In the crime thriller Cruel Mercy, bestseller David Mark takes series protagonist McAvoy from the familiar surroundings of Hull and into the heart of New York. He tells CRIME FILES about the research process.
I know how to write about Hull. The research is pretty simple. I stand at the end of a random bar in the Old Town and count backwards from ten in my head. Usually, by the time I reach four, an old trawlerman or a former cop or a one-time circus strongman, will have told me about the time they were arrested on suspicion of turning their ex-wife into hamburgers or thrown in a Russian gulag charged with espionage and sheep-rustling.
And then I’m off. The initial snowball of anecdotal pilfering rolls around in my head for weeks, getting bigger, growing fat on new ideas and opening doors into forgotten memory rooms, and before long it’s spilling out of my ears and mouth and nose as if I’ve had cake mixture squirted up my nose. And then I write it. It becomes, what we in the trade like to call, a ‘book’.
I don’t know how to write about New York. Until two years ago, I’d never been. I may have published several McAvoy novels that side of the water but my vision of Manhattan is culled from movies and books. My New York is a stew of Goodfellas, Friends and the bits of Sex & The City that I managed to stomach before throwing the remote at Kim Cattrall. So, why did I choose to set a book there? I have a feeling that a fair few interviewers are going to ask me the same question. I’ll give them the same answer I’m giving you. I just had to. Soz. Best I’ve got.
The story that bubbled up in my head wouldn’t have worked in Hull. It was a story that needed a sense of both claustrophobia and scale. It needed to exist within tiny coteries of like-minded individuals lost within the great anonymous mass. It sees McAvoy heading to America to find out whether his brother-in-law has used a try-out with a boxing coach to commit murder – or to get himself killed. It mixes a sketchy alliance of Italian and Chechen mobsters, a Philadelphia hit man, a Catholic priest whose good intentions get tragically twisted by being confessor to Italian gangsters, a mob lawyer and money launderer whose madness and Catholic faith bring him to self-mutilation and serial murder, and a mute serial killer who can speak only to his victims. It’s conceivable all of these people could exist on Hull’s Longhill estate, but it felt a little more at home in Manhattan.
But, how does one write a book about a place one has never been? And why does a lad from Carlisle feel the urge to refer to himself as ‘one’? Well, if you’re a certain type of author, then you use imagination and GoogleMaps. You dream up the locations and the flavours and the sensory assault of the city that never sleeps, and you check that it’s possible to get from A to B without falling in a river, and then you bash it out. I don’t really do that. I struggle to write about sensations with which I’m not at least slightly familiar. I don’t feel qualified to describe something until I have seen it. And if you use a trip abroad for research, you can claim back the tax on the flight. So, in Feb 2015, I flew out to New York.
The preceding days had been spent on GoogleMaps. I had a clear outline in my head of where McAvoy would go during the investigation. I knew the kind of hotel, in the kind of area, and the kind of people to whom he would speak. What I needed was authenticity. Thankfully, New Yorkers are thrilled to be asked to talk about their city and everybody I contacted was very welcoming to this peculiar chap from England. That paved the way for 48 hours burrowing like a maggot into the heart of the Big Apple. I stayed in the hotel that would eventually become McAvoy’s hotel room and dined and drank in the restaurants and bars where he spends his time. I stood shivering outside the police precinct where the New York detective who becomes his ally would have worked.
I completely rewrote all of my preconceptions. I met people who looked like gangsters who were incredibly polite and respectful and then I spoke to people in authority who were unspeakably rude and full of self-importance. I discovered a city of contradictions – at once incredibly affluent and utterly destitute and proof of both can be glimpsed in the same panorama. I fell in love with the Lower East Side. I like any place where the barkeep can decide to give you a free shot if he likes the look of you. I stood inside churches so beautiful it almost broke my heart to admit to the nuns that I was planning on leaving a body there before the end of chapter five.
During the research process, I’m pretty much a sponge. I absorb and soak up until I am saturated. Sitting at a bar in Little Italy, earwigging as the wiseguys spoke about ‘some bum’ who needed ‘a talking to’ it occurred to me I probably had the best job in the world but probably shouldn’t be seen taking notes. Drinking rum-filled hot chocolates in an Irish bar, I had a vision of McAvoy’s boss, Trish Pharaoh, getting insanely excited at the selection of whiskies and realised that I needed to get her into the story. As such, her role in the novel is to badger Aector on Skype from her home in Grimsby, helping him along the way and embarrassing him as he carries her on the laptop like a decapitated head.
I’ll admit that some of it is a blur. I have memories of a very nice white wine contributing to some inappropriate banter with a waitress who guilelessly offered me some fresh Fanny Bay oysters. There was an old-fashioned speakeasy where Lucky Luciano used to drink. I think I had a photo taken with Spongebob Squarepants in Times Square, but it might have just been a fat bloke in a raincoat. The dogs wear little blue shoes so they don’t get salt on their paws. And the restaurant owners think macaroni cheese is a side-dish rather than a main course. It’s brilliant, odd, and I’m very pleased to have made it home without having upset any police officers. I saw one who was so plump that if I had committed a felony he would have had to shoot me rather than give chase, and that’s not a reassuring thought.
I’m home now. So’s McAvoy. We might go away again or we might stay in Hull. The tax thing is quite an incentive, but much as I would like it, I can’t take Aector to Bermuda. He’s too fair. He’d burn in the sun.
Pharaoh and Roisin might enjoy it though. A trip away with two figments of my imagination with whom I am slightly in love and who don’t get on? Anybody else think that sounds like a great idea? Is there a psychiatrist in the house? That’s it, I’m heading down the Old Town now. Watch this space.
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- Might you also talk a bit about your writing process? Your daily process while you are writing as well as what is it like to write a series—keeping all those plot threads straight!
I’m very lucky that I have the kind of mind that is perfectly suited to writing fiction and which is horribly ill-suited to everything else. I take notes now and again and sometimes find scraps of paper with random words and aide-memoirs scribbled upon them but by and large I think of my skull like one of those candyfloss machines. I just swirl a stick around in there and ideas stick to it. The story I’m living and breathing then squats there in my head and pushes everything else out. Sometimes I look at the clock and I’ve lost a day and I realise I haven’t been to the bathroom since dawn. I write a chapter a day, no matter what. I’m at my desk by 9am, drinking coffee and grinding my teeth. It’s delightfully masochistic. I kind of enjoy the agony of it, which sounds very pretentious for a writer of dark thrillers! As soon as it’s done, my brain just kind of flatlines for a bit. Then it starts preparing for the next project. Two years later, when the book is in people’s hands, I’ve largely forgotten what it was about. Sorry!Continue reading >>
- What is essential to writing good crime fiction? Do you stick to some sort of formula or do you break all the rules? Do you read a lot of crime fiction or thrillers as well?
I read everything I can get my hands on. I love thrillers and psychological fiction but it is rather difficult to read them for pleasure now that it’s my day job. It’s hard not to read with an air of comparing the market. I don’t really take any notice of rules, either in the writing process or in life. Actually, I do have one – if the novelist has mentioned the make and model of a car by the end of the first paragraph, the book isn’t for me. And for God’s sake, don’t start off with a dream. For me, it’s just a case of meeting interesting people and twisting preconceptions on their head. Listen to the radio a lot. People who phone DJs are particularly inspiring – they always seem like the sort of person who could be a killer or the killed. Listen to your inner voice. When some dullard is telling you about their tedious problems, think of ways to kill them, and why. It’s less risky than actually doing it. And you think I’m joking.Continue reading >>