Excitement is building for an as-yet-unpublished crime novel – but the wait till April 2011 will be worthwhile! Crime Time talks to Howard Linskey about his blistering The Drop – a novel which pulls absolutely no punches…
My crime novel ‘The Drop’ is the story of David Blake, a ‘white-collar’ gangster, who deludes himself into thinking he isn’t really a gangster at all. He’s just an ideas man who works for a gangster, Newcastle crime lord Bobby Mahoney, which is something else entirely in his mind. Blake is then able to ignore the violence in his world and never gets his hands dirty. That self delusion is fine until a large sum of money he’s responsible for goes missing, along with one of his trusted men, George ‘Geordie’ Cartwright. Now Blake has to find Cartwright and get Bobby’s money back in seventy two hours or he’s a dead man. The more he descends into the Newcastle underworld looking for the missing money, the more trouble he finds himself in.
I set the book in modern day Newcastle because it is an atmospheric city I love. It was always the place I was drawn to as a kid. As a boy, I used to travel in on the bus from my tiny County Durham town to watch Newcastle United at St James Park. I always found the place exciting. It seemed so big and vibrant, possibly even a bit scary, with an undercurrent of violence, if you were daft enough to go looking for trouble there. The people are very warm, friendly and welcoming in Newcastle but there are some hard men there too, who you wouldn’t want to mess with. I love going back there. It’s the best night out in Europe and I wanted to capture some of that night life in the book. Everybody seems to head into the Bigg Market or the Quayside at the weekend, in all weathers, and, famously. without a coat in sight. There is a welcome lack of political correctness about the place and it seems to run on a combination of beer and football. The city is basically a party waiting to happen and it almost becomes an extra character in The Drop.
I already had a literary agent, Phil Patterson at Marjacq, and we were talking about the possibility of me writing a crime novel. Initially I dismissed the idea because I didn’t want to write another book about a maverick detective pursuing a serial killer. That sort of thing has been done so many times before, often very well, by other people. I happened to mention to Phil, over a pint, that I did have an idea for a different kind of crime story, one set in Newcastle, about a criminal who doesn’t consider himself to be a criminal.
At this stage I hadn’t written a word but Phil was intrigued and I ended up pretty much pitching the whole story to him there in the pub. He got pretty excited by the idea so, buoyed by his enthusiasm, which I hoped was not just down to the beer we were drinking, I set about writing ‘The Drop’. Once I started, the words just seemed to flow and I didn’t let up until it was done. The first draft of 90,000 odd words was completed in six months, which is very quick for me.
I wanted to write a story from the point of view of a man caught up in crime. The book is written in the first person so you see everything that happens in ‘The Drop’ through Blake’s eyes. You don’t get any more or less information than he does so, while he is trying to work out what is happening to him, it’s as big a mystery to the reader as it is to him.
The protagonist of ‘The Drop’ is not what I would call a sympathetic character. Blake is a bit of an anti hero, a cold bastard but complex. He has few allies in Bobby Mahoney’s firm, as he is younger than the men he works alongside and they have an old school attitude. Blake has never had to fight or kill any one, the way they did, to get onto Mahoney’s crew. They don’t respect him and most of them think it’s pretty amusing when he is dropped right in it. I enjoyed creating the characters that inhabit Blake’s world; pimps, drug dealers, loan sharks, gangland enforcers. People you wouldn’t want to be friends with. Those guys don’t rate Blake but they don’t allow for his talents. He has brains and an innate cunning but he knows he’s going to need all of his wits to survive.
It’s hard to explain the appeal of gangster stories but I think it is because they behave in a way that we wouldn’t but might secretly wish we could. They act without caring about consequences and they just take. I think that appeals to people, in a strange sort of way; the idea that you don’t have to show up at the office every day and participate in the nine-to-five grind. Instead, you just throw your weight around and the money and the girls fall into your lap. It’s an appealing notion and the best illustration of it is the scene in Goodfellas, where Ray Liotta walks his girlfriend through the kitchens of a nightclub, tipping every one he sees, until they bring him an extra table, so he can sit out front and get the best view of the show. We’d all like a bit of that VIP treatment from time to time.
What I wanted to do with ‘The Drop’ was show that there is a very definite flip side to that life. Along with the glamour, there is sickening violence and a huge amount of fear. You cannot have the real life of a gangster without running the risk that it will all come crashing spectacularly down around you at any moment. Most of these guys will end up being killed, badly injured or serving life in prison. It’s a hard, dirty, squalid existence and it doesn’t come with a pension plan.
There were always books in our house when I was a child. Both my parents read voraciously but when I was growing up no one ever really discussed the possibility that you could actually become a writer. It seemed to be something that other people did; strange and mysterious people who lived far away from us. In my town the act of actually picking up a book at all at that age was seen as a bit swotty by my peers. Only ‘soft’ people read books and I didn’t want to be considered soft. So instead I played football and sustained my appetite for stories with a diet of films.
Even in my late teens I would describe myself as a film buff who felt he didn’t have enough time to pick up a book, except periodically. I didn’t experience that voracious reading phase that most crime writers go through, devouring everything from Agatha Christie to Dashiell Hammett. I was aware of those writers of course but mostly through movie adaptations of their work not the actual books they wrote. Looking back it’s astounding I ever ended up writing a book at all.
The first grown-up books I discovered were on my dad’s bookshelves and he wasn’t big on crime but there was some good stuff about the Cold War and the Second World War and I did read those. There were books like ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ and ‘The Day of Jackal’; ‘Boy’s own’ stuff for grown-up boys. I still have a soft spot for John Le Carre and Len Deighton that dates back to that time. I like the way Le Carre writes books that transcend the genre. A story with the complexity of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", which is also beautifully written and explores the classic theme of betrayal so richly, deserves more acclaim than it gets as a simple ‘spy story’.
Years later I would read crime writers like Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, and Elmore Leonard but I nearly always discovered them through their screen adaptations first, picking up the books later to get a more definitive version of their stories. That’s probably how I finally drifted into reading books regularly and only really started getting through a lot of them when I was commuting into London on the tube every day.
‘The Drop’ is inspired in part by memories of classic British gangster films like ‘The Long Good Friday’ and ‘Get Carter’ plus a love of American mob classics like ‘The Godfather’, ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Carlito’s Way’. I still catch those films late at night when I am channel surfing and always end up watching them right to the end, even though my bed is calling me, I’ve already got them on DVD and could probably recite all of the best lines before the actors.
These days, I read all kinds of stuff and not just crime but I really like the way Kate Atkinson tackles the genre. She writes wonderfully and I was hugely impressed by the writing in RJ Ellory’s "A Quiet Belief in Angels". I must read more of his books. For a suspenseful page turner, you can’t do better than Simon Kernick though.
There is violence in The Drop and I don’t shrink away from portraying it but I don’t wallow in it either. I do like to leave some of it up to the reader’s imagination. There is nothing a writer can put down on paper that is quite as disturbing as a reader’s own imaginings. Similarly with sex, what is implied or inferred can sometimes be a whole lot more erotic than a graphic account. It’s difficult to write good sex scenes and very easy to write bad ones. I think all writers live in fear of winning the annual Bad Sex award for their books. There is sex in The Drop of course, because our hero is sometimes led by organs in his body other than his brain. Blake is a bit of a slave to his impulses, even when he knows it is likely to get him into trouble, and there are three women in his life, to a greater or lesser degree. It doesn’t help that his boss’s daughter, Sarah, makes it clear she wants him and she is pretty damned hard to resist. At least, she is the way I have written her.
I tried to write the kind of book I would want to read myself. I am very conscious that there is a reader out there who will have to part with eight quid of his or her hard earned money to buy my book. I know what it feels like to spend a couple of weeks reading something that is ultimately disappointing and I hate books that just peter out, so I want everything I write to have a beginning, a middle and an end. My worst fear is someone reading my book and coming away feeling cheated or disappointed that it did not live up to their expectations.
No Exit has been great to work with. Other publishers expressed an interest in ‘The Drop’ but wanted changes or parts of the book toning down, noticeably the character of Blake who wasn’t sympathetic enough for some but I didn’t want to make him nicer or kinder to women. He’s a gangster for god’s sake. They are not nice people. I wanted realism. Ion Mills at ‘No Exit’ got that. He didn’t ask me to change a word and they kept the book raw and gritty, just the way I wanted it to be. And they have given me the coolest book jacket of the year, which should make ‘The Drop’ stand out on the shelves.
I am currently working on another north-east based, crime novel, about a journalist who returns to his home town and gets involved in the hunt for a missing girl. I used to be a journalist, so I reckon I have an inside view on that world, which should help me turn this one into a great story. Although it may have to go on hold for a while, as there is already firm interest in a sequel to’ The Drop’. Whatever happens next, it looks like I am going to be pretty busy for a while. It’s a nice problem to have. I just need a few more hours in every day!
‘The Drop’ is published by No Exit on April 21st 2011.