Monday, January 18, 2010

N is for Neil Cross

Continuing the fun series started by fellow Anzac book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, this week is the turn of “N”.

Given that in my "A" post I said I would regularly sprinkle my contributions with a New Zealand-related post or two, this week I am including a post on Wellington-based novelist and TV screenwriter Neil Cross, who has previously been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and whose latest novel, CAPTURED was recently released in the United Kingdom (and will come out downunder on 1 May). Born in Bristol (United Kingdom), Cross has lived in Wellington, New Zealand for the past several years. He has been the lead writer on the hit BBC TV series Spooks, and written his latest books, while living in New Zealand.

NB - this Crime Fiction Alphabet post is a much-updated version of a profile post I did on Neil Cross last year

Cross split his childhood between his birthplace of Bristol, and Edinburgh slums where he was raised by a caring South African stepfather he now calls “the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other”. Derek Cross introduced Neil to his lifelong loves of reading and writing, but also cast both light and shadow on his childhood, and still evokes conflicted appreciation in the now middle-aged author.

In an interview with Cross early last year for a feature article in Good Reading magazine to time with the release of his novel BURIAL, he told me: “In many ways I couldn’t ask for a better parent, which is kind of why I took his name. He is the single most formative influence on my life. But he was also a white supremacist, a thief, an adulterer, possibly a bigamist, and essentially a religious crank.”

The duality of his father helped Cross get an early understanding of the complexities of human nature, which later strongly came through in the protagonists and other characters of his novels. Throughout his eight books, including the Booker long-listed ALWAYS THE SUN, and his latest releases BURIAL (2009) and CAPTURED (2010), bleak yet menacing settings are populated with characters neither starkly good nor evil, but smudged shades of grey.

Cross says he always wanted to be a writer. For most of his life he spent much of his spare time writing – from his days being bullied and bloodied in the Scottish schoolyard, through delinquent teenage years back in Bristol, then a half-decade and more happily languishing on unemployment, to completing Bachelors and Masters degrees at Leeds University, and then working at a publishing company.

In an interview with BBC Writers Room, Cross says, “I've just always been a writer; I was born that way. I started when I was seven or eight years old by drawing comic books. I moved on to scripting the comics before I drew them, and then I just left the pictures to the imagination. That's pretty much what I've been doing ever since.”

Cross wrote his first published novel while he was working for several years in the sales and marketing department of a large London publishing house. As he says in an article he wrote for The Listener (one of New Zealand’s premier magazines) in 2004, after completing his university degrees he, “moved to London, and onto a career in publishing. It was a good job, and for a while I loved it. I loved my colleagues. I loved the books, the arcana, the lore. I loved helping to nurture a fragile manuscript, sometimes to robust publication and sometimes to a slow, choking death. It’s a conservative industry in a quickening world, staffed largely by people who got there by accident. It was a laugh. And all the time, after travelling in the cramped Tubes and the late-night cabs, I was writing.”

In 1998, he broke through with MR IN-BETWEEN, a disturbing tale of a violent hired gun whose life is turned upside down by a chance encounter with old friends. He followed this up the next year with CHRISTENDOM, before there was a bit of a break until 2003's HOLLOWAY FALLS.

As Cross explained in his The Listener article, “Mr In-Between was a moderate success. It was followed by Christendom, which was not. I was surprised by how similar the two conditions felt. I started another novel, wrote a couple of chapters. Put it away. Stopped writing.”

He rediscovered his writing muse after meeting, dating and marrying his colleague Nadya, and the couple having their first child – leading to strong feelings of having something to lose in life (his wife and son). He began to write again. In 2002 the Cross family moved to New Zealand.

Cross’s novels consistently have bleak yet menacing settings, flawed characters forced into emotional and psychological maelstroms, and occasional literary flourishes. He was long-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize for ALWAYS THE SUN, a frightening tale of the steps a gentle man takes after learning his child is being bullied, inspired by Cross’s own “Travis Bickle sort of “ paranoia for his newborn son.

However, despite the literary acclaim, Cross said in our interview that he has always considered himself “a crime and suspense writer”, rather than embracing the literary label. He’s no longer interested in attempting to foist ‘meaning’ onto his work, instead preferring to “tell an interesting and engrossing story”. Online subscribers can read more from my interview with Neil Cross in the May issue of Good Reading magazine, here.

Cross has said that if he had to pick a single novel that was his favourite – then the novel that most profoundly affected his life was CATCH 22 by Joseph Heller. "It was a big deal for me". He is also a big fan of THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY by Patricia Highsmith – "she was basically the Beethoven of psycho-pathology".

His favourite writers include Highsmith, Raymond Carver, Heller, Paul Theroux, Graham Greene, Angela Carter, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, and Anne Tyler.

In 2002 he moved to Wellington, New Zealand with his wife Nadya and their family. He visits Britain regularly as part of his TV work, but is otherwise working and based in New Zealand. Following the success and acclaim for ALWAYS THE SUN, he penned a bestselling memoir about his troubled childhood and path to being a writer, entitled HEARTLAND, before returning to suspense tales with NATURAL HISTORY (2007), BURIAL (2009), and now his latest release CAPTURED.

In BURIAL, the 'hero' Nathan is a drunken, coked-up witness to the sudden death of 19-yr old Elise, who expires while entangled in the back-seat with Nathan’s strange friend Bob. Panicked, the pair hastily bury Elise in the woods, and for years don’t speak. Then one day Bob arrives on Nathan’s doorstep, convinced Elise is speaking to him from beyond the grave, and threatening to upturn Nathan’s carefully constructed new life.

You can read one of my reviews of BURIAL here. You can also read fellow book blogger and crime fiction fan Maxine Clarke’s review of the same book on the EuroCrime website here.

Cross’s latest novel, CAPTURED, is not available downunder until 1 May 2010, but it has already been released in the United Kingdom. Once again Cross delves into grey areas of the human psyche. As the publisher’s blurb states: “Even though he is still young, Kenny has just weeks to live. Before he dies, he wants to find his childhood best friend Callie Barton and thank her for the kindness she showed him when they were at school together. But when Kenny begins his search, he discovers that Callie Barton has gone missing. Although cleared of any involvement, her husband Jonathan seems to be hiding something. Kenny has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. And knowing that time is running out on him, he's prepared to do whatever it takes ...”

You can read Maxine Clarke’s review here, and one from James Urquhart in The Independent here.

Along with his successful novels, Cross has also managed to indulge his writing passion on the screen; as lead writer for two seasons of award-winning BBC TV series Spooks. You can read a great interview-based feature article by Anthony Hubbard in the Sunday Star Times (one of New Zealand’s biggest newspapers) about Cross and his experiences writing Spooks from New Zealand, here.

Cross is currently working on a new British crime TV series (apparently to be called Luther), along with his next novel, from his Wellington home. The six-part drama Luther is described in The Guardian as "a new BBC1 crime drama about a detective who is 'simmering with anger and rage'." You can read a little more in this Guardian article

One of the stars of acclaimed Baltimore-set TV drama The Wire (often mentioned as one of the best TV shows in history), Idris Elba (who played drug dealer Stringer Bell), is to play the lead role of John Luther in the new TV series.

Have you read Neil Cross? What do you think of his novels? Do you watch Spooks? Please share your thoughts and comments.


  1. Craig - I so enjoy your profiles of, especially, Kiwi writers. I know embarrassingly few of them, and it's so helpful to me to read their profiles in your excellent blog : ).

  2. This sounds really good. I have not read him yet, but thanks to Maxine, he is on my shelf.

    And though I could read him and tick off New Zealand, I promise to buy another one from your part of the world for the global challenge ;D