Imagine, for a moment, that you are a fictional private eye. You are down on your luck (obviously), but rather than take to the bottle, you choose to move house. You head for London, but no sooner do you reach Zone 1, than a man in a deerstalker has slipped in behind you and whispered an ingenious warning in your ear. You decide on more enlightened surroundings – as you walk past your first Oxford college, however, a burgundy Jaguar comes roaring towards you, opera blaring. You head north: Edinburgh is out of bounds. South: Wycliffe is polite but firm. Unease begins to set in: it is time to emigrate. In France, you receive a chic brush-off from Aimée Leduc. Brunetti awaits in Italy, Bernie Gunther in Germany. You don’t even try Scandinavia. In the end you take refuge in Outer Mongolia, only for Inspector Nergui of Michael Walters’s series to chase you away at the airport. You retrain as an apprentice wizard. Your career is toast.
A writer of a potential new crime series is faced with two deadly problems. First, fictional crime heroes are highly territorial. And second, they are everywhere. The following guidelines may assist – though in the world of crime fiction, of course, nothing is certain.
Find your setting
Any piece of unchartered territory is hard to find. What’s more, you can’t just stick a pin in a map: the setting needs to fascinate, to exert a mysterious pull on the reader. My first visit to Gibraltar was a chance one: getting lost on a driving holiday through Andalucía. Instantly, the place began to unsettle – I’d expected leery Costa Brits, yet here was a local populace with Italian surnames, speaking in a dialect studded with Hebrew words. Rather than soldiers, lawyers and accountants prowled the streets; Africa lay one way, Spain the other; monkeys roamed wild atop the Rock. Hello, I started to think – this place has something.
Find your hero
A setting may provide the plots for a crime series, but only if the hero has access to them. A policeman or woman is the obvious choice, yet may feel too familiar. The spectacular growth of the financial sector in Gibraltar – compensating for the decline of the British military – has led to a proliferation of local law firms. What would it be like to practise law on the Rock? What cases and clients would you meet? Spike Sanguinetti, Gibraltarian lawyer, had started to take shape.
Leave your comfort zone
People often say ‘Write what you know’, yet Spike only started to come alive once I had him reacting differently to me: I jabber when tense, Spike grows taciturn; I avoid danger, Spike goes wading in. Similarly, the further the plot moved from the familiar – to the slums of Tangiers, to a Bedouin village in the Sahara – the more alive it seemed to become. In Shadow of the Rock, a desperate client forces Spike to leave Gibraltar for Morocco: just as he has to exit his comfort zone, so too, perhaps, should the potential crime writer…
Shadow of the Rock is published by Bloomsbury