Gibraltar is small. Really small. 30,000 locals crammed into an area the size of London’s Hyde Park. For years I’ve been telling my wife just how claustrophobic the place is, but it wasn’t until we attended Gibraltar’s inaugural literary festival last October that she was finally persuaded. Perhaps it was passing fellow speaker Kate Adie five times on Main Street in a single afternoon.
Everyone knows everyone on the Rock. Or at least thinks they do. Maybe because of this, murder and violent crime are virtually unheard of in Gibraltar. As the Royal Gibraltar Police – the oldest force in the Commonwealth – is proud to point out, Gibraltar enjoys one of the lowest crime rates on earth. It’s hard to bump someone off discreetly in a place where even a change of hair colour is the subject of widespread discussion.
How, then, to set a crime novel on the Rock? This is a conundrum I’ve been wrestling with for a while. One solution was to go down the Agatha Christie, or ‘Midsomer Murders’, route – rack up the body count and ask your readers to suspend disbelief. But the main character of my crime series, Spike Sanguinetti, is a lawyer. Realism is important in what he does.
Another possibility was for Spike to investigate white-collar or financial crime – arguably there should be plenty of scope for that in Gibraltar now it’s reinvented itself as a low-tax territory. But how exciting would it be to read about a Category II non-dom incorrectly incorporating a shelf company?
For the first two novels in the series, my solution was to arm Spike with a well-worn passport and a willingness to travel. In ‘Shadow of the Rock’, Spike’s work leads him across the Strait of Gibraltar to the exotic badlands of Tangiers and the Moroccan desert. In ‘Sign of the Cross’, Spike finds himself in Malta, where a family funeral leads to a deadly encounter with the fabled Knights of St John. Yet all the while, nagging away, was a sense that Gibraltar itself would make the most fantastic principal setting for a crime novel – poised between oceans and continents, coveted by Spain, protected by Britain, home to monkeys, tourists, bankers, lawyers…
Last year, the penny dropped. Spike’s peripatetic legal career has put a number of noses out of joint. What if someone he had upset were to follow him back to Gibraltar? Suddenly, the claustrophobic nature of the Rock – two-and-half square miles connected to mainland Spain by a narrow and notoriously slow border – could become a virtue. Imagine how it would feel to be hunted in an environment where you knew practically everyone apart from the person hunting you. And if the killer had to be an outsider, why not make him Spanish? The plot of ‘Hollow Mountain’ began to take shape. Now all that remained was to write the book – and hope not to bump into Kate Adie too many times while doing the research.
Hollow Mountain by Thomas Mogford is published by Bloomsbury as a trade paperback £11.99 and eBook £7.99