Pilgrim Soul caused me more angst and effort than any other book I’ve written. This is the third in my Douglas Brodie series and from the start I’ve been determined to avoid writing formulaic crime. I aim to give equal weight to character development, good prose and smart plotting. In terms of character, Brodie is very much a 3D hero, but in his first two outings he gained a certain reputation for the odd ‘shoot out in the heather’ in his confrontations with the bad guys. In Pilgrim Soul I wanted to explore his troubled side – essentially, undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress – and make the plot and denouement more equivocal and subtle. A risky tangent in the crime/thriller genre!
The other challenge was to sustain the realistic atmosphere and setting of the late 1940’s. It’s a time of immense social change and upheaval. No NHS and no welfare state; rationing was the norm, as was its by-product, the black market. Murderers were hanged, and homosexuals jailed or chemically castrated rather than offered civil partnerships. Most men thought a woman’s place was back in the kitchen, not in munitions factories, operating behind enemy lines, or ferrying Spitfires to the front. To get the atmosphere right demanded considerable historical research but a light application of the facts so as not to kill the story.
In Pilgrim Soul this research had to go deeper and broader. I focus on a particular group of refugees who’d sought shelter in Glasgow from decades of pogroms. Over 12,000 Jews had settled in Scotland by 1946, most of them in the slums of the Gorbals. They brought with them their own language and customs, and their fears. I postulated that among the refugees were some of their persecutors, now on the run from trials for war crimes.
As readers will know, my earlier books – The Hanging Shed and Bitter Water – paint Brodie as a decorated soldier with a degree in languages. Major Douglas Brodie was deployed post-war to interrogate Nazi senior officers and camp commandants. In Pilgrim Soul the Jews of Glasgow ask him to help with a spate of burglaries targeted on their community. Thefts turn to murder and Brodie discovers a nest of vipers guarding stolen gold, but trapped in Scotland while waiting for safe passage to fascist havens in South America. These escape routes were dubbed ratlines and some were established by senior clergy in the Vatican.
In the hellish winter of early 1947, and in pursuit of the villains, Brodie flies to Hamburg with his lover, advocate Samantha Campbell, to flush out the ‘rats’ and help Sam prosecute accused Nazis in the British military courts. This is where Brodie’s nightmares and demons take on flesh and blood form and send him on a downward spiral of drink and depression.
The book’s title emerged from this downward arc. While overtly, Pilgrim Soul is about catching villains, at a much more profound level it’s about Brodie’s personal pilgrimage through the dark and haunted valleys of his mind. The two words come from a line in W B Yeats’s poem, When You Are old: "But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face."
Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris is published by Corvus