Leading British crime author and historical novelist reflects on the city’s impact on his life and work, and on his remarkable post-Pompey career
Portsmouth (and beyond)
Pompey was a hard city to leave. Lin and I had been living there for the best part of thirty years. It had seen me through a troubled apprenticeship in crime fiction, offered characters and storylines to rescue my mistrust of the genre, and – in ways that still amaze me – secured a dozen books that owe an enormous debt to the crime writer’s best friend.
Pompey – uncursed by money - is claustrophobic, inward-looking, truly a city apart. Its darkness and its rough wit fuelled book after book. The French, oddly enough, loved the series. D/I Joe Faraday, in particular, found countless fans amongst French female readers convinced he needed a real woman in his life.
In mid-series, a production company in Paris bought the TV rights and – with rare skill – turned Faraday into a household name if you were lucky enough to be living in France. The producers also chose Le Havre as the anchor location – the French Pompey – blissfully unaware that the city is twinned with Southampton. At that point, Lin and I knew that our days in Portsmouth were numbered. Faraday selling out to the Scummers? We had to be on our way.
Leaving Portsmouth (and crime) behind
Most of our furniture had gone ahead in a hired Luton van. We left under pouring rain in our ancient camper van with a thousand books, a forest of houseplants and the cat. The cat started pissing on our precious dwarf olive tree as we hit the M275. She didn’t want to leave, either.
In Devon, where we now live, Lin put the cat into therapy, and hosed down the olive tree, while yours truly wondered what kind of fictional challenges lay down the road. A quartet of cri-fis set in the West Country did well but East Devon lacked the glum magic of Fratton on a wet Wednesday. In truth, I was beginning to tire of the interview suite, and the ever-growing mountain of paperwork, and a CID culture so risk-averse and so cash-strapped that major crime was becoming a serious career proposition amongst folk who’d formerly been careful about parking fines.
To date, I’d published twenty-five novels, sixteen of them crime fiction. Thanks to the success of Joe Faraday and the gang, I was banged up in the cri-fi Gulag, and somehow I had to find a way out. If you think publishing is a friend under these circumstances, you’d be wrong. You’re a crime writer. The books have found a market. We can sell more of these babies. Just do it.
That same year, we found ourselves in Galicia, in north west Spain. The French had bought one of the West Country cri-fis for yet another movie and I had a breathing space to step away from the keyboard and take stock. It was autumn, brilliant weather, the roads and the endless beaches empty. We were camping in that same ancient camper and one afternoon we came across a tiny fishing village called O Porto de Bares (see blog image at the top of the page).
I remember it was a sunny afternoon. Lin and I settled on a bench with a perfect view of the harbour. There were very few people around and after a while I became aware of the nearby plaque in the harbour wall. O Porto de Bares is the most northerly settlement on the entire Iberian peninsula. It overlooks the main shipping lane across the Bay of Biscay, and during the middle years of the Second World War, a storm drove a passing U-boat with engine trouble onto an offshore reef. Local fishermen saved most of the crew, but the plaque pays tribute to the handful of German matelots who perished as their submarine broke up.
I studied that plaque for a while, and then we walked along the harbour in search of a beer. The bar where we stopped, as it happened, had a model of that same U-boat, tastefully draped in tar-blackened netting. Eternally superstitious, I took that as a sign. If I was looking for a tunnel out of crime fiction, then here it was.
We moved on west along the coast, and each new leg of the journey, and each new campsite, gave me an opportunity to develop something substantial from that first image seeded by the plaque in the harbour wall. Men, already half-drowned, struggling to survive in the boiling surf. Their rescuers battling huge waves to pluck them to safety. Where was the U-boat headed? Where had it come from? What were the stories behind the men on board?
A post-war child
Most of my life, I’ve been fascinated by the Second World War. I grew up as a post-war baby. My dad flew in Beaufighters with the RAF. My mum was under the bombs in the Blitz. My father-in-law spent five long years as a Prisoner of War behind the wire. As a young reader, the carpet beside my bed was littered with books – both fiction and non-fiction – that had washed out of that enormous world-wide convulsion. Later, as a TV producer, I made countless documentaries that tried to put the consequences of those years of unimaginable violence on the screen. My final offering to ITV was a six-part retrospective, In Time of War, that explored the experience of the Falklands conflict through the eyes of those who had fought in the conflict. The scars these men brought home, I realised, would have been all too familiar to generations of fighting troops who’d gone before them.
By the time we headed back to the UK in late October, I had the bones of the plot down on paper. Half the book belongs to the Captain of my invented U-boat, Stefan Portisch. The rest settles around an ex-FBI cop, Joe Gomez, assigned to security duties at the top-secret development base at Los Alamos, where American scientists are building the first atomic bomb. The two storylines flirt with each other, and finally come together in a surprise climax. I called the novel Finisterre, which is the name for the region surrounding O Porto de Bares. Translated from the Latin, it also means ‘the end of the earth’, which suited the Los Alamos theme rather nicely.
Back home, I invested heavily in research and then wrote the book, which I sent to my agent. When he pointed out that Finisterre was a thousand long miles from my chosen genre, I argued that we should be thinking outside the box. The Second World War, I suggested, was the biggest crime scene ever. That’s where books like these begin and end. Motives. Consequences. Plus a great deal of violence.
Nearly convinced, Oil pitched my draft to a publisher he knew who liked my work. Nic Cheetham, at Head of Zeus, was a fellow World War Two buff, and thankfully enjoyed my first bid at historical fiction. We met for the first time over a longish lunch, and Nic said he was happy to take the book on. Most books these days are commissioned in series, to maximise sales, and most publishers insist on the presence of a central character to carry the narrative. So who would be the series lead? Who would we accompany from book to book? Whose face would we be putting on the cover?
Losing the shackles
Already, I sensed that Finisterre could truly be the book to set me free. After the badlands of Pompey, to which Lin and I owe an enormous debt, it would take me to pastures new. Not only would it let me tunnel out from the cri-fi Gulag, but I could also unshackle myself from the need for a single protagonist. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the company of D/I Joe Faraday, my series lead for the Pompey books. He was a difficult man, heavily conflicted, trying to retain just a shred of optimism in an ever-darkening world. We spent more than a decade together, and I admired him immensely, but on both our parts – as the series came to an end – enough was enough. As I explained to Nic over lunch, there has to be another way of glueing readers to the page for book after book.
Nic, at first, was dubious but by the time we said our goodbyes he agreed to take on Finisterre, as long as I could come up with a credible alternative to a single lead, and so I conjured a plan that called for a handful of characters who would appear and reappear over the series, claiming more or less of the fictional spotlight depending on the demands of the plot. I gave this concept a name – ‘soft linkage’ - and Nic, brave to the last, said yes.
Finisterre hit the bookshops in 2016 and the reviews were deeply promising. To our mutual delight, it also made the short-list for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Award, and since then Zeus have published four more titles. Book Five, Last Flight to Stalingrad, appeared at the start of this year, and Zeus – deciding that this was the break-out title - funded a big publicity push for the US launch. Book Six, Kyiv, is already out in hardback and Book Seven, Katastrophe, is scheduled for next year. Books Eight and Nine, meanwhile, haunt the pile of research reading on the table in my study. One will explore the astonishing story that lay behind the Dieppe Raid, while the other – breaking news – will draw a bead on the plot to assassinate both Churchill and Roosevelt in Morocco in 1943. Soft linkage, to my intense delight, has worked.
All fiction, says me, is an act of trespass. The Pompey books obliged me to get inside the heads (and maybe hearts) of working detectives, as well as the bad guys, but we shared the same world, and these people were always around if I needed a prompt or two over a pint. Writing about a long-ago war, on the other hand, imposes different responsibilities. From the start, with Finisterre, I was determined to mix major historical figures – the likes of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Churchill, Stalin and Robert Oppenheimer – with characters of my own invention and making that work on the page demands enormous leaps of the imagination. You have to be at home in the war. You have to figure out what it feels like to be under constant threat, both in government and in the front line. You have to be comfortable with the smallest details of a crime scene that took millions of lives. Hence the mountain of research reading that lives with me every working day.
I look at those books in my study from time to time, savouring the fictional possibilities to come, and it’s impossible not to remember the taste of the wind off the Bay of Biscay, that afternoon we sat by the harbour in O Porto de Bares. In publishing, as in life, it’s good to take a risk or two when needs must, and I’m glad to report that the creative juices have never tasted so sweet. The Spoils of War happens to be the series title but I like to believe that the gods of war – notoriously fickle - were with us that afternoon on the very edge of Europe.
For more information on Graham Hurley’s remarkable career visit his website or find him on the Portsmouth Literary Map