Graham Hurley is an award-winning former director and producer of documentaries in England who finally made a long-time dream come true by turning to fiction writing in 1990. Since that time he has penned a score of novels, beginning with such popular stand-alone thrillers as Rules of Engagement, The Perfect Soldier, and Permissible Limits, and since 2000, with the Joe Faraday series. The eleventh in that series, Borrowed Light, was published in England last November.
Set in Portsmouth, England, the Detective Inspector Joe Faraday books are noted for “tongue-in-cheek vitality: plenty of bling, and heavies with a penchant for violence,” according to London’s Financial Times. The Guardian also praised Hurley’s series as “convincing, well-crafted thrillers.” And Toronto’s Globe and Mail dubbed the Joe Farraday books a “superb British series set in Portsmouth.”
Graham, it is a sincere pleasure having you with us on Scene of the Crime to talk about spirit of place in your excellent procedural series. Maybe we could start things off with a discussion of your connection to the scene of your crimes.
The Faraday series is emphatically rooted in Portsmouth. Without Pompey (as the locals call it), the books would never have been written. I happened across it, in the first place, because we moved there. I was writing one-off thrillers at the time, with big international settings, but the more I got to know Pompey, the more the place began to muscle its way into my fiction. In the end, we stayed nearly thirty years and – yes – we still go back.
What things about this Portsmouth make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
The key to Pompey – says me – is its island setting. You’ve got nearly 200,000 people banged up together on this patch of marshy ground off the Hampshire coast. That makes it one of the densest-populated cities in Europe and gives the place its slightly claustrophobic feel. People look inward. Private space is precious. Poor and not-so-poor live cheek-by-jowl and you’re never more than a stone’s throw (sometimes literally) from areas of serious deprivation. It takes a while for the penny to drop but in many respects this is the UK writ small. It’s a pressure-cooker. It’s a city where all the fissures in our society are on public display. Whether you’re talking family breakdown, or substance abuse, or teenage pregnancy, or the challenges of secondary education, or football clubs in deep financial doo-doo, or tensions arising from immigration…it’s all there. At the same time this very special brew is leavened by what I’ve come to recognise as the Pompey Gene. Portsmouth owes its very existence to the Royal Navy. Pompey men (and occasionally women) cheerfully fought a succession of enemies: Dutch, Spanish, French, German, you name it. And the fighting goes on. A couple of decades ago, the 6.57 crew – a bunch of football hooligans – were exporting serious violence to the four corners of the Kingdom. And it still goes on. Pompey is a rough old place…and it shows (see extract below).
I like to think that Pompey is an irreplaceable element in the Faraday series. Why? Because it shapes both character and story in book after book, something evidenced by the huge popularity of the series amongst the Pompey diaspora overseas. One fan (now living in Queensland, Austrlia) recently wrote me that I’ve saved him the expense of regular return journeys to the city of his birth. Why? Because he simply has to read the latest Faraday for a catch-up.
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?
Pompey, as you’ll have gathered, has seeped into the very fabric of the books. Scarcely a paragraph is untainted by the city. The books even smell of Pompey.
How does Joe Faraday interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Faraday?
Faraday, as it happens, isn’t Pompey born-and-bred. He came to the city as a young widower and probationer-cop with a six-month old son who turned out to be deaf and dumb. In the years that followed he was largely pre-occupied with building bridges to Joe-Junior (“J-J”), but Pompey is a city that gets in your face and after a while Joe Senior realised that he was policing a community which was – in many respects – in a state of near-collapse. This offers a prism that makes the series what it is: a warts ‘n all portrait of English society during the first decade of the new millennium.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
As I’ve written above, Pompey ex-pats have been extremely kind about the series, as have many readers who still live in the city. It’s difficult to capture the essence of a particular place but the least of the debts I owe to Portsmouth is to at least make an honest attempt. I might not be flavour of the month with the local tourist board but one of my books – The Price of Darkness – was last year’s most-borrowed title from local libraries. Does my Pompey travel well? To date, it’s been translated into nine languages. The series has been bought by French TV and shooting is currently taking place for adaptations of Angels Passing (Les Anges Brises de Somerstown) and Cut to Black (Les Quais de la Blanche). The new Pompey? Le Havre…
One of the USPs [unique selling points] about the series is its authenticity. I work very hard to get the police procedural elements right (this is trickier than it might sound because the Men in Blue are forever moving the goalposts) and I always use real streets and real settings. In the early days, before I knew better, I also used real street numbers. This backfired spectacularly when the house of a prominent (and successful )local villain turned out to be occupied by a Crown Court judge. Thankfully, the guy had a sense of humour – not least because said (fictional) villain finally got his just desserts. Nowadays I count to the end of the street and add seven.
Of the Faraday 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?
“Faraday was watching a tiny fishing smack butting in against the tide. The harbour mouth was narrow, barely a couple of hundred yards, another rite of passage for Pompey kids. Centuries ago, a heavy iron chain had been laid across to the Gosport shore, resting on the seabed. In times of war the chain could be raised, barring entrance to the harbour, and the remains of this primitive barrier were still visible, brown and rusting, at low tide. These days, of course, there were other ways of keeping the enemy at bay but the longer Faraday spent in the city, and the deeper he plumbed its depths, the more certain he became about what made the place tick.
“Portsmouth owed its very existence to aggression. Without the vigorous push to expand British influence overseas, there would never have been a navy, and without a navy, Portsmouth would still be a slightly larger version of Hayling Island, a flat, spiritless chequerboard of bungalows, smallholdings and poorly-stocked corner shops, a perfect retirement location if you’d pretty much given up on real life. As it was, though, successive wars had been the making of Pompey, giving it pride and purpose, and the only problem with the enduring post-war peace had been the vacuum it left in its wake. Hence, perhaps, the city’s current reputation as a great place for a fight. Robbed of an enemy of the state, the locals had to make do by battering each other.”
–Angels Passing, p 196
Shamefully, I tend to read non-fiction – rather than fiction – but someone for whom I always find shelf space is Alan Furst. He’s made a fictional nest for himself in the darker reaches of the Thirties and early Forties, in various European settings. His use of both place and time are deeply evocative, and if I want to spend a scary evening in occupied Paris, I know exactly where to look.
What’s next for Faraday and company?
That, I’m afraid, remains a secret because the series is now very close to an end and I wouldn’t want to rob you of a surprise or two. After the Faraday books, I’m shipping young D/S Jimmy Suttle down to the West Country (where we now live). Stay tuned…
Graham, many thanks again for sharing your thoughts of Pompey with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Graham Hurley, visit his homepage.