Revenge laced with self-mockery

Horror reigns when crime novelist Matt Wells encounters serial killer White Devil in «The Death List,» the latest novel by Paul Johnston. If Wells thought he was in trouble when his publisher, his agent and his wife left him, that was nothing compared to what happens as the killer embroils him in a scheme of wholesale revenge. Taking his name from John Webster’s tragedy, «The White Devil,» which Wells had used in the Jacobean setting of his less-than-popular crime series, the murderer draws the writer, and everyone close to him, into his meshes. It’s gripping stuff, though not for the faint-hearted. The London setting of «The Death List» is a departure for Johnston, an Athens-based Scot, whose previous work includes a five-book futuristic series set in Scotland and a three-book series set in Greece, featuring private eye Alex Mavros in tales of crime and politics. His first book, «Body Politic,» won the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey Award in 1998 and «The Last Red Death» in the Mavros series won the Sherlock Holmes Award. Kathimerini English Edition asked Johnston about his new book, published in summer by Mira. «The Death List» comes after a three-book series featuring a Greek detective. What prompted the change of setting to the UK and a new cast of characters? The Mavros series did well critically but less well commercially – perhaps people are too bound up with the romantic side of Greece to want to be dragged through the horrors of the Axis occupation, organized crime and vendettas. Also, I’d undergone some pretty major life changes in recent years (cancer, divorce, remarriage, babies) so changing what I wrote about made sense. Revenge is the theme of «The Death List,» everything on a continuum running from petty reprisals to horrendous, full-scale vengeance. Is this purely a plot device or do you see revenge as inherent in human behavior? I do see revenge as an integral part of human behavior. The interesting thing is that it seems to operate on both a group level and an individual level – a good example of the former is the Germans’ at least partly justifiable desire for revenge on the Allies after the harsh Versailles agreement after the global catastrophe of the Second World War. On the individual level, show me a person who hasn’t sometimes been motivated by revenge and I’ll show you a saint (though, note that I’m not a believer…). It has to be said that revenge is a useful plot device too. You make fun of the author – his ambitions, lack of success, and his failure to understand anything about real-life crime – and several of the victims in this book come from the world of publishing and literary criticism. Is this a little light revenge of your own? No, it’s a lot of heavy revenge. I think it’s important to be balanced in one’s approach to life. So when I have a go at the publishers and agent who treated me like muck after my illness, I feel it’s only right to mock myself as well. Writers are creators on a small scale, and they suffer from the usual arrogance and hubris that all creators (including gods, it seems) are afflicted by. Of course, publishers, agents and critics aren’t creators, so they don’t have that excuse… At one point, the villain tells the hero: «You’re a writer, a fraudster, someone who lives from making things up. That isn’t my definition of a man.» Is there any truth in that somewhat jaded view? Why is that a jaded view? I know plenty of writers (no names) who hide from the real world in their fiction. Of course, great writers don’t hide. The protagonist Matt Wells, however, is not a great writer. He’s not even a particularly admirable human being at the beginning. I was also making a point about gender politics. Without giving too much away, there is a certain questioning in «The Death List» about standard perceptions of male and female behavior. There are quite a few parallels between the hero of your book, crime writer Matt Wells, and a certain crime writer called Paul Johnston. For instance, he has a crime series set in Albania; you had one set in Greece. Were you just having fun or did you want to say something about crime writers in general, or particular? Not sure what generality one could make about non-Albanian crime writers who set their books in Albania, since there aren’t any. However, I will admit to a degree of self-mockery. There were violent scenes in your earlier books, but there is almost relentless bloodshed in this one, even more than in the Jacobean revenge tragedies that form part of the backdrop to the story. Are you targeting a new readership? Even more violence than in the revenge tragedies – I’m flattered. But I’d have to quibble. I don’t have someone being poisoned after he kisses the poisoned lips of a skeletal woman. I’m afraid I regard the question of violence as a jaded one. We live in a world where the daily TV news shows dismembered bodies in Baghdad and Afghanistan. Writers who refuse to depict that world are simply not telling the truth. As for a new readership, sure, I’m always looking to attract more readers, though I wouldn’t say I use violence to do that. Revenge has that in tow (as per the graphic Old Testament adage «an eye for an eye…»). «The Death List» ends with one culprit still at large and hints of a mutual attraction between the hero and the hard-bitten woman chief inspector, which suggests there is more to come. I understand you have already written a sequel. Can you tell us anything about it? Yes, the sequel is called «The Soul Collector» and will be out in the UK next summer. I’ve never written a stand-alone novel. I feel that it takes more than one book for characters to develop. You are a writer with a considerable body of work in print, yet you have signed up for a PhD in creative writing. What do you hope to gain from the course? Em, a PhD? No, seriously, studying for the degree gives me the option to write something completely different, as well as to produce an extended critique of my work and modes of working. The novel I’m working on is called «Hell’s Teeth.» It’s a satirical take on the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, informed by the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and many other war writers and filmmakers. But, and here’s my ace in the hole, I also want to bring in the tone and techniques of my all-time favorite comic writer, none other than that excellent old Athenian, Aristophanes. Well, you are supposed to do something original for a PhD.