Had you found him “face down on his chess board”?
Yes, exactly. So I was essentially experimenting on a corpse. There was no real danger of doing any lasting damage to the sub-genre, so I was free to tinker away. I thought if I failed, then nobody would notice, and I’d be free to do other stuff. Then the first major review came out in The Scotsman and it was an absolute fucking stinker – I mean, the guy was positively bilious about what I’d done, insisting it was ‘some kind of joke’. And that of course made me think I was doing something right. You know, after a month of sobbing.
For some reason, the two-book deal turned into a four-book deal – I can only assume that Polygon either didn’t know what they were doing, or they had some kind of massive faith in me – and I was free to write what I wanted, so I decided I’d make it a five-book series, and maybe bring it full circle like the Lew Griffin cycle by James Sallis. Then I realised that the fourth and fifth books were really only one – the Scottish stuff of the fourth book played nicely with the revenge stuff of the fifth – and so I rolled them together. That gave me room to write about other concerns. In No More Heroes, I tried to question the value of political undercurrents that only confirm the readers’ prejudices, and in Beast of Burden I tried to put the boot into a lot of PI tropes.
How did that work out for you?
Well, my idea was a reactive one, maybe a bit too much of a negative one, I don’t know. William Gibson told the story once about someone asking either Len Deighton or John Le Carré about Ian Fleming. I love him, they said; I’ve been living off his reverse market for years. And so I came at it from the point of view of reacting against a lot of those tropes, or else situating them in a more realistic context. Case in point, when I sent the first draft of Saturday’s Child around, Al Guthrie said to me, “You know you’re just rewriting Texas Wind?” And while the book ended up considerably different, there was definitely an element of me reading Reasoner’s book and going, “Wait, what?” For instance, it’s an excellent PI novel, but there’s a bit where his protagonist takes a kicking and then, a hot bath and some vigorous sex later, he’s a healed man. I co-opted that into Saturday’s Child, except Cal is temporarily paralysed and scared half to death about it.
So should the drink-shakes private dick be shot for crimes against reality?
Ha! I don’t know that he should be shot, but like any trope, I don’t think he should be trotted out without thinking about it. There are very few functioning alcoholics in the world, which is why I was very careful to distance myself from the alcoholic archetype. I wanted to strip away the tropes a bit. So instead of the supposed glamour of the alcoholic, he’s addicted to painkillers. Instead of being the ladies man, he’s impotent. He’s no two-fisted hero like Hammer, and his ability to smart-talk is taken away at the end of No More Heroes, so he’s hardly Rockford, either. The closest thing he has to a sidekick is anything but a psycho, and the closest relationship he has is with the least flamboyant gay man in the city. It’s all about subverting expectations whilst keeping a sense of reality.
So you don’t write about good guys and bad guys but damaged people?
Yeah, that’s it exactly. I try to, anyway. We’ve all got our scars, after all. In a lot of cases, they’re what make us interesting, don’t you think? So why not create more interesting characters? Look, good guys and bad guys work for your plot-driven novels, your broad-strokes thrillers. Those are normally written by people who insist they write solely to entertain, as if entertainment and empathy were mutually exclusive. So it goes. What’s normally the case is that a definitive moral judgement on a character turns them from a human being to a chess piece, and I don’t know about you, Len, but that kills the book for me. So I trust readers to make up their own minds. People might read for plot, but I definitely think they re-read for character.