Welcome to my website, Graham!
You have been shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger award three times. This shows a burning desire to become a respected crime writer. When did you first decide to take up the pen – or keyboard – and begin writing?
I’ve always written. When I went away to university I wrote sketches and articles for the student newspaper, but I also set myself the task of writing in as many different forms as possible to see which came easiest to me.
I had never completed a novel, but I started in earnest around 2002 following a holiday when an idea had come to me (which eventually became my sixth book, Laid in Earth). That was put aside until 2010, when I became aware of the Debut Dagger award and decided that was where I wanted to start, because crime fiction was something I loved to read. I wrote a plot outline, and then one Saturday morning the character of Josef Slonský appeared fully-formed in my head and after that the writing became much easier. It was a pen, by the way; I only switched to the keyboard once the plot outline was complete.
What attracted you to a life of crime?
I like a puzzle and although I read very little fiction, crime fiction has always attracted me. Like many I started with Sherlock Holmes. I always have crime fiction on my pile to be read, but I don’t read while I’m writing, because I don’t want to absorb any other author’s ideas.
I suppose the immediate interest began in 1968 as we watched the Prague Spring unfold and then come to a horrible halt, but I had been interested in the Eastern bloc before that. Then in 2007 we managed to find time for a holiday there, and I felt very much at home. It was during that trip that I found the site where the body would be dumped in my first book, which gave me a very simple task, because now I was only describing what I had seen.
Deciding to set a detective novel in a foreign city must have involved a great deal of research of the place, local culture, police procedure and the history. How did you approach this daunting task?
When you are a writer the internet is your friend! I had quite a few jottings in notebooks, and my own library contained plenty of books about the post-war history of Central Europe. Fortunately the Czech police service maintains a good online presence. The issue was not so much gathering information as deciding what to use. I quickly decided the police ranks system was so complex that I needed to simplify it for my readers.
A key moment can be dated very precisely. I was talking to my brother about the character of Slonský when Ian pointed out that if the books were set around the time I had first visited, that would divide Slonský’s career very nicely into about twenty years under Communism, and twenty years after its fall, while also allowing Slonský to have no respect for his superiors because he would know their hands were as dirty as his. After that I became less obsessive about getting the police procedure right because Slonský doesn’t follow it anyway.
Since the Slonský stories have come out I have been fortunate in having a little clique of people in Prague who send me photos of bars that they think Slonský would like and help me with little snippets of information that they think I might be able to use some day.
The issues for Master Mercurius were much more straightforward. There is a huge amount of material available on the Dutch Golden Age. I had to learn some Dutch to make the most of it, but that’s a small price to pay. It’s also a period of history that fascinates me anyway.
Josef has a career spanning extreme political regimes, yet his focus has been on bringing justice. Has his character scars that are buried deep that will inevitably be revealed as he series grows? When Josef investigates a cold case will this bring in aspects of the troubled political past?
I think almost all his cases carry some reflection of that past. His biography is slowly being dribbled out in the books and I hope readers will feel some sense that he is an older man in a hurry. Before he retires he wants to put right so many things that were done wrong. He makes light of the two year bender he went on after his wife left him, but it clearly hurt him. Happily, he is not one for regrets; things happened, and he has to live with them. Where I think we can see the damage done is in his conversations with Navrátil about the past. Navrátil is intelligent and inquisitive but he barely remembers the Communist era because he was only five or six when the Berlin Wall came down.
The second book, Slaughter and Forgetting, was based on a cold case for precisely this reason. What happened to the man who was set up for the crime is hard to understand unless you know something of Czechoslovakia in 1976, and that gave me an opening to set a story in two time periods with Slonský and Mucha interpreting the events of thirty years before.
I returned to 1968 in my fourth book, Field of Death, which centres on something that may or may not have happened then. I doubt whether the present can easily escape from the past.
You have also set a series in seventeenth century Europe featuring Master Mercurius, a cleric and artist. What or who inspired this character? Will this series move around different European cities?
We went to Delft on holiday because we wanted to see the city that Vermeer lived in, but when we got there I discovered that Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the father of modern microscopy, had been born in the same month, probably in the same week, barely two hundred metres away. This produced the idea for a story in which Van Leeuwenhoek, representing science, and Vermeer, representing art, competed to solve a crime. However, having two competing detectives didn’t really work, so I decided to introduce a third person whom they could advise. That led me to thinking who that third person should be. Law and order was the responsibility of the mayor, but if he was out of his depth, where would he look for help? The local university was the obvious place, so the mayor asks Leiden University to send him some assistance. This has two advantages for me; as an outsider Mercurius needs a lot of local knowledge explained to him that Delft inhabitants would already know, and as a cleric and university lecturer he has led a very sheltered life and is not at all street-wise. For example, he is not very good at speaking to women, which gives me some scope for humour. Humour is important in both series to allow us some relief from the awfulness of the crimes.
I made him a cleric but to be active in the theology faculty at Leiden in that period he needed to be a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, ideally a minister. The difficulty with that is that Mercurius has some modern ideas that do not fit very well in a Calvinist milieu, so I came up with the idea that – as he explains in book four – he rejects Calvinism and converts to Catholicism. He does so secretly because his bishop wants to maintain a shadow church that can come into effect if persecution returns, so Mercurius is told to keep his conversion to himself, which he is very happy to do. As time goes on he acts less and less as a Protestant to ease his conscience, but religion matters to him, and he tries hard to live a moral life. This breaks into his accounts of his cases because, for example, he detests the death penalty.
Mercurius will find himself moving around. In the second story, Untrue till Death, William of Orange demands his help and Mercurius feels unable to refuse. William sends him to Utrecht and, coincidentally, puts him in great danger. Mercurius is a reluctant detective at the best of times, but as his fame grows he finds himself being drawn in to matters he would much rather leave alone. In the third book he is sent to London as part of the party negotiating the marriage of William to the future Mary II, which gives him the opportunity to take a few swipes at the English, but in the fourth book he is much closer to home, dealing with a crime in a village just outside Leiden. Who knows where he will get to next? He is a little hampered by having to walk or take barges to most places, but that just adds to the authenticity, according to my reviewers.
Has your pharmaceutical training come in useful when creating the crimes to be investigated?
I have deliberately kept away from poisoning, largely because it would be so terrible if I got it wrong! Characters are occasionally poisoned but not with any subtlety. However, I have some reprints of old books which occasionally allow me to drag in the incorrect ideas of the time, such as the suggestion that vegetarianism is extremely hazardous to health.
Would your ideal dream to be to see your series televised? If so, who do you think would do the part of Josef or Master Mercurius justice?
Very much so, because I actually see the stories as films running in my head. It helps me to have actors in mind because then I keep the descriptions consistent. In my mind, Jim Broadbent has always been Slonský, and it is his voice that I hear when Slonský speaks.
I don’t have quite as clear a preference for Mercurius, though Matthew Goode is a possible, if a little tall. Maybe Jamie Bell or Tom Hughes? Given that Mercurius is 33 when the stories begin, it would be a lovely part for a young actor.
Who has inspired you the most in your work and your life?
I am not conscious of having any real role models, but I draw a lot of support from my family. My wife is my gentlest critic and reads all my stories. Her unfailing support and encouragement to me to go into the office and write has been very important. Unless, I suppose, she has just wanted me out of her way for the last ten years.
How have you stayed fit in mind and body throughout lockdown and these challenging times?
After living in Cornwall for forty years we moved last year to a little village in Northamptonshire, which is surrounded by lovely countryside and a wide range of walks. I read a lot, and we have our daughter, her husband and their two daughters just a short distance away so we keep young by babysitting a two-year-old and her recently born sister. I still work part-time from home, and I am involved at my local church where I preach occasionally, so my brain is exercised in writing sermons. I have also been taking daily online language lessons to improve my Czech. I miss the spontaneous diversions into coffee shops, though, and we had to cancel a holiday. Our son lives in the United States with his family, so we are hoping that things will improve sufficiently for us to go there for Thanksgiving as usual.
What is next for Graham Brack?
I’ve just finished the first draft of the fourth Mercurius book and I’m about a fifth of the way into Slonský’s seventh adventure. I have been working on a book outside those series which is set in the United States immediately after the Civil War, and I have a few other ideas that have at least reached the plotting stage. There are plenty of stories within me yet.
Thank you for your time and patience answering my questions and every continued success with your intriguing novels.