Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Dead Man Talking #4 - Christopher Fowler

Strachan McQuade (deceased) Interviews Christopher Fowler

If you’re any sort of avid reader there’s always a small circle of writers whose books you buy year after year no matter what. These writers eventually take on the mantle of old family friends (without the inconvenience of having to buy birthday cards or Argyle socks at Christmas). They go on holiday with you, keep you company in hospital waiting rooms, and cheer you up when the skies are grey. One of my adopted writers is the ever-green Christopher Fowler whose books I’ve been delving into since the late 80’s. From his fresh-faced earlier novels like Roofworld, Soho Black and Darkest Day to the whizz-bang pyrotechnic firework flashes of his short story collections – and not forgetting the incomparable Bryant and May series of peculiar detective stories, Christopher Fowler has been a constant source of laughter, chills and outright sheer enjoyment. His latest novel – Bryant & May and the Invisible Code is available from all the usual places including a few selected eel-pie and winkle shops around the capital. I’d have loved to chat with Christopher, but as usual The Reverend Strachan McQuade got there ahead of me, discarding his rumpled tweed jacket and horribly stained trousers for a Pearly Suit before performing a perfectly executed Lambeth Walk along Shoreditch Main Street. Bloody show off.

Strachan McQuade R.I.P
Christopher Fowler

McQuade: Ever since Stephen King began peppering his work with song lyric references, it opened the floodgates for other writers to blatantly name-drop their favourite singers/beat-combos into novels, perhaps in the misguided hope of receiving free gig tickets and complimentary gramophone records. Even I, a man of the cloth, have indulged shamelessly in promoting the stirring music of Moira Anderson and Kenneth McKellar in my best selling book, 'Invergallus'. However, this week's guest, Christopher Fowler, (canned applause) seems to have no interest in allowing music to play a dominant role in his novels.

(Strachan swivels dramatically, almost dislodging his head) 

So tell me, Fowler. Is this musical omission down to the fact you don’t feel the need to endorse the popular music genre or simply because you’re embarrassed about the lacklustre content of your CD collection?

Fowler: Quite the reverse. My music collection is of such thrilling diversity that even thinking about it makes me ill. But it would not reflect the tastes of my withered crime-solvers. I’ve had to chuck away all album covers to create my inexplicable filing system. My music divides into: Classical, soundtracks (in 30 years of working in film I have scores even the directors of those films don’t possess), new modern (Nyman, Wim Mertens etc), pop (starting at Manfred Mann and heading through Pet Shop Boys to Plan B), shows (Titanic - The Musical, anyone?) and random weird shit (1950s electronica, old Eno) but soundtracks get a workout while I work.

McQuade: Strangely enough, I was playing my '20 Classic Steam Trains' long player at full volume while perusing your recent novel Hell Train - a rip-roaring return to your no-holds-barred horror roots – a book which reads like a rocket-propelled pastiche of any number of Hammer Horror films put through a blender and then left to marinate overnight in a haunted house. (pauses to wheeze asthmatically) What was your main motivation for this book? A long abiding love for all that Hammer Horror stood for, or a secret hankering to go train-spotting? And more importantly, did you get to meet Peter Cushion? 

Fowler: Sadly I will only meet Peter on the Other Side. My Dad used to know him because he lived in Whitstable and my Mum worked for Hammer as a legal secretary. She met Christopher Lee and still describes him as ‘heart-slowingly boring’. I wanted to write the film Hammer had let me down by not making and think I did a damned good job of it. I grew up with the Hammer films and there was always a post-coital sense of let-down with them (see ‘Paperboy’).

McQuade: Your books demonstrate an almost omniscient knowledge of inner London and if you ever give up the writing lark I'm sure you’d make a first class taxi driver. London tour guides must be seething at the cavalier manner you freely let slip trade secrets and give away closely guarded locations of fascinating nooks and crannies around the city. Do they ever picket outside your house with strongly worded placards and throw jellied eels at your window? Probably be a waste of time telling them to get lost as tour guides generally know their way around and very rarely get disoriented. 

Fowler: You seem to have answered your own question there, luv.

McQuade: (sighs) Yes, I did, didn't I?
Sometimes I wonder why I bother chatting to guests on here at all when I could probably do just as good a job answering them myself. Anyway, seeing as you're here now, answer me this - do you feel your novel 'Spanky' was indirectly responsible for inspiring the awful '50 Shades of Gray' series? Or could at least be considered (laughs into hand) a seminal influence?

Fowler: Once again I proved too clever by half and far ahead of my time. No, Spanky was the Fight Club of its time as it has the same story and came out a year before. There’s part of the British reading audience that’s not very bright or well read. They’re startled by loud noises and periodically get frightened by things they don’t understand. This makes them easy to round up and put away, or be fed rubbish like ‘Fifty Grades of Fey’. They were gulled into buying Spanky by its spunky cover, although it took the publishers’ grounded reps to explain to my fusty editors why it would be a good idea. Generally, my books are for readers with brains, which leaves me outside the mainstream next to SF authors, but this time I tricked them. Basically that’s what I do – lull them into a false sense of security with elderly detectives, then hit them with pro-liberal issues like immigration and gay marriage.

McQuade: Sorry, missed a bit of that as I was watching a spider climb up the wall behind you. Amazing how some of them have really hairy legs. But regarding your words on writing for clever people, unfortunately my publishing contract stipulates that I'm obliged to write for stupid people with no brains at all. This means I'm bound to include at least seven perforated nouns (ie bowel, eardrum, toilet-paper) on every page. Thankfully, my past experience as stand-in speaker for the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (more wheezing) was ideal preparation for such an eventuality. 

Keeping on the subject of extremely stupid people, I’ve often wondered if you were related to that horrible Fowler family in Eastenders, although I can't really imagine a dapper chap such as yourself pottering around in a vegetable allotment with a trowel and thermos flask clasped in mittened hands. But do tell - if you ever got handed the starring role in a popular television soap opera, which one would you plump for and why?

Fowler: I have never seen Eastenders. Television is for appearing on, not watching. I hardly ever see it, as my parents instilled me with the secret of its true purpose; to lull the brain into a state of such passive receptivity that I would consider changing my bank or adding hot water to a Pot Noodle as an act of celebration. Television is for people who are too poor and imaginatively impoverished to consider going out.

McQuade: Erm...... well, this is awkward. I was going to present you with the farewell gift of a black and white portable telly which I found in my coal bunker. At short notice the best alternative I can offer is a woollen bathing costume with an embroidered herring motif on the buttocks. No? Well, suit yourself. At least FG Cottam pretended to look grateful when I gave him those shrimping nets. See yourself out then, there's a good lad, but don't use the ..................(sound of a collapsing metal structure followed an anguished yelp)...... fire escape.

You can hear more from Christopher Fowler here at his blog site.


  1. I'm enjoying these great interviews, Mr. McQuade, and adding lots of titles to my 'to read' list. How have I missed Spanky?... Hoping for more interviews with the ghost.

  2. Communicating with the dead can be a tricky experience. Surprised anyone wants to do it at all. Before reading Spanky I suggest you purchase a table tennis bat with a rigidty factor of +2.