Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fiction, in fact

Peter May here...  Graham Hurley is an English crime writer whose long-running series featuring Portsmouth detective Joe Faraday has been hugely successful in Britain and France. He has also written eleven stand-alone novels. I first met Graham four years ago at a book festival on the Mediterranean. It was World Cup year then, too, and we got into trouble with the festival organisers for sneaking off to a nearby cafe to watch the England game while we were supposed to be signing books. By some strange twist of fate we met again this year at another book festival in France. Le Havre this time. And we were once more guilty of a clandestine appointment with a TV set to watch a disappointing match between England and the USA. The French, of course, simply raised their eyes to the heavens. “These anglo-saxons!”

Graham has opted to treat us to a short story based on his weekend at Le Havre. I don’t know if this is a first for the blog, but it makes for an interesting read...

This comes to you from a Brit crime writer recovering from yet another dose of French hospitality.  Last weekend Lin (my wife) and I settled into our second Polar a la Plage.  This Le Havre-based crime fest is organised by a group called Les Ancres Noires,  the usual mix of street drama, heavy rock, meet-and-greet sessions,  tables rondes, and back-to-back meals.  I'm not sure we added much to the sum of human knowledge but it was excellent fun,  especially given the opening tussles in the (soccer) World Cup.  England were bidding for death or glory against the United States on the Saturday night, and it was good to share a hotel room and several large bottles of Leffe Blond with Peter and his wife Janice for the game.  Loved the headline in the NYT:  Yanks Win 1-1.  Sadly true.  Bad mathmatics but worse football.  On this showing, us lot are going to struggle against more or less anyone. 
Good, too, to chew the fat with P&J.  My career as a crime writer followed an extremely happy stretch of stand-alone thrillers.  But my publisher wrecked all that with an invitation to write crime fiction at a time when I was in no position to turn them down.  It was an awkward start to what turned into a twelve-book series, and to be honest I've enjoyed the trip.  But en route I've become even more aware of the Curse of the Genre Box, and lengthy chats with Peter have sparked a search for light relief...or at least something different.  I'm days away from agreeing a contract for a new (crime) series set in the English West Country, where I live,  but in the meantime I guess I owe myself a holiday.  I started this afternoon with this (fictional) postcard from a sunny Le Havre...

Le Havre, June, 2010. Le Polar a la Plage.
Homage. No other word for it.

I did a bit of Googling last night on my lap top, looked at a combat photo or two. One of them showed a Lancaster bomber flying over the city centre. You’re looking down on this bomber and bits of the city are visible through gaps in the cloud. At the bottom of the photo are the notes that someone must have added afterwards, maybe the pilot, maybe some intelligence officer back at base. This is the shorthand for mass destruction, busy men winding reality backwards, needing to account for the rubble and the carnage to come.

The notes read: 13,000. 150 degrees. B 11x1000. 4x500. 30secs. F/S McCartin. 75. In plain English, Flight Sergeant McCartin of 75 squadron, Bomber Command, flying at 13,000 feet on a bearing of 150 degrees, is seconds away from unloading six tons of high explosive onto a French city called Le Havre.

It seems that some of these guys, often the younger pilots, used to talk about “dropping flowers”. The big black thousand pounders would fall away towards the blurry clutter of streets below, you’d count to maybe half a minute depending on altitude, and then would come the quick yellow blooms as they seeded and burst. That’s the thing about wartime conscription. You get poets as well as psychopaths. And by 1944, a metaphor like that – sick as f*** – might offer a crumb or two of comfort. From 13,000 feet, one city must look pretty much like another. Everyone knows war is for lunatics. Who cares whether these people we just blew apart are supposed to be our friends?

I share the thought with a woman who steps into the festival tent just after lunch. It’s a decent day after last night’s rain and I think she must have spent the morning staked out on the lumpy grey pebbles that pass for the beach. I can smell suntan lotion and she’s carrying a carefully-folded towel and one of those thin roll-up mattresses.

A couple of beers from the festival cool box have done wonders for my French. I ask her whether she lives here, whether she was born here. She says yes to both. She’s flicking through a book of mine. She doesn’t lift her head. Nice.
I ask her about the war, what it meant, what it did.

“La guerre?” She lifts her head. She speaks perfect English. “You think I remember the war?”
“Of course not. But your father? Your mother? They remember?”
“Of course.”
“Sais pas.” She shrugs, returning the book to the pile on the table. “No one talks about the war.”

Really? I was chatting to another writer this morning. He occupies the table next to mine. He’s a nice guy. He’s spent most of his life as a journalist and now he writes crime fiction with the occasional detour into historical stuff. The D-Day beaches are just round the corner and Americans, he says, will buy anything. Recently he’d done a clever cut-and-paste job on the activities of local Resistence networks during the months before the invasion, or Jour-J.. The festival is the book’s first commercial outing but the pile of volumes on his table, flanked by his fast-selling noir, remains untouched. So maybe my sunbather’s right.

Either way, I’m not giving up.

“The place got bombed, right?”
“Of course.”
“By us? Oui?”
“And loads of people died.”
“Of course.”
“Like thousands?”
“Five thousand?”
“Sais pas. Lots. Beaucoup. Trop.” She picks up another book, reads the back cover, smiles. “But you kill people, too, n‘est-ce pas?”

I’m through with the signings by half past six. I phone Sabine from the hotel. I know her husband’s gone to their place in the country with a stack of work for the weekend because she told me yesterday. Around eight would be perfect, she said. Don’t forget.

Straight off, she wants to know how many I’ve sold.

“Seventy seven.” I’m lying.
“Which titles?”
I name three, the most violent, the most bizarre, the most noir.
“Good boy.” She’s pleased. “And which was the hottest?”
“F***!” She’s laughing now. “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I give you my word of honour?”
“You did, Sab. And you were right.”

Half a dozen women robbed of their eyes with a sharpened spoon. Umpteen suspects. Plus a nice twist at the end for anyone with a sense of humour.

“And the award? Le Grand Prix?” She’s still laughing.
“You’re sure? I put today on the press release.”
“Change it. It’s definitely tomorrow.”
“But you’re still gonna win?”
“F*** knows. The guy at the next table thinks so but I’m not sure this place is ready for mass disembowelling.”
“That’s not what I’m hearing.”

I grunt something non-committal. It’s the opening stages of the World Cup. I’ve got the remote working at last and on the tiny wall-mounted TV England have just kicked off against the US. I’m anticipating an hour and a half of the usual disappointments. Why do we big ourselves up like this? Why do we think we can kick the rest of the world into oblivion?

Sabine’s still stressing about tomorrow’s jury decision. That girl can smell an award at a thousand miles. We have a lazy conversation about whether any of this stuff matters. Sabine says I’m crazy if I think otherwise. Le Prix des Ancres Noires will slip down very nicely, the perfect companion to all my English gongs. Plus I’m deep into contract negotiations and the company are suckers for all this Euro-shit. The stairway to heaven, says Sabine, is lined with foreign rights and serial killers.

Sabine wants to know about the hotel room, about the décor, about the bed, about the colour of the sheets, and I know exactly what’s coming next. An imagination like hers, she should be doing my job.

“You miss me, babe?”
“So how would it be if I was there?”

She knows I’m taking the piss and more to the point she knows I want to talk about something else. On screen, the English mid-field have put three passes together. This is beginning to look serieux.

“What is it, babe?” Sabine needs reassurance.
“Nothing. Rien.”
“You lie. Something’s got to you. You think I don’t know that? Pleeese….”

In spite of my better judgement I start to tell her about Le Havre, about the Lancaster bombers, about the calling card all those guys left on the fifth of September, and about the wasteland that awaited the survivors when dawn broke the following day. I ducked into a huge post-war church yesterday evening. This is a building made entirely of concrete, a stern grey post-war monument that dominates the city skyline. The last of the day’s sunshine was bleeding down from tiny stained glass windows in the three hundred feet central tower, splashing the flagstones with a thin wash of reds and greens. Beside the door, a tiny exhibition recorded the rebuilding of the city. I couldn’t take my eyes off the grainy black and white photos on the introductory panel. By the sixth of September, Le Havre looked like Hiroshima.

Sabine hates this stuff, hates me tunnelling out of my comfy little genre box. Serial killers make her very happy. Real life is a different proposition.

“So what are we saying here, babe?”

I don’t answer, not immediately. I’m up on one elbow, staring at the screen. England are mounting what looks like an attack. It isn’t pretty but at least they’re heading for the right goal.

“Think of it as a crime scene, Sab.” I mutter at last. “5000 victims and not a single arrest. We’re serial killers, Sab. All of us.”
“You want to write about this stuff?”
“Why not?”

There’s another silence, longer this time. Half the English team have piled into the Yanks’ penalty area. Five minutes in, Gerrard has scrambled the ball over the line. We’ve scored a goal. We’re winning.

“Shit.” Sabine is still thinking about my little Havrais excursion into real life. “I knew this would happen.”

Graham Hurley's latest hardback is Beyond Reach (Orion, January 2010). Borrowed Light will be published in January 2011.


DJ Kirkby said...

I really enjoy Graham's Joe Faraday novels and like the fact that they are set in Portsmouth! This short story was an unexpected treat.

Anonymous said...

What a nice guest post. Thanks Graham and Peter.

Vicki Delany said...

I love Graham's books. Thanks so much for getting him to visit Type M.

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