By Dan Levy
Advertising copywriter. Organization psychologist. Online course writer. Lecturer in American literature. Author. Keith Dixon has held a number of titles in his professional career, but there’s always been one at the center of it all: writer.
“The way it works for me is that if I don’t write for a while, I get like an itch that has to be scratched,” Dixon says. “Even when I’ve finished a book and think I’m done for the foreseeable future, after only a couple of weeks my brain’s turning over ideas again and I start the plotting routine.”
Dixon’s insatiable need to write has led to 15 published works, including the 10th and newest release in Dixon’s Sam Dyke series. The Big Thrill recently caught up with Dixon to discuss THE COBALT SKY, which finds Dyke investigating the theft of a famed painting.
It seems you’ve lived your life in England, yet some of your biggest influences are American writers. How do you reconcile the similarities and differences in cultures, procedures, attitudes toward crime, etc.?
When I wrote the first Sam Dyke, I had in my head the notion of what it must be like to be a private detective in a posh English county. I wanted to write something in the noir vein, using its styles and tropes but adapted to the English ambiance. My biggest problem when writing is trying to avoid the police and police procedure. My sense is that police procedures have become more professionalized and systematized, making it difficult for a maverick PI to work away in the gaps and do his or her job.
You said, “As I begin to think of the plot, the relevant characters take shape. And while I’m elaborating the characters, the plot they’re involved in starts to take shape around them.” Many writers had it drilled into their heads that “character drives plot. Period.” How do you make this plot/character balance work for you?
For me the plot has to be of interest in itself—unusual, with surprises, dynamic—but it can only be those things if readers are engaged with the characters. Take the book I’m working on at the moment, which will be a standalone: I’ve had the idea for a central character—not necessarily the protagonist—and I’ve already written a brief prologue in which he outlines his character. BUT, what is written in the prologue will drive the rest of the plot. If I think back, both the plot and the character emerged at the same time from my subconscious.
I suspect you know Sam Dyke pretty well by now. What is something about him that surprised you as he came to life in THE COBALT SKY?
I’ve been re-reading Ross Macdonald and his Lew Archer stories over the last 18 months, and what I liked as I followed his development over 30 years or so is the gradual humanizing of Lew. We see his morality developing, we learn more about his own history—and romantic past—and we watch him become more compassionate over time. So in my last two books in particular I’ve been trying to give Sam space to express his own humanity and morality, to take a larger view of the world he lives in.
Is there a scene or chapter in THE COBALT SKY that is a favorite or that is especially meaningful to you? Why?
There’s a scene where Sam goes to visit an elderly lady in a care home. I really liked the idea of making this lady, in her eighties, completely mentally agile and a lot of fun. There’s no reason why she shouldn’t be, of course, but I’m not sure that’s always how older people are shown in crime fiction—they’re often victims or simply people whose memory we need to plunder to get more clues.
Fiction often serves as a Trojan horse for sneaking real-life issues into readers’ minds. What do you want your readers to think or feel after reading THE COBALT SKY?
In THE COBALT SKY the difficulties arise because the family is split asunder. I don’t really want to proselytize but let’s just say Sam becomes very aware of the role family plays—or sometimes doesn’t—in some people’s lives. It sets him thinking, so maybe it will do so for readers, too.
It seems like you’ve covered a variety of topics in your Sam Dyke series. What made this the right time to write about an art heist and the secrets that seem to go with it?
Here in France I’m a member of a small art-appreciation group so I know quite a few artists of different types—plus, I’ve dabbled in watercolors myself. As a writer you’re always looking for subject matter and it struck me one day that I had just enough technical expertise to get away with a plot like this! I then began to contemplate what kind of artist the main character would be, what would motivate him to paint the same image time after time, and how this motivation could be uncovered and explored by Sam Dyke.
I don’t want to look past THE COBALT SKY, but can you give us a hint about what you’re working on now?
As mentioned above, the next book will be a standalone crime novel probably involving a serial killer. I’ve been watching shows on Ted Bundy and Charles Manson, and a lot of my crime reading has been about serial killers—for example in Michael Connelly’s books—so I thought it would be interesting to write something set in the UK on this topic. I have my killer—I now need to work out who’ll be his victims and who will catch him!
What’s one piece of advice that has served you well since you started writing fiction full-time? Is it the same advice you’d give aspiring authors today?
I don’t know where I got it from—it may be Sol Stein—but it’s to ensure that you have conflict in every scene. Nothing worse than having characters agree with each other all the time. It doesn’t mean they have to be shouting at each other, but they should have different objectives or viewpoints.
Keith Dixon was born in Yorkshire and grew up in the Midlands. He’s been writing since he was 13 years old in a number of different genres: thriller, espionage, science fiction, literary. Two-time winner of the Chanticleer Reviews CLUE First in Category award for Private Eye/Noir novel, he’s the author of eight full-length books and one short story in the Sam Dyke Investigations series and two other non-crime works, as well as two collections of blog posts on the craft of writing. His new series of Paul Storey thrillers began in 2016 and there are now three books in the series.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.