|Name: KEVIN SAMPSON
Author of: THE KILLING POOL (2013)
On Twitter: @ksampsonwriter
To celebrate the launch of Kevin Sampson’s latest novel, THE HOUSE ON THE HILL, the second book in the DCI Billy McCartney series (which will be reviewed here tomorrow), I asked him to talk about the books that have influenced his own crime writing. His – rather eclectic – list follows.
I would like to thank Kevin for taking the time to put this list together, and would urge you to check out the other stops on the THE HOUSE ON THE HILL Tour.
1. Greenmantle by John Buchan
Buchan is of course best known for his first Richard Hannay adventure, The 39 Steps. But it was Hannay’s second escapade, Greenmantle that captivated me as a young reader. Hannay is a true Brit, true grit, Edwardian maverick espionage action hero, taking on complex cases and nefarious villains who threaten world peace. Greenmantle was the first novel that transported me to exotic destinations – Lisbon, Budapest, Belgrade, Constantinople – via the old-fashioned medium of the ripping yarn. Greenmantle gave me an avid wanderlust, but its 5-D characters and sheer exuberant storytelling made me want to write about these places, too. Perhaps some of this has filtered down into the McCartney books. In Mac’s latest, The House On The Hill, he undertakes fearsome challenges in Ibiza and Morocco – and many of the characters he encounters – like “Jus” Roig and Honest Ahmed could have come straight from the pages of Buchan.
2. Papillon by Henri Charriere
I read Papillon as a 13 year-old and it blew me away. It was the first book of its kind – a novelised True Crime memoir – to plug the reader into a gritty, dark, living, breathing underworld. The opening pages, set in the criminal community around 70s Montmartre in Paris, still live with me today – portraits of petty crooks, pimps, drunks and gamblers, low-life chancers who are “good with a knife.” An ex-con himself, Charriere does not ennoble or romanticise his world. Characters are presented for what they are – grifters trying to get by in an unforgiving city.
It’s as real a depiction of a big-city underworld as you’ll encounter in print, but the way the book opens out after Papillon’s conviction, into an adrenaline-charged escape thriller set against a Caribbean/Venezulan backdrop is a page-turning bonus. Concealing money in the sphincter, confronting leprosy, bartering for a boat, springing a leak, being chased by the coast guard, eating your first meal in days…everything is vividly rendered, like a badlands travelogue. Yet, for all the vivid descriptions of life among a remote native community and the sheer thrill of the many chases, it was those early descriptions of the Big City underbelly that made their mark, and still live on in my imagination.
3. A Sense Of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle
A few years after discovering Papillon, A Sense Of Freedom had a similar impact. I was 15, enduring a rainy fortnight on a caravan site in North Wales, browsing the paperback carousel in the campsite’s shop. Based on a promising blurb about thug life in 60s Glasgow, I started leafing through A Sense Of Freedom. Jimmy Boyle’s autobiographical account of growing up in the late 50s/early 60s Gorbals at the height of its gang culture had me gripped from the start. I’d read most of the New English Library titles like Skinhead, Suedehead etc but this was the real thing. In a similar way to Papillon, Boyle’s story went way, way beyond the clichéd hard-man tales of the time. Yes, it’s a chilling, unflinching account of how a kid can be socialised into a life of crime and violence, but A Sense Of Freedom opens out into a rigorous polemic about the penal system, and a moving philosophical tract about the nature and the essence of freedom. First published in 1977, it is thoroughly deserving of a 40th Anniversary re-issue, and re-evaluation.
4. LA Confidential by James Ellroy
A Noir masterpiece, plain and simple. I have read LA Confidential 10 or 12 times, and with each new reading still uncover nuances I’d previously missed. For me, this is a definitive and uniquely brilliant crime book – one that extolls complexity as a virtue. The third in Ellroy’s Los Angeles quartet, LA Confidential is comfortably (or uncomfortably) my favourite. Weaving its many narrative threads using multiple points of view alongside a clever National Enquirer-style front-page splash device, LA Confidential transports us to the corrupt and decadent heart of America’s most fabled city. Embracing – or exposing – themes of child abuse, drug addiction, racism, prostitution, hypocrisy, corruption, bribery, underhand building contracts, blackmail, racketeering, murder, vote-rigging and police brutality in its first 30 pages or so, LA Confidential uses the City of Angels as both pungent backdrop and potent symbol of the quintessential struggle between Good and Evil. As with any classic noir, the reader is left to decipher which is which.
5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Returning to the question of Inspiration – that vitamin-blast to your creative muse that turns the kernel of an idea into something that you act upon and realise – the Stieg Larsson phenomenon was the final motivating factor that transformed the notion of a mordant, Liverpool-based drug crime specialist into the fictional reality of DCI Billy McCartney. Each of the other books I’ve mentioned here had an influence; each of them left its mark. So, too, did TV dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire, Spiral, The Killing…but it was Larsson wot made me do it, guv.
I thought Liverpool was as evocative a setting for a crime series as any major port city and the skeleton of Billy Mac began to form. Initially, I fastened upon this idea of simultaneously publishing the four distinct “chapters” of The Killing Pool or Gangsterland as it was, back then. But, in spite of my own reverence for complex plot and storytelling, I was nervous that McCartney’s first instalment might be tough-going all in one, dark hit.
Then I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and marvelled at its scale, its ambition and its sheer darkness. Like Ellory, Stieg Larsson takes on the bleakest and blackest worlds. In the wake of chilling revelations about institutional abuse and cover-up in children’s homes, TGWTDT is horribly prescient – yet it is never sensationalist or overtly graphic, partly as a result of Larsson’s creating a cast of magnificent characters to guide his readers through his darkest alleyways.
I’ve never read a novel and come away, thinking – I can do that. But there are definitely principles you imbibe via osmosis from reading great books. With all the books I’ve highlighted here, there’s a common thread: if you can devise an ingenious and engaging story, set in an intriguing place peopled with flawed but memorable characters who the reader relates to, or sides with, or strenuously takes against then your fictional world stands a chance of coming to life. That such a physically huge book as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo succeeds in engaging you from Page 1 and transports you on a trans-Nordic express right to the last page is a testament to Larsson’s absolute command of his oeuvre. A bestseller by right, and a factor in the shaping of McCartney.