Crime writer and former police officer Craig Russell has made his name with a series set in Hamburg. Now, he tells CRAIG SISTERSON, his new book marks his return 'home'
SCOTTISH AUTHOR Craig Russell isn’t sure which prestigious award means more to him – the 2008 CWA Dagger in the Library, or the Polizeistern (Police Star) he received from the Hamburg police the year before. After all, while the former is awarded to “the author of crime fiction whose work is currently giving the greatest enjoyment to library users”, Russell is the only non-German to ever receive the latter.
Russell made his name (and won the awards) penning crime fiction centred on Hamburg detective Jan Fabel; mythology-drenched murder stories set in contemporary Germany. But with his latest release, Lennox, he ‘returns home’.
“I wanted to write… a very noir novel, without being corny,” says Russell, whose easygoing manner might surprise those who’ve read his dark serial killer tales. “Glasgow leapt out as an ideal location, because the humour of the people is very dark, but very witty.” That, he says, along with the almost classless mix of people – where “the only thing that counts is money rather than social standing” – gave the most American of British cities “exactly the right character for noir.”
Lennox follows the titular Canadian ex-soldier, who’s operating as a private eye and fixer in the violent, corrupt and crime-ridden streets of post-war Glasgow. Hired by one of the city’s most unforgiving crime lords to discover who slaughtered gangster-on-the-rise Tam McGahern, he finds himself entangled in a wider conspiracy. Full of wisecracking narration, Neanderthal henchmen, and cynical femme fatales, Lennox nods towards the Chandler/Hammett-esque conventions of the classic hard-bitten genre while still providing something new, thanks to Russell’s storytelling skills and notably Scottish touches.
However, it wasn’t just his love of noir that prompted Russell to detour from Fabel, and launch a new series. He also wanted to examine “this idea of the returned man, somebody coming back from war and being deeply flawed.” Born a decade after the war, Russell grew up to eventually appreciate the wartime hangover suffered by the prior generation. “There were a lot of men, young men, who came back from the war, and weren’t the people they were meant to be… an entire generation had their youth stolen from them, and that was something I wanted to explore through writing.”
From a young age Russell had known exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. “As soon as I really knew what a writer was, that’s what I wanted to be,” he recalls. Stories fascinated him; he was reading before he started school. He particularly enjoyed adventure fiction, such as Robert Louis Stevenson. “Part of the reason for that was that very, very close to where I lived was a place called ‘The Ship Inn’, which was the model he used for ‘The Admiral Benbow’ [in Treasure Island].”
Russell then “went through a science fiction stage” as a teenager, including writing his own “embarrassing” manuscript, before getting work in advertising while he pondered whether to study Art or English at university. “I still desperately wanted to be a writer, but I felt I didn’t have a broad enough experience of life”. Having grown up in the shadow of a larger-than-life father who’d served in Burma, Russell admits he’d always felt he needed to widen his experiences beyond everyday life. “So I decided to become a policeman – and it worked, it did show me another side of life, and was a very influential period of my life.”
But it wasn’t until much later, several years after he’d returned to advertising, working as a copywriter and creative director, that he started writing what would become his first Fabel novel, Blood Eagle. “Like Lennox, I got into a world I was pretty much ashamed of,” he chuckles. “I actually got involved in corporate communications, writing mission statements… just trying to find a way to use words every day and make a living from it.”
While he’d harboured a longstanding interest in “what links and unites people”, including the underlying language and cultural bridges between seemingly distinct societies, it wasn’t until Russell was back in advertising that his interest in German culture, which would become so key in his eventual crime writing career, was sparked. One day, a stock photo of a mist-shrouded German village caught his eye; resonating with his Scottish childhood and making him feel slightly homesick. His interest pricked, Russell soon holidayed in Germany with his wife, and immediately “felt very much at home in the culture and in the society.” Inspired to start the difficult task of learning the language as an adult, he now speaks it “fluently but ungrammatically”, and has German-language satellite TV channels, including Hamburg local news, playing in his Perthshire home.
Unsurprisingly, when Russell finally began writing his first novel and was looking for a non-British setting, he settled on Germany; especially since there was an ancient “cultural bridge” (thanks to the migrations of Angles and Saxons) that further fascinated him. “I wanted to set a series somewhere in Europe where you could take a British reader and they would be aware they were somewhere foreign, but they would feel disconcertingly at home at the same time… and Hamburg is the most British city in continental Europe.”
From the most British city in continental Europe, to the most American city in Britain, Russell enjoys immersing himself in the culture and history of his settings. In fact, so bang-on have his local touches been in his highly-successful Fabel books (which will soon be made into TV movies by Germany’s state broadcaster), that Russell was once even accused by a newspaper of being a German writer using a British pseudonym.
Not a bad compliment for a man finally getting to live his childhood dream.
Lennox (Allen & Unwin, NZD$37.99)
This feature article was first published in the Canvas magazine of the Weekend Herald on Saturday 5 September 2009, and is reprinted here with permission.
So what do you think of my feature article on Craig Russell? Of the Weekend Herald allowing me to share my past and future features for them, with you all here on Crime Watch? Have you read LENNOX, or Russell's second in the Glasgow series, THE LONG GLASGOW KISS? His Jan Fabel thrillers set in Hamburg? Thoughts and comments welcome.