Earlier this month, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Scotland for Bloody Scotland, an annual crime fiction festival held in the town of Stirling! Of all the fantastic opportunities this festival provided, my personal favorite was the chance to sit down and chat with some of crime fiction’s most exciting authors. Thanks to publicist extraordinaire Fiona Brownlee, I had the opportunity to interview Scottish crime fiction author Christopher Brookmyre and get an overview of his bibliography, discuss his most recent US release THE LAST HACK, and a whole lot more! I’m thrilled to share a recap of my conversation with Chris as part of the blog tour for the Bloody Scotland book today - you can read more about this short story collection at the bottom of this post.
Now, I’ve actually never read a Christopher Brookmyre book before (trust me, this is about to change!) - so when I had the chance to meet with Chris, I set out to learn all I could about his work! This interview will serve as an “Introduction to Christopher Brookmyre” - an overview of the themes explored in his books, an introduction to his recurring character Jack Parlabane, a recommendation on which book readers should start with from Chris himself, and a whole lot more!
Many thanks to Chris for taking the time to talk with me, and to Fiona for setting up this interview!
INTRODUCTION TO CHRISTOPHER BROOKMYRE
First things first: if he had to pick three adjectives to describe his books, which would Chris choose?
Irreverent, passionate, escapist.
Chris described that even though his stories might have darkness in them, he wants readers to be transported by his books - he really wants it to be an escapist experience. The good guys generally win in the end, and ultimately his books really are “feel good” kinds of reads.
Even before looking into Chris’ books for myself, I associated his crime fiction with dark humor. I was curious to know - is it accurate that his books are humorous, and if so, why does Chris infuse his crime writing with humor?
Chris explained that this isn’t actually as true an assessment of his books as it used to be. His earlier books - the first 12 or 13 - were overtly satirical. Often, these books dealt with political satire, or were focused on playing with conventions of the genre. As Chris expressed it, authors write in the way that seems most natural to them, and humor came naturally to him because his own personality tends to be quite irreverent. Chris grew up reading Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum, and his idea of an adult novel tended to include an outlandish plot with a bit of irreverent humor - a style reflected in his earlier books. But, Chris explained that, in his own words, he’s trying to be more mature in his recent novels! His newer books don’t incorporate much humor into them at all.
Many of Brookmyre’s books include a recurring character named Jack Parlabane. I was curious to know - how would Chris describe Jack to a total newcomer to the books?
Jack is a perpetual outsider. He’s an investigative journalist, and to really be a good journalist, they often have to be outsiders and have that outside perspective on the story they’re chasing down. Jack is a skeptic rather than a cynic - a description which I personally loved! The character of Jack is inspired partly by the character of Ford Prefect in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; he’s someone who goes into situations and often makes them worse.
After writing Jack for so many books, what is it about this character that made Chris want to keep writing about him?
When Chris wrote about Jack in the past, he was a very convenient interlocutor - he was a tool through which Chris explored other subjects, often relating to UK politics. Jack served as a vehicle for Chris’ opinions. As Chris put it, Jack was the least interesting part of these earlier books! But now his books are about asking what makes this character tick. Jack is put into personal crisis rather than physical danger in the newer Jack Parlabane books - Chris is interested in seeing how Jack develops. Asking this question is what drives his writing forward.
If new readers are interested in sampling a Jack Parlabane book, where should they start?
The earlier Jack Parlabane books - there are 8 of them total - were very much an earlier iteration of Jack as a character. Readers should start with the later 3 books, DEAD GIRL WALKING, BLACK WIDOW, and THE LAST HACK, for a sense of who Jack is now. Thematically, the newer Jack Parlabane books will also be more relatable to a wider audience; the earlier Jack Parlabane books were steeped in UK politics, and might not have the same relatability for American readers. The newer three books, however, deal with universal themes: treatment of women, secrets within marriages, and more.
Readers should start with BLACK WIDOW, which just released in the US last year. BLACK WIDOW can be described as a feminist thriller. It’s a thriller that centers around a very relatable question: how well do you really know another person? It’s not a large, grand story - it’s entirely about the claustrophobia of a marriage. (Note: Chris was very modest, but BLACK WIDOW has also achieved major critical acclaim - it won the 2016 McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish crime book of the year, and received praise from the New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly, and many more!)
BLACK WIDOW - Plot Summary:
From Scottish crime master Christopher Brookmyre, Black Widow tells the potent story of a woman who thought she was too late for love, the man who falls for her ambition, and the secret selves that are poised, at any moment, to end everything.
Diana Jager is clever, strong, and successful, a skilled surgeon and fierce campaigner via her blog about sexism in medicine. Yet it takes only hours for her life to crumble when her personal details are released on the internet as revenge for her writing. Then she meets Peter. He is kind, generous, and knows nothing about her past-the second chance she's been waiting for. Within six months, they are married. Within six more, Peter is dead in a road accident, a nightmare end to their fairy-tale romance. But Peter's sister Lucy doesn't believe in fairy tales, and tasks rogue reporter Jack Parlabane with discovering the dark truth behind the woman the media is calling the Black Widow.
Still on the mend from a turbulent divorce, Jack's investigation into matters of the heart takes him to hidden places no one should ever have to go.
What inspires Brookmyre’s stories? Are they drawn from things he might read about in the news, or are they more personal?
These days, his stories are inspired more from his personal life. In the past, he would write about whatever was taking his interest at that moment, often ideologically or culturally. That still plays a part in his books, but now the stories are more personal. For example, in BLACK WIDOW, inspiration was drawn from stories his wife told him. His wife is an anesthetist, and she and her female colleagues have witnessed the institutionalized sexism in their profession. Listening to his wife’s experiences inspired Chris to drawn from them and explore them in BLACK WIDOW. This is also an example of a topic which he might not have had the same exposure to or understanding of when he was younger, and which wouldn’t have been tackled in his earlier books to the same degree it is now.
Brookmyre’s newest US release, THE LAST HACK, is receiving fantastic praise as well. I was curious to know a bit more about this story! What themes and topics can readers expect to explore in this story?
THE LAST HACK (released as Want You Gone in the UK) deals with topics of cyber abuse and who hackers really are. This story was in many ways inspired by Anonymous, and the true identities of the people behind that group. It’s also about the disconnect between online personas and real life personalities - the hacker in the story is someone who can’t handle confrontation in real life, despite what she’s doing online. THE LAST HACK also explores how hacking is done, and delves into some of the techniques that have always been used in hacking. Chris is very interested in the psychological games that con men play - games that play a part in hacking as well. This story focuses on a hacker, but her real talent is social engineering - that ability to get you to trust her and reveal information to her which makes her hacking job even easier. Chris has himself always been interested in computer culture, and THE LAST HACK is his exploration of hacking culture and who these hackers really are versus what public perception would have you make of them.
What does it take to get inside the mind of these many different characters?
Chris described how no matter what character you’re writing, you are always looking at the world through their eyes. You’re asking yourself what any given situation would look like from their point of view - and you have to think what decisions and choices would make each character authentic. They might make decisions that would go against your personal instinct, but you have to follow what they would do. When you’re writing from the perspective of a very disturbed character, you do need to take breaks from that! Chris described how one of his characters has a way of channeling “every horrible thought you’ve ever had,” and how that intense experience does require you to step away for a bit. Having a good memory is also a huge part of writing these characters. As you’re getting yourself into the mindset of these different people, one of your personal memories might crop up that will lead you to another angle or another idea.
For American readers looking to add to their Scottish crime fiction collection, which writers would Chris recommend checking out (along with his books!)?
Denise Mina, who just won the McIlvanney prize this year, and Louise Welsh. And Doug Johnstone - people throw around the term “Noir,” but Doug writes some of the most genuine Noir in the business. It’s Noir in the original form - fast and nasty, short and punchy. You don’t have any idea where he might take you.
Last but certainly not least - at Bloody Scotland, attendees were treated to a performance by the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers - a band in which Chris participates! I was curious to know, when did this get started?
At a previous Bouchercon conference, three of the now-members of Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers went to the House of Blues, but they thought the house band just wasn’t very good. So they decided to try playing something themselves, and it went down well! So they decided they should make this into a real band. So now the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers is comprised of Dough Johnstone, Stuart Neville, Mark Billingham, Luca Veste, Val McDermid, and Chris! (Side note: I watched them play and they were absolutely fantastic!!)
Many thanks to Chris for taking the time to answer my questions about his work. I have a copy of BLACK WIDOW on its way to me right now - I cannot wait to dive in!
PLUS: BLOODY SCOTLAND - The Book
If you’re interested in Scottish crime fiction, Bloody Scotland has put together a must-read short story anthology. BLOODY SCOTLAND - The Book brings together twelve of Scotland’s top crime writers, who each contribute a story inspired by one of Scotland’s most iconic buildings. Christopher Brookymre is one of the stellar contributors to this short story collection - other contributors include Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Lin Anderson, Louise Welsh, and many, many more! BLOODY SCOTLAND - The Book is on sale in the UK now, and will be releasing in the US in early 2018.
Stay tuned for more information on the US release of this very exciting short story collection, and make sure to check out the Bloody Scotland Book blog tour!
Find Christopher Brookmyre's books on Amazon:
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