In search of the weird, the wacky, the wonderful

David Hewson
Opinion - Books Thursday, 02 May 2019

As Canongate launches the Black Thorn imprint, David Hewson reports on how he has brought back familiar characters in his new novel - but in an unfamiliar setting

The Savage Shore is the 10th book featuring the Roman detective Nic Costa and his colleagues. For once, there has been a bit of gap between titles - almost a decade in which readers nagged me constantly for another one.

A few things got in the way - adaptations of The Killing TV series, scriptwriting, and four books set in Amsterdam among them. But to be honest, I don't want to be known solely as a series writer. I need the freedom to do other things too. At the same time, I do like these characters - and so do readers. What's more, just when I was thinking about bringing Costa back, Canongate announced it was creating a new crime imprint, Black Thorn, and after a quick chat and a look at some early copy it became obvious the two of us were meant to produce this book together.

How, then, to bring back my characters after such a long gap? Writing them anew was no problem, I found - their voices were as clear in my head as they were a decade ago. But the earlier novels were set very much amid the history and culture of Rome, their native city. Did I really want to push that button again and produce another Roman puzzle for them to untangle?

"Here's one big tip for researching well for fiction: never rely on the obvious sources"

Not really. If I were going to bring Costa and crew back to life, I needed to do it in a way that challenged them as much as me. Usually they were comfortable in their familiar Roman surroundings. Now I needed to uproot them, both geographically and temperamentally, and make them strangers in a very strange land.

Head south from Rome, past Naples and the rest of Campania, and you find yourself in Calabria, the toe of Italy, a land not much visited even by Italians. And certainly not by me until I decided this was the place to set this tale. So it was time for some research.

Before I became an author I was a journalist, so hunting down stories is something I'm familiar with and enjoy. But research for journalism is all about hard fact. For fiction it's different - you're seeking out material to enable you to tell a better and more convincing lie.

Here's one big tip for researching well for fiction: never rely on the obvious sources. Travel books, formal histories and Wikipedia are fine for the kind of stuff everyone knows. But I want the weird, the wacky, the wonderful too. Calabria's Greek history means it's stuffed full of myth and fable, some bizarre, some distinctly bloody. That, along with conventional reference works, is what I craved.

Besides time spent in Calabria, three works in particular filled this need. One was a dry, bureaucratic report by the EU into the activities of the Calabrian crime organisation the 'Ndrangheta. We're familiar with the other two Italian crime groups, the Costa Nostra or Mafia of Sicily and the Camorra of Naples, through books, TV and film. But this EU report was quite eye-opening. It cited the size of the Calabrians' operations, which ranged from running markets in Australia to owning huge swathes of Brussels. It painted them as the most secretive yet possibly most powerful Italian gang of all. And it outlined some of their unusual organisational aspects, which were more in keeping with religious and social movements than with conventional gangs.

Yes, the 'Ndrangheta were capable of unspeakable violence towards those who crossed them. But Calabria is one of the poorest parts of Italy. In some ways the gang lords saw themselves as hard but firm masters of a region traditionally ignored by its richer neighbours in the north.

The second book was an academic account of a family feud in a small village on Aspromonte, the mountain overlooking the Strait of Messina. It depicted a close-knit rural community which easily fell into bloody vendettas over the smallest slight.

Then, finally, there was a fun source, a travel memoir called Old Calabria, dating from 1915. This was written by a caddish chap called Norman Douglas, who combined a classical education with a life spent cadging his way round much of Italy and writing about it. Douglas hobnobbed with some of the great of the day, then wrote about them like a Daily Mail diarist, latterly spending his years among the debauched expat community of Capri. He died in a convent there, spent by drugs, booze and boys, uttering the immortal last words, "Get those fucking nuns away from me."

Douglas is one of those travel writers who combines an immensely entertaining style with a distinctly dodgy approach to facts. I'm not sure I believe half of the stories he tells about travelling around Calabria at the beginning of the 20th century. But it doesn't matter. It's all great copy, and a good mainstream novel should be just that too.

With these three books under my belt I set off for the place itself, three times in all. Calabria didn't disappoint. In the mountains I found tiny hamlets where strangers were eyed with distinct suspicion - though, for a fee, you could get your fortune told by a local witch. On the coast I watched harpoon boats head off out towards Sicily hunting swordfish, guided by a captain on a high tower. In Reggio, the regional capital, obvious wealth sat next to open squalor. From time to time the local papers would carry short pieces on some aspect of local crime gangs, usually more interesting for what they omitted than for any great revelation they carried. And then I discovered the bergamot estates, where the local citrus fruit of Calabria is grown and turned into perfume, jam and the flavouring for Earl Grey tea.

Finally, I had the opening for my story. A gang lord of the 'Ndrangheta has sent a message to the police saying he wants to defect and turn state witness; but they must send a team, undercover, to get him out safely.

One more thing I discovered in Calabria is in a way a metaphor for this story. As the novel opens the cops, hiding their true identities, witness a fata morgana on the Strait of Messina, an optical illusion caused by unusual meteorological conditions in which an imaginary city seems to appear over the water across to Sicily.

After all the travel and research, it occurred to me that Calabria is a fata morgana itself, a vision that is never quite what it seems. This is a story about how hard it is for people to pretend to be something other than themselves, and how, when they try, it becomes impossible to separate what's real from a dream.

It's not a cookie-cutter thriller, but then Black Thorn, I suspect, doesn't aim to be a cookie-cutter crime imprint. I'm delighted this story is in their safe hands.

The Savage Shore by David Hewson, with Catherine O'Connell's The Last Night Out, launches Canongate's Black Thorn imprint today (2 May). The Suffering of Strangers by Caro Ramsay and The Liar in the Library by Simon Brett will follow on 6 June.

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