The final spark for a novel can ignite anywhere, anytime. A year or two ago on an uneventful evening I was flicking disinterestedly through the TV channels when a discussion programme grabbed my attention – or, I should say, provoked my irritation. Two or three well-known talking heads, I won’t bother to say who, pontificating about the 1980s and the legacy of Thatcherism. You know, I’m sure, the way these things tend to go. Some token liberal points out that there may have been a few unfortunate side-effects (entire industries destroyed, entire generations consigned to the dole queues, an unnecessary foreign war, etc, etc) – but overall, the talking heads agree, what a great and vital clearing-out the Thatcher decade was. The trade unions tamed. The stock exchange modernised. Capital liberated everywhere. Every man and woman henceforth an emancipated property-owner and shareholder. Well all of those avaricious little chickens have come home to roost spectacularly in recent months. But that’s another story – what irked me at the time was the significant omissions contained in this increasingly prevalent version of recent history. No mention, other than sneering ones, of the huge, vibrant culture of popular opposition that stood against Thatcher and all her works. I use the word culture advisedly. I’m not just talking about demos, sit-ins, strikes, marches. I’m talking about art, poetry, music: ska, punk, Two-Tone. The Specials’ Ghost Town blaring out of every juke box in the land, the wide-boys in the City mocked and despised as fashion-disasters as much as amoral self-seekers. History tends to get written by the victors of course. But that’s where fiction comes in – or should come in – to set the record a little straighter.
I’d been toying for a while with the idea of a Crowby novel which, unlike the previous books in the series, would be partly set in the past – and the ’80s had always been high on my target list of decades. But catching that TV show was a deciding moment. As I reclined on my sofa listening to the great and the good spout reactionary b*ll*cks, the outline structure of my rival crime fiction account started to fall more definitely into place in my brain. I put down my glass of beer and picked up my notebook. 1980s protest culture. The young Jacobson on the periphery of a shoddy police investigation into a brutal murder. Another young man as the victim of a miscarriage of justice (there was another thorny issue I’d had it in mind to tackle for a while).
I still had a way to go of course. I didn’t want my new book to be set entirely in the past. I like writing about the here and now. I like the buzz of immediacy. So it was a while before I saw my way to creating two simultaneous narrative strands in ENVY THE DEAD. One then and one now. And some way too until I realised how Inspector Jacobson’s old demons, which we’ve never seen before (but we’ve always guessed were there), might come back finally to haunt him.
ENVY THE DEAD is published by Little Brown / Piatkus