Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Crime novelist Nick Stone on winning the Crime Writers’Association’s prestigious Steel Dagger and why he ripped up the rule book for his latest novel: The Verdict.

Interview by Harry Cunningham.

‘The best lawyers are verbal magicians, the second best become politicians,’ says Nick Stone. He is in the middle of telling me what inspired his latest novel The Verdict, a gritty legal thriller set in London. ‘The law is language – words.  As we well know, words can be twisted, and they always are, in every trial.’

The book revolves around a high profile murder case: a woman is found murdered in the hotel suite of multi-millionaire businessman Vernon James. James protests his innocence and in steps Terry Flynt, a junior legal clerk at the firm tasked with representing James. But Flynt hates James’ guts: they were childhood friends until an incident at university destroyed their relationship for good.

It is a major departure from Nick’s previous work: his three part Max Mingus series set mainly in Haiti and Florida.

‘I was determined to make The Verdict as different from the previous three books as possible,’ he explains. ‘Everything had to go, from the Americanised narrative voice, to the setting, to the tense.  That was liberating.  Rip it up and start again. Change is evolution.’

We are e-mailing today, rather than meeting face to face for an interview. His publicist tells me he is too busy even for a quick coffee and it is not hard to see why. Nick has bags of ideas for novels. So much so that he is actually working through a backlog. Book two in in the Terry Flynt series is in the works and he’s already plotting books three and four as well as a standalone set in Haiti and Detroit. It’s no surprise then that though Nick had already planned The Verdict as early as 2005, it would be a further eight years – not until December 2013 – that it was finally published.

‘My initial career plan was to write one book set in the Caribbean, and one set in London – so alternate between noir and legal thrillers – basically an Anglo-Caribbean take on what Michael Connelly’s currently doing. My publisher at the time wanted a Max Mingus series to establish me as a “brand”, so The Verdict went on the backboiler.’  

Indeed the idea initially came to Nick whilst he was working as a legal clerk – like Terry Flynt – at The Old Bailey. ‘The experience of working murder trials on behalf of the defence had a profound effect on me, both as an education and an inspiration. It shattered every single preconception I’d had about the legal system, good and bad. I saw all the wheeling and dealing, the cynicism, the plotting, the primping narcissism of certain barristers (all men), and a wry smile spread across my face, as I thought ‘material!

 ‘The Terry Flynt character wasn’t much of a stretch, because you don’t need any knowledge of the law to be a clerk.  All you basically do is take notes in trials and client meetings – which was my job. Terry is very much an outsider, a layman in a profession very akin to a religion, with its oaths and rituals. 

‘Also, those working at the lower end of the justice system are quasi-invisible. And no one sees more and goes further than someone you don’t notice, and therefore don’t see coming.’

But though Terry Flynt might have been conceived entirely from Nick’s imagination, the character of Flynt’s nemesis – Vernon James – was actually born out of a chance encounter Nick had with an old friend on his way home from work at The Old Bailey  

‘We’d been close as teenagers,’ Nick explains, ‘and I’d been in awe of him because, although we were the same age, he was a good ten years ahead of anybody else I knew in terms of the music he liked, the books he read and the films he watched. He was an individual, an outsider when everyone else was desperate to fit in. I’d only ever wanted to write, but I could see him doing anything – film, music, books, photography – and stamping uniqueness on whatever he chose. 

‘Anyway we went for a drink, and it gradually dawned on me that I was addressing a near stranger. He’d become a rigid conformist. There wasn’t even a hint of the person he’d once been. The brilliance was gone, the edges all blunt. We talked about kids, homes, jobs. And then I told him I was waiting to hear back from publishers about my first book. “I’m glad one of us never gave up,” he said. That made me very sad. Where did it all go?’

Nick was very lucky; he was in the right place at the right time as he already had a job in the law when he decided on writing a legal thriller. But how should as yet unpublished writers go about researching and fact checking their crime novels if they have no experience in either the police or the legal system? I joke about hanging about police stations or courts, badgering barristers and officers with questions!

‘Good luck with that. You’ll either get bollocked or nicked, if it’s a slow day. You can always write to your local constabulary’s press office. Or you could do what I came very close to doing, and volunteering to be a Special Constable. My wife talked me out of it. Fast.  

‘It’s slightly harder if you want to find out about the legal system, because lawyers have to be discreet, for obvious reasons. This is why all legal thriller writers either come from the legal profession, or had some exposure to it. 

‘The law’s a closed society. You have to know – or get to know someone – who’ll take you in.'  

Perhaps one of the most striking things about The Verdict is the setting. Not just The Old Bailey but the whole of London. What is it about the city that compelled Nick to write about it?

‘Location has always been a character in all my books. London’s gone from being bland with pretensions to being the new Manchester (the cradle of modern British civilization), to a fascinating and utterly dysfunctional place in the midst of change. It’s turning into a more polite, slower, less malevolent version of what New York was like in the mid to late 1980s. All the traditional communities like the East End and even Brixton are either gone or on the verge of extinction. 

'The media call it “gentrification”, but it’s really social cleansing. It’s happening by stealth. Estates are being demolished and replaced with private housing. Former residents are offered a chance to buy their way back in, but it’s at prices they can’t afford, so they get relocated out of town. 

'I didn’t consciously set out to write about London’s growing socio-economic divide, but it’s unavoidable because it’s in your face and all around you. Before long this place will be like Blade Runner by Dickens.’ 

Though The Verdict has done well, it was Nick’s debut Mr Clarinet that really launched him into the crime-writing stratosphere. It was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association’s most prestigious award: the Ian Fleming Steel dagger. ‘It was amazing,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have done because I had nothing to compare the experience to. It was my first book and I was just starting out. And I also didn’t – couldn’t – realise that that was as good as things were going to get for me for a good long while. 

But The Verdict got nominated for a Gold Dagger this year, and that – if anything – was even better.  I got a couple of good weeks out of the news, took time to cherish the moment, so to speak (in other words, I went to the pub).’

This breakthrough was a long time coming. Nick had known he’d wanted to be a writer since he was twelve years old. Christmas 1978, he writes, recalling watching the TV adaption of The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett and being befriended by an assistant who was into crime fiction when he went to buy the book from Heffers in Trinity Street Cambridge the next day. After his first attempt at a novel about a private investigator who battled vampires, he then wrote a novel or a screenplay every eighteen months but always gave up ‘around page 100’.

‘Then in 1994, I met a work colleague on the train on the way to one of those horrible office jobs I told you about,’ Nick explains. He’d worked several jobs before becoming a legal clerk, and all of them, he said had ‘an undercurrent of unpleasantness under the buttoned-down civility…

‘Anyway…I was reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.  My colleague – a bloke with a pony tail called Eric – asked me if it was about S & M. That cracked me up. Then he started telling about this writer he’d been to see at Murder One bookshop the night before. The writer was called James Ellroy. Eric was impressed because Ellroy drew a big dick in his book instead of an autograph.  To shut him up, I asked him which Ellroy book I should start with. “The Black Dahlia”.

‘And I did …

‘And promptly gave up writing altogether. The book was a shock. It completely redefined not just my ideas about crime fiction, but about writing in general. I’d never read anything like it. 

‘I started writing again in 1999, after I’d got back from a year in Haiti, where my mum’s from, and where I grew up until I was 4. I had the idea for what became Mr Clarinet while I was there. 

Despite not having written too much of anything over a three year period, the stuff was just pouring out of me, and my style had completely changed too. But then in May 1999 I met the woman who would become my wife, and just … stopped. I couldn’t write when I was busy falling in love ... It took another four years before I settled down and started work on Mr Clarinet.

Even when he’d finished it though Nick still had to deal with years of rejection like any other writer.

‘In the summer of 1999, I’d sent out a synopsis for the first version of Mr Clarinet and the opening chapters to a variety of agents. I remember waking up the next morning to the sound of about twelve rejection slips hitting the front mat simultaneously. Quite a sound they made too, like a gigantic raw egg smashing. 

I read that RJ Ellory wrote something like ten books before he got published, so perseverance is the key. In fact writing is perseverance.’ It was May 2003 before Nick secured an agent and a further year before he got a publisher.  

Ending the interview, I asked what a bestselling crime author reads in his spare time: ‘My nephew’s just started A-Level History, so I’ve got him reading AJP Taylor’s books on the First and Second World War. And I’m re-reading them so he has a sounding board when or if he ever needs one. AJP Taylor was that rare thing – an academic who could write. And he could be very very funny. 

‘I rate John Grisham very highly, so being compared to him [by fellow crime novelist Mark Billingham] was a real compliment, even if I don’t think I’m in his league – not even close. He’s an underrated stylist. Writing about legal process isn’t easy to begin with, and turning it into the stuff of compelling page-turners is even harder. Yet he pulls it off book after book.

‘Otherwise, I think Gone Girl is the greatest thriller of the 21st Century. All of Gillian Flynn’s books are exceptional, but Gone Girl is a masterpiece.

‘I also rate Cathi Unsworth very highly. Laura Lippmann too.   

‘And, finally, I’m looking forward to the new James Ellroy novel, Perfidia. Ellroy is one of the very few writers whose books I get the day they come out and start reading immediately. Simple reason: he is why I turned to crime (writing). So it’s my way of saying thanks, and keeping in touch with what set on the path I’m on.’

The Verdict (Sphere, £6.99) by Nick Stone is out now in paperback from all good bookstores.

Harry Cunningham is a Freelance Writer and Student. He has written for The GuardianThe Independent The Leicester MercuryWriters’ Forum Magazine and Media MagazineHe is a third year English Undergraduate at Loughborough University where he is a proud member of the Harry Potter society and Trips Chaperone for the Students' Union.


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