I think this book began to take shape as I was reading reports on the Iraq war – specifically, on Operation Phantom Fury, the massive US-UK assault on Fallujah in November and December of 2004. It struck me – as it has struck many people – that the public attitude to what has happened in Iraq would have been hugely different if the fighting had been shown on TV as the Vietnam War was shown, instead of being presented to us by ’embedded’ and therefore controlled reporters. So I had the idea of a war-damaged soldier arriving somewhere in Middle England and bringing with him more of the reality of Iraq than was comfortable for the people he confronted. And at around the same time, I was thinking about certain instances of disputed identity, particularly the case of the Titchborne Claimant, in which Arthur Orton. a.k.a. Thomas Castro, presented himself in 1866 to the Tichborne family, claiming to be their son, Sir Roger Tichborne, who had been lost at sea twelve years before. At some point, it occurred to me to bring these two strands together, and create a story in which a man’s life is effectively wrecked by a former squaddie who claims to be his son.
It’s possible to read the book as a novel about someone who puts on a bravura performance in which it’s almost impossible to distinguish the real from the fictional. The idea of performance has played a significant part in several of my books: my first novel, The Biography of Thomas Lang, was about a pianist; the hero/villain of my second novel is a diabolically brilliant dilettante. And the subject of identity was central to my last novel, So He Takes the Dog, which was a police procedural of sorts, albeit one in which the investigator-narrator, as much as the victim and the crime, is the object of the investigation. The workings of memory, and the problem of how one relates to the person or persons one used to be, is a major concern of my books, most obviously Ghost Macindoe, which is a year-by-year reconstruction of the life of man who is ordinary except for the power of his memory. In Contact, by contrast, the arrival of this self-proclaimed son forces the narrator into a reconsideration of a period of his life which has become largely irretrievable for him. The narrator is acutely aware, however, that his wife, were she to find out about the affair that (perhaps) produced this son, would almost certainly perceive the relationship between his past and his present as being much closer than he himself feels it to be – his adultery would, for her, become instantly an aspect of the present.
So He Takes the Dog was an off-kilter crime novel, in which the murder slowly slips from the centre of the book. Contact could be described as a philosophical thriller, in which it’s not even clear if a crime is being committed: the ex-squaddie might be engaged in a campaign of harassment and impersonation; then again, he could be completely genuine.
Contact is published by Sort of Books