Russell is the author of
five police procedural novels featuring half-Scottish, half- Friesian
officer Jan Fabel, and a new series set in 1950s Glasgow
private eye Lennox.
In 2007 he was awarded the Crime Writer’s Association of
Britain’s Dagger in the Library for his body of work. His
books have been
translated into twenty-three languages and his second novel Brother Grimm is due to make into a film
that will be shown in 2010. Brother Grimm was also shortlisted for
the 2008 Prix Polar in France.
For those who don’t know much about
you, would you like to give us a bit of background information about
My name is Craig Russell and I am a full-time novelist. I have written five novels
in the Jan Fabel
series set in Hamburg
set in 1950s Glasgow. I was born in Scotland. My interests are wide and
history and linguistics to painting, cooking and keeping fit. I’m also a bit
of a film buff and have a full
screen-and-projector cinema at home.
married with two kids, two cats and a dog.
Before becoming a full-time novelist I was a freelance
creative director; before that, I worked in advertising; and before
that, I was
a police officer.
Your first series is the Jan Fabel
police procedurals, which are set in Germany. What
made you decide firstly to write police
procedurals and secondly to set the series in Germany?
didn’t really make up my mind to write
police procedurals as such – and, of course, Lennox
isn’t about a cop or told
from the police point of view. I
to write a thriller, first and foremost, and I wanted to say something
we live in today. I
suppose having had some experience as a
policeman led me naturally down the road of writing a crime thriller.
funny thing is, I don’t think I ever
did, in my own mind, think of myself as a crime author.
I still see myself more as an author who
happens to write about crime. I
ruled out that I may write something completely different in the future. I am also lamentably
ill-informed about crime
fiction, not having read a great deal of it myself.
My influences tend to lie outside the genre
and I suppose I worry that I might be influenced by another
said, crime fiction offers me, as a
writer, a fantastic form of storytelling.
A good crime novel is a journey of discovery. The journey starts with
the commission of a
crime and ends with its resolution.
makes a good crime novel is the
twists and turns that journey takes: the detours and points of interest
fiction also allows us
all to escape into another world inhabited by ordinary people like us,
but in extraordinary
for setting the series in Germany:
I wanted to base my fiction
somewhere away from the usual. Hamburg
is a fantastic city and the
ideal location for a crime series.
richest city and is very
‘British’ in feel.
I know Germany
very well and spend an
enormous amount of time there. Part
my decision was based on the fact that almost all of the depictions of
in fiction or film are still
based on old stereotypes and the Nazi era.
I wanted to write something about the Germany
as an East Coast Scot there is a
lot about the northern German character and culture I can relate to
– even the
language: the dialects of Low German spoken there are very similar to
Scots. I was able
to use these
similarities to build a cultural bridge and immerse myself in a very
culture, but with a totally different and infinitely darker history. Also, being a port city
right at the heart of
the ‘New Europe’, East meets West in Hamburg
and there are a lot of
comings and goings through the port.
The main character Jan Fabel is a
former historian turned police officer, and is half-German and
Is this any reflection on your own heritage?
He is also a man of conscience and imagination and he
shows us things
about the times we're living through in a thought-provoking way. Where
character Jan Fabel come from and were these characteristics that you
intentional when you created him?
based on any police officer that you know?
I think there’s a fair bit of me in Jan Fabel. We tend to share some of
the same views. He
is perhaps a little more serious than I am
(hardly surprising, given his job).
do both spend a great deal of time looking for answers to problems by
interrogating contemporary society and the history that shaped it.
isn’t really based on any real life
police officer – although I have met his real-life
counterpart in the Hamburg
Murder Squad. Jan
is Jan, to me. He
has developed his own, distinct and, for
me, very real personality.
Whilst the first book – Blood
Eagle –is rather graphic, it is my
favourite, although there were times when I had to put it down. It is based on the dark
world of ancient
Viking beliefs as well as twisting and turning its way through Germany’s
past and present. What
was the impetus
for this story and did you have any complaints about how graphic it was?
think this is an example of where
having been a policeman in real life has played a big role. I don’t go out
of my way to make the books
graphic – I just tell it how it is, if you know what I mean. It goes back to attending
scenes of death as
a policeman: I guess I try to communicate the (often literally) gut
have to violent death. Murder
clean or tidy and I merely describe it as well, and as accurately, as I
can. I know that Mo
Hayder has sometimes
been given stick about her novels being graphic.
I think it’s simply that she is a writer of
immense power and paints a very vivid – and truthful
– picture. I
like to think I do the same. As
for complaints … I was in Germany doing a Blood
Eagle tour when a very large man –
and I mean six foot six and three hundred pounds – came up to
me to complain
that I had given him nightmares.
The cases that Jan Fabel and his
colleagues in the Murder Squad investigate tend to involve a strong
or mythological element. In
Blood Eagle there is a strong mix of
history, politics and crime, forcing us to ask ourselves timely
what it means to be German and/or European in these post-war times. Meanwhile Brother
Grimm revolves around the dark origins of fairy tales. You
history and mythology into your books – are they a strong
interest for you?
am absolutely fascinated by cultural
history and mythology. I
think that the
strong presence of these elements in the Fabel books comes from my own
enthusiasm for the subjects. And,
course, Jan Fabel trained as a historian before becoming a police
each of the Fabel novels there tends
to be three ‘periods’ explored: the present,
relatively recent history, and
more distant history. In
Eternal, for example, the
action is shaped in part by events in the German
Autumn terrorist atrocities of the 70s and a sacrificial act
carried out a
thousand years before.
The third book in the series is Eternal, in which the squad investigate a
killer who believes he has
been reincarnated to exact revenge on a bunch of 'trendy lefties' who
him in a previous life. But
gone a bit further and dealt with issues that some of the other
going through, especially by juxtaposing a few hours in the life of
detective Maria Klee, who is Fabel’s deputy, and that of
the personal doubts
that Fabel has are surprising and a little unsettling, which adds to
richness and realism of his character. But at the end of Eternal
there are cracks appearing in Fabel's personal life. Was
this calculated and do you believe that it had the intended effect?
always find it hard to believe in a
character who, during a series of novels, has been exposed to all kinds
dangers and horrors, yet starts each novel exactly the same as they
before. It simply
too far. It’s
obvious that if you are
dealing with violent death and human tragedy as part of your day-to-day
you will become deeply affected by it.
From the beginning, I had it in my mind that Jan Fabel
should be touched
by all that he experiences: that he should begin to question and doubt
does for a living.
Some very shocking things happen in The
Carnival Master, not
only to Fabel but also to his
deputy Maria Klee. What
made you decide
to set the case in Cologne
instead of Hamburg,
and how difficult was it to write about what was going on with Maria
is a concept in Britain
that a German is a German is
a German. The fact
is that Germany
is an infinitely varied
country, socially and culturally.
Northern Germans really do experience culture clash when
they visit the
south, and vice versa (and everybody experiences it when they visit Cologne!). Cologne
is a unique city with a very
special character. Cologners
in a dialect impenetrable to all other Germans. I wanted to take cool,
collected, northern German Jan Fabel and drop him into the tumult and
chaos of Cologne
yes, Maria Klee really does have a
rough time of it. That
was not easy to
write, as Maria is a character I care about and who has developed her
distinct personality. But
this goes back
to what I said earlier about how the events in the personal history of
character has to have had an effect on them for them to be believable
everything that happened to
Maria in Blood Eagle, it is no
surprise she has been taken right to the very edge.
latest title in the Fabel series is The
Valkyrie Song, which conjures up determined females. In this case determined
females are part of
what is troubling Fabel; he also has a female assassin to track down. What made you decide to
have a female as your
main protagonist this time around, and was it difficult to write
the earlier books in the series?
Each of the
Fabel novels has a ‘theme’ running through it.
In Brother Grimm it
shared cultural histories and the common fears that have inspired fairy
the world over. In The Carnival Master, it was the theme of
‘flesh’: both literally
and in the sense of the body as opposed to the mind.
Indeed, Maria Klee seeks to separate herself
from the flesh she is composed of (and which has gone through so much
suffering). In The
Valkyrie Song, the theme is women: specifically violence
against women and
violence committed by women. I
find it difficult at all to write about female characters. I like to think that the
generally, has been consistent in having strong, credible female
All the books so far in the Fabel
series are not only dark and menacing but are also thrilling,
compelling; how would you therefore describe your Jan Fabel
books to someone
who is about to read them for the first time?
I would say that the Fabel series is something
I have created something fresh and
new. It takes you
to a new and different
location and is rich in cultural and historical detail.
I would say that Jan Fabel is a sympathetic
and, most of all, credible
investigator. He is
insightful; is politically liberal but a little conservative socially. The cases he investigates
are dark and woven
through with social and cultural significance.
Most of all, I think I would say that the Fabel
intended to be intelligent and not patronize the reader.
published by Quercus,
is the start of a new series and is set in Glasgow
during the 1950s. What made you decide to start a new series set
in that period and do you intend to continue with the Jan Fabel series?
Fabel series is continuing. The
German national TV broadcaster, ARD, is
screening the first Fabel-based TV movie next year (shooting starts
month). The series
has been enormously
successful in Germany
and across Europe
and, to be honest, I am very
comfortable with Jan and look forward to writing more Fabels in the
wanted to write something parallel but completely
different to the Fabel
series. I also
wanted to write something
evolved from the creation
process and pushed his way onto the page.
In many ways, Lennox
is the anti-Fabel.
He is, deep down, a good man with a
conscience, but his war experiences have totally changed him and he is,
face it, a bit of a scoundrel. He
also enormous fun to write.
Having read Lennox,
one cannot help having a
sneaky liking for the character. He
certainly a charmer and has very black humour but he can also be
and is a cynical protagonist. How did the character come about and has
turned out how you hoped he would?
is something dark about Lennox’s
genesis. I really
wanted to create a morally
ambivalent character; someone who had been damaged by their past. In a contemporary context,
would be diagnosed as
suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
also wanted to write something that
allowed me to introduce a little more humour into the writing style and
is an intelligent and witty
man, but his sense of humour is pitch, pitch black.
And yes, he did turn out the way I wanted him
pleased with him as a creation,
flaws and all. Especially
flaws and all.
we see him investigating the murder of a very brutal gangland killing.
also in the frame for a murder that he did not commit.
Not only does he have to contend with corrupt
police officers but he also has to gingerly make his way through and
labyrinth of gangland inner city rivalries amongst the Glaswegian crime
much research did you have
to do for your new series and what was the motivation for the story?
with all of the Fabel novels, Lennox
was research-intensive. I
don’t know why I make life difficult for
myself by setting my novels in distant places or periods!
think the motivation – or inspiration
– for the story came from
wanting to write about ‘the returned man’.
There is a fantastic short story by Heinrich Böll
Die Blasse Anna (Pale
which is about a German ex-soldier returning to the ruins of his past
after the war. Since
I first read that
story I wanted to write something set in that
Added to that are the Chandler
novels I have read and
growing up with a love of noir.
is also very Chandleresque in the way it is written.
Was this intentional and was this the reason
you decided to make your main protagonist a private eye?
I think the Chandleresque tone is unavoidable as much as
wanted to write something truly noir
and the voice came out the way it
came out: a natural product of the period, setting and nature of the
tale. I love Chandler’s
prose and I suppose it’s
inevitable that it has had a huge influence.
fact that Lennox
is a private eye owes much to
the noir genre, I suppose. But
the reasons I wanted to set Lennox
the 50s was to get right away from DNA testing, mobile phones,
crime databases, etc. I wanted to write something where the protagonist
rely on his instincts and wit, rather than resources, to get to the
the case. For the
same reason, I wanted
him not to be a policeman,
procedures and investigative protocols.
What made you decide to write Lennox
in first person?
wanted to make the action more
immediate. I also
wanted to make it a
tight protagonist-based point of view.
know it’s not a particularly insightful answer, but the truth
is: it just felt right.
Which do you prefer?
First or third person?
have no general preference. It’s
just whatever is right for the novel and
character I’m writing. Obviously
much, much easier to write in the third person omniscient, but I try to
that. The Fabel
books are a mix of third
person limited and alternating view, and the Lennox
novels are first person. Each
book has, for me, its own mood and
character and that tends to determine the voice.
Long Glasgow Kiss is the sequel to Lennox;
the title is also very
reminiscent of old 1950s pulp novels.
Can you tell us about it and what sparked off the idea for
The Long Glasgow Kiss
starts with the murder of Jimmy ‘Small Change’
tries to avoid getting
involved in the case, particularly because he has been warned off by
Superintendent McNab. However,
romantically involved with Small Change’s daughter, and the
case of a singer’s
missing brother and a boxer receiving death threats leads Lennox
back to the case. The
idea came from a black-and-white police
crime-scene photograph of a successful boxer lying murdered in a Glasgow
Cities (in this case Hamburg
and culture always play an integral role in the gradual unravelling of
detailed and intense plot of mystery and intrigue in both series. How
is setting for you?
is all-important. I
have this guiding principle when I’m
writing that the city in which each particular novel is set should not
a setting but an actual ‘character’ in the novel. And a major character at
that. I think it
has to be a very special kind of
could not be more different,
yet they both have an incredibly powerful and distinctive identity.
What makes a character real for
you? Must you work
out everything about
them or do you just let it flow?
I mentioned earlier, the characters
tend to live their own lives and develop almost independently of me. I start out with a name, a
description and some biographical detail.
Then, when I start writing them, their personalities
emerge and develop
almost automatically. Each
his or her own distinctive identity for me.
I feel that to write credibly about a character, they have
to be real
If you could pick a
character out of each of your series that have you enjoyed writing
most, which ones would it be and why?
Lennox. Because he’s a
bad boy sometimes and has a
cruel sense of humour. Also
Scholz in The Carnival Master. He has a refreshingly
laid-back and informal
attitude which made him the perfect
foil for Fabel.
When you start
writing do you already have the complete story in mind or do you just
your writing takes you?
start off with an idea of where I want
the novel to go. I
usually have a
conclusion in mind, as well as some of the issues and themes I want the
be about. But even
though I have my
destination in mind, I keep my route plan rough, so that I am free to
many diversions as I wish along the way.
And for me, it’s sometimes the diversions that
make the novels more
Some authors say that when they write,
the characters take on lives of their own.
Is this the case with your characters?
Absolutely. As an author, you like to
think you’re the
little god of the universe you’ve created and that all of the
there to do your bidding. The
experience for me is when I’ve planned for a character to do
something or say
something in a certain scene or situation and it’s like they
refuse to do
it. Every one of my
characters has his
or her own special personality that has evolved and developed almost
What were you looking for as a
novelist that made writing thrillers so attractive?
a literary form, I think that
thrillers offer the best opportunity for dynamic and engaging
think the best thrillers
are about ordinary people placed in extraordinary contexts –
I was a kid, I grew up reading
Stevenson and Buchan. Great
stories. And there
were always Alistair
MacLean novels lying around my parent’s house.
I suppose the thriller form was hardwired into me at an
early age. I think
that thrillers are the modern
equivalent and are just such fun to write.
Also, I wanted to write in a form that allowed me to
excite, but which also permitted me to explore concerns and events that
very much part of the real world.
Plot or character? Which
do you think is more important in your
writing and why?
is vital, but I think the characters
are more important. The
plot gives you
the situation; the characters allow you to explore how they respond to
It is said that if you can write a
short story then you can write anything. Do you believe that this is
have you written any short stories yet and, if not, are you planning on
believe it totally. Nothing
is so difficult, or so rewarding, to
write than a short story; and nothing tests your skills as a writer
more. I have
written several short stories and I
actually set myself a target of getting a literary short story
writing a full-length novel.
Who were your
influences when you decided to start writing in general? Do other books still
influence your writing
and if so, what other types of writing are you attracted to?
… there’s a question that demands a
long list. I would
say the authors who
influenced me most would be Heinrich Böll, Thomas Hardy,
George Orwell, Ray
Bradbury (when I was a teenager), Gunther Grass, D. H. Lawrence, John
Alan Sillitoe, as well as Guy de Maupassant, Poe, Gogol, Chekov, Kafka,
Joyce, Mikhail Sholokov, William Trevor …
Do you listen to
music whilst you are writing, and if so do you listen to different
depending on the series?
Definitely. My kids are driven mad by
a lot of Mel Tormé, Edmondo Ros, Nat
King Cole and Julie London being played when I’m writing Lennox;
Herbert Groenemeyer, Annette
Louisan, Wolfgang Haffner, Lars
Esbjörn Svensson Trio and countless other German
and Scandinavian acts
when writing Fabel.
my wife and kids say they always
know when someone’s being murdered by the music I play. Which is a bit worrying
Were you a big reader of thrillers
before you started writing, and if so can you remember the very first
you read? Do you still find time to read?
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson was the first I read
(I consider it
to be a thriller). As
I mentioned, I
read a lot of adventure fiction as a child.
As an adult, I didn’t really read a great deal
of crime or thriller
fiction. That may sound strange, but I feel that having influences
genre keeps your voice fresh and different.
Those thrillers I did read, like The
Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, The
Vanishing by Thomas Krabbe, The
Pledge by Dürrenmatt
Peter Høeg, made a big impression on
Is there a book that
you wish you had written?
and foremost: Wo warst du Adam? (And where
were you, Adam?) by Heinrich Böll.
More of a novella than a novel, but one of
the most powerful and affecting pieces of literature I have ever read. Ironweed
by William Kennedy or 1984 by
What do you enjoy
doing when you are not writing and do you have any guilty pleasures?
time with my kids, walk my dog,
paint, cook, eat, try to improve my German, moan about the world going
in a handbasket, work out in the gym, watch world and classic cinema,
about the Hollywood film industry going to hell in a handbasket (no
for a good story, great acting or visionary direction when you can have
don’t have any truly guilty pleasures
(my wife says I make June Whitfield look
I do like good food: hence the frequent gym
workouts. And I
have a tendency to talk
in an antiquated way: hence ‘hence’.
Have you any foibles when you are
not really. When
I’m writing, I become totally immersed
in the world I’ve created.
A bomb could
go off and I wouldn’t notice.
no little quirks, rituals or habits.
How do your family
feel about your writing?
wife has always been my most solid
supporter, muse and manager. My
behind it as well, if only because they have identified it as the
their pocket money.
What were the last five books
Build my Gallows High
by Geoffrey Homes
(Daniel Mainwaring); Tales of the Don
by Mikhail Sholokhov (a re-read); A Quiet
Flame by Philip Kerr; A Short
of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; The
Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne
What do you find the most
difficult when you are writing?
I have to be 100 per cent truthful here and say
that I don’t
find writing or anything to do with it tiresome or difficult. I love what I do for a
living. I would do
it as a hobby if I didn’t have to
do it to earn.
I hate admin, though.
If you could invite five people
to dinner, whether it be characters or authors (dead or alive), whom
be and why?
Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain (although
I’d sit between
them and the drinks cabinet); Heinrich Böll, George Orwell. The reason is obvious:
just to have a chance
to discuss writing. If
I could have a
fictional character there, it would have to be Jan Fabel. We have a lot to talk
2007 and 2008 have been rather
momentous years for you. In
only were you shortlisted for the CWA Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger but you were awarded the Polizeistern
(Police Star) by the Hamburg Police, the first
non-German to be given this award. You
subsequently went on to win the Dagger
in the Library in 2008. How pleased have you been with the
that you received for your work. Has it made much difference in the way
which you see your work?
The Dagger in the Library was a huge thing for
me. I think
it’s because it was for a full body
of work rather than just one title, and because it was chosen by
readers. I don’t think you can get any better acknowledgement
of your work than
that. As well as
the dagger itself, I
used the prize money to buy a new writing table – a rather
splendid one at
that! I thought it
was fitting to mark
the honour of winning the Dagger in the Library by buying something on
all future novels would be written. Being nominated for the Gold Dagger
great honour as well.
I must say that the Polizeistern
was a truly unexpected
honour. The Polizei
Hamburg have been so
helpful and supportive, it should have been me
The award ceremony itself was an amazing
event, with German TV, press and radio all turning out for it. My kids loved it: we were
collected from the
hotel and driven through Hamburg in a police van, lights flashing. I have to admit, I liked
that bit as well.
more about Craig Russell on www.craigrussell.com
1. Blood Eagle (2005)
2. Brother Grimm (2006)
3. Eternal (2007)
4. The Carnival Master (2008)
5. The Valkyrie's Song (2009)