Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Terror and exhilaration: Neil Cross

Terror and exhilaration
2012 Ngaio Marsh Award winner Neil Cross talks about what it is that compels him to delve so deeply into darkness on both the page and the screen. By Craig Sisterson

Neil Cross wants to terrify you. To stoke your innermost anxieties, for you to feel an icy finger down your spine as you turn the page, or watch the screen. A child is bullied; every parent’s nightmare. A man is kidnapped by an obsessed artist with nothing to lose. Another wakes up, hungover, and maybe accessory to murder. A brilliant detective teeters on the edge as he chases a repulsive killer, a child’s life on the line.

Emotional torment, as much as crisp prose, menacing settings, and stark violence, suffuses any Neil Cross tale. Fear fuels his writing. “The fictional violence is never a fantasy of what I’d like to do to someone else, but a way to confront the dread of what someone else might do to me,” says the Wellington-based novelist and screenwriter. “I want the violence to scare the viewer, or the reader. To do that, it has to scare me, which means it’s got to be honest… it’s got to be dredged up from some terrible place.”

Cross drags readers, and his characters, into some pretty terrible places in Luther: The Calling, a tense, pitiless and magnificent thriller that earned him the 2012 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel at last weekend’s Christchurch Writers Festival.

A prequel novel to the internationally acclaimed, multi-Emmy Award nominated BBC television series Cross created (which stars Idris Elba in a Golden Globe-winning titular role as DCI John Luther), Luther: The Calling reveals the case that brought the volatile copper to the precipice, and over, at the start of season one.

Cross concocted the character of Luther as an amalgam of the traditional cerebral British detective and the more American-style morally ambiguous protagonist of psychological thrillers. Holmes meets Highsmith. He’d been mulling over such an idea for years. “It seemed to me that combining these two properties of deductive brilliance and moral passion in one man could make for a powerful and damaged, deeply heroic character,” explains Cross. That certainly proved the case: DCI John Luther has become one of the most fascinating and compelling characters to hit television screens in years.

So why did Cross decide to migrate his acclaimed and increasingly popular TV detective to the page? Plenty of crime novels have been adapted for the screen (with mixed success), but the reverse is far more rare. Cross, who has recently been writing the third series of Luther, along with working on Doctor Who and various local and international film projects, says he found the amalgam nature of Luther’s character so intriguing that if there hadn’t been a TV show, the character would probably have made an appearance in one of his novels anyway. So then he started thinking, “why not write the novel?”

In Luther: The Calling, a London couple are slaughtered in their own home. The killer rips an unborn baby from the mother’s womb, and disappears. DCI Luther, already treading a tightrope between insight and insanity after years of fighting psychopaths, is assigned the case. Personal dramas at work and home have him simmering; faced with another horrific crime, the “big man with a big walk” threatens to boil over. His restraint is overwhelmed by his need to help, to protect, to save.

In a year of high quality Kiwi crime and thriller writing, the Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel was most impressed by Luther: The Calling. “Cross writes in crisp, vivid prose that brings his characters and world to startling life,” said the judges (seven local and international crime fiction experts). “Unflinching, brutal, and brilliant. A stand-out novel … superbly crafted… credible characters, a complex plot, with brilliant dialogue.”

Cross admits Luther: The Calling was a challenging novel. Any thoughts of it being easier to write about characters he’d already penned for, and seen portrayed on, the screen, were soon dispelled. How do you add further layers and nuance to Idris Elba’s wonderful portrayal of Luther? It took an “alarming amount” of editing for Cross to be happy with Luther: The Calling – although he did revel in the opportunity to take an already dark TV series to even more terrifying places, sans broadcast censors.

After all, for Neil Cross, there’s nothing better than tapping into his own reservoir of fears and anxieties, in order to scare readers in new, memorable ways.


This article was originally published in the Escape magazine in the 9 September 2012 issue of the Sunday Star-Times, and is republished here with the kind permission of Escape editor Angela Walker.


1 comment:

  1. Nice article, Craig - interesting background here.