You’ll probably already know Chris Ewan from his Good Thief’s Guides novels, a light-hearted crime series following the exploits of a globe-trotting gentleman thief. However, his latest work, Safe House, is an altogether murkier affair which proves that when funnymen go dark, they go really dark. Chris was kind enough to join me for a chat…
Tell us a bit about Safe House…
Safe House is the story of an ordinary guy caught up in an extraordinary conspiracy on the Isle of Man. The basic hook is this: Rob Hale wakes up in hospital following a motorcycle crash to be told that Lena, the woman he claims was travelling with him, doesn’t exist. What’s more, the woman he describes bears a striking resemblance to his recently deceased sister, Laura. The police don’t believe Rob’s story. His doctors question the accuracy of his memory. But Rob is certain he’s not imagining things, and with the help of a gutsy private investigator called Rebecca Lewis, he sets out to discover what is really going on. It’s my first standalone thriller and my first book with my terrific new publisher, Faber.
Your Good Thief’s Guide novels took you to some very glamorous cities. What prompted you to return home to the Isle of Man for this one?
I loved writing the Good Thief novels, and I especially loved all the travelling involved in researching them, but I’d always hoped to write something set on the Isle of Man. My wife is Manx, it’s the place I’ve called home for nine years now, and throughout that time I’ve been surprised by how little is generally known about the island beyond its shores. As a result, I thought it might be a fresh and intriguing place for readers to spend time in, and I also liked the idea of playing with the contrast between what is, in reality, a quiet and peaceful location with some of the more raucous and violent action that you’d expect to find in a modern crime thriller. On top of that, I’d heard a number of rumours about the Isle of Man being used as a place to relocate people involved in UK witness protection schemes, and that seemed to me the perfect jumping off point for the kind of book I wanted to write.
Rob Hale is a much more down to earth protagonist than Charlie Howard, did you consciously want to write an everyman story this time?
Yes, very much so. I’m a huge fan of Harlan Coben’s standalone thrillers and they were a part of the inspiration behind Safe House. More importantly, though, having an everyman as my lead character struck me as a great way to ground the novel in some form of credible reality, before it spun off into darker, more mysterious area. It’s a very useful device to enable readers to connect with the emotional and physical journey that Rob goes through.
You’ve written from both sides of the law now. Which do you enjoy more – following the criminal or the citizen, and why?
I’m not sure I can fairly claim to prefer either one, but I do love the fact that crime fiction enables me to switch between the two sides for different books, and also, to some extent with Safe House, within the same novel. The great thing about writing from the point of view of a criminal is the opportunity to transgress, albeit imaginatively, and explore what it might be like to stray from legal behaviour. And it’s definitely been fun learning some of the theory, and a little of the practice, behind how to pick locks and crack safes over the years. But I had a real blast writing Safe House and ramping up the pressures and stresses Rob had to contend with. As a law-abiding citizen, he finds himself in a completely alien world. Writing from that perspective gave me a lot of satisfaction.
What initially drew you to writing crime fiction?
Story. That’s the key thing for me. Always will be. Plus I’m a big fan of crime fiction and I was aware of what a wonderfully flexible and diverse area it is to work in. But mostly it was because the authors I was reading, the authors I loved, were nearly all writing crime, so inevitably it was the type of fiction I felt drawn to writing, too.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m just running some minor revisions to the fifth book in the Charlie Howard series, The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin, which will be out in 2013. Once the changes are done, I’ll be moving on with my second standalone thriller for Faber. This one has the working title of Coercion. It’s set in Marseille and the lead character is a professional kidnap and ransom negotiator. The set-up is this: Your fiancée is missing, presumed dead. You know the man responsible but you can’t risk police involvement. You plan to abduct the man and make him talk. But there’s just one problem: someone else beat you to it. And now you need to get him back alive.
This one verges a little more towards noir territory. I’m loving writing it and I’m eager to get back to completing it as soon as I can, preferably before my wife gives birth to our first child, some time around the end of October…