The Scottish crime writer, whose new book is “Conviction,” is drawn to “flawed characters asking big questions and taking action. … That said, I will read, literally, anything.”
What books are on your nightstand?
“The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper,” by Hallie Rubenhold; Peter Mansfield’s “A History of the Middle East”; “The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography,” by Aleister Crowley; Michael Ondaatje’s “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid”; Paul Johnson’s “A History of the Jews”; “The Ghosts of K2,” by Mick Conefrey.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
In my office armchair during winter, next to the fire, with a pint of strong tea, nicotine substitutes and a packet of biscuits.
The chair is red pleather, cracked on the seat and mended with silver gaffer tape. It is the perfect shape for book-slouching. The room faces north so that during the day a soft, gray light from the window comes over my shoulder to the page. It’s hard to read when I’m writing and brilliant books pile up on my desk. When I get stuck or discouraged I’ll treat myself to a few days read-bingeing.
What’s your favorite book of all time?
“Heart of a Dog,” by Bulgakov, because of the politics, the humor and the cat-strangling. Also Bulgakov’s back story: I have a major crush on Bulgakov.
I honestly despise people who don’t love that book.
Which books got you hooked on crime fiction?
“Thérèse Raquin,” by Émile Zola; “Falling Angel,” by William Hjortsberg; and “The Blunderer,” by Patricia Highsmith.
Who’s your favorite fictional detective? And the best villain?
Best detective: Matt Scudder. Best villain: Rodion Raskolnikov.
What makes for a good mystery?
Graham Greene said the writer has to be aware of the question in the reader’s mind, the pending question. The best mysteries play with that, answering, deflecting, teasing, taking the reader off on a tangent that ends up answering the question and posing another, bigger one. If it starts on the first page and does this, it makes for an incredibly satisfying read. A lot of books don’t start on the first page and I find that annoying. In my own writing I’ve culled killer pages because they weren’t the start of the story, and I’m jealous of writers who don’t.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to? And what do you steer clear of?
Ideally, I’m drawn to flawed characters asking big questions and taking action. These don’t sound like a particularly onerous criterion but they are. That said, I will read, literally, anything. I once read “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter,” by Simone de Beauvoir, three times in a row, because I was abroad and couldn’t find any other books in English.
What books would you recommend to someone who wants to know more about Scotland?
“Poverty Safari,” by Darren McGarvey; “Black and Blue,” by Ian Rankin; “The Trick Is to Keep Breathing,” by Janice Galloway; and anything by the historians Tom Devine or John Prebble.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
A lot of dry books about the American Civil War. I know that an obsession with the Civil War is a common symptom of middle age in America, but here it’s considered a baffling preoccupation.
A 2013 exhibition of Civil War photography at the Met sparked my interest, but I have no idea why this subject is so compelling. I have no one to talk to about it or get recommendations from so the span of books is wide and chaotic.
Who is your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer?
I don’t know if she is overlooked, I suspect not, but I think Jane Gardam is a genius and should be far more widely read. She has actually made me gasp, slap a book shut and say, “She can’t do that!,” open it up and realize that she can, she has, and it works.
I suspect that she isn’t mentioned much because she writes almost exclusively about unfashionable subjects and doesn’t perform the social role of genius — no fedora or pipe or dreary public spats with other writers. She’s just a quiet genius.
Also Tessa Hadley is wonderful. I’d love to steal from her but I can’t because her work is so clean and pared and unique.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
Obligation reader. I couldn’t read until I was about 9 and then I didn’t want to. I only developed a passion for reading when I was about 19.
Favorite childhood literary character or hero?
Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Like a lot of children who go on to study law, I had an oversensitivity to injustice and relished feeling sanctimonious. As an adult I basically married Atticus.
What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?
“Say Nothing,” by Patrick Radden Keefe. It’s a history of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Our grandfather came over from Keady in Armagh before partition but attitudes to the Troubles vary widely within our extended family. Keefe manages to be an unflinching historian while wrapping it up in a compelling thriller-style narrative arc. I loved it because he talks about the “moral injury” to those on both sides, the damage done to the individuals who participated and the problematic lack of any South African style truth and reconciliation projects afterward.
Brexit has highlighted how little people in the United Kingdom know or care about what happened in Ireland. I’d foist this book on anyone.
What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?
“One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I was 19 and didn’t read much and had mistakenly gone on what turned out to be a “Girls Gone Wild”-style holiday in Greece. We all fell out with each other quite badly and one of them gave it to me. I found the holiday so depressing that I started reading obsessively. It began my lifelong love affair with reading as an escape, which is the very purest kind of reading.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“The Psychopath Test,” by Jon Ronson. Whatever your politics, that boy’s not right.
What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?
“Pride and Prejudice.” I have a morbid horror of marriage. I can appreciate the writing and subtlety, but redemption-through-marriage books read like horror stories to me. I just want Elizabeth to run off to sea.
Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
“Mr. Norris Changes Trains,” by Christopher Isherwood. I recently read “Goodbye to Berlin” while in Berlin, ran out to buy “Mr. Norris” when I got back, and then realized it wasn’t quite as good, had less Sally Bowles and a looser structure. Also I was no longer in Berlin.
I will finish it but it didn’t command my attention in the same way.
If you were to write something besides mysteries, what would you write?
I’m currently adapting Brecht’s “Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti” for a joint production between the Royal Lyceum and Glasgow’s Citizen’s Theater with DOT Theater Istanbul’s Murat Daltaban. DOT and the Lyceum did an amazing production of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” a few years ago and I’m incredibly lucky to be working with them. In my career I have written comics, plays, TV scripts and journalism, but mystery novels and prose are my true loves. Getting back to them after doing another project always feels like coming home.
Whom would you choose to write your life story?
An infinite number of monkeys. So much has happened and I come from an enormous Catholic family, a lot of us are lawyers, so every single truth is contested. There are a hundred versions of every story and it would take a thought experiment to accidentally hit on the abstract truth of any of it.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Three Patricia Highsmiths and a fire extinguisher.
The older I get the less I enjoy dinner parties. It’s a stiff kind of theater, the gathering, the exclamations of delight over the food, the relentless self-presentation: “i’M a wRitEr, aCtuaLly!” In fairness, I have been to a lot of them and may have blown out my taste buds with cigarettes. It feels like I’m eating dust for three hours while wearing tight pants.
In Andrew Wilson’s wonderful biography of Highsmith there’s a story about her girlfriend trying to introduce a socially isolated Highsmith to a group of interesting new friends over a dinner. During a conversational lull Highsmith stood up, leaned forward to a candle and set fire to her own hair to get out of it.
She didn’t much like them either.
What book do you think everybody should read before they die?
I find this almost impossible to answer because no book is right for everybody. Reading is a collaboration between a reader and writer and the reading experience is contingent on the prism the reader brings to it. Flaubert said every single reading produces a different book. In conclusion: “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
What do you plan to read next?
“The Five.” I’m going to read it right now. The fire is on, phone is off, I have biscuits and three hours of nothing else to do.
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