Friday, March 05, 2010


I stepped across the cobbled concourse, and felt a chill in my bones as I passed the threshold beneath a grey granite arch and heard the clang of steel gates closing behind me.

I was in prison. Condemned to give a series of talks to the inmates of French penitentiaries on the subject of writing. And now, here I was, a writer of crime books face to face with real criminals.

It had all begun eight months earlier. I had been in southern California, in the midst of a book tour of the US to promote one of my China Thrillers. I received an email from my French publisher (I live in France), to say that I had been nominated for an unusual award at the Cognac festival of “polars”, which is the French word for mysteries.

But acceptance of the nomination went with certain obligations - I had to visit a number of French penitentiaries to talk to the prisoners about books and writing. Why? Because this particular award - the Prix Intramuros (literally, the prize between the walls) - was going to be decided by panels of prisoners.

A long list had been reduced to a short list of seven, and these were the books sent out to the prisons. The inmates would read and cast their votes. My book was “Snakehead”, the fourth in my six-book China series, and I was the only non-French writer to have been nominated.

So eight months later I was being ferried from a base in Cognac to prisons in the north-west of France. My first group of prisoners were all men, on remand awaiting trial, mostly young. I had declined to wear my kilt (which, as a good Scot, I often do for promotional purposes). For, after all, what man in his right mind would wear a skirt into an all-male prison?

To my surprise, they were interested, articulate, full of questions about writing, plot, character, research. And once I had tuned into the French prison slang which was somewhat different from the Parisian French I had been taught at school, I enjoyed a lively debate.

Another group, in a different wing of the same prison, was all female. They each stood outside their cell doors as I was led along the corridor, and one by one they fell in step behind me. In a recreation room at the end of the corridor we all sat around a table and they stared at me with dead eyes, listening in sullen silence as I talked. These were poor souls. Drug addicts and alcoholics, prostitutes and petty thieves. Wasted lives. I felt as if I were talking to a brick wall, until I happened to mention some of the awful things I’d been forced to eat during my research trips to China - deep fried whole scorpions, ants, sea slugs. And suddenly they became animated and the discussion came to life.

Then my departure. They filed out ahead of me. Standing once more outside their cells, to be locked in again after I had passed. This time, when the metal gates of this cold, 19th century place of incarceration clanged behind me, I was out. A free man, breathing fresh, clean air. And thanking God that fate had not led me to be locked up like the lost creatures I had left behind.

I went on to other prisons, spoke to other prisoners, and met a group of older men who had created their own prison library, and who talked with great enthusiasm and intelligence about the books they had read - what else is there to do during all those long, lonely hours?

I got back to Cognac in time for that evening’s award ceremony in the vaulted cellars of the mediaeval Château Otard, where that most famous of French kings, François Premier, had been born. To my astonishment, when the prizes were announced, I had won. This crime writer had been awarded the prize by the criminals he wrote about. Quite a plaudit, I thought. But then pride was tempered by a more sobering reflection.

When we write, perhaps there is a tendency to think of our readers in the abstract. But here, I had been confronted by readers I had never imagined. People for whom my words and thoughts, and plots, had provided an escape from lost lives lived behind bars. And that felt like quite a weight of responsibility.

One thing is for sure. I no longer think of readers in the abstract.

A footnote: I am delighted and honoured to be joining the very distinguished Type M for Murder team. During the coming weeks and months I will write about my life as a writer here in France, where writers and writing are revered and respected. I will describe the ways in which publishing and promotion differ from the English-speaking world. From the end of this month, I begin a two-month book tour of the States, so I will relay the experiences of a writer on the road direct to your screens. And when the moment comes, I will tell you, too, about the book which was rejected by every major publisher in the UK, only to be snapped up all across Europe and published first in French to the best reviews of my career.