Author mines ultimate darkness in latest thriller

Chris Brookmyre, Galsgow.

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Author Christopher Brookmyre is hot property at the moment.

Having scooped two major awards for Black Widow, his story of cyber-abuse and murder – it was named crime novel of the year at the Theakston Old Peculier crime writing festival in July and won the inauguaral McIlvanney prize at the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling in September 2016 – he has spent the summer on the road. That tour included being guest of honour at Bouchercon, the crime fiction festival in North America last month, then touring Canada with fellow crime writer Mark Billingham – together they are becoming known for their stand-up comedy routine.

When I caught up with him at Tarbert Book Festival at the end of October, Brookmyre said he hardly had time to draw breath, saying: ‘The past few months have been relentless. My wife was just asking me about the football and I haven’t been to a game this season. I’ve had a festival commitment every Saturday or coming back from one, since August.

‘The better I do, the more I seem to be away. I don’t think I’ve ever been so busy. Obviously I’ve been working in terms of writing as well, but yeah, the number of events seems to be expanding.’

Brookmyre’s most popular series are his novels involving the investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, which have sold more than one million copies in the UK alone. Want you Gone is the eighth book in the series and came out in April.

With Brookmyre’s usual mix of politics, social comment and action, plus a strong narrative, Want You Gone is a book that many will find difficult to put down. But what was his starting point for the novel?

‘I’ve always been interested in hacking,’ he explained, ‘not so much the technical side of it but, in keeping with lots of other books I’ve written, it’s how do you subtly manipulate people psychologically that appeals to me. Also, having read a lot about it and spoken to people who were from that kind of culture, people make a misperception of who’s involved.

‘First of all, they’re wrong about how it’s done. And, secondly, they’re usually wrong about the type of people involved. What I found was that, especially with things like Anonymous [the international network of activist and hacktivist], it wasn’t quite the stereotype that people imagined. Often it was people with difficult social circumstances, people who had all sorts of social problems or psychological problems. Being online, hacking things and pulling off the audacious online escapades was actually an escape from sometimes quite challenging, everyday reality.

‘That stuck with me, the idea that somebody would see it as an escape but at the same time would maybe not entirely appreciate the real world consequences – what harm you’re doing or even what will come back literally to your door – because it’s all just happening on a screen.

‘I just wanted to write a big heist story – I do love a heist story – and I thought every hack is a heist and every heist is a hack, so it seemed like a good fit for the type of book I like writing.’

Cyber crime never seems to be out of the news, so did it seemed a natural fit to have Parlabane investigating this type of crime?

‘One of the things I wanted to write about was that Parlabane is kind of an old school journalist and he’s moving into the new media, and the new media is full of flashy bells and whistles. You can reach a lot of people, but that’s why the enduring principles and skills of journalism are even more important now than they ever were – the ability to source a story, to back it up and point out what’s really true rather than just speculative.

‘So I wanted to illustrate that as being all the more important in an era where we’re getting so much of our news, not just through the internet but specifically it’s coming first through Facebook as a platform or Twitter as a platform and we’re seeing the ways in which that can be manipulated.

‘It doesn’t even have to be fake news, just the ability to target specific stories to people so they are bombarded with a negative impression of something.

‘That stuff’s fairly scary, but when it comes to the security side of it, I feel like it’s partly common sense but also that it’s a bit of an arms race. One side finds a way to improve security, the other side is going to find the next way of getting round it. But mostly it’s just about people being aware and not making silly assumptions, like not having the same password for absolutely everything – you’d be amazed at how many people do that.

‘People have a notion that hacking is all about arcane coding abilities, technical things and some of that can come into play, but for the most part it’s about getting somebody to tell you their password, finding subtle ways for people to hand over information they don’t appreciate the value of.

‘To me, that’s the side of it that’s most fascinating, because there’s more of a thrill for the reader when they read something and think, “I’ve done that myself”, and I know people will go and change their password … everybody who reads the books says they’ve gone and changed their password!’

Having finished cyber-crime thriller Want You Gone, it perhaps wasn’t such a huge leap for Brookmyre to set his next novel in space – a city in the sky where there has never been a homicide … until now.

‘Early in the stages of writing Black Widow, I’d started thinking about ideas that became Places In The Darkness.

‘One of the things I thought I’d like to write is a crime novel that takes place in space because I’ve always enjoyed science fiction. I’ve written science fiction before and I’d read a few science fiction novels but, while the concepts were often fascinating, what often disappointed me was the plot was often quite weak or lacking. Crime fiction’s got so much plot, so I though wouldn’t it be good to marry the two genres.

‘At one point, I thought could you write a crime story that took place on something like the International Space Station, but I realised quickly that that gets quite limited. The things I had been thinking about required a bit more scope.

‘I read a couple of books by Michio Kaku, an American science writer, and some of his work was speculative stuff about what sort of spaceships we would build in the future and how we would propel them, and then things like how long would it take to get anywhere, so I started thinking about the notion of what’s called a colony ship. If it would take hundreds and hundreds of years to reach anywhere else, we’d need to build something on which whole generations would be born and die without ever getting off, so this would be a massive engineering undertaking and would take decades, but it would also be the most colossal political creation.

‘I wanted to get across that it is aspiring towards a better future and a lot of what is going on up there is the best of humanity, people trying to build something better, but there is still certain negative instincts that come into being, and that includes, for instance, the need to create a social underclass in order to control people. Also there’s something in the book that talks about the caveman principle, which is that the farther you get away from living in the land and the more you’re surrounded by technology, the more you value visceral, basic experiences.

‘So if you’re up there in space, my thinking is that things like food, company, drink, sex become all the more desirable and important. So even though you’ve got all those amazing technological entertainment options, the thing that people really want is to go to clubs and restaurants, bars, etc.

‘But also I knew that there would be a moral component of people wanting to disapprove of all the above, so suddenly alcohol becomes a thing – I thought bootlegging would be a classic noir situation. That was my other idea – I wanted it to be space noir. I don’t normally write a noir-type story, police procedure isn’t something I normally delve into, but I didn’t have to worry about getting the details right because it’s my police force.’

Every cop thriller needs a stand-out character, so where did Brookmyre find Nicky Fixx?

‘I had this notion that I wanted it to be a female buddy cop thriller. The classic mismatched couple. Shane Black always wrote great buddy cop thrillers – it wasn’t always cops, but if you look at The Nice Guys, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Boy Scout, Lethal Weapon, he does that but it’s always guys, and I wanted it to be women.

‘So I thought how do I come up with a chemistry between them? One of my all-time favourite movies is The Big Easy, so I drew upon that and thought of the chemistry between Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin in that he is someone who doesn’t realise the extent to which he’s slid into corruption until she comes along and, equally, she’s really uptight and kind of has to loosen up a wee bit. That dynamic fascinates me but let’s make it about someone who knows fine how corrupt she is but she doesn’t care because she’s ceased to care about anything. My idea was that I wanted these two people to kind of save each other. They were both in need of saving.

‘I was really happy with both characters – Nicky Fixx and Alice Blake. I enjoyed writing them both but I enjoyed writing Nicky far more because when you have someone who’s really badly behaved it’s always enjoyable to write about.

‘I’ve actually come to realise recently that I’m more comfortable writing from a woman’s point of view when it comes to anything that strays into the territory of the macho because I don’t feel the macho comes from me. Most women I know have a very limited tolerance for machismo and therefore that’s the perspective I like to bring to things.’

So do you see this becoming a series?

‘That’s the plan but it’s all in the lap of the gods – if people like this book. The whole CDC scenario is such that there can be more novels. The fact that it’s been up there for 80 years means that I can write about things that happened in the past as well as what happens next.

‘I think in this book I’m trying to anticipate the way life will naturally go, how we will develop. The optogenetic mesh that the book deals with is already in its infancy. It is something I can see we will naturally try to explore. There will always be the ethical dilemmas, but we will be encountering new ethical dilemmas because the technology will allow new things.

‘I’m usually fairly optimistic about these things. There will be mis-steps but I think for the most part we will always evolve useful technology. I keep thinking about our attitude to things like plastic surgery. Other people recoil from it a wee bit but actually it’s like any technology – just accept that it’s here to stay and that this is the human condition, where we’re going to keep looking for ways to escape the limitations of our physicality.

‘That’s kind of what the book is about as well, the idea that we are constantly on a quest to civilise ourselves, tame ourselves and rise above, and this book is partly about that, how do we tame ourselves of our worst instincts. For some people, the morality of that becomes problematic, but to me, the interesting territory for this story is that grey area between trying to improve ourselves as a civilisation and those who want to be in denial about human nature, this moralistic position – the idea that we can eradicate a certain behaviour.

‘Obviously we want to tame ourselves of violence but when you start trying to eradicate our natural needs or natural condition, that’s always going to end in disaster.’

Christopher Brookmyre will be at The Highland Bookshop, 60 High Street, Fort William, on Friday November 17 at 7pm. Tickets are priced £5 which includes a glass of wine and £2 off a copy of Places in the Darkness. For inquiries and to reserve tickets, contact 01397 705931 or email bookshop@highlandbookshop.com.

Later this month, Brookmyre will be at Lochgilphead Library on Wednesday November 29 at 7.30pm as part of events for Book Week Scotland.

The following evening he will be in the Corran Halls in Oban (Thursday November 30), where the event will start at 7pm.

Both these events are free, but booking is advisable. To book, contact Elizabeth Rafferty on 01369 707144

For more details on Book Week Scotland events email: karen.maccorquodale@argyll-bute.gov.uk or call Karen on 01631 572192.