasket, work out in the gym, watch world and classic cinema, moan about the Hollywood film industry going to hell in a handbasket (no need today for a good story, great acting or visionary direction when you can have computer-generated effects).

 I don’t have any truly guilty pleasures (my wife says I make June Whitfield look rock’n’roll).  I do like good food: hence the frequent gym workouts.  And I have a tendency to talk in an antiquated way: hence ‘hence’.

 Ayo:          Have you any foibles when you are writing?

 Craig:        No, not really.  When I’m writing, I become totally immersed in the world I’ve created.  A bomb could go off and I wouldn’t notice.  So there’s no little quirks, rituals or habits.

 Ayo:          How do your family feel about your writing?

 Craig:        My wife has always been my most solid supporter, muse and manager.  My kids are behind it as well, if only because they have identified it as the source of their pocket money.

 Ayo:          What were the last five books that you read?

 Craig:        Build my Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring); Tales of the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (a re-read); A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr; A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; The Bookseller of Kabulby Åsne Seierstad.

 Ayo:         What do you find the most difficult when you are writing?

 Craig:        I have to be 100 per cent truthful here and say that I don’t find writing or anything to do with it tiresome or difficult. I love what I do for a living.  I would do it as a hobby if I didn’t have to do it to earn.

 I hate admin, though.

 Ayo:         If you could invite five people to dinner, whether it be characters or authors (dead or alive), whom would they be and why?

 Craig:        Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain (although I’d sit between them and the drinks cabinet); Heinrich Böll, George Orwell.  The reason is obvious: just to have a chance to discuss writing.  If I could have a fictional character there, it would have to be Jan Fabel.  We have a lot to talk about.

 Ayo:         2007 and 2008 have been rather momentous years for you.  In 2007 not only were you shortlisted for theCWA Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger but you were awarded the Polizeistern (Police Star) by the Hamburg Police, the first non-German to be given this award.  You subsequently went on to win the Dagger in the Library in 2008. How pleased have you been with the recognition that you received for your work. Has it made much difference in the way in which you see your work?  

 Craig:        The Dagger in the Library was a huge thing for me.  I think it’s because it was for a full body of work rather than just one title, and because it was chosen by librarians and readers. I don’t think you can get any better acknowledgement of your work than that.  As well as the dagger itself, I used the prize money to buy a new writing table – a rather splendid one at that!  I thought it was fitting to mark the honour of winning the Dagger in the Library by buying something on which all future novels would be written. Being nominated for the Gold Dagger was a great honour as well.

 I must say that the Polizeistern was a truly unexpected honour.  The Polizei Hamburg have been so helpful and supportive, it should have been me honouring them.  The award ceremony itself was an amazing event, with German TV, press and radio all turning out for it.  My kids loved it: we were collected from the hotel and driven throughHamburg in a police van, lights flashing.  I have to admit, I liked that bit as well.

Learn more about Craig Russell on www.craigrussell.com


Bibliography


 

Jan Fabel Series


    1. Blood Eagle (2005)


    2. Brother Grimm (2006)


    3. Eternal (2007)


    4. The Carnival Master (2008)


    5. The Valkyrie's Song (2009)


Lennox Series


    Lennox (2009) 
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Craig Russell



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