With his first standalone thriller, Safe House, riding high in the charts Chris Ewan might have been expected to take things easy, but December saw the release of The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin, a sprightly caper novel set in Europe’s historical centre of espionage, featuring gentleman thief Charlie Howard, a man of enviable skills and cool wit. Chris was kind enough to join me to discuss it…
THE GOOD THIEF’S GUIDE TO BERLIN is the fifth title in my series of mystery novels about globetrotting crime writer and professional thief, Charlie Howard. Like all of the books in the series, it can be read as a standalone mystery, although for series fans, there are some fun developments in the relationship between Charlie and his best friend and literary agent, Victoria Newbury.
The set-up this time is that something has been stolen from the British embassy in Berlin. There are four possible suspects and Charlie is hired to identify the guilty culprit and retrieve the item in question. There’s just one problem: the item is so sensitive that Charlie can’t be told what he’s searching for. Oh, and it doesn’t help when he witnesses a murder during his first break-in…
So, Charlie Howard’s back in business, how have you found the experience of writing him again after a break?
I loved it! I did think it might take a while for me to slip back into Charlie’s narrative voice after the more stripped-down style of SAFE HOUSE, but I was surprised by how quickly it all came back to me. And I love the freedom of the Good Thief books – Charlie lives in a world where pretty much anything can happen, and usually does, and that’s really liberating for me.
Charlie’s in Berlin this time around, what drew you to the city as a location?
I considered a bunch of possibilities: Barcelona, Istanbul, Prague, Geneva … But Berlin won hands down. The city is just so varied and dynamic, and it’s history so fascinating, that I knew there’d been a lot of material to explore. I also wanted to fool around with the tradition of Berlin-set espionage novels. Mind you, italso didn’t hurt that it was a city I was more than happy to return to for several visits …
You’ve been to some glorious places with The Good Thief’s Guides, how much research goes into each book?
A lot. Really. I think coming back to write the Berlin entry, after a break while I was writing SAFE HOUSE, made me appreciate just how much additional work goes into writing a Good Thief’s Guide. The series was originally conceived as a way to combine crime fiction with travel fiction, so I’m always trying hard to convey an accurate sense of place. Working towards achieving this authenticity means that I have to visit the cities I write about several times (tough, I know… ), read about them and their history, study maps etc. So the process involves a lot of additional work, but I like to think that it’s worth it.
Charlie’s skill set is outside the scope of experience for most writers – unless there’s something you’d like to share – how do you go about ensuring his activities are so credible?
There’s an element of research here – I consult locksmith manuals and I spend time tracking down information online (it’s amazing how many videos you can watch teaching you how to pick locks…). But most often it’s simply a case of combining fact with fiction – springing off from something that I know is accurate and then speculating about how Charlie might apply that knowledge for his own nefarious means. Imagining how a burglar would tackle a particular break-in or gain access to a tricky safe is one of my favourite things about writing the Good Thief novels.
There’s a lovely dry wit running through the books, and more than a touch of the screwball about Charlie and Victoria’s relationship, what initially inspired you to work in the comedy crime genre?
Thank you for saying that. I think the humour really developed from thinking very hard about the character of Charlie and learning what his natural behavior and outlook would be. He’s a flippant type of crook and that really sets the tone for the books. But having said that, at the time I started work on THE GOOD THIEF’S GUIDE TO AMSTERDAM I was reading a lot of dark crime fiction and perhaps the comic touches developed as a bit of a reaction against that.
The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin marks a move into self-publishing for you, can you tell us a little about how you’ve found the process so far?
The book will be published by St Martin’s Press in the States in August, but yes, I’ve self-published in the UK. I have to be honest and say that I would have preferred for the book to come out from Simon & Schuster, who published the previous four titles in the Good Thief series in the UK, but unfortunately they declined to read the script. That said, I’ve really enjoyed working collaboratively with a number of people to get the book up on the Kindle store outside North America. JT Lindroos produced a jacket design that perfectly sums up the feel of the book and Luca Veste helped out in numerous invaluable ways when it came to formatting and uploading the script. It’s been truly encouraging to see the support that still exists for the Good Thief series among crime fiction fans but I can’t pretend I wouldn’t love to see the book available in print form in the UK some day, too.
Your previous novel, Safe House, has been a firm fixture in the Kindle top ten and held the number one spot for several weeks – huge congrats – how does it feel to know so many people loved the book?
It feels surprising, exciting, terrific, bewildering … I don’t know how to explain it, really. I’m just so grateful that the book has found a wide readership and that people seem to have really enjoyed it. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
What does 2013 have in store, writing-wise?
My new thriller, DEAD LINE, is coming out from Faber this August. It’s a dark kidnap thriller set in Marseille and I’m really pleased with the way the book has turned out. Meantime, I’m just working on a proposal for a new thriller set on the Isle of Man. I’m hoping that a return visit to the island will appeal to anyone who has read and enjoyed SAFE HOUSE. Fingers-crossed!