By Basil Sands
From his secret lair just outside of London where he experiments with advanced highly-classified military weapons systems and teleportation devices, Andy Boot is an author to be reckoned with in more ways than one. He’s spent most of his career in the shadows as one of the writers behind the Deathlands series, as well as my teenaged literary addiction The Executioner—he’s written twenty-eight novels in these franchises.
Boot also created the Dreams Of Inan series for Abaddon, co-created three other series, wrote one novel, and was a series consultant. He’s written four non-fiction books under his own name, including a seminal work on British Horror films, Fragments Of Fear. And he’s worked in TV and new media, although several years of his career are listed by MI6 as “Unavailable For Comment Until Year 2115.”
He claims he writes simply because he loves it… or has he turned to writing because fiction is the only way he can tell his story?
All kidding aside, NO DOVES is an intense crime novel that had me up late into the night hoping the bad guys got their due, but sometimes feeling sorry for them when they did. It’s a dark and gritty journey into London’s underbelly that can leave you glancing over your shoulder and stepping wide of shadows on the street.
Andy, can you tell us more about NO DOVES?
It has a long history. Back when I was freelancing as a journalist, I had a few ideas for which I’d written a couple of chapters and a synopsis while I was trying to get into non-fiction books. At the time in the U.K., this represented my best chance of progressing from newsprint to hard covers One of those was NO DOVES.
After I’d finished the manuscript for my first commissioned non-fiction book (Psychic Murder Hunters) I went back to NO DOVES and finished it around the end of ’93. My then-agent shopped it around, but it got some strange reactions from publisher’s readers—I remember one taking it to pieces for being a failure as a psychological thriller, which I’m sure you’ll agree is the LAST thing it would claim to be! Eventually it was supposed to be published in Germany by Knaur after they’d bought Dream Detective—the next non-fiction book—for translation. They wanted it for a young adult imprint, which baffled me, and so it was no surprise when the deal fell through.
And so it languished for years in the cyber equivalent of a bottom drawer until I came in contact with Darren at Caffeine Nights, who liked the sound if it, and liked it even more when he read it. What had been a contemporary crime novel became retro and historical, especially as London had changed dramatically since it was written. Back then, the redevelopment of Docklands was on the brink of being a failure, and there was a lot of newspaper talk about the area falling into dereliction again (it had been a wasteland for over a decade after the docks were closed): now, it’s the centre of banking for Europe. Back then, Canary Wharf had been built but was having problems with finding businesses to move in, and could have become the 1990’s Centrepoint (a development in Central London in the late ’60’s that lay empty for over a decade and became a symbol of developer’s greed in the 1970’s.) That it didn’t was unknown at the time, so it was interesting to look at what might happen if it remained a vacuum in a deprived area.
Also, I always loved thrillers about London, having been born in the city, grown up in a time of change, and knowing a lot about the pre-WW2 landscape from family. To try and put an Edgar Wallace style thriller into a modern setting appealed greatly.
(Interestingly, one of the publisher’s readers who saw the book back then turned it down saying “we’ve already got one Mark Timlin thank you”: I hadn’t heard of him or read him at that point, and after checking him out I could see some areas of comparison. I also ended up reading everything he’s written. I think he does that updating the London thriller thing too.)
In NO DOVES, Detective Sergeants Jack Goldman and Errol Ross are interesting characters, especially in light of them being a sort of ‘Odd Couple’ partnership, one an Irish Jew barely keeping his personal life together, the other a neat and trim black with a penchant for fashionable clothes and neatness. How did you find this pair?
It’s really hard to remember exactly nearly a quarter of a century later, but I do know that I was bemused by the fact that a lot of coppers in contemporary thriller were very Anglo-Saxon. This struck me as odd when writing about London, as although there were comparatively few black and Asian police at that time, there was still an interesting melting pot going on: as a port City, London—like Bristol and Liverpool—has always had a number of nationalities milling through it. Docklands had a lot of Irish, Greek, Turkish and African blood from the merchant trade, and East London has always had a tradition of immigrant populations—from the Huguenots in the eighteenth century, through the Jewish and Chinese communities of the nineteenth century, to the Bangladeshi community of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. If you want to have any degree of realism about that part of London, then a local lad who signs up for the Met Police is not going to be strictly Anglo-Saxon. As for being an Irish Jew, I knew someone who had that mixed background, so I must have “borrowed”that.
The idea of a black copper who is actually quite posh comes from wanting to kick against the stereotype of all black guys in London being in gangs (the Yardie books had just exploded at this point). I knew a number of black guys who didn’t fit that mould, and I wondered what it would have been like for guys like that if they were put in a position where they had to butt against those attitudes and reactions.
I guess it also made them both outsiders, and so that puts them in an interesting position within a body that is supposed to protect the community, but had—at that time—a very entrenched attitude to vast swathes of that community, and was in many ways a closed shop to outsiders.
Which all sounds very serious and worthy when I look at it. That’s retrospection for you: at the time, this was all unconscious. I just wanted to write a fast, action-filled book like the ones I enjoyed reading, but in a contemporary London setting.
Going further into your past, when did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I learned to read before I started school, mostly from comics. After the first prose books I read—Paddington Abroad and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (I still remember!)—I was set: it was the only thing I ever really wanted to do…apart from a couple of early teenage years where I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix, then Tony Iommi when I knew I wouldn’t be that good, and then Dave Brock from Hawkwind (hey, only the same three chords over and over!), before owning up to being the world’s worst guitarist. But that was a minor distraction.
As soon as I could read I started making up stories about what happened after the books finished, and that’s still what I do now, in essence.
Another reason, which I didn’t realize until decades later, was my dad dying when I was five. He was a big reader, and belonged to two bookclubs. His books were the main thing that was left of him when I was growing up. My mum was also a big reader, but his death hit her hard, and we coped as a family by not saying much about dad and just concentrating on moving forward. So the books were a way of connecting with him. The Companion Bookclub gave me a grounding in fiction and non-fiction, but the Thriller Bookclub—ah, those painted dustjackets, the graphics, the action and adventure they promised—I discovered whodunnits, thrillers, hardboiled PI’s and spies at an early age, and that never left me.
A lot of writers would love to get a regular gig writing for series like you did with Deathland and The Executioner. How did that happen for you?
When I’d been writing for a while, a friend and her new boyfriend looked after our apartment and fed the cats while we were on holiday. When we returned, the boyfriend mentioned he’d read through some old copies of the SF magazine New Worlds that I had, and that his dad was in one of them. From that grew a friendship that’s still there a quarter of a century later, and an introduction to his dad, Laurence James, who had written more than a hundred paperbacks and was at that time the sole writer on Deathlands. When Laurence got ill and couldn’t continue, he recommended to editorial that I try out for the series, and so I became one of several James Axlers on the series—during my time, I was responsible for about a third of the titles released. I got my first two Executioner titles because there was a schedule gap that needed filling, but the majority of them came when I was asked back to Gold Eagle after a couple of years working elsewhere. I was about ten when The Executioner and The Destroyer first reached the U.K., both picked up by Corgi Books, and had spent several years reading what seemed like as many as possible. To get to write them was like a childhood ambition fulfilled!
As a teenager in the 70’s and 80’s, I was hooked on The Executioner series, with Mack Bolan being the reflection I saw in the mirror when I was feeling particularly heroic. At that time I had no idea the series was written by a variety of ghostwriters, since the voice seemed to be consistent from book to book. In writing those series novels, were you given an outline or plot idea to start with and then flesh out? How much freedom did each writer have within the context of the storyline?
I guess up until the mid-eighties it was down to Don Pendleton with a small crew of guys like Stephen Mertz, and so consistency wasn’t an issue as they worked very closely. By the time I came along, it was more like a production line, with all the issues that entails. With both Deathlands and The Executioner, it was a fairly open process: submit a couple of outlines, toss back and forth any changes that needed to be made to fit current continuity, and then write the manuscript on that finalized outline. Occasionally I was asked to include some characters from a previous book by another writer (and sent a copy to bone up on) or asked to put in an event that was part of a continuity arc, but otherwise I was pretty much left to my own devices. I don’t know what it was like for other writers, though. There are some Gold Eagle writers who have been pretty scathing about their experiences. I can only say I got on fine with the three editors I dealt with over the years.
What was it like to share the story line with several other writers?
Well, the downside of it being pretty free and easy for me was that sometimes I was writing in the dark, and rarely had an idea what others were doing. For my first two Executioners, I had to write them more or less blind, and so my version of Bolan had more in common with the Pendleton version mixed with my idea of the contemporary one, rather than being in line with the contemporary output. On my return to the series, I was sent some books to catch up, so had a better idea. I didn’t actually get sent a series bible until Gold Eagle was about to fold, and after my last series entry had been turned in!
Deathlands was easier in some respects as I knew Laurence well by then, so had a clear idea of what the series was about and the characters. There was also a bible which I had sent to me. Mind you, it wasn’t updated until after I’d written my last entry, so along the way I tended to rely on my own continuity and the odd book or direction from the editor. Which is not ideal, but somehow seemed to work (for the most part).
I get the idea that some readers and fans think series writers are like the old Marvel Bullpen and sit around discussing each other’s work in a big room. Not so (mind you, it didn’t happen like that at Marvel, really). Ideally, it should work like the writers room for a TV show, where there is some interaction. Not that practical, though, when paperback writers can be spread across the globe.
Will we see more of Jack and Errol in future books?
I would hope so. They’ve been in the wings for nearly a quarter of a century, it would be a shame if this was their only piece of the limelight. I’ve always wanted to get them out there, and Darren has given them that chance. If NO DOVES sells enough to warrant a second book, I’d hope that Darren would be up for it. I would. I have a script agent who is looking to sell NO DOVES to TV, and I have treatments for a further two stories as well as a script for the novel. If not TV, then those treatments – going through the next eighteen months of the ‘90’s—would be the next two books. I’d love to do it, as I’ve lived with them all that time, always hoping that one day I could get the book out there.
This is the point in the interview where I typically put on my unseasonably thick brown wool sweater with the elbow patches, and stuff a fancy looking pipe with the special aromatic leafy stuff we shall term “tobacco” for the sake of keeping this psychological delving legal in all states and nations, and after a puff or two I ask a question that will reveal the true inner self that makes up the Andy Boot that is nestled deep within your soul. So, here we go.
You are on holiday in the Welsh countryside, strolling along, enjoying the sights and sounds and scents of nature all about you. You sit on a large lichen-covered boulder to rest for a moment and eat a sandwich you’ve been saving for just such an occasion.
Just as you prepare to munch the last bite of said sandwich, there is a heavy vibration from inside the rock that sends you stumbling a few steps away. A loud crack resonates through the valley and the rock splits in two. A small dragon, which is to say small enough it could consume a rabbit in one bite but would need to take two or three to eat an Irish Wolfhound, leaps up and screeches at you, then bounds forward and wraps its wings around you, nuzzling you lovingly.
At this point two shortish men dressed in leather from head to toe step out of the woods, making their way toward you, spears and shields in hand. They’re speaking rapidly in an ancient form of Welsh in which all the words seem to contain a thirty to one ratio of consonants to vowels. Lucky for you, subtitles appear at chest height as they speak, not allowing you a word in edgewise.
“Well now, aren’t you the lucky dragon mommy.”
“Aye! You’re now bound to care for the little beastie for the rest of his life.”
“So you’re gonna have to figure out how you’re feedin’ the monster. You look like a city-bloke, hope you got room at your flat.”
“Uh Oh! I hear horses coming!”
“Yup, big heavy horses.“
“Must be Sir Oswald the Stinky and his immortal army, coming to claim the dragon he’d cultivated all these centuries so he could take over the world.”
“Well, boyo, we’ve got our cousin’s wedding to get to, so good luck against Oswald. Make sure to wear leather breeches when riding your dragon, so the scales don’t chafe your….well…you know…sensitive bits.”
They vanish in a puff of puffy stuff leaving you watching the approaching knight with a massive dragon’s head helmet and a small army that looks like they’ve already died several times—and were bored with the fact that they couldn’t kill anyone else in the afterlife, they being already dead and all. They are looking at you with a very disconcerting glint in their eyes.
What do you do next?
“Good morning, chaps, it’s nice out, isn’t it? I think I’ll take mine out…”
No response. Obviously not fans of very old jokes. Maybe they don’t even speak the same language? Hmm, this could be a problem.
“You may be wondering why I’m here. So am I, actually. There I was, minding my own business, and these two funny looking little geezers come up to me and make a present of this funny looking dog. I don’t suppose you’re dog wardens, are you? You don’t LOOK like dog –”
There is a stony silence. In moments like this I always think two things: 1. What would Bertie Wooster do? And 2. What would Mack Bolan do?
No joy there: Bertie would ask Jeeves, and I don’t have a convenient Jeeves; Bolan would delve into his blacksuit and lob a frag grenade into their midst, and then take cover and pick off the remaining forces with a convenient SMG, possibly a Heckler & Koch MP5. Sadly, I do not wander the Welsh hills with enough armaments to stun a small army.
Sir Oswald opens his mouth and says something. His voice is remarkably squeaky for such a fierce looking chap, and I can’t understand a word he says. Then I remember the subtitles and look down. I’m not quite quick enough, and only catch the last few words—
“… slay the dragon or you first, cully…”
What a fine old word – haven’t seen that outside of some very old books for years, now… Then the last part of that sentence hits home. Me first?
Ah, there’s nothing like fear to get the mind working. Mind you, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be working WELL…
“Dragon? Good Lord, man, you think this is a dragon? Do you know nothing about your mythological creatures? This, sir, is not a dragon, or a griffen, even… it is that most rare of beasts, the wyvern. Strange hybrid, and—by chance—the mascot of Leyton Orient FC. I’m a Londoner, as you may be able to tell from the accent… Hmm, maybe not, you don’t look like you get around much… Anyway, I am from the sunny climes of Leyton, and this is, in fact, a chap in a Wyvern suit who is our mascot. We’re just practising a few of his moves for the forthcoming season whilst taking a short vacation, and…”
There is something about the glint in his eye, matched only by the glint of steel in his hand, that tells me my explanation may have fallen a little short of its intended effect. I open my mouth to declaim… something or the other… but all that emerges is a strangled squeak.
Andy Boot has spent most of his career in the shadows as one of the writers behind the series ‘Deathlands’ and ‘The Executioner’, having written 28 novels in these franchises. He also created the ‘Dreams Of Inan’ series for Abaddon, as well as co-creating three other series, writing one novel, and being series consultant. He has written four non-fiction books under his own name, including a seminal work on British Horror films (‘Fragments Of Fear’). He has worked in TV and new media, and just likes writing. He lives just outside London.