My latest book is Nineteen Eighty and is the third book of the Red Riding quartet, the first two being Nineteen Seventy-Four and Nineteen Seventy-Seven. Nineteen Eighty is set in the last month of the Ripper investigation and is narrated by Peter Hunter, an Assistant Chief Constable brought into the investigation as part of a Home Office ‘Super Squad’ sent to West Yorkshire to ‘advise’ the Ripper Squad after the last murder.
My earliest influences were Stan Barstow, John Braine, Alan Stillitoe, David Storey and Barry Hines. I was born and raised in Ossett in West Yorkshire, which is where Stan Barstow is also from and, although I have never met him, it was an inspiration knowing that the author of A Kind of Loving lived on the next street. From these writers I moved onto Greene and Chandler, Beckett and Burroughs. But my teenage reading aside, generally I have been influenced more by individual books rather than perhaps the entire work of an author, and as much by non-fiction as fiction. The list is a long and changing one but essentially: Edwin Drood, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, The Wasteland, The Trial, Red Harvest, Compulsion, In Cold Blood, A Clockwork Orange, Beyond Belief, Jack’s Return Home, The Exorcist, True Confessions, Falling Angel, Red Dragon, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, Evidence of Things Not Seen, He Died with his Eyes Open, Error of Judgement, Libra, American Psycho and Bloody Valentine. Two Japanese writers not widely read in the West are Ryosuke Akutagawa and Kenji Nakagami; Akutagawa’s short story In a Grove was written in about 1927 and, together with another of his stories, later formed the basis of the Kurosawa film Rashomon. In terms of structure and narrative, In a Grove continues to be a very big influence. Nakagami has two collections in English, Snakelust and The Cape. For want of a better comparison, his work is similar to James M. Cain or Jim Thompson in both its intensity and honesty. But if I had to name my favourite writer or biggest influence, it would be difficult to chose between Dante and Orwell.
But to be honest, I think the single biggest influence upon me was growing up when and where I did. I was ten years old and five miles away when Jayne McDonald was murdered in Leeds on 26 June 1977; from that day until the capture of the Yorkshire Ripper on Friday 2 January 1981, I was obsessed with trying to solve the case. I genuinely feared that my father could be the Ripper – the notion that he had to be ‘somebody’s husband, somebody’s son’, and perhaps somebody’s father. I felt a tremendous relief when the so-called Ripper Tape was released and seemed to prove otherwise. But then came the seemingly never-ending and very real fear that my mother could be the next victim, that next black and white photo on the front of the Sunday Mirror.Nineteen Seventy-Four I was reading Sherlock Holmes and Marvel Comics, cutting out photographs of dead prostitutes and listening to that voice on the tape in Dewsbury bus station every night on the way home from school, making promises and deals with God if he would only capture and stop the Yorkshire Ripper. On the day Sutcliffe appeared at Dewsbury Magistrates on Monday 5 January 1981, I nicked off school with my best friend and we hung around town all day waiting for that 4 p.m. appearance. I remember watching the local news reporter Marilyn Webb film her report in the car park across from the Town Hall, standing in the rain and the snow in her tan raincoat and cream turtle neck sweater; I remember thinking how much she resembled a victim. This landscape is now almost completely lost beneath supermarkets and DIY superstores. I remember the surge of the crowd, being lifted off my feet and swept forward towards him, unable to stop.
I wrote a great deal from 1985 until 1993, and it was either stolen or rejected and all went unpublished. It’s difficult to feel any affection towards either the work or that period of my life because both involved so much sacrifice, disappointment and hurt for many people, not only myself. That said, the obsessions were the same: the Yorkshire Ripper – that time and that place. So the initial research and early texts continue to inform and inspire my current writing on a daily basis.
There used to be too many hours in the day and now there are not enough. The amount of factual research that my work entails means I’m left with too little time for contemporary fiction, crime or otherwise and, to be honest, there’s so much utter rubbish published. I don’t want to read books about imaginary serial killers or wide-boy drug dealers or ex-Vietnam vets or TV coppers. I want to read fictions torn from facts that use those fictions to illuminate the truth. I read because I want to learn; I want to learn because I want answers. I don’t want mystery and suspense because I’ve got that everywhere I look, I want truth and answers not ‘the sickest psycho since Hannibal the Cannibal’. For those reasons, I do still very much enjoy reading Ellroy and Mosley, Pelecanos and Lehane, and, closer to home, Ian Rankin and Jake Arnott. I particularly admire the work of Jack O’Connell and Jim Sallis, both of whom I came upon thanks to Crime Time. I admire their work for the same reason that Delillo and Ellroy matter so much – because they take chances with structure and with style and continue to push the possibilities and potential of the genre, because they are writing books, not desperate bids for TV franchises or movies. Outside crime fiction, and for the same reasons, I read J. G. Ballard, Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Gordon Burn. Incidentally, there is also a young Japanese writer called Seishu Hase, and it is a great shame that his Tokyo noir novels are not available in English.
Crime is brutal, harrowing and devastating for everyone involved, and crime fiction should be every bit as brutal, harrowing and devastating as the violence of the reality it seeks to document. Anything less at best sanitises crime and its effects, at worst trivialises it. Anything more exploits other people’s misery as purely vicarious entertainment. It is a very, very fine line. Similarly, the sexuality in my books reflects the times in which they are set; I strongly believe that crimes happen at a particular time, in a particular place to a particular person for very, very, very particular reasons. Both Gordon Burn and Helen Ward Jouve in their excellent books on the Yorkshire Ripper have made the point before, but the Yorkshire of the 1970s was a hostile environment to be living in and especially for women.
Everything is political, said Stokley Carmichael back in 1972 and he’s still right. Crime fiction has both the opportunity and the obligation to be the most political of any writing or any media, crime itself being the most manifest example of the politics of the time. We are defined and damned by the crimes of the times that we live in. Nineteen Seventy-SevenThe Moors Murders, the Yorkshire Ripper, and the Wests, Rachel Nickell, Jamie Bulger, and Stephen Lawrence: I strongly believe that these crimes and their victims, these investigations and trials (or lack thereof) did not just happen to anyone in anyplace at anytime: they happened to very specific people in a very specific place at a very specific time and this is what crime fiction should be documenting, these dispatches from the front; because we are constantly at war and there are some very, very bad people on the rise. I believe the crime writer, by their choice of genre, is obligated to document these times and their crimes, and the writer who chooses to ignore this responsibility is then simply exploiting, for his or her own financial or personal gratification, a genre that is itself nothing more than an entertainment industry constructed upon the sudden, violent deaths of other, innocent people and the unending, suffering of their families.
I try to keep my life as normal and routine as possible. I get up at six. I take the kids to school. I start writing at nine. I stop writing at four. I pick up the kids from school. I put them to bed at nine. I start writing at ten again. I stop at two. I sleep for four hours. And so on and so on and so on. The books themselves go through three distinct stages: the research notes, the draft, and the manuscript. I have, in every sense, no time for films (or TV) whatsoever. I was unemployed in Manchester for a number of years and spent the days drinking two-litre bottles of red wine and watching three films a day in the Cornerhouse; I saw enough films and wasted enough time to last me my entire lifetime. Film and TV have had an horrendous influence on writing, my own included. For the past ten years film and TV seem to have become utterly bankrupt of anything other than the desire to entertain, which would now seem to the sole desirable quality we demand of everything and everyone in society: that we entertain. The only two recent exceptions I would make are Seven and Gummo. Music is a different matter. Thanks to the second-hand CD shops of Tokyo I now have the collection I always dreamed of. Initially I started collecting as much music as I could from the years I was writing about (and not only the ‘good stuff’) and this has helped a lot in terms of the accuracy of vocabulary and phraseology, as language changes so quickly. But I also get a lot structurally from music, in terms of rhythm and timing, repetition and phrasing, and so forth. I also have become increasingly influenced by painting. Nineteen Eighty was particularly influenced by the work of Francis Bacon, in terms of composition and colour.
Because almost all my work is based on an actual crime, the place and the time and the actual crime come before the characters who in turn then determine the plot. However, whether or not that plot is any good is the key. I’m sure it is perfectly possible to have a novel without a plot, I just wouldn’t want to read it. I wrote about Yorkshire in the 1970s and early 1980s because that was where and when I grew up and I still have the scars. Leeds at that time was a very threatening and violent city, a city of endless rain and the Yorkshire Ripper. But as a teenager I was still very drawn to this dark place, just as I continue to be drawn to write about it. For the last eight years I have been living in the old East End of Tokyo and I have become quite fascinated with the many secret histories of the people and the place. At some stage I would like to write about the rise of post-war Tokyo; as much for my children, whose mother is Japanese, as for myself. But there is a difference between fascination and obsession.
I have always had the same agent, publisher and editor, and I have been incredibly fortunate with all three. William Miller, my agent, essentially took me on out of pity and then friendship, but through his endeavours he has achieved a great deal for me, especially in Japan. Serpent’s Tail are one of the very last independent publishers in the UK. It is a privilege to be published by Mr Ayrton and to share a list with men of such integrity as Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos. ST have always been 100% behind the books and, with me being in Japan, have often had to promote them in my absence. However, the best thing about Serpent’s Tail is having John Williams as an editor. His book Into the Badlands really did for the UK crime scene what the Nuggets compilations did for UK music; i.e. uncovering and introducing a largely undiscovered group of American art to this country. Like Crime Time itself, his book was simply a revelation for many aspiring UK writers and a hell of lot cheaper and fun than having to do a Creative Writing MA in East Anglia. Not only that, but in Bloody Valentine John has written one of the best pieces of non-fiction crime writing I have ever read. His fiction is tremendous too, so having John working on a book with you is both an inspiring and rewarding experience. He is very skilful in the way he edits too; he’ll ask you one question and you start talking and he just listens and lets you come to your own conclusion (which is obviously the reason he asked in the first place), leaving you with the impression that the book is still yours. After all my experiences of rejection and the ensuing depression that followed, I had vowed never to write another word for anyone other than myself. Nineteen EightyBut since I was first able to write, I have never physically been able to stop the actual act of writing things down, so when I came to Tokyo I just wrote Nineteen Seventy-Four in an exercise book for myself. Later when I was persuaded to type it up and send it out and it was then accepted, I had already begun Nineteen Seventy-Seven, once again purely for myself. But the publication and success of Nineteen Seventy-Four did change things to some extent, as there is a difference in writing purely for yourself and writing for publication, particularly if it is a quartet or series. I have been very fortunate that a number of critics and journalists (not least at CT), and also the bookshops and obviously many readers, have all taken a big interest in the books and have been very vocal in their support and I’m very conscious of not wanting to let these people down.
Reading is important and people don’t do it enough, again myself included. It does seem to me, holed up out here in my Tokyo bunker, that the affluent societies of the East and the West lack any form of direction or guidance, that we are simply spinning in a moral void. Where religion and government have either been banished or abdicated, business has stepped in. To bastardise Dylan, it would seem to me that one has to be moral to live outside God and we are plainly not. I still believe reading to be a redemption of sorts and that with e-mail and the Internet we are perhaps reading (and writing) more and watching less. Either way though, we’re still talking too much and listening too little. I don’t distinguish between religion and politics; just as everything is political, so it is religious. For me politics is the asking of questions, religion the receiving of answers. But we have known in our hearts the answers for almost two thousand years; that we chose to ignore those answers is the greatest crime.
I read recently an interview with a young(ish), successful and award-winning British crime writer in which he said that he had considered giving up writing crime because his first four books had not sold well enough. His publisher told him that crime ‘readers bought by the tonnage’ and so he then decided to write a long book in the hope of improving his sales. Now that does not make me want to read his books nor, if I were an aspiring writer, would it particularly inspire me to write. I want truth, honesty and sincerity in my work and the work of others. I don’t want to read a book that was written in order to purchase a faster car or a bigger house by someone who would be a science fiction writer if it paid better. Yes, we all live in a capitalist society in which writers have to be fed and clothed and books are products to be bought and sold and publishers package and sell writers because that is their business. But the publisher publishes and the writer writes. It concerns me that so many writers see and accept themselves and their books as a commodity, that they measure success purely in terms of advances and sales and awards (and only because awards help sales). You write books because you have truths to tell; you work in a bank or play the ponies because you want a fast car and a big house. At the risk of repeating myself, but in the hope that someone starts listening, I also have very, very strong feelings about the whole mystery/crime genre, be it book, TV or film, as a commodity and an entertainment industry based on the sudden and violent deaths of innocent individual people; deaths that in reality leave the families of the victims (and the families of the perpetrators) devastated. I still do, as I have said before, take issue with writers who fail to acknowledge and engage in this, who write ‘black comedies’ or create ‘comedy crime’ sub-genres, as though there is anything remotely amusing to write or say about a rape or a murder, fictional or otherwise. If I want to laugh, I read P. G. Wodehouse. If I want truth, I read Gordon Burn. Personally, I don’t think the two mix. Entertainment is simply not enough of a reason to write crime fiction, not given the reality and horror of actual crime. But equally we cannot ignore that reality and horror less – to paraphrase Nietzsche, we are consumed by it. So are we just the written equivalent of a game of Cluedo or are we trying to say something more? The failure of so many so-called influential figures in British crime to recognise or respond to this question is the very reason some of our contemporary American writers are five to ten years ahead of us. Wake up and smell the coffee Britain, because it’s black with no sugar.
I have just completed the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Three and so, editing aside, the Red Riding quartet is complete. As I said before, I have written about the Yorkshire of the Ripper and that whole period for more than ten years. Yet I feel there is still so much unsaid and unwritten about those crimes, that time and that place, that it remains unfinished.