Soul Murder is the first thriller in a series featuring Franco Patrese, a Pittsburgh detective with a special interest in crimes with a religious undertone. What inspired you to write this series?
Several things inspired me to write this. First, the religious aspect. Though I’m not especially religious myself, I’ve always been fascinated by the huge effect religion has on so many people’s lives. Some of it is good; for example, faith can carry people through the most terrible of tragedies. But much of it seems to me bad. Religion has been a major cause of strife over the past few centuries, often for what seems – when you break it down - like little more than a childish ‘my God’s better than yours’ contest. Second, Franco Patrese himself. He’s a complex character, not least because of his own relationship with the Catholic Church, and I knew I had to make – and keep – him complex if he’s to carry an entire series. Terrorism and religion are some of the key themes of Soul Murder. Did you find it difficult to tackle such controversial themes?
Not at all. If anything, I found them fascinating, and the more so the further I researched (though inevitably 90% of that research never made it into the finished book). It’s very easy with terrorism to see it in binary terms, whereas of course it’s never that simple. In particular, I wanted to give a sense of how different the Western and Islamic fundamentalist mindsets are. I’m not one of those neocons who believe that every Muslim is the enemy, far from it, but the extreme section – the terrorists – will, I think, never be reconciled with Western society. I remember a very revealing exchange on the Today programme a few years back, when John Humphreys was interviewing an Islamic extremist who lived in London and was railing against the West. ‘If you hate it so much,’ Humphreys asked, ‘why don’t you leave?’ And the man replied that it wasn’t his place to leave, because the whole world belongs to Allah, and Allah decrees that sharia should be imposed on the whole world. And I thought, now I understand. The West believes in nation states and democracy. Hard-line Muslims believe in a global theocracy. There’s no middle ground. How important is a sense of place in your writing?
Hugely. Location should be an extra character, if you like. I chose Pittsburgh because it seemed a great place for a thriller; interesting, but rather overshadowed by other more famous north-eastern cities. And I loved it. It wears its heavy industry, hardscrabble past with pride, but it’s also a very forward-looking place, and some of it is extremely beautiful, which rather surprised me I went there during the winter, when it was bitterly cold, and just walked the streets. I think the hotel staff wondered what this crazy Englishman was doing every day! The scenes on the Pittsburgh estate remind me of the TV series The Wire. Are you a fan?
Very much so, not least because I was at school with Dominic West, who plays McNulty. There’s nothing I can say about The Wire
that hasn’t already been said, but I guess one of its appeals to me comes back to the question of location. In The Wire
, Baltimore isn’t a place; it’s a living, breathing organism, and you see the biology of the city, as it were, the way in which it all works (or doesn’t work). David Simon is rightly lauded as a writer. I’d love to be half as good as him. How much of your life and the people around you do you put into your books?
A few things here and there – people’s mannerisms, funny stories, political views – but I try to keep it to a minimum. All writers are told ‘write what you know’, but I always think this is the wrong way round: it should be ‘know what you write.’ I love my life, but it’s not the stuff of thrillers; I live in the countryside, I’m married with children, I work alone. I don’t run round jumping out of planes or defusing bombs. But the things I write about, I want to know all about them, so I can be convincing when it comes to writing them. Google is invaluable for writers. Ten, certainly 15 years ago, a writer would have to do the lion’s share of his research in libraries or talking to people. Now, you can find anything out within minutes. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing now?
I think I’d still be in words, one way or another. A journalist, probably. I didn’t have the patience to be a lawyer, the numeracy to be an accountant, or the ambition to be a banker. Shame, as I’d probably be earning much more money in any of those professions!
Without giving too much away, what can we expect next from Franco Patrese?
His move to the FBI in book two gives me a chance to move him around and set books in different locales, certainly in the US and perhaps eventually overseas as well. Book two is set in New Orleans, which is of course about as different from Pittsburgh as it gets. Beyond that remains to be seen. Having convinced my wife that a Pittsburgh research trip definitely wasn’t a holiday, ten days of hot cloudless New Orleans skies may mean I have to go somewhere cold and wet again next time….