Chris Ewan, author of The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam has always been a fan of crime fiction - especially American crime fiction. He says, "I do enjoy reading contemporary fiction, and I can get a lot of satisfaction from reading well-crafted writing, but most of all I like a good story. I like to feel like a book is going somewhere - that it has an absolute pull on my attention. I've read a lot of crime authors saying that they write in the genre because it gives them an opportunity to comment on pressing modern concerns, or the dark side of contemporary society, for example, but my prime motivation in writing crime fiction is that it allows me, hopefully, to tell a really good yarn."
Before Amsterdam, he also wrote one literary novel and two mainstream novels but during all that time the books he enjoyed reading most of all were crime novels. Then he made a connection, "It finally occurred to me that that had to mean something. As a young male writer I could dream of writing the next Generation X as much as I liked, but ultimately I realised I should be writing the kind of books I most enjoyed reading."
And what protagonists does Chris admire and aspire to?
"Top of the tree - Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. I haven't re-read a Chandler novel in a few years now but when I read my first one I just ate the whole series right up. I love Chandler's turn of phrase - he can say in one sentence what most writer's couldn't say in a long paragraph.
"Also, James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux. I like the journey Robicheaux's been on. Like a lot of the great detective protagonists, he has many demons to contend with. Plus, there's a real lyricism to Burkes writing, which never seems to get in the way of plot.
"Of course, with both Marlowe and Robicheaux, the influence of place - of LA and New Orleans - is very important. That's part of the challenge with the Good Thief series - that Charlie will always be moving on to a new destination for each book.
"I'd love Charlie to become the kind of lovable rogue that readers have a real affection for. Most of all, though, I'd like to create a character that people are eager to spend time with. Just so long as no-one grows tired of him..."
Like many writers, Chris has an urge to write and no idea where it comes from; he finds the urge feels inescapable. "I've always enjoyed words and I've always enjoyed language. And stringing words together has always been the most satisfying thing for me. I was often writing short stories as a kid. And later, I wrote really bad teenage poetry or, worse, song lyrics. I was always scribbling things down. And from a very young age I dreamed of writing a really good book. I'm not sure I ever thought I'd actually sit down and try to write a novel - at the time it seemed like too big an undertaking by far. Eventually, though, the bug gripped me and writing books became something of a compulsion."
Chris's journey to first published novel has taken him just under ten years and he describes that journey thus:
"In my final year at university, studying American literature, I read Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I'd always loved fiction but I'd never read a book that struck me with that kind of force before. I re-read the book a number of times - pretty obsessively. And I badly wanted to write something that had the same kind of passion about it. Over a period of three years or so I wrote and (endlessly!) re-wrote a literary novel called Road Movie, about a young English man called Nathan who travels to America to follow Kerouac's route across the States. Eventually, one of the agents I submitted Road Movie to offered to represent me. The book was sent to a few publishers but although encouraging noises were made, no-one offered to publish it. I went away and wrote a second novel, with a similar outcome.
"Meanwhile, I was working long hours for a law firm in London and Amsterdam and I made the decision to quit and move to the Isle of Man, where my girlfriend happened to live, so that I could focus more on my writing. The new law firm I joined kindly agreed to let me delay my start date for 6 months and so I was able to work full-time on a third novel. It was a great experience for me, being able to write all day, rather than just early in the morning or late at night or on the weekends.
"Alas, I wasn't at all pleased with the novel I produced. So I began to work as a lawyer again and I set about re-writing my first novel once more (because I just couldn't leave it alone). I resubmitted Road Movie to a number of agents and got nowhere. Then I decided to try my hand at crime fiction and I came up with the idea for The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam. It was the most enjoyable, fully-formed writing experience I'd had. I knew for the first time that I'd produced a complete novel - one which really did have a beginning, a middle and an end.
"At around the time I finished the book, Susan Hill's Long Barn Books first novel competition opened for submissions. I really liked what Long Barn were doing - knowing full well by now just how hard it is to get published for the first time - and so I submitted the first four chapters of Amsterdam via e-mail. A week later, I got a short message asking me to submit the whole manuscript. Cue a number of sleepless months imagining the manuscript had got lost in the post/my rejection had been bounced back by my e-mail system etc, but eventually I found myself on the short list for the competition. I have to say, having a writer of Susan Hill's stature call you by telephone to tell you you're finally going to be published, has to be just about the best way it can possibly happen.
"The biggest hurdle by far is writing a saleable book in the first place. I made enough mistakes along the way to learn this the hard way. Finding the time to write is also tough. I write in the mornings before work, in the evenings and for most of the weekend. And before winning the Long Barn competition, of course, I always had the nagging doubt that I might not make it. After that, I happen to believe you need a great deal of luck for an agent or a publisher to read even the opening line of your novel, let alone to want to read more. But then, what are a few hurdles when Long Barn are at the end of the track!"
And how does Chris feel about being propelled into the public eye? Well, he feels it will take some time before he needs to worry about it. (Possibly not too long after Susan Hill kindly posted his mug shot on her blog!) But he is concerned about readership reaction, saying "I don't think I'm one of those writers who could have a book published and think, 'to hell what anyone thinks about it'. I want very much for people to enjoy Amsterdam - and ideally to have as much fun reading the book as I did writing it. Of course, I can't control that. All I can do is keep my fingers crossed."
Charlie is rather adept at "breaking and entering", something that appears from the novel to have developed from exceptional nosiness as a child, where Charlie started out by breaking into the neighbours' houses. What more does Chris have to say about this urge and is it one he shares?
"I think a lot of the enjoyment Charlie gets out of burglary is the intellectual challenge it presents him with. He isn't the kind of guy to smash a window if he can set about gaining access in a more cultured way. I'd decided to make him a bit posh - with a background at a boarding school - and it occurred to me that some days (especially weekends) must have been pretty boring and perhaps
school was where he taught himself to pick locks. As for breaking into his neigbours' homes, well, I guess it was a relatively safe progression up the crime ladder...
"I'm sorry to say I've never broken in anywhere either although I am probably quite nosy when it comes to walking by windows at night. Incidentally, the canal-side apartments in Amsterdam are great for that - not many people appear to close curtains and most apartments seem to be lined with shelves and shelves of books. Something that's neatly summed up by the excellent cover
design that Long Barn came up with for Amsterdam!"
Working as a lawyer has not brought Chris much contact with the criminal world, he knows more about burglary from being on the receiving end of it. Says Chris, "Once when I was at law school in Nottingham and once when I was working in London someone happened to break into the places where I was living. Actually, in London I got home unawares that a burglar was hidden in my flatmate's bedroom. I went and took a shower and (dare I admit this?) happened to be singing quite loudly to myself when I heard the front door bang. At the time, I thought it was my flatmate returning home and I was embarrassed that she'd heard me singing. Turned out the noise of the door banging shut was actually the burglar making a sharp exit with a bunch of my flatmate's jewellery. Apparently, my singing is so bad the burglar decided to flee rather than take the opportunity to grab anything else... Maybe I'll use this in a future Charlie Howard book some day..."
Charlie is in his early thirties and suffers from arthritis. So how might this affect his thieving career? Chris describes Charlie as "quite a precocious international thief". And of the arthritis , Chris has this to say, "The arthritis is actually something that plays a more significant role in Paris. I really liked the idea of laying the foundations for a physical flaw that might hinder Charlie's dexterity and make it more difficult for him to pick locks in the future. Of course, a lot of protagonists in crime novels suffer from alcoholism or some form of demons haunting them from their past. I thought it would be interesting to introduce a character with a more direct physical impediment. Which is not to say that booze isn't capable of getting Charlie into bother either..."
Amsterdam enjoys a dénouement that borrows from Christie. Was this a fluke or a planned action on Chris's part?
"Like a lot of people, I guess, I've read a number of Christie novels in the past and seen countless television adaptations of her mysteries, so the influence of her stories is pretty ingrained. But as for the rather formal dénouement, it felt appropriate to Amsterdam because much of the plot is advanced through discussions between Charlie and his agent, Victoria, which liken the 'real' events Charlie is experiencing to what might happen within the generally accepted conventions of crime novels. For the first book in the series, it seemed fitting to employ a 'classic' parlour-room style ending. In Paris, I'm not using this technique, but as a starting point and an introduction to the world of my mystery-writer-cum-thief, I think it works."
We know that Amsterdam is the start of a series, so how does Chris see it developing? "The idea is for Charlie to head to many more cities around the world and for his life to get a whole lot more complicated. There'll be more murders, more mysteries, more swag, more beautiful dames and more books for Charlie to write. The aim is for me to throw him into ever more devious and compelling puzzles and for Charlie to come out the other side with ever more ingenious solutions."
The second book in the series finds Charlie in Paris and Chris has "had a great time continuing his story." He hopes that anyone who enjoys Amsterdam will find more to entertain them, plus a little extra suspense.
Chris's main aim as a writer, is to write the best novel he possibly can. "But really, with The Good Thief novels, my main aim is to entertain. I hope people will pick up Amsterdam, have a ball reading it, and end up wanting more."