Douglas Lindsay interview

A few weeks ago we met Douglas Lindsay, author of, well, quite a lot, really. He’s best known for his series of books about accidental serial-killer barber Barney Thomson, the first of which is being made into a feature film with Robert Carlyle as director.  He’s also written a series of books about Glasgow detective Thomas Hutton, the third of which, The Blood That Stains Your Hands*, is due out on the 15th October.

There’s been quite a lot of media interest in the film of The Long Midnight Of Barney Thomson, mainly because of the incredible cast, that includes Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone, Ashley Jensen, Tom Courtenay and Martin Compston.

However, we’re mostly talking about the books themselves today. Having crammed a small virtual stack of them in past weeks, I can say I was pleasantly surprised by how funny and compelling they are. They’re also really pretty nasty, with some truly creative ways of offing their characters.

How would you describe the Barney Thomson books? I would go for black comedy but there are quite a lot of elements of farce in there as well. It’s not really a police procedural.

“I don’t think it’s at all a police procedural. Part of the reason it’s hard to pinpoint what it is is that I didn’t set out thinking, ‘I’m going to write a genre book.’ I didn’t start out thinking I was going to write anything other than the story I had. I still don’t really plan books out, the shape of them. When you’re starting off, creating a new character and situation, I didn’t have any preconception of what it was, so I wasn’t writing like it has to be this or that, so it’s quite difficult to pigeonhole. It’s all those things you said.”

So is every book formed from an idea, such as “Barney decides to run here”, and see where it goes, or do you have more planned out?

“The second one started off with the idea that a monastery is a good place, because where can you hide in a modern world? At the time there was still a monastery near Loch Ness, Fort Augustus. I read this thing about a monastery and I thought, ‘There we are.’

“The third Barney Thomson book, he joins a Murderers Anonymous group, and that started because I sat down and had one weekend to start writing a book. I started from an absolute blank and in front of me I had the scripts of My Name is Joe, the Peter Mullan film. The first thing I wrote was “My name is Barney…” and as he’s not an alcoholic, it became “…and I am a murderer” and that was the start of it. Then I just started populating it with the kind of people who were going to be in that.

So with some of them I start off with absolutely nothing. The fifth Barney Thomson is a sort of Holy Grail spoof, of The Da Vinci Code.”

While the characters in Barney Thomson are believable and well-written, there’s an element of them that is outlandish and knockabout. While reading the first two, I kept being reminded of Terry Pratchett’s Rincewind, who saves the day by constantly running away. The DI Hutton series, two volumes so far, are more rooted in the real world.

Were the Hutton books more a reaction to that, were they a bit more planned, as you had a character whose story you wanted to tell?

“Actually the first one I wrote before Barney was first published, about 15 years ago. It was an attempt to write a police procedural. It was my attempt at regulation, what everybody else is writing and reading. I don’t think it is even remotely what everyone else is writing and reading, but it was my attempt at it.”

There’s an awful lot of internal politics in there. One of the things that’s interesting about all your books I’ve read so far is the way everything is so influenced by office and interpersonal politics. Everything goes to hell because of corporate politics, because people just can’t get along. Everybody seems to hate each other. I can see why in the Hutton books, as it’s from his point of view and he can’t see the good in anyone, but it seems like it’s the same with everybody.

“That’s something I’ve never thought about.”

Even people who are sleeping together don’t like each other.

“Hutton likes his boss, Taylor…”

Hutton is a psychological mess who, like many a fictional detective, drinks and chases women to blot out a terrible secret. He hates everyone including himself except, sometimes, his boss.

There is a line toward the end of the second book, A Plague of Crows, which is quite good from Taylor. We get his point of view of Hutton, that “He envies him. A carefree life, happily drinking and shagging.” This comes at a moment when while Hutton is in a very, very bad situation. It takes that much for someone to admit that he quite likes the guy. Is it a fairly cynical worldview or is it just something you’re trying to get out on to the page?

“It’s a cynical worldview. It doesn’t come from me. I worked in an office for a while, a long time ago and it wasn’t that kind of office. We got along just fine. It doesn’t come out of any real experience.”

So it’s just a mechanic you need to have people stabbing each other.

“I’m really instinctive when I write, and I never set out to think, ‘everybody’s going to hate each other,’ or ‘everybody’s going to be fighting, ‘I just set out with a basic idea and it just takes me wherever. It must be like that in those kind of stressful situations, where people do look after themselves. Ultimately, people being nice to each other doesn’t make for much dramatic conflict.”

One of the things I’ve noticed pervading the books, especially the Barney books is that people will suddenly start repeating behaviour, such as spouting highbrow literary quotations, or they start hating someone because they influenced a game of football, or they bring out ridiculous loads of cakes to eat. Would you regard those as running gags or foreshadowing?

“Foreshadowing… and they’re definitely running gags. The last one came out of time spent driving round the Highlands. It’s an exaggeration, but you go into a B&B and you’re sat down with a huge plate of food.”

When the question of running gags comes up, I am reminded of the fact when reading the Barney books I was reminded less of Ian Rankin and more of Robert Rankin, king of the running gag. Has he  ever read any Robert Rankin?

“No. The Hutton books are funnier to me as there are no running gags, there’s no attempt. I’ve been aware when I’m writing the Barney Thomson books that there’s a real attempt to be funny, and I think when you try to be funny you’re often not. Whereas Hutton, that internal monologue of his … some of the lines are just funny.”

Another similarity is that in both series the deaths are pretty grisly but in Hutton, but the bodycount is much, much lower than in the Barney books. Do you think it’s easier for people to deal with cartoonish violence?

“I don’t think that the books are cartoonish, there’s one Barney Thomson book where no-one gets murdered, The Holy Grail one, but there’s a high bodycount in all of them. It’s just happened. I think in Hutton there would be more people killed if I got to the stage in the plot where it should happen. But there is a cartoonish element, but I think the way the Barney Thomson series is written, you can be absurd. The first book has an inbuilt absurdity, so maybe you’re right, they are more cartoonish. It’s not about the audience and their expectations of what they can take, it’s just the way the series is written.”

One of the other things is that struck me is that the early Thomson books were written in what was effectively a pre-mobile phone age where not everybody was so connected, so it is easy to hide. But when you get to the second Hutton plot, was the incredibly-evil-internet-genius plot written as a kind of reaction to that: to ask that if everybody is so connected, how can they possibly get away with it?

“No, it’s just something that happened. It started off as a Barney Thomson book which maybe explains the level of violence in there. At some stage I thought, ‘Why am I writing a Barney Thomson book, it’d be better off being something else.’ About half way through I ripped the Barney book up but I liked the concept. The scene in the woods worked really well with what had gone before.”

The “scene in the woods” is a particularly gruesome multiple murder. It’s also connected to Hutton’s dark secret, also a horrific incident in its own way, that took place in Bosnia during the wars there.

Did you retrospectively come up with the idea of Hutton’s past in Bosnia?

“That was never in the original, it came later on when it came to seriously getting it together for publication, trying to flesh him out. Originally, he was just a bit of a lad, alcohol and women. An editor said to me he really needs a reason for his alcohol and women. When I wrote the first book I didn’t fully know what he did.”

Have you personally got any experience of Bosnia?

“We lived in Belgrade for three years, so we were in Serbia a couple of years after all that, so that’s why I was interested.”

The plot of the book relies on the fact that the narrative at the time, that the Serbs were the main aggressors, isn’t the whole story.

“I’d worked at Nato and at the MoD, so I got the side that ‘we’re bombing them for a reason’, that things are black-and-white, then you get out there…”

You’re not someone to drop clues to the reader about what’s happening or who’s likely to be in the frame.

“No. I am not really interested in that. It’s just the entertainment of the read. I’m not trying to write a great crime novel. I will very possibly write two-thirds before I’ve decided who it is. Then you can go back and plant clues if you want, but I never really did, and if you start planting clues the more people are going to guess it. I personally don’t really care. they’re just there to entertain or make people laugh.”

And with the exception of Taylor in A Plague of Crows, I don’t think the police work ever actually does anything to catch the killer, it’s just luck.

“I just don’t have that kind of mind, I couldn’t write that kind of book.”

In The Barber Surgeon’s Hairshirt the things I was thinking was that you have the running gag and foreshadowing of a football game running through it. You have this mix of religion and football which is the West of Scotland’s two great exports, so was that a conscious decision to move it away from Glasgow to explore those themes?

“No. It was just a good place to put it. I did introduce the Glasgow guy who was the slowplough driver just to have someone to relate to the cops, but I didn’t give a huge amount of thought to location another than just putting them away from Glasgow but still in Scotland. The islands is as far as you can get, but I took them to Durness because I know Durness and I don’t know the islands.”

Moving on to the film adaptation. Did you go see the set, have you seen the script? How is it looking?

“It’s looking fine, the story’s pretty much the same.”

It struck me as a book that would adapt well, it’s very short and snappy, but a lot of it is internal dialogue where people are thinking about situations. Barney in particular takes great pleasure in naming haircut styles, such as “Argentina ’78” and “Lennie Bennett ’91”. Will they be trying to translate that?

“As far as I know there’s not going to be any voiceover.”

How much fun do you have with haircut names?

“I write quickly, so I’m liable to write the first thing that comes into my head.”

I liked the Name of the Rose ones in Hairshirt. It’s many different names for exactly the same haircut.

“I liked that.”

Were you thinking of the whole thing as a parody of The Name of The Rose?

“I wasn’t really but I guess it is, particularly because of the library, but I hadn’t thought of that at the time.”

How chuffed were you when you found out about the film?

“Well, it was a long time coming so it’s been 15 years, so no matter how good it’s looked at any stage, I didn’t want to get carried away. This is the third option, but these guys have had it for six years. Robert Carlyle started to get attached to it about three years ago and then gradually got more involved and it became more definite.”

It’s an incredible cast. I can just see Emma Thompson as Barney’s mum. Ray Winstone as Holdall? Will he be doing a Scots accent?

“No, he’s not. He’s from London and his character has moved up to Glasgow at some point. The Robertson character is played by Ashley Jensen, so that’s a change but it should work quite well, and she’s Scottish so there will be a rivalry that’s not just between two middle-aged Scottish guys, so now it’s male-female, Scottish-English, I think that’ll work quite well.”

Douglas is signed to Blasted Heath books, which was started three years ago by Kyle MacRae and Allan Guthrie and publishes e-books only. They’re very cheap, and some of them are even free, is that part of the business model?

“Yes. Before I signed with them I published them myself on Kindle, but I’m selling more now. I’m, certainly selling more e-books than I sold regular books. I’m not buying a big mansion in the Highlands but I’m selling more than I ever did. And it’s not because of the movie, although that is going to help.”

He’s putting books out at such a rate that only a few weeks before we met he’d published another, Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!
So what is that about? I’ve not had a chance to look at it yet.

“It’s Murakami-esque. I read a lot of Murakami and thought ‘I could do that.’ Towards the end of the Barney books, Satan becomes a character and God, there’s a lot of oddness, and reading Murakami, I thought it’s not that far from where I’m going, but he doesn’t have a high bodycount. So I thought I’d give it a go. When I started I’d hardly anything. I had a plane crash and a guy thinking himself off the plane just before it crashes. It comes from the fact that I hate flying and every time there’s turbulence I imagine I’m somewhere else. I just started from there.”

Given the religious content of the second Barney Thomson, and that you are effectively God in writing these books, do you enjoy tormenting Barney? Characters ask ‘why does this happen to me, why did I make the worst possible decision’, that’s up to you, you are the God figure. Is he your Job?

“That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that either. If you read on it completely changes. I kill him at the end of the third one and he ends up as a brain in a jar, and wondered how I could bring him back. I ended up doing what they did in Sherlock last year.”

“How did he get out of that? Well, this was what happened… or was it?”

“Yes, I did that first, before Sherlock. I’m sure they didn’t read my books, but I gave five explanations throughout the book. It’s absurd, it doesn’t matter: Barney’s back. I did take the chance to change his character. It’s a metamorphosis a bit like Blackadder had. He’s not as harsh as Blackadder, he’s a bit more laid-back and a more wary and seasoned and attractive figure. There’s a bit of the Sean Connery about him. I did get fed up with him being dour and miserable.”

In the Hutton books, too, there’s quite a lot of misery, there’s also a huge amount of booze.

“If you want to make someone fucked-up you give them booze or drugs, and I’ve never taken drugs. I’ve never murdered anyone, but most people haven’t murdered anyone. There are too many people who have taken drugs for me to be able to write about it and get it right. I’ve never wanted to take the drugs to find out what it was like in real life and I’ve never interviewed or asked anyone. I’m just not interested. I never have written about it, can’t imagine I ever will.”

To the extent that at the end of Plague of Crows a character is tasered rather than drugged.

“And not many people will have been tasered on their erect penis.”

Do you ever worry people might think you’re a very sick man?

“No, I don’t worry at all. The new book, We Are The Hanged Man
is equally dark or much darker. There are scenes in there that much more graphically nasty.”

So what’s the next book about?

The Blood that Stains your Hands is based on churches merging and internal politics that come out of that. It’s happening all over Scotland, it’s happened in my home town. The Church of Scotland are telling people, ‘There aren’t enough people coming you have to shut.’ So people who have lifelong connections to a church suddenly have to speak to the others, and there’s been a rivalry all their lives with the other churches. They can coexist and work together but when you have to pick a building it gets nasty. It must be happening all over. It’s a bit Midsomer Murders-y, as it’s white middle-class, a bit Agatha Christie, but there’s still people getting killed.”

The Legend of Barney Thomson, is due out in spring 2015.

Douglas Lindsay’s site is at http://www.barney-thomson.com/

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