Peter Guttridge needs little introduction to crime buffs. The author of the satirical six-book series featuring Nick Madrid, Guttridge was also the crime fiction critic for the London Observer for eleven years and film critic at Shots magazine. These days he is focusing on a new series of novels set in Brighton.
The first of the series, City of Dreadful Night, won praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Kirkus Reviews gave the novel a starred review, noting: “Be prepared for a long night. Guttridge combines period mystery, police procedure and noir in a fascinating tale whose only blemish is that you’ll have to wait for the next in the series for its resolution.” London’s Daily Mirror added further praise: “Guttridge has long been one of the UK’s most accomplished crime writers. This complex, part-historical, part-contemporary tale of a reworking of a notorious but very cold case is the very welcome first of a new Brighton series.” Lee Child, who seems to know a thing or two about thrillers, had this to say of City of Dreadful Night: “It’s always exciting to see a fine writer flexing new muscles and heading into new territory, which Guttridge does here with complete conviction. I don’t need the competition, but honesty demands I confess – this is a great thriller.”
Second in the series, The Last King of Brighton, was equally well received. The London Times commented: “Peter Guttridge’s second novel of his Brighton trilogy…demonstrates his great skill as a writer of English provincial noir….It vividly provides a bleak account of the seaside town’s less salubrious activities and people, some fictional, many others true.” And Booklist pronounced: “There’s plenty to enjoy in Guttridge’s latest procedural starring Chief Constable Robert Watts of the Brighton police. Good words, well used. Clipped, incisive prose. And it’s fun to meet a type banished too long from crime fiction, literate bad guys, such as a brutal killer quoting The Rubaiyat and providing a translation.” Third in the series, The Thing Itself, is out later this year.
Peter, great to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. How about we begin things with a discussion of your connection to Brighton?
I hit Brighton, that glorious city, exactly 20 years ago. My then-partner got a job there and, as I was working freelance, I was lucky enough to be able to live anywhere. I’m from the north of England, where the weather is harsh and the landscape beautiful but rugged, so living on the Downs above Brighton was like being on one long holiday – the micro-climate brings a lot of sunshine and the Downs are gentle and soothing. Then there’s the sea…
What things about Brighton make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Brighton is unique because it is a giddy combination of glamour and seediness, high culture and low deeds. Someone long ago described it as “all fur-coat and no knickers”. It’s a great physical setting because it has interesting old streets and high tech modern businesses. It has the sea-front and the ocean and it has the Downs behind it. As for the people – it’s a mix of the rich and celebrated, students, a big gay coterie, an unfortunate number of drug users and regular folk.
I only used the location in my series of Nick Madrid novels once – in A Ghost Of A Chance – but my new Brighton trilogy has Brighton as its starting point. I’m a big fan of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and Brighton in the Thirties was something I wanted to explore. Originally, the trilogy was going to be based around three iconic Brighton locations – the Royal Pavilion, the West Pier and the Palace Pier – but that changed in the writing. The West Pier is still a major character, especially in the second novel, The Last King of Brighton.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I write very visually. I’m a major film buff and I see things in terms of locations. So, yes, I pay overt attention to locations. As I’ve said, the West Pier is a major location in The Last King of Brighton but I also choose interesting pub and bars to set conversations in and much happens on the Downs or on the chalk cliffs outside the city. Brighton is fab for that kind of thing.
How do your protagonists interact with their surroundings? Are they natives, blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about it, boosters? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonists?
In the Brighton trilogy I have four protagonists. One – DS Sarah Gilchrist – is home-grown. Another – Kate Simpson, local radio journalist – has stayed in the city after university (a lot of students do). Jimmy Tingley, ex-SAS, is a cosmopolitan guy who could live anywhere. Ex-chief constable Bob Watts came to Brighton for the job, loved living on the Downs outside Brighton with his wife, then mucked up his marriage (and career) so is a lost dog in the city.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Locals who have taken the trouble to get in touch love the setting and – touch wood – haven’t found fault with my Brighton. Aside from the towering novels by Peter James set in the city there isn’t much else set in Brighton today so my books have proved popular. They are currently being translated into German – I’ll report back on how they’re received. American critics like the setting.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
My Brighton is part invented, of course, with a sink housing estate in a made-up place called Milldean that doesn’t really exist. The merging of real and invented seems to have worked seamlessly so, as yet, no goofs. Which is not to say there are not other goofs. In City of Dreadful Night I have a former dancer living in a converted lighthouse at Beachy Head, a few miles outside Brighton. In The Last King of Brighton she reappears with a totally different name. I had to make this a plot point in the third novel, The Thing Itself, so I didn’t look like a total idiot.
Of the Brighton novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
The first half of The Last King of Brighton is made by its Sixties Brighton setting. However, my favourite use of the location is in the as yet unpublished third part of the trilogy, The Thing Itself. Here’s a short passage, set in 1916:
I stayed in Brighton for my leave. Every day on the seafront I could hear the sound of the big guns across the Channel, distant booms in the bright blue air.
Brighton was the recuperation centre for men who had lost limbs during the war. It was a surreal sight to see hundreds upon hundreds of men without legs or arms or both, in wheelchairs or on crutches, thronging the promenade.
On my last day of leave I was walking down near the West Pier by the bathing machines when the guns started up again. There was a gang of limbless men huddled together near the Gents toilet. One with no legs perched in a wheelchair, several with one leg and crutches. They were watching the young women with their buckets and spades come out of the bathing machines and screech and giggle as they paddled in the cold water.
I threaded between the sailboats drawn up on the shingle between the huts.
“Someone’s copping it,” I said to a man with no arms. He ran his eyes over my mud-stained uniform and gave me a nod.
He spat next to his polished boot. I nodded to him and walked on, past barrows loaded with herring – 24 for a shilling. They stank but it was a better stink than I was used to.
On the King’s Road there was a hubbub. Khaki-clad troops marched by, their uniforms spick and span. I looked down at my mud-caked, blood-caked, gore-caked uniform. I heard someone say that the fresh-faced youth at the head of the march was Prince Edward. They were singing Sussex by the Sea and then Tipperary. I looked back at the group of limbless men and shrugged.
Someone screamed and I looked around then up. There was a Zeppelin, cutting across the sky. It was too high to see the crew leaning over to toss out the bombs but I saw the explosives drifting lazily through the air – a dozen or so – before they plummeted sharply, growing larger as they fell to earth.
The explosions were loud. The sound bounced off the tall buildings.
The Grand Hotel had taken a hit and a tram had come off its rails. A motor car swerved by it, throwing up dust on the dirt road.
The hit on the Grand would cause panic right enough. I’d been in the Grand the day before for afternoon tea. It was stuffed with people who had left London for fear of air raids. Members of the royal families and the aristocracy of Britain and Europe rubbed shoulders with theatre and cinema stars, wives of bankers and industrialists, profiteers and more obvious London crooks like the Sabinis, who ran the rackets at the race-course.
My strong awareness of spirit of place in novels comes from a teenage fondness for John Fowles’ The Magus (set on a Greek island) and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (very unfashionable now but magnificently set in Egypt in the 1930s). In fact the cunning plotting of the Quartet has been a strong influence on my Brighton trilogy too. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock also figures. Favourite writers? So many, often for specific books: Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz; Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra; James Joyce Ulysses; Josef Skvoreky’s The Engineer of Human Souls; Herman Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund and The Glass Bead Game; Thomas Wolfe’s The Magic Mountain. But above all, Thomas Pynchon. Specifically his Gravity’s Rainbow.
What’s next for your Brighton protagonists?
I’ve just signed a deal for books four and five of my Brighton series. Bob, Sarah, Jimmy and Kate think they’ve just got out of trouble – but believe me, they haven’t!
Peter, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us at Scene of the Crime. Good luck with the future installments of the Brighton series.
For more information on Peter Guttridge, visit his homepage. http://www.peterguttridge.com/