Or the Bull Kills You is the opening novel in a series I’m writing set in Valencia, Spain – where I live. The story begins with the murder of Spain’s top bullfighter. The man sent to investigate is Chief Inspector Max Cámara of the Spanish National Police – my main character. Cámara hates bullfighting, like the majority of Spaniards, and so has to solve the murder of a person he regards as little better than a murderer himself.
The story develops against a background of the local Fallas fiestas, and an election campaign centered around a proposed ban on bullfighting. As with many things in Spain, the investigation becomes highly politicised, and other people start disappearing and then turning up dead.
In addition, Cámara is facing problems in his love life, not least the fact that his long-term girlfriend is having difficulties getting pregnant, and is starting to point the finger of blame at him.
Themes of fertility and bloodletting are at the core of bullfighting, and they begin to resonate with Cámara’s personal and inner life as he inches his way deeper into the complicated, closed world of los toros.
A Death in Valencia will be the second book in the series. Cámara is investigating the murder of a paella chef (paella comes from Valencia, originally). It appears there may be a link between the killing and a Town Hall plan to bulldoze an old fishermen’s quarter of the city, but the case is blown off course when Cámara’s block of flats collapses, killing some of the inhabitants. Then a prominent abortionist is kidnapped just as the Pope flies in for an official visit, and the Police suspect rogue members of the rival police force, the Guardia Civil, may be involved.
Meanwhile, in his personal life, Cámara is nursing wounds left behind from the end of the previous book, and these start clouding his vision.
In terms of crime fiction, I was inspired by Michael Dibdin and Robert Wilson; they were big influences when it came to a creating a sense of place – and proof that Anglophone writers can nail Mediterranean countries and cultures
Simenon, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Andrea Camilleri were also inspirational for similar reasons, although in each case they’re writing as insiders, not outsiders. In addition, Simenon is a master of atmosphere: little may actually happen in a Maigret novel, but they’re gripping from beginning to end.
When it came to thrills and pace, I tried to learn from Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and Robert Harris.
And for character, who else but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? The Sherlock Holmes stories are notoriously uneven, but proof that a strong, complex character at the centre can power an entire series.
I’m a huge fan of William Ryan, Tarquin Hall, Will Carver, D.E. Meredith, Arnaldur Indridason and Mark Billingham. All very different writers, but all, in my view, pushing crime fiction into new areas and helping to keep it fresh and exciting.
I also think Fred Vargas is a master. I hadn’t read any of her books before I’d written the first couple of Max Cámara novels. But when I did I felt an immediate affinity and devoured whatever I could lay my hands on.
Before writing crime I used to write travel books, and there are a few authors whose stuff I always read: Robert Twigger, Tahir Shah, Jason Elliott, and Chris Stewart.
In some ways I’m not sure why there’s still a debate about about violence, which is at the heart of crime fiction. I was surprised to learn, for example, that in the US, some publishers rejected Or the Bull Kills You because it dealt with bullfighting (it was eventually picked up by St Martin’s Minotaur, and I couldn’t be happier.) Dealing with humans slaughtering each other was fine, it seemed, but addressing the subject of violence against animals was, somehow, unacceptable.
Beyond the obvious irony, however, you wonder what people expect crime novels to be about. If I find a passage too gruesome to read, I might skip a bit or put the book down. But I’m not going to question the presence of violence in the book in the first place.
In the end it’s an aesthetic judgement. The nature of a violent act gives all kinds of clues, not only for the investigation but also for the reader as a handle on the killer’s character. It sets the tone of the novel and may be working at symbolic levels as well. All this has to be weighed and decided upon by the author.
Personally, I’m drawn to crime fiction and the figure of a detective because it’s a simple, neat metaphor for the human condition. Why are we here? What’s it all about? An investigator looking for clues to solve a mystery is very much like an individual trying to make sense of his or her existence.
Tied in with that, perhaps, is the fact that a crime novel is very much a story – it has to have a strong narrative drive. We are story-telling and story-seeking animals, so the crime genre fulfills a basic need in that sense, perhaps rather better than others. (Incidentally, I think all writing is genre writing, even the writing that doesn’t consider itself to be as such. But that’s another question.)
Or the Bull Kills You is published by Vintage