Steve Mosby is undoubtedly one of the UK’s finest crime writing talents. His dark, incisive storylines and deft descriptive prose provide a depth and resonance that many novels lack, whereas his work’s thematic purpose is always thought provoking. Steve’s latest novel, You Can Run (Orion) is no exception; fabulously adroit, ridiculously well executed and a novel to read in one hit if ever there is one, You Can Run is an absolute winner in every respect. Here Steve chats with Chris High.
You get proceedings underway in You Can Run with a car crash and a somewhat harrowing discovery. How did this notion come to you?
The initial idea came from a real case – that of Jerry Brudos, a serial killer who murdered a number of women in the US in the 1960s and 70s. Brudos was away with his family for Thanksgiving one year when a car veered off the road and hit his garage. Police attended the scene, and even peered inside, but failed to notice there was a dead woman hanging there. They just left Brudos a card to get in touch when he got home, which is what he did, and then he went on to kill again. Pure chance that he was nearly caught then; pure chance that he wasn’t. That incident became the basic starting point for You Can Run (only the woman is found alive). You have this situation where the police know what and who the killer is, but no idea where he is.
Detectives Turner & Beck have an interesting working and personal dynamic. How did this develop as you were writing the novel?
Turner’s a bit of a dreamer – this melancholy, overly-philosophical figure who feels very deeply and often relies on his heart rather than his head. He’s socially awkward and has no real professional ambition at all, whereas Beck, his partner, is the opposite: she wants to move up the promotional ladder and is much better at playing the game. Turner came first, because his whole demeanour is one of the points of the book – he feels things deeply, it’s personal for him, etc, when the victims are far more important than his feelings – and Beck developed as a natural foil for that. But despite their differences, they’re tight, and each of them secretly admires the aspects of the other that they don’t see in themselves. That really developed as time went on.
How well do you have to know your characters before committing them to paper?
That’s a tricky question. Plot and character are intrinsically linked and depend on each other for support, but plot – or story, at least – always comes first for me, and I generally build the characters I need to suit the story I want to tell. I’m not all that interested in character as a ‘thing’, because in real life it never feels that absolute to me. You could think “right, this character will be confident,” but that’s a bit meaningless, as in reality everybody is confident in some circumstances and less secure in others.
People are very similar deep down. I tend to be more interested in relationships between people. Questions like: how do character A and character B feel about each other, and how do those feelings manifest themselves? I spend a lot of time thinking about that: trying to find character in the spaces and interactions between people.
This said, it’s important to remember that you’re not committing anything to paper when you’re writing. I do a lot of drafts, and it’s always like a very blurry photograph coming slowly into focus. I get a lot wrong at first. In fact, I get a lot wrong at ninth and tenth as well. When in doubt, just crack on. There’s no commitment until it’s got a cover on it.
What really comes across in the novel is the emotional engagement of the characters – on both sides of the investigation – in what is happening. How do you go about sustaining this throughout the novel, along with creating an enduring and enthralling pace?
I actually think this is integral, as a character without emotional engagement becomes boring fairly quickly. Their motivation suffers, as does the reader’s investment in what they’re doing. The character has to care about something and the reader has to care that he or she achieves whatever it is they want, otherwise there’s no tension, no suspense, no involvement, and ultimately little point in bothering to tell the story at all.
With You Can Run, that falls into place pretty easily. At heart, you have the killer on the run, who obviously doesn’t want to be caught, and you have Will Turner, with his secret connection to the case, who’s compelled to catch the man. There are obvious competing needs and desires there that allow you to escalate things. And then, once that dynamic is set in motion, hopefully you can try to kick the legs out from under it and take the story somewhere else.
But in general, I’m a big fan of emotion. I think you can broadly divide works up in three ways: pure entertainment; things that make you think; and things that make you feel. And obviously, it’s not a neat division, as some works do all three. The more respectable and lauded ‘highbrow’ work tends to fall into the secondary category, and maybe that’s justified, but the books that have stayed with me are usually ones that have moved me. I think about The Simpsons, where the makers famously said that the music follows the emotion of the scene rather than the action, which other cartoons might focus on. I’m always trying to follow the emotion. It’s probably more important to me than anything.
How do you go about ‘pitching’ a novel such as You Can Run to the publishers?
I’m not sure – I can’t actually remember if I did! It was the second book in a two book contract, so I think I pitched the first, I Know Who Did It, in more detail and gave a vague idea of what the second would be. I probably didn’t even know myself at that point. It’s possible I just lied to them.
I think I’m correct in saying that You Can Run is your thirteenth novel. How does the publication of this latest book compare to that of your debut novel?
It’s actually my tenth published novel, although I do have a few terrible manuscripts in the rhetorical trunk. The first that came out was The Third Person, back in 2003, which seems like a different life now. It was part of a nine novel promotion, and that’s still the only launch I’ve ever had for one of my books. Looking back, it was probably a bit overwhelming, as I was young and naïve and knew next to nothing about the publishing world. I imagine I thought it would change my life, which of course it absolutely did not do. So I suppose I’m a little more grounded these days when a new book comes out, although there’s still the same thrill when you see the first copy in real life, and when people read it and enjoy it.
What’s the biggest lesson you have learned throughout your writing career?
Probably that I can do it! Just that I can get to the end of something and be reasonably happy with the result. Because there’s always a moment during writing a book when I think “this is dreadful, it doesn’t work, I can’t finish this”. With more swearing than that, obviously. It’s like hitting the wall when you’re running a marathon. It really does feel like there’s no point in going on, and while that feeling doesn’t get any less painful, at least I recognise it now. It’s like “Ah, I’ve reached that point.” It’s a familiar marker, like a milestone along a road you’ve walked a few times. And I know that however hopeless it all feels, I’ve been there ten times before and it’s always worked out when I’ve gritted my teeth and kept going.
Who in your opinion are the up and coming authors to watch from both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere?
She’s already very successful, but I’d be surprised if Sarah Pinborough doesn’t end up as a household name before too long. Eva Dolan. Sarah Hillary. I think Jonathan Moore is an extraordinarily good writer. But it’s a difficult question to answer. For one thing, looking at relatively recent publishing trends, the next huge author will probably be a debut that nobody sees coming. For another, looking around more generally, we have an embarrassment of riches at the moment when it comes to superb authors producing good and interesting work. So who knows?
What’s the one crime fiction novel you would take with you to a desert island and why?
The chances of me ending up on a desert island are pretty minimal. Am I marooned or is this a holiday? If the latter, then anything off my teetering TBR pile. If I’m marooned, then probably a favourite of some kind. Maybe Spares, by Michael Marshall Smith, which is SF but also very noir, as I reread that one fairly frequently anyway and it always rewards the return visit. Or something by Mo Hayder. Or Green River Rising by Tim Willocks.
So, What’s next?
I’m working on a new book, which is maybe about halfway done – so it’s very much that time when I have to grit my teeth and get my head down. At the moment, it’s a crime novel with a serial killer, but also kind of a haunted house story about fathers and sons. But obviously, this is just the first draft. By the time I get anywhere near a final one it will probably end up being very different from that.