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Q&A with Paul Charles, author of Departing Shadows

Written by Mike Stotter

This is your eleventh DI Christy Kennedy novel and you have been writing about him for over two decades. How much of you is in his character?

I think it is only natural that some of a writer must come through in your main character. I’m more than happy to admit that Kennedy might be a wanna-be version of myself.

And what do you most admire about him?

That he loves to live his life, rather than plan it. He drinks in his day rather than wasting it waiting for a moment to arrive. And he’s never trying to solve the crime in order to further his career. He’s motivated by trying to understand how someone can take another person’s life and feels it will make him a better detective. His dilemma is that the more he does his work the further away he feels from understanding the mind of a murderer.

How do you deal with chronology? Is Christy 21 years older than he was in the first book or does time pass differently in the fictional world?

I don’t get bogged down in it to be honest. I do avoid backtracking, and each book is further along in Kennedy’s life from the previous one but not in the same time line as the publication dates. In my mind’s eye I’ve always seen Kennedy as a 40-year old Martin Sheen.

Your Christy Kennedy books are set in Camden and the Inspector Starrett series is based in County Donegal. How important is the geography and sense of place to your novels and their protagonists?

The Kennedy mysteries are set in Camden Town because that is where I live and work. The vibe of Camden Town can’t help come through in the writing in the same way as say Woody Allen benefitted from the New York vibe in his movies. But it’s never intentional; I’m just trying to catch what I see. Though I hope I can capture some of the magic of Camden Town that people might not have noticed before.

For the Starrett Mysteries, I knew these stories just wouldn’t work at the pace of a city environment. I knew I needed a rural small-town backdrop as much for the crimes as for the characters. And since I had to accept that you’re not going to get a weekly murder in a small town in Donegal – in fact there hasn’t been a single murder in the 25 years I’ve been visiting Starrett’s home town of Ramelton! – I revealed his story over the three published books (The Dust of Death, Family Life and St Ernan’s Blues) and never felt forced to try and make it into a series.

And given how many crime writers use London as a backdrop, is it harder to carve out a niche in the metropolis?

The honest answer is I don’t know. I don’t use Camden Town because it’s Camden Town. I use it because it’s where I live. I know it so well and I love being in it. A big part of my writing process is continually walking the scene of the crime and all the major locations of each case. I’m sure if another writer was to use Camden Town as the foreground (I resist the temptation to use the word “background” because I feel Camden Town is one of my main characters) they’d know it and see it differently from how I do.

Do you find your plotlines inspired by specific real life events?

I really try not to. There is so much pain caused from real life cases that I really wouldn’t want to be responsible to add to that. I feel victim’s families are the perhaps the main victims of crime; they carry the pain of the loss until the ends of their lives. I try to ensure my detectives are always sympathetic to this. At the same time I do think books like The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – both of which start with a true crime – are major achievements, and a great inspiration.

So where do you begin?

I always start with the body being discovered and then I go off and find out all about the murder victim; their dreams, their loves, their enemies, their work, their families. Then I consider the mechanics of the crime while trying to come up with a unique method of murder – the perfect murder, in fact. But the problem with the perfect murder is that it will never be solved, so I have to backtrack a wee bit and build in a few flaws.

How much do you concern yourself with real life police procedure? Do you have close friends who are police officers?

I think there are few things as bad a reading a book and coming upon a scene that doesn’t ring true. It pulls you out of the fantasy of the story. I try as a writer to stay in the story and hope I can keep the reader there as well. I read a lot of factual books, I do a lot or research. And I do have a couple friends who are detectives that I can check things with.

Do you research the legal ramifications of a case? In Departing Shadows, the question of diplomatic immunity looms large.

Yes indeed. The idea for Departing Shadows grew from how upset I was over the WPC Yvonne Fletcher incident in 1984. How someone could be murdered in broad daylight on the streets of London and on nationwide TV only to discover that the murderer used the cloak of diplomatic immunity to disappear into thin air. I thought about it a lot over the years and I started to think about how, if Kennedy was ever faced with a Diplomatic Immunity case, he might have found a way to circumvent it.

The subject of pornography features in the novel – were you at all worried about opening up that hornets’ nest?

I wanted to have a character, Gabriella Byrne, who, might be written off as one type of person – a hostess/dancer in a gentleman’s club – but was actually a very a talented, ambitious and resourceful actress. No one in this world should be typecast by other people’s preconceived limitations.

A character in Departed Shadows describes Kennedy’s qualities as “somewhat old-fashioned”. Would you say the same is true of you? Is it a good or a bad thing?

Okay, I suppose I would have to admit that I might be considered “somewhat old- fashioned”. That said, I would not want to live in the good old days because the good old days are good and gone (and some of them weren’t really all that good, either.) As to whether it’s a good thing? I believe you have to be who you are, at the very least to yourself.

You often fold a love story into your crime novels. Are you just an incurable romantic?

We all spend a large part of our lives looking for love, protecting our love or running away from love. It’s very important to me that my characters deal with this: it makes them more believable. I’m a big Inspector Morse fan and I think we all really wanted him to find true romantic happiness. Not because we wanted him to live happily ever after, because that doesn’t happen in real life (and if it did it would be very boring), but because we simply wanted him to enjoy the love he so clearly sought.

Many of your characters share a fascination for the peculiarities of the English language: its strange turns of phrase, the way it is often unintentionally mangled. Is this a preoccupation of yours?

I love listening to people speak. I’m fascinated by it. It call tell you a lot about someone. To me it can help create a different voice for each character and make them stand out on the page.

Your other passion in life – music – features regularly in your work, with references to Van Morrison, the Beatles, and many others in Departing Shadows. Do you see any connection between the two things, or is it just a question of your other interests spilling over into your writing?

A lot of the people I know are preoccupied by music – it’s a big part of their lives. Music can also give you big clues about a person’s character both in real life and in fiction. I often use it to shed light on the character of a witness or suspect. (That said, it can end up being a giveaway: in my early books, readers started to recognise the baddies from the fact they always liked Michael Bolton records…)

Would you say you are more preoccupied with character than with plot?

Characters without a plot are like fish without chips; plot without character is like fish and chips without mushy peas. I’m preoccupied with trying to get both right.

Will you ever grow tired of DI Kennedy?

I really love writing the Christy Kennedy stories. It’s like getting together again with a bunch of friends you haven’t seen for a while. Even though it’s been a few years since the last one (A Pleasure to do Death with You, 2012) I been writing quite a few short stories featuring Kennedy for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and various anthologies. I’ve got ideas for the next two Kennedy full length stories, which I’m very happy with. I’m looking forward to getting stuck back into the first one of those when I finish work on the third McCusker Mystery (Hey Love, You Just Dropped Your Glove).

Paul Charles
Published by Dufour Editions
December 02, 2019. Hbk. £18.99
Read SHOTS review HERE

Paul Charles

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