Readers often ask me how I come up with the premises of my thrillers, for me it almost like weaving. I usually have a couple of images that have haunted me for a few years – tucked away in the back drawer of my imagination and finally they fight their way through the plethora of other ideas and shout for attention.
With my new thriller The Stolen set in Zurich in 1982, there were three themes I wanted to tackle. One was the Roma experience of the holocaust, the other was the experience of a character discovering he wasn’t who he was brought up to believe – and the third was Nazi plunder – and the Swiss collaboration in the laundering of this plunder – both gold and art objects.
Going for the big picture has always been both my Achilles heel and my strength and although I knew I was going for an audacious and psychologically ambitious plot, the damn thing wouldn’t leave me alone! It demanded to be written.
As with Sphinx and The Map, a mystical object then presented itself as part of the quest. This isn’t conscious on my behalf, but I find that the research can sometimes reveal the next plot point almost organically. As part of my Roma research I went to the Sara de Kali festival in the Camargue (one of the biggest Roma festivals) it was there I thought of the idea of having a ancient holy relic based on St Sara de Kali as the central ‘treasure’ and object of nazi plunder.
Again, like Oliver in Sphinx and August Winthrop in The Map, I found myself attracted to a complex grieving man in his late thirties. And, like Oliver, who was a geo-physicist, Matthias von Holindt, my hero in The Stolen is a 38 year old widower who is also a physicist with a difficult 15 year old daughter.
Although I start with a detailed treatment (most of my thrillers are commissioned so this is part of the initial presentation to the publishers) invariably the research will feed back into the original storyline and shape it as well. I will research for a number of months before even beginning the book, and then throughout the writing process there will be facts and snippets of information that I will weave into the rewrites. I always think the best literature, genre or otherwise, deals in moral ambiguity. One of the challenges of The Stolen was to depict the psychology of fascism in a three-dimensional way – the legacy of extreme nationalism and prejudice. This was the case with Christoph von Holindt, Matthias’s ‘father’ an ex-member of the Swiss Nazi party before the war. One way was to develop his relationship with his granddaughter – humanising him, making his deplorable politics even more ironic and ultimately tragic.
I am particularly fond of my crabby fiercely cynical atheist maverick Swiss detective Klauser – a regular at the local brothel with a cat named Erasmus he is two hernias beyond a divorce, and would probably merit a whole series of his own. Sometimes characters just pop up on their own and you aren’t quite sure where they’ve come from – maybe Klauser is my male alter ego!
I also love taking my readers into another world. In this case the world of the Kalderasha – the gold and coppersmiths of the Roma world. My research took me to rural Romania where I travelled around with a wonderful Roma poetess Luminata Cioaba to interview Roma survivors of the holocaust. Armed with the atmosphere and stories I backed this research up with some serious anthropological information courtesy of the Roma foundation of Zurich –
None of which makes any sense unless you’ve got a great story to hang all this information off. That’s what’s so fantastic about writing crime thrillers (in this case a war crime thriller) the genre itself demands that you have a plot that drives the action forward and with it the reader.
TS Learner’s new thriller THE STOLEN (Sphere) is available from the 27th of March price £7.99.