In the second of a series of conversations, author William Ryan talks to author M J McGrath.
© Patricia Grey
MJ McGrath is an award-winning journalist and author of fiction and nonfiction books, based in London. The first novel in her Edie Kiglatuk mystery series, White Heat, was nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger. The second, The Boy in the Snow, has just been published. She is currently working on a third. The series has been translated into 18 languages and is being developed for TV. For more information, visit her website - www.melaniemcgrath.com.
William Ryan is the Irish author of The Holy Thief (2010). The Bloody Meadow (2011) and The Twelfth Department (to be published in May 2013), novels set in 1930s Moscow and featuring Captain Alexei Korolev. William’s novels have been shortlisted for The Theakstons’ Crime Novel of the Year, The CWA New Blood Dagger and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. He lives in London with his wife and son and you can find out more about him and the Korolev novels at www.william-ryan.com.
WR Not many detective stories, or novels for that matter, are placed inside the Arctic Circle - what drew you to it as a setting?
MMcG: For me, it was just so obvious. I have been lucky enough to be able to travel to the Arctic a few times and I really wanted to try to capture its fierce, uncompromising beauty. The Arctic is rapidly changing and as companies, countries and organised criminals look to the Arctic as an area ripe for natural resource development and exploitation it is becoming the focus of a new kind of Cold War. At the same time, the human and social problems are more like the kind we associated with inner cities. In the Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut, crime has doubled over the last decade. Homicide is now 1000% of the Canadian average. Moreover, there is only one investigative police officer covering an area about 25 times the size of Britain. Which is what keeps my heroine, Edie Kiglatuk, so busy!
WR: I think I understand what you mean by the beauty and the remoteness - I made a brief foray to Greenland a few years back and it felt like being on the very edge of existence. It is not an environment that feels safe in any way - awe was the emotion I felt most. Edie strikes me both ruthlessly pragmatic and, at the same, quite emotional – in a very understated way. Is she a product of the environment in which she lives, do you think?
MMcG: Aren't we all? The inspiration for Edie came from a woman polar bear hunter I met up in the Arctic but I've often said that in part she's the me I'd be if I thought no one would tell me off. Though Edie isn't me, obviously. For starters, my polar bear hunting skills aren't up to much and I won't be trying seal or walrus meat again in a hurry.
But Korolev is shaped by his environment too, no?
WR: Oh - I don't know, I can see you tracking down a polar bear - you have that steely look about you. I'll let you off eating seal meat however. But I suppose every character has a little bit of the writer in them - Korolev certainly has elements that seem all too familiar.
But the most interesting thing for me is that his situation inevitably results in his having to compromise to survive - the Soviets had a tendency to criminalise friends and families of perceived enemies, so he walks a very fine line. The question is how far he’ll go and at what point, he sticks.
Do you think internal conflicts then are something that successful crime characters have to have? Edie's a character that really resonates with people - is that one of the reasons? Did she develop during the writing or did she come fully formed?
MMcG: Edie Kiglatuk and Alexei Korolev are both outsiders, wouldn't you say? It's a very common trope in crime fiction but I think it's sometimes harder to be a female outsider than it is to be a lone wolf kind of a guy. A female outsider such as Edie is much less likely to be tolerated in her own community. It's rich territory, and not all that much explored, so I see Edie as a kind of pioneer there. To make things more complicated, Edie's a maverick in a culture, which is itself outside the mainstream, a culture, which doesn't have much tolerance for independent-minded women. In traditional Inuit society, oddballs were either classed as shamans or, sometimes, simply killed. So Edie's both a survivor and a kind of worker of magic. Not that she sees herself that way. To Edie, she's just a misfit.
Everyone has internal conflicts about their roles in the family and in society, but also about how to be a good person. Edie is constantly struggling with that stuff too and, like most people, she doesn't always get it right. But she does try really, really hard and unlike me, she never lets herself off the hook. She's a striver and I think readers respond to that.
WR: I think you're right that crime fiction often focuses on individuals who stand outside society - usually for moral reasons of one sort or another. In fact, as I think we've discussed before, crime fiction is nearly always about morality. But you've written very successful non-fiction and social history in the past - the best selling Silvertown and Hopping that vividly recreated London's East End and Motel Nirvana, about the New Age Movement in the US, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize. What drew you to crime fiction?
MMcG: As a writer, crime fiction allows you to do almost anything. It's such a flexible genre. It's also one in which, as you pointed out, you can really explore some of the big existential and ethical themes, like what it means to live with the knowledge that you're going to die, and what constitutes good and evil. I studied philosophy at University and I guess I've always been very taken up with those kind of questions in my writing. Who was it who said, Goodness writes blank. There's plenty of goodness in crime fiction but it's always offset by its opposite. I enjoy surfing the very unruly boundary between the two.
It probably helps having had a petty criminal for a grandfather and having been a witness to an attempted murder.
WR: That's true - crime fiction is often about the interesting grey space between good and evil - the Korolev books are about trying to be a moral person in a society where that's very difficult. But tell me about your grandfather and this attempted murder? That sounds pretty - well - interesting.
MMcG: I'm not sure I believe in evil though it's true that some people do very, very bad things! But I agree with you that it's always much harder to be good in a society or in a community which has the seed of rottenness at its heart, like the Stalinist Russia in which Korolev is operating or even like the current Arctic, beset as it is by social problems, lawlessness and profiteering.
Speaking of which...my grandfather was a ducker and diver in the East End of London. He operated in precisely that grey space we're talking about. Black marketeering during and after the war mostly. By the late 1950s, he had some extremely fancy American cars, a kennel full of racing greyhounds and even, I've heard, a racehorse, much of which he must have come by through dodgy dealing since his only legitimate business was a greasy spoon whose customers were mostly London dockers. I've heard talk of connections to the notorious East End crooks, the Krays, though I've never quite been able to get to the bottom of that.
The attempted murder happened a couple of years back, in broad daylight, in my street. An axe attack. The victim's arm was partially amputated; he received a number of stomach wounds. The perpetrators' weapon dog chomped off part of his nose. The whole street was sealed for about 5 hours; we had an armed SWAT team, police helicopters, the lot. I ended up being one of the principle witnesses, which felt extremely uncomfortable. I didn't realise just how traumatic the whole thing had been until I was at the docs six months later for a minor complaint and when he asked me how I was feeling, I burst into tears.
I've seen plenty of violence in my time but never before witnessed two people attacking a third with the absolute intention of killing him. Or heard the screams of someone who thinks they're about to die. The energy around that is like nothing else. And it really informed my writing. I now have a good sense of the astonishing intensity of the killer impulse and also how powerless, guilty and angry you feel as a witness. It's a profoundly violating thing.
WR: That sounds terrifying. I’m not surprised you were affected afterwards. It’s one of the strange things about a crime – it often has a whole series of unforeseen consequences for people other than the direct victim. My great aunt was murdered by a burglar when I was 18 and I was, very briefly, a suspect. I was fingerprinted and questioned and so on - but as I was a hundred miles away at the time, I was off the hook pretty quickly. My uncles however were given a hard time of it and I think it was tough for them - and probably still is. Another curious thing about that business was that when the police finally caught up with the murderer, his barrister wanted him to plead insanity but his family didn’t want to have that stigma attached to them. I never knew people were far less tolerant of mental illness than murder.
Incidentally, what do you think your grandfather would have thought of you writing crime fiction?
MMcG: It's so interesting that you too have some real life experience of violent crime. I wonder how many crime writers share this? Quite a few I suspect. I'm very interested in the ripple effects of serious crime. The story I'm working on at the moment (another Edie Kiglatuk mystery) centres around the multiple ramifications of a murder.
You’re right about mental illness sometimes being more of a stigma than murder. I have experience through a friend of serious mental illness and the effects are sometimes not dissimilar to those of murder in the sense that both can blow whole families and communities apart. There's a character in The Boy in the Snow who suffers from post-natal psychosis with far-reaching consequences.
I can't think my grandfather would have approved of my crime-writing career. He tried to stop his daughter, my mum, from reading on the grounds that she'd get above herself. ‘Above him’ was what he really meant of course.
WR: I wonder if, more often than not, murderers aren’t in full possession of their senses when they kill. Many of the reasons for killing people - fear, intoxication, rage, jealousy, greed and so on – seem almost like temporary forms of mental incapacity that override instinctive revulsion at the act and fear of the consequences. And then, of course, there are the killers who really are insane.
I’m pretty sure the man who killed my aunt panicked. She was a Captain with the Eighth Army in the Second World War – running hospitals and so on – and could be quite intimidating. I believe she threatened to hunt him down which, knowing her, I suspect she probably would have. So I think it all got too much for him. I don’t have any sympathy for him– he went out to steal from an occupied house so he is responsible for everything that happens after that point – but I think I understand why things happened the way they did. And I suppose that kind of understanding is useful for someone who writes about crime.
The story you’re working on at the moment – is that Edie Kiglatuk’s Christmas, which I just read about – or something longer?
MMcG: Edie Kiglatuk’s Christmas is a short and snappy seasonal story with a nice little twist at the end, but I’m actually about to finish another book-length Edie Kiglatuk mystery. This one is set around SOV PATS or sovereignty patrols, the huge summer exercises carried out by the Canadian Military each year to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. Most crime in the Arctic happens over the summer. NASA discovered that 10% of subjects on Arctic patrol suffer serious psychological problems adapting to Arctic conditions and a third of those go on to develop psychiatric disorders. So that’s the starting point for a mystery, which begins in the present, and eventually reaches back to the Cold War. It’ll also be the first Edie Kiglatuk mystery in which Edie takes on a formal law enforcement role and has her first affair with a qalunaat, or white man.
WR: That's something to look forward to and I, for one, will be curious to find out how someone as independent and - well - stubborn as Edie will get on in law enforcement. It'll be an interesting clash of cultures, I suspect! Thanks for your time, Melanie, and best of luck with The Boy in the Snow - it's a great read and I hope it does well.
You can currently download MJ McGrath's short story, Edie Kiglatuk's Christmas, for free on Kindle.
White Heat and The Boy in the Snow are published by Viking Penguin in the US and by Mantle in the UK.
Shotsmag review of The Boy in the Snow can be found here.