A woman falls to a horrific death from the top of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument, traumatising passers-by. Did she jump or was she pushed? That’s the central mystery at the heart of Neil Broadfoot’s debut crime novel, Falling Fast, which introduces detective Susie Drummond and investigative journalist Doug McGregor in a fast-paced hunt to root out the truth behind the woman’s death.
Ahead of the book’s launch today, I caught up with Neil, who happens to be a former Scotsman colleague, in a pub on St Andrew Square round the corner from the monument.
The opening scene is pretty gruesome in its detail, one of the less horrible lines, for example, is: “Bone peeked out from several places like a hedgehog’s spines.”
Was a big opening important for you?
I was looking to make a splash. I’ve always said you should judge a book by its first line.
The first line in this case is: “For an instant she believed she had become the angel he always told her she was.” It’s intriguing, and in hindsight holds within it the solution to a mystery that becomes more complex as the book unfolds. Complex enough that I was certainly wrong-footed by the dénoument.
He has a three-book deal with the publisher Sarabande which came about after Falling Fast was shortlisted for the 2013 Dundee International Book Prize. Neil is 38 and is originally from Eskbank, Midlothian. He now lives in Dunfermline with his wife Fiona and two daughters Alexandra, six weeks, and Madeleine, five. He began his writing career as a reporter on the Herald & Post in Dunfermline before moving on to the Scotsman and then into public relations with Strathclyde Fire and Rescue and, most recently, The Scottish Government.
One of his two central characters, Doug McGregor, works for the ‘Capital Tribune’, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain real newspaper. He’s a dogged reporter, who chases two seemingly intertwined stories across the city and into East Lothian.
Was Doug a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy for you? A reporter who is able, even encouraged to leave the office so often?
Partly, yes, very much so. The other part of it is that I remember the days when that was what happened. I started out as a local reporter, that’s what I did. I was rarely in the office, I’d come in to file copy and I was out again. So I suppose it was harking back to those days.
Yes, there is a bit of wish-fulfilment. The other thing is that the world is changing and I would be remiss if I didn’t reflect that in what’s coming next, so this is a starting point and where we’re going to end up I’m not going to tell you yet, but that’ll be reflected in the next couple of adventures.
The fictional paper is based in offices that don’t exist but real-life locations such as the Scott Monument and local pubs feature prominently. Many crime authors have done well using Edinburgh as a location, was that an important consideration?
The book has a very strong sense of Edinburgh identity and it’s got a very strong sense of its own place. It is Scottish Tartan Noir, as it’s called, so I think it’s being branded as that rather than an Edinburgh book, it’s a Scottish crime series. The next one isn’t going to be exclusively set in Edinburgh. So there’s scope for movement, but the first book is of its place.
There is that sense where you go from the lovely city with all the interesting places to somewhere that’s grey harling, one-room bars and abandoned railway lines. There’s a contrast between the two worlds. The old Jekyll and Hyde character of Edinburgh. A lot of writers have explored that, so are there any other crime authors you were particularly influenced by? Was there a voice you were aiming for?
Not really. I’ve always had my own voice, in my head. What you read points you in a certain direction. I’ve read a lot of Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, I loved Complicity by Iain Banks. Lee Child, he’s got a kind of dryness of prose about him. If you want funny crime prose, go and read the Dexter novels by Jeff Lindsay. There’s a really dry humour about them. I suppose they’ve all melted together to help create the voice, but I’ve not set out to create a Banksesque or Rankinesque novel.
I think there is more than a little Complicity in there.
I’ll take that as a compliment.
As for DS Susie Drummond, you do you do quite a lot about contacts in the police and the way that police do not talk to journalists any more. There was a story a while back where the police PR departments said “you should be talking to your local contacts when we’re not available,” and the journalists replied: “We don’t know who they are because you’ve been telling them not to talk to us.”
Which is reflected in the book. That is something that will be picked up, it is there, it is a reality that the world is changing around you. It’s the same for Hal as well, the world is changing for him and he’s trying to figure out how to deal with it.
Hal is the political fixer brought in to deal with the impact of the story on a certain political party and one MSP in particular, Richard Buchan, aka Far Right Marmite, a politician about whom it’s very difficult to say anything without spoiling the plot, apart from the fact that as soon as he arrives you just know he’s a bad ‘un of some sort. Hal is a Malcolm Tucker-ish political wonk, parachuted in from London where he’s left his husband and child behind.
I was thinking he’s someone you introduced and then realised you wanted to do more with him but couldn’t because the story didn’t have room.
Yes, without a doubt, I wouldn’t say he is a series regular. He’s a presence who ambled along into my mind and, without getting too arty, I started to like the character when he started talking to me, because he was such a tipping point for Buchan as well.
In Hal’s work life there’s a kind of amorality, just get the job done. It’s almost like a contract killer in a way. He gets the job done then goes back home to his family, where he’s someone else.
You’ve met a few PR people in your time, then?
So your career does inform the characters. There’s a lot of detail about life in the police from Susie’s perspective. Did you talk to them while researching?
No, but I have had contact with them before, when I was a reporter, and my first job outside journalism was with Strathclyde Fire and Rescue. Part of working with them was that they had very close connections with the police. I had good relations with the police. That said, as a writer you take what’s useful and you throw away the rest. You give it a veneer, you take a line of truth and embellish it as you see fit.
One prominent police location is the morgue on the Cowgate, have you ever been there?
I’ve been in a morgue, but not that one. Again, that’s artistic licence. I have been in morgues; my uncle is a surgeon. I needed a city-centre morgue. Just as I had the detectives based in Gayfield Square where I think it’s unlikely a cohort of detectives actually is based.
There are a few gangland characters, too. Just below the surface of genteel Edinburgh you’ve got someone who is a gang boss – although we don’t meet him – and Rab, who is dodgy but respected…
…he’s a ‘security consultant’ …
…the idea that there are these characters around, they are probably in most towns but you forget about them. The whole Jekyll and Hyde thing, but it’s not that Old Town/New Town thing, it’s mainly New Town.
When I was a student and working in pubs and nightclubs there were people who were like that. You just have to scratch the veneer. We were talking earlier about a trip to Belfast, which is like that, a very civilised city, but you don’t want to walk down the wrong street at the wrong time. Every city, no matter where you go has this outward-facing mask of civility, but if you tug at the edge of the mask…
It’s often the people who have the money and power that can be the worst. As in the book, you expect the “lowlife” characters desperate for money to be dangerous, but the people pulling their strings could be anyone in any pub sitting next you.
You never know. Six people could see the same event and they will see it differently depending on the background that has shaped them to that point. There is a whole range of things that influence who you are. The motivations of some people are completely unfathomable to you and I.
There is a potential blackmail episode that leads to the friendship of Doug and Susie. I’m sure I’ve never heard of anything like that happening but it’s plausible enough. Very often you’ll get reporters who are superhuman and don’t live in the real world, so it’s interesting to see people with human failings. Was that important for you in the character of Doug, someone who is willing to go after a story but not willing to compromise the morality to get it?
You get, these days, too many anti-heroes who will do anything to get the job done and they don’t care about other people. There still have to be people who will go so far but still believe in the core tenets of what they’re doing. Doug is a story-hungry, ruthless very clever idealist, but he got into this for a reason: to tell stories that matter. As he says to Susie, ‘This is red-top shit at best, if I want to write that I’ll go and write for a paper that does that, but I want to do stories that mean something.’ The value of that position is something I’ll be coming back to, how likely you are to be able to do that in the real world, especially these days.
Newspaper journalism is dying, and this book as part of the series takes place in the last gasp of proper journalism, so the next couple will be much more restrictive?
If you think of the time we started at The Scotsman and the way it is now, the two have no relation to each other. That’s one of the things Doug’s going to have to deal with. He’s on that journey.
As the plot revolves around a fall from the Scott Monument did you, in November last year when a man did fall to his death from it, think: “Should I be doing this? Am I going to get published now?
It was not long after I got the cover back, I saw it and thought ‘oh, no’. I did have a moment of panic, but we looked at it and because the publication was a few months off and the situation was different, we’re OK. Obviously, first and foremost there’s a human tragedy, but you wouldn’t stop writing about a disaster or air crashes because there was one a few weeks before. You give it the respect it deserves and the time it deserves but this was a work if fiction, an idea that came to me well before that happened.
One thing that struck me is that it’s quite a short book, did you consider making it longer, to try to flesh things out or did you think “I want to tell a short, sharp story, get in get out.”?
I wanted to make sure it was something that people could get into and not have to deal with unnecessary detours. Let’s go back to Iain Banks and look at the Wasp Factory. That was a very short book but very gripping, with a twist at the end, and look where it went. Every first novel is looking for attention and after that they can develop.
Look at Carrie, a very short, story-driven book and then put that against It eight years later,a mighty tome, or The Shining. The Dark Tower is huge and it’s still going because now he’s got the opportunity to expand and explore.
I also suggest Harry Potter: the first book is very short, then look what happened.
Go into a bookshop and look at an established author, at least in the non-‘literary’ world, and see how the books grow. The first book is a statement of intent: here’s my style, here’s what we’re going for, then…
This means there’s not a huge amount of time for character development, but he has made time to round out his detective, Susie Drummond. The detective sergeant deals with stress by exercising. You’re quite a fitness fanatic, was that something you put into her because that’s the way you deal with stress?
Partly. I’ve always tried to stay fit and did learn how to run as a student, but it was mainly that when the character came up, I didn’t want her to be the stereotypical cop who at the end of the day drinks a bottle of Jamesons and thinks the world is good.
There is drinking in the book, but it’s generally quite light.
That was a function of the fact that there are too many clichés about the journalist who is one step away from alcoholism or the grizzled cop. I wanted to move away from that, to make real people, not the lush who gets his leads from a nod and a wink and a weary smile. That’s not real.
The cover features an image that recalls Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with a falling silhouette, I believe you’re quite proud of it?
When I was growing up my best friend Joe Farqharson was artistic and he’s a brilliant graphic designer, who is now working for LinkedIn in San Francisco. I had always written short stories and horror stories and he read them and thought there was something there, so I said that if I wrote a book he’d do the cover. The artwork came along and the typography wasn’t quite right, so I asked him if he could do something, so a day later he went: ‘There you go.’ He had taken the artwork, tidied it up, added the text effects and did the spine.
I used to write horror stories to try to see how badly I could scare Joe. I used to scare him so much that he wouldn’t go into the dark. I loved Stephen King who was sneered at by my friends but when I read it there was a visceral connection. So when it came to write stuff for Joe I’d think: ‘Let’s see how far I can take this.’
I did it so well that one night he was running between the streetlights to get home.
Another important figure in the book’s publication was Bob McDevitt, well-known to book festival audiences for chairing discussions, and he’s the director of the Dundee Literary Festival.
I’ve known him for a while and I sent him a copy of Falling Fast and he thought there was something in it. Since that day Bob has been one of the most important supporters of my work and my book.
Falling Fast is published in paperback on 8th May by Contraband. £8.99