STEWART TIMES, AUGUST, 2010
SATIRIC CRIME AUTHOR, PETER GUTTRIDGE, LAUNCHES DISTURBING THRILLER
HEAD UNDER PILLOW
MIND GOING TO PIECES
CAN’T PUT IT DOWN
I was shocked early in the week by the news that I’d be interviewing a particularly fantastic author. The thriller begins with a decades old crime, finding the nude torso of a woman in a trunk at Brighton Central Railway Station, and the discovery of the legs in Kings Cross.
DISMEMBERED BODY LEFT ON INTERVIEWER’S PORCH
At the time, no one told me who the author was, I was only left with the bloody remains of another body on my porch wrapped in brown paper and tied with window cord. On the edge of the paper written in blue pencil are the letters “Silver Bullet”. Luckily I’m not on the award’s committee or I might be nervous.
I think the body wasn’t so much a body as a collection of pig parts cleverly sculpted to resemble my mother in law. I’m not sure what was scarier, how she looked at me or how it tasted that evening.
It’s a grisly start to an interview, especially if you’re expecting something satirical, but blame Guttridge for setting the tone. The first chapter with City of Dreadful Night’sprotagonist Detective Sergeant Sarah Gilchrist is just as grisly and mysterious.
Peter Guttridge is the author of six satirical crime novels and crime fiction critic for The Observer. Now it seems it’s time for something completely different and Guttridge has abandoned comic crime, at least for the trilogy of ‘Brighton’ thrillers. He himself suggests that he turned to the ‘Dark Side’ when penning City of Dreadful Night.
July 1934: a woman’s torso is found in a trunk at Brighton railway station’s left luggage office. Her legs and feet are found in a suitcase at Kings Cross. Her head is never found, her identity never established, her killer never caught.
But someone is keeping a diary.
July 2010. A massacre in Milldean, Brighton’s notorious no-go area. An armed police operation gone badly wrong. As the rioting begins, high-flying Chief Constable Robert Watts makes a decision that will cost him his career. And then, one by one, the police involved in the killings start to disappear.
It’s only a matter of time before past and present collide.
From early reviewers, of which this interviewer is knifesharpeningly jealous he’s not one, it appears his journey to the Dark Side is complete.
“Peter Guttridge- a serious contender in the mystery genre.” Chicago Tribune
“Bringing intelligence and caustic wit to the hard-boiled genre has always been Guttridge’s speciality” The London Times
“A gripping yarn, brilliantly melding Brighton’s murderous past with its murderous present. I loved it!” International bestselling thriller author Peter James
“Peter Guttridge is a master of comic crime and has now proved himself equally capable on the darker side of the genre. City of Dreadful Night is gritty, compelling and meticulously researched. There are two words running through this darkly delicious piece of Brighton rock: ‘must read’.” Bestselling author Mark Billingham
If you hadn’t noticed, I’m a bit angry that having read the teasers and the reviews I can’t get the book yet, and I feel like chopping something to pieces. Luckily Guttridge has agreed to an interview and that will just have to do.
Just let me get out my little blue pencil…
Peter, don’t let the props bother you, but the opening of City of Dreadful Night is tremendous, and I do want to hear more about the story. Tell me about your protagonist Detective Sergeant Sarah Gilchrist; what is she about and what was her genesis?
Sarah is like a lot of feisty women I’ve met over the years – courageous and determined despite the insecurities that they (and all of us) have. I like strong women – Bridget, who features in my satirical novels is a powerhouse. Sarah Gilchrist is part of an ensemble cast that includes the ex-chief constable Bob Watts, an ex-SAS man, Jimmy Tingley, and an ambitious young journalist, Kate Simpson.
What inspired the Brighton trilogy?
I’ve lived near Brighton for around fifteen years and different aspects of its history really fascinate me, as does contemporary life there. So I conceived the idea of a trilogy that would be both contemporary and set in the past. City of Dreadful Night is the first of these. The contemporary story concerns a high-flying Chief Constable trying to make sense of – and get revenge for – his abrupt fall from grace because of a massacre members of his police force seemed to instigate.
The historical story concerns the famous 1934 unsolved Brighton Trunk Murder Number One. (Number Two – that of Violette Kay – was solved.)
You’ve said of your Nick Madrid series that the central theme seems to be the underdog doing okay. Does this carry through to City of Dreadful Night?
Only obliquely. The thrust of the novel is this group of people trying to get justice 75 years after this poor woman was murdered, dismembered, and left in a trunk at Brighton railway station. And the contemporary story has this same team up against powerful, corrupt people, trying to figure out who was behind this massacre.
Can you tell us a little about the next book in the series, The Last King of Brightonand the overall arc of the trilogy?
I’ve just been editing Last King and I’m really excited about the way it bounces off City of Dreadful Night. Characters from the first novel are seen from a different perspective. One of them – a gangster called John Hathaway – takes centre stage (he is the Last King of Brighton) and much of the novel is taken up with his criminal career from the Sixties to the present day. At the same time the exploration of both the contemporary massacre and the Brighton Trunk Murder continues. Events are seen in a different light from the way they were presented in the first novel. In the third novel – provisional title The Devil’s Punchbowl – everything will shift again.
The trilogy’s structure is much influenced by a towering work of fiction from the 1950s – Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet – in which the story shifts in each of the four instalments. I always thought it was a great structure for a crime novel and I was thrilled once to meet the late James Crumley and discover that the Quartet was a major influence on him. I can’t hope to approach the work of either Durrell or Crumley but I’ve definitely got a few surprises for readers in the trilogy.
Fans of your satirical work will also want to know a few things to determine if this novel is for them. Here are a few burning questions:
Does Gilchrist practice yoga?
Ha! No, but she works out and runs along Brighton’s beautiful seafront regularly – carrying a stun gun with her because, as we thriller readers know, a beautiful location doesn’t preclude danger.
Is there anything even a little bit funny in this novel?
There’s a lot of badinage and a couple of surreal scenes but, no, this is definitely not a humorous novel. It explores the worst in people’s characters. It is sometimes graphic. The Last King has an opening sequence that is absolutely horrible – I don’t think readers will have come across anything similar before – but it is essential to the story and not at all gratuitous. My editor claims she can’t get it out of her head. Me neither, actually.
What’s the toughest Ashtanga pose you can do (and not get stuck)?
Ha! I’m not going to demonstrate it at the next ITW convention but I can still do the position that features at the start of No Laughing Matter. It’s known as the Balancing Tortoise and it involves sticking your legs back under your armpits, crossing your feet behind your neck and lifting yourself off the floor on your hands. Clearly I’m insane – why anybody would wish to do this position, I have no idea. My favourite pose, however, has the unfortunate name of The Corpse. It involves simply lying on your back and taking deep breaths for ten minutes. Frankly, as I get older, I could do that all day.
Through your research did you solve the real life case of Trunk Murder Number 1?
Can’t tell you as it will give away one of the trilogy’s conclusions! I have got a bit obsessed with the real life case. Most of the police files were destroyed in 1964 – an event that features heavily in The Last King – so my research was unavoidably restricted. In real life the police were never able to identify the poor victim so never got anywhere near to finding her killer. However, I have located where her few remains were buried and I’m in discussions to get her bones exhumed to do familial DNA testing on them. Who knows where that will lead?
Does being nice to you mean you’ll give me a nice review someday?
Bribes work better. The hardest thing about reviewing such a convivial bunch of people – I’m fortunate to be friends with many crime and thriller writers – is balancing friendship with honesty. I’ve been on the receiving end, of course. The only really bad review I’ve ever had – for my novel Foiled Again – was from my own newspaper, the Observer. The reviewer hated the novel so much he gave away the ending. But you have to be mature about such things. I actually invited him round for dinner. He’s buried under my house now …
Are you going to write any more of Nick Madrid series?
I AM. I’ve got two lined up. In one, for which I’ve done all the notes, Nick and Bridget are on a cruise liner. But I’m two thirds of the way through the main one, in which Nick goes to India for the yoga and ends up with Bridget on a tour of the remarkable Indian province of Rajasthan. As the tour progresses people keep getting knocked off. Bridget is as ornery as ever; Nick as wet. I’m calling it, in a laboured reference to a famous 1950s English play, Look Back In Agra.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about City of Dreadful Night?
It’s complicated because it’s telling two parallel stories and laying things down for the rest of the trilogy. But readers can still enjoy it as a thriller even if they miss some of the other stuff. I thought it was the best thing I’d written until I finished the second in the trilogy, The Last King of Brighton!
Thanks for your time Peter. I look forward to reading the rest of your novel!
After six satirical crime novels in the Lefty award-winning Nick Madrid series, UK author (and the Observer’s crime fiction critic) Peter Guttridge has turned to the Dark Side for his forthcoming Brighton Trilogy: “City of Dreadful Night”, “The Last King of Brighton, “The Devil’s Punchbowl”.
You can learn more about Peter Guttridge by visiting his website athttp://www.peterguttridge.com.