Ah, well I live there, so it was a lot cheaper to research than the other books I’ve written that are all set in various international cities… But also, it’s not somewhere that many people have been to or perhaps even heard of, so I hoped there’d be a novelty factor to the setting that would appeal to readers. It’s a small island, but it’s geographically very varied, and has a lot of natural beauty. Perhaps because of its compact size and its isolation in the middle of the Irish Sea, it’s also a place where rumours thrive. One of the most persistent rumours I’ve heard in the ten years that I’ve lived on the island is that it’s sometimes used as a place to relocate people involved in UK witness protections schemes. I don’t know if the rumour is true for sure, but it seems credible to me – that island is remote, it’s separate from the UK and yet similar enough for UK residents to settle relatively easily. And hey, that’s a great concept to build a crime novel around.
The opening scene of Safe House is completely compelling – a normal guy who wakes up in hospital after a motorcycle crash, only to be told that the girl who was riding on the back never existed. Was that the first part of the story that came to you, and if not, what was?
The crash was the first thing that came to me, but not in the form that it happens in the book. I wanted to write a thriller told from the perspective of an ordinary guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances, but at the same time, my hero couldn’t be too ordinary if he was going to unravel a complex and very dangerous mystery. One of the things the Isle of Man is most famous for are the annual TT (Tourist Trophy) motorbike races. The races are run on public roads, over a 37.7 miles course, and they make for a terrific spectacle – but they’re also notoriously dangerous and have claimed many lives. As a result, anyone who competes in the TT has to be brave verging on nuts, and I think the same thing can be said of many heroes in thriller novels. So I made my lead character, Rob Hale, an amateur bike racer, and I knew right away that the novel would begin with a crash. The part about Rob’s passenger disappearing and her entire existence being denied only came to me as I started to develop the plot.
Without giving too much away, the book is both a story about one man, and one family’s loss which then becomes a much larger story of global corruption. Was it a struggle to balance those elements?
I think the tension between those elements is perhaps where the real strength of the novel lies. In many ways it’s an uneasy balance, and that’s very deliberate – my aim in writing the book was to try to contrast the relative peace and tranquillity of ordinary life on the Isle of Man with the more outlandish and high-stakes action you might expect to find in a thriller set in LA or New York, say. And yes, getting that balance right was one of the things I found trickiest when I was writing the book, but it also helped me ground the story in a reality and a group of characters that I think readers have embraced.
Do you think all crime/thrillers should have a moral dialogue?
Absolutely. Exploring morality, in all its complexities, is part of the function of the crime novel. But none of that should in any way compromise story, pace or plot.
Your previous ‘Good Thief’s Guide’ books were part of a series, but Safe House is a stand alone – was it a different experience for you to write?
Writing Safe House felt like I was starting from scratch as a writer, but in truth, every new novel feels like that to me, regardless of whether it’s a standalone or part of a series. The main challenge with Safe House was finding a new narrative voice – I’d written four novels from Charlie Howard’s perspective before I wrote Safe House, so it took me some time to find my rhythm. But I loved the freedom of writing a novel where anything could happen and where the jeopardy for my characters was always very real.
What do you enjoy most about crime novels – what do you think is the most important element of a crime book – is it character/plot/satisfying ending etc?
I used to always say story to this question, because it’s what first attracted me to the genre – I’d read a lot of contemporary literary fiction where not much happened. But increasingly I’ve come to realize that the most important thing for me in any crime novel is character. As a reader, the books I love most contain the characters I care most passionately about, and that’s a lesson I’ve tried to carry over into my own writing.
Your book has been a big success in ebook, do you think printed books are on the way out, and which format do you most prefer reading books in and why?
I’ve been very fortunate – sales of Safe House as an ebook have far exceeded my wildest dreams, which is ironic to some extent, because I was always a bit of an ebook sceptic. That said, I still think the two forms will coexist quite comfortably, and I certainly hope that’s the case. As for me, I own an ereader, but I still prefer reading books in printed form. I need to flick forwards, flick back, need to feel the weight of a book in my hand and to have a more complete sense of the shape and form of a novel to really get the best from it.
What inspired you to be a crime writer? What advice would you give to aspiring crime writers?
I read a bunch of crime classics as a kid but it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and read Chandler’s The Long Goodbye that I knew I wanted to write crime fiction. As for advice, I think there are only two things that truly matter – read as much as you can and write as much as you can. Then read and write some more.
What’s coming next?
My new novel, Dead Line, will be published in the UK in early August. It’s a thriller set in Marseilles about a kidnap negotiator who has to negotiate the release from kidnapping of the man he believes may have abducted his fiancée in order to find out what has happened to her.
Meantime, I’m at work on my new novel, a thriller that’s set once again on the Isle of Man – only this time the action occurs during a succession of Hop-tu-Naas, the Manx equivalent of Halloween.
What question would you most like to be asked in an interview?
So Chris, how did it really feel when Clooney and Gosling were fighting over the film rights to your latest novel?
Chris Ewan is the bestselling and award-winning author of seven novels: The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam, The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris, The Good Thief’s Guide to Vegas, The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice, The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin and the standalone thriller, Safe House. Dead Line, Chris’s latest standalone thriller, will be published in the UK by Faber & Faber in August 2013.