Dead Line began the same way all my novels do – first came the basic story concept, and very soon afterwards I started the search for the perfect setting. My plan was to write a kidnap thriller with a twist. My lead character, Daniel Trent, would be a professional hostage negotiator but he’d be no clean-cut hero. I was going to force Trent to negotiate for the release of a man he despised and most likely wanted to kill. As the book opens, Trent’s fiancée is missing, and the man he suspects of being responsible for her disappearance is abducted by a professional gang. Trent must get him back quickly – and alive – if he’s to have any chance of forcing a confession from him and finding the woman he loves.
So I had the basis for a dark thriller that required an appropriate backdrop. I reached for a map of Europe and did a fast scan. Almost immediately, I was drawn to the south of France, and from there to Marseilles. And granted, I’m not the first crime writer to turn to France’s second city for inspiration, and I won’t be the last, but why is that?
Well, one reason is simple geography and history. Marseilles is a port city with a tradition of drug and arms smuggling, not to mention a culture of criminal gangs and political corruption. Despite the investment and regeneration that’s accompanied Marseilles’ selection as the European capital of culture 2013, the city is still held in the grip of economic difficulties and organised crime, with a recent Guardian article stating that 20% of residents live below the poverty line, while 2012 saw twenty-four gang killings in the Bouches-du-Rhone area including Marseilles. Speaking personally, it’s the one of the few cities where I’ve ever felt threatened, though this was way back in 1995 when I was backpacking round Europe and foolish enough to walk through areas of the Panier district I should probably have avoided. Since then, exclusive boutiques, a reworked marina, art installations and face-lifted buildings have appeared. This clash of new and old, of rich and poor, of law-abiding citizens and a hardened underworld, offers fertile ground for a crime thriller.
Then there’s the shabby beauty of the place. With its narrow, tumbling streets, its historic port quarter jammed with yachts and old fishing vessels, and its fusion of French, North African and Middle Eastern cultures, Marseilles has a unique charm. Look beyond the city outskirts, and you’ll find the spectacular Calanques, an inhospitable 20km stretch of rocky inlets and turquoise Mediterranean coves, where the hero of my novel is lured into a deadly trap.
On top of all this is the Mediterranean weather. Dead Line is set in high summer because I wanted to contrast the dark themes of the novel with the blistering sunshine and heat of my chosen backdrop. In my mind, I was shooting for a kind of sunbaked noir, with Trent sweating and scrambling round like a lizard in the dirt, trying to make sense of his cruel predicament.
Now, I look back, and I can’t begin to imagine how I could have told Trent’s story anywhere else. Marseilles is so much a part of Dead Line that much of the plot couldn’t exist without it. More than that, though, I fell in love with the city over the course of several research visits, which means that as I sit down to begin work on my next book, I have a new dilemma – how can any other location possibly compete?
Dead Line by Chris Ewan is out in paperback on 3rd April, £7.99 (Faber & Faber)