Neil Cross was a name that I was unfamiliar with until early last year, when
I was recommended Burial – his debut crime novel – by bestselling
Peter James. Over lunch last year, I’d asked James if he’d read anything
remarkable recently; as an enthusiast of the genre it is hard keep pace with the
conveyor belt of crime publishing, and I’m always on the lookout for something
new, something fresh. James told me that he’d been bowled over by Burial.
So, before pulling it out from my mountainous review pile, I did a little
background check on who exactly
Neil Cross was.
written five previous novels of general/literary fiction as well as a memoir of
his childhood entitled
Heartland. He was lauded by the London literati, as well as being
long-listed for the Man Booker prize. As bizarre as this sounds, these were the
reasons why I had resisted reading his work, as it felt ‘too literary’ and ‘too
heavy’ for me, being a genre hound. Things changed when I discovered that Cross
was the lead writer for the
BBC TV drama Spooks (BBC
America title MI5) which is one of the few TV shows I watch.
crime fiction novel is a wonderful gem, and an uneasy tale of the consequences
that pave our life. During a party, two losers called Nathan and Bob find
themselves in a sordid drug-fuelled ménage à trois
with a young woman named
Elise, who dies in the back of their
car. They decide to bury the girl and return to the party as if nothing
happened. As grubby as all this sounds, things get far worse for Nathan as his
conscience starts to play tricks on him … in the shape of the dead girl’s
presence. Nathan finally moves on with his life and is partnered with a woman
who keeps his ‘ghosts’ at bay until Bob appears years later, warning him that
builders are about to start work on the wasteland that conceals Elise’s remains.
Cross avoids the
potential cliché path, but instead makes your skin crawl as the relationship
between Nathan and Bob becomes strained under the pressure of their secret.
There is dark comedy at play here, but combined with Cross’s narrative skill we
get a view of a personal hell from Nathan’s fevered mind. The climax is
wonderful, really cathartic bringing closure for both Nathan and the reader,
trapped in the narrative.
remarkable novel is like walking on a minefield, as one has to avoid spoiling
the tension and surprises with which Cross peppers the narrative. I found all of
his novels to be troublingly brilliant. I use the word ‘troubling’ as his work
does make one reflect upon life, and the bumpy path that peppers our journey,
with some of the bumps perhaps being fatal should we be unlucky.
the wonderful Burial
Neil Cross provides yet another great urban thriller with Captured
released this month. Middle-aged portrait painter Kenny has been diagnosed with
a malignant brain tumour
and has mere weeks to live, so he decides to help four people who added meaning
to his life, before he dies.
The first two
people are only incidental to his life, but even so Cross bestows the meetings
with such compassion and meaning that it makes you stop and think about your own
existence, and how some people who you interact with randomly, can make a dent
in your reality. The other two on Kenny’s benevolence list are his former wife
Mary, as well as a girl who showed him kindness when he was a lonely schoolboy:
Callie Barton. Kenny’s a misfit; his mother died when he was very young and his
upbringing was carried out by his artist father, who did the best he could, but
was somewhat eccentric the way only an oil painter can be.
journey to track down his schoolfriend Callie Barton proves a dangerous path,
because he uses a retired policewoman and her private detective. The path leads
to Barton’s husband, a man who may or may not have killed her, and so the
ticking clock of cancer in Kenny’s brain starts to move faster as he takes the
law into his own hands. Kenny decides to discover the truth about Barton for
himself as his way of settling his affairs before his life runs out.
very short chapters, I read the novel in one sitting, and very fast, as Cross
avoids detailed description, but rather uses spartan sentences, which amazingly
put detailed pictures into your mind – many of which are very unsettling and
worrying. Cross’s style is ‘less is more’ as he weaves a tale effortlessly and
deploys judicious editing, so there is not a wasted or rattling word in the
slipstream as the pages turn. But key to the proceedings is a sense of
compassion and morality that the tale is anchored upon.
Cross was one of the featured authors at the
Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, as there was a theme of ‘crime fiction in
film’ to the event. Fellow screenwriters David Simon,
George Pelecanos and
David Levien were also speaking at Harrogate, so thanks to Simon and
Schuster UK, I got to spend a little time with him and recorded this interview.
It was tremendous fun talking with him as we discussed Marvel Comics, Patricia
his screenwriting work on Spooks as well as his own entry into the
crime fiction genre, so we hope you enjoy this exchange.
Karim You’re renowned for both your screenwriting as well as your novels
– what came first?
Cross The novels, I guess, because I’m a novelist by trade but that being
said, I really became a novelist by writing comics when I was a kid. I wrote my
own superhero comics in my youth, which looking back is not that far removed
from screenwriting, if you understand storyboarding.
American Comics? Marvel? DC? Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, etc?
Absolutely. I think
Steve Ditko’s Machine Man is a great under-appreciated classic.
last year I interviewed Bob Crais here at Harrogate and we talked about
his love of American Comics. In fact, his first published work (like my own)
was a letter in Marvel Comics and we both won a No Prize.
cool! For me Marvel comics taught me a great deal about story-telling, about
character, about conflict, in fact I have to say anything of worth that I
learned as a fiction writer came from Marvel comics.
Would you care to give examples? For instance, what about
Frank Miller’s Daredevil?
Miller’s run on Daredevil in the 1980s were seminal. There’s one in
particular when Daredevil faced a really psychotic villain … I think he was
Talking of psychopathic villains – Bullseye? Kingpin?
were well known, the Gladiator was someone who was really not a well known super
villain, and the fight was in a museum; a battle in which there were no words,
just art. It was beautiful and in my opinion that was the first emergence of
Frank Miller, now better known for his film work on Robocop II &
III, 300, Sin City, The Spirit, etc
Do you remember when he wrote an issue where Daredevil fought The Hulk … can you
imagine a blind guy fighting the Hulk?
that was one of my favourite comics ever; that brings back great memories. You
really feel the violence of that almost absurd situation: a blind superhero
heroically battling something as menacing and as powerful as the Hulk. They
started the next issue in a hospital – genius, sheer genius.
Sorry, we’ve digressed, so back to Neil Cross. After several non-genre novels
you penned Burial, which knocked my socks off. The book has the themes of
morality and trust, which incidentally are also themes you mine in Spooks
– would you agree that these are themes that interest you?
Absolutely. One thing that interests me about American crime fiction,
particularly if it has a unifying theme, is ‘free will exercised as sin’. This
is opposed to much British crime fiction, especially during the – so-called –
golden age, which is about the restoration of order; someone’s been killed,
things are out of whack, for Christ’s sake let’s get things back to normal, so
things can run smoothly. I’m more interested in ‘free-will exercised as sin’ as
opposed to the ‘restoration of order’.
guess you must have read
Patricia Highsmith then?
obsessed by Patricia Highsmith …
am I. In fact, I have what my wife terms my white
Tom Ripley suit. And coincidentally many critics have termed Burial
as very ‘Hitchcockian’ … and it was Hitchcock that that filmed Highsmith’s debut
Strangers on a Train.
there’s a psychological marriage between Hitchcock and Highsmith, they suit each
other very well.
going back to Highsmith, is it just her Tom Ripley novels that you enjoy, or do
you enjoy some of her other amoral tales?
Though I’ve read many of her books, short stories, but not all of her cannon,
and of course there are a few that are just not up to her best work, but one
non-Ripley novel that sticks in my mind is
Cry of the Owl which features a woman who falls in love with her own
stalker. It would barely be publishable today, but in Highsmith’s world it makes
weird thing about Highsmith was that she was highly acclaimed in Europe, but
rather less so in her native America; in fact she lived for many years in the UK
before making Switzerland her home. Maybe Tom Ripley was the precursor to
Dr Hannibal Lecter, the amoral, but charming psychopath/sociopath; something
that perhaps doesn’t settle as well in the American psyche as in the European
links to my theme of ‘free will exercised as sin’ and therefore must be
punished, and Highsmith just doesn’t punish, she observes; in fact she was known
to sign books as Tom Ripley from time to time.
Going back to Burial, the two main characters Nathan and Bob are not very
appealing as protagonists go, but the book is riveting. How did you manage to
pull off such an engaging tale with two unattractive protagonists?
in itself was a difficult contrivance; part of the genesis of Burial was
to see if I could make characters as amoral as Patricia Highsmith and get away
with it. To some extent that answer was no, because I just couldn’t as I am so
exercised by morality, but I can write about guilt. So to a degree Burial
was an intellectual challenge to see what I could get away with and still make
people side with the main characters.
Well, you pulled it off. Now, I heard that you relocated to New Zealand and you
work there, so how long have you lived out there?
And how did you get onto Spooks? Did you know
it was a series of accidents and coincidences. In order to teach myself to write
screenplays, I adapted my novel
Always The Sun and the right people saw it. I had a literary agent and
that helped get the script read. A film and TV agent then agreed to take me on,
and he took my screenplay to several people, who all liked it and that got me
the job to write for Spooks, bizarrely.
Spooks doesn’t have any credits on screen, what episodes did you pen?
NC I did
episode nine on series five, then I became the lead writer on series six and
watch very little TV, but Spooks is a must for me. I really loved the
two-parter in series seven, when the Mossad agents impersonate the Arabs in the
embassy siege. That was like a mini-movie, with the end sequence, when the lead
Mossad agent is sent to
Guantanamo Bay, truly
mesmerising. The final image hypnotic.
you, it means a lot to me.
how do you manage to write Spooks while in New Zealand? And can you tell
us a little about the writing process?
I’d come to London for the initial story conferences where I would sit with the
producers and a couple of the other writers in a room, and we’d discuss what the
stories for the series would be. These conferences would be really broad
brushstrokes, themes, so for the most recent series I was very interested in
exploring cold-war themes, which the producers responded well to. Then from
these brushstrokes, we’d discuss what would happen to the characters during the
series, and what we’d like to do to them, in very broad terms. An example would
be I’d like to see this character fail, so what would that character do in a
situation like this … And you’d come up with story ideas for these broad
outlines, and then specific episodes appear by a mysterious process which I
don’t really fully understand. It’s part inspiration, part algebra and part
sheer reading of the news.
recall the series that focused on Iran – it was bang up to the minute in terms
of the real world.
Spooks is an entity, and not attributed to any particular person. To be a
success it has to be one step ahead of the news broadcasts. This means that when
are writing it we almost have to predict what’s going to be in the news almost
three months after it’s screened a year hence. The hit rate is not 100 per cent
but it is remarkably high. There’s stuff we’ve missed …
hey, you had the episode on the financial crisis, about the run on the British
Precisely! You do find yourself reading newspapers more intently when you’re
gearing up to write a series of Spooks, and you just look for throbs of
can you tell us if you’re working on novels, and perhaps writing another crime
the next one’s finished: Captured and out in January 2010, and although
it’s very different to Burial, it delves into similar territory.
Trust and morality themes?
trust and morality and the terrible things we do for love.
Thank you for your time and insight.
thank you for yours – meeting a fellow American Comics reader and Patricia
Highsmith fan was especially fun.
recommend Neil Cross’s writing highly enough, and I would strongly suggest you
check out his backlist
Shots Review of Captured from Adrian Magson
Simon & Schuster £12.99 tbpo
Released: January 2010
would like to thank Neil Cross and Anna Robinson of Simon and Schuster UK for
arranging this interview.
version of this interview first appeared at
The Rap Sheet
Holloway Falls (2003)
Always the Sun (2004)
Natural History (2007)