Quentin Bates had a career as a seaman and trained to be a ship’s officer. He writes gritty crime fiction, much of it set in Iceland. His new novel Chilled to the Bone is about the investigation into the death of a wealthy out-of-towner in Reykjavik. Quentin met me at The Slaughterhouse were we talked about ships and murder.
Tell us about Chilled To The Bone.
A wealthy out-of-towner is found tied to a bed in one of the city’s smarter hotels and although there’s little indication of foul play, sergeant Gunnhildur and her team are expected to investigate. Digging deeper to find who was paid to tie a customer up so professionally, she finds that things aren’t nearly as straightforward as they seem and is disconcerted to find that someone else is a step ahead of her investigation.
Her investigation is overshadowed by her receiving the shock of her life, making it less easy to concentrate on the job in hand, while also being given a few extra tasks to keep her team busy, such as keeping an eye on a local hoodlum recently returned to Iceland after a spell in prison overseas and with scores to settle.
I don’t want to give away too much… But she does get something of a hard time of it in Chilled to the Bone.
How does the interim influence your writing?
I’m not sure there is an interim. It’s a constant process. I have a writing day job as well as writing books, so the keyboard fingers are getting on for half an inch shorter than they once were. There’s rarely a time when there aren’t words either being mulled over or else cranked out, deleted, rewritten, tweaked and so on.
Books overlap by quite a margin, especially as my books (so far) are a series and the progression of events and characters straddles the gaps between one book and the next. I haven’t finished one yet without having started another first, even if it’s only knocking out rough ideas that will hopefully take shape later.
So in that sense there’s precious little interim, although the pace varies from a crawl and plenty of thought processes going on behind the scenes to flat-out writing when I have a solid idea of where it’s all going.
Who are your literary influence?
I grew up in a house full of books and the appreciation of a story well told comes from delving into Maugham, Kipling and Hardy at an age when I should have still been deep in Biggles. Then came Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess and the incomparably magnificent Saki.
As for crime, I was filching Sjöwall & Wahlöö and Simenon from my mum’s bookshelves in my teens when translated foreign crime fiction was still pretty niche. The years I lived in Iceland were difficult ones in some ways as English books could be hard to come by, so I ended up reading a lot of stuff I didn’t much like, plus taking the plunge and reading (slowly, at first) Icelandic books. Icelandic literature can be heavy going, but it also meant that I was reading some Nordic crime stuff long before it appeared in English. Was that an influence? I can’t be sure. But some of it, while good stuff, also made me think hard about what I didn’t want to my own work to look like.
I really like Matti Joensuu, Dominique Manotti, Len Deighton, Gunnar Stålesen, Anthony Price, Yasmina Khadra. Speaking of whom, I would love to read more crime fiction set in the Arab world, but it hardly seems to exist.
These days I try to avoid reading stuff that might exert too much influence, hence not too much Nordic crime, especially not anything from Iceland while I’m trying to concentrate on the first draft of a book. I’m as likely to pluck something I’ve never heard of from a shelf as to search out a name I can recognise. But now we’ve left influences behind and shifted into reading habits – although there’s bound to be an insoluble link between the two, however deep it may lie.
What advice would you give to yourself as a young man?
Stop farting about and get on with it.
Tell us something about yourself people do not know.
I had a career as a seaman, and trained to be a ship’s officer. But I never got over the seasickness. A very few people never suffer from it and most get over it after a while. In my roughly ten years working on trawlers, I never managed to conquer it. It was always there at the beginning of every trip, especially sailing into rough weather, although it didn’t really make a lot of difference as those first couple of watches would always be a trial.
Catamarans were the worst and a patch of bad weather in a catamaran would guarantee a painful few hours, probably because a catamaran’s motion is very different to a single-hulled boat with that odd figure-of-eight twist in a following sea.
I tried everything. Leaving on an empty stomach, leaving on a full stomach, seabands, ear patches, self-hypnosis, meditation, proper (expensive) hypnosis sessions. Motion sickness drugs were no good, as I had to work cranes and winches, and keep a watch. Chewing crystallised ginger helped, as it suppresses nausea to an extent, although you still feel dozy and uncomfortable.
But it took a long time to get salt water out of my system and I’m still not entirely sure that I have. The bustle around the fish dock, the smell of seaweed, diesel and oilskins, and the mutter of an engine down below brings it all back in a flash, and I could go back tomorrow, seasick or not.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
I’m not sure it is a revolution yet, although things are definitely changing. The appearance of e-books was always a matter of time once the internet had come into being and I’m a little surprised it has taken so long to gather pace. I really don’t know what to make of it. I’m not comfortable with the fact that it seems to be dominated by a single entity, although that could only be expected to happen as well if one takes into account the gulf of difference between the way Amazon does things and the way traditional publishers operate.
It’s disturbing that e-books are either ridiculously expensive or else cost less than a mug of watery tea. That’s something that I guess will stabilise in time, although with a single behemoth dominating the e-books industry it’s difficult to predict what the outcome will be. Obviously, I don’t want books to be as cheap as chips, as I need a few quid in the kitty so I have elbow room to write the next one – but neither would I want books to be so ruinously pricy as to be out of the range of the average reader.
I do like the return of the novella that the e-book has ushered in. I’ve even written one and found it an interesting experience to write at that length; restrictive in some ways and rather liberating in others.
On the whole, I welcome advent of e-books. I hear people tutting about the vast amount of self-published dross that’s available. So what? Is it hurting anyone? I use a Kindle and like it far more than I had expected to. It has helped me find some fine reads that I’d probably not have otherwise found. Not that I read any fewer paper books than before. The Kindle gets used in places and at times when I’d probably not have picked up a paperback for half an hour.
How important is Reykjavik as a setting in Chilled To The Bone?
Somewhat to my chagrin, Reykjavík is central to it. When I was writing the first book, Frozen Out, one of the things I wanted to do was have a story that wasn’t set entirely in Reykjavík. I’d seen so many other Icelandic crime stories packaged as set in Iceland and with a picture of a snowbound farmhouse on the cover that then turned out to be urban Reykjavík noir that I was determined to not be shackled to the city.
However, in the two subsequent books, Cold Comfort and Chilled to the Bone, I’ve found myself inexorably drawn to Reykjavík and to be frank, my publishers are happier to have it that way. There’s no doubt there’s more of a buzz around an urban environment and there are a lot more interestingly unpleasant characters and locations to draw on.
I’d certainly like to venture beyond the city limits again. I know the rural areas of Iceland much better than I know Reykjavík, a place I have been scathing about in the past – but as my years in Iceland were spent in the far west and in the north, that’s probably the element of rural Icelander in my background coming through.
Reykjavík is an interesting backdrop as it is such a melting pot. Behind the shiny bits the tourists see there is a population that is made up overwhelmingly of recent arrivals, the city has grown enormously in size over a couple of generations at the expense of the now sparsely populated rural regions. On top of that is an even newer population of immigrants, mainly from Asia and Eastern Europe. So there are lots of interesting culture clashes going on as new meets old, lots of new districts, areas where immigrants band together, a thread of underlying racism and disquiet; and then there’s the vicious, incestuous Icelandic politics on top of that, all in a city smaller than Croydon.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
He was quite right. There has to be an element of cold, dispassionate observation and that shard of ice seems to grow. One notices incidents, settings, overheard remarks and to begin with feels that it would be terribly wrong to twist them to our purposes. After a while, one falls on them with a cackle of glee and can’t wait to scribble them down on the back of an envelope for future reference.
I have a few bits and pieces stored away at the back of the mental filing cabinet that a few years ago I would never have dreamed of making use of, but now it’s more a case of how and when to shoehorn them into place somewhere.
While Graham Greene was quite right about the splinter of ice, I’m still wondering if George Orwell hit the nail on the head when he wrote that : ‘All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the bottom of their motives lies a mystery.’
I assume that both of them were essentially writing about themselves and those of their contemporaries they knew, so while there’s undoubtedly a grain of truth in both, maybe those comments say more about Greene and Orwell than about the rest of us.
What are you working on now?
I should probably be beavering away at the next Gunnhildur story, and there’s work in progress. The problem is that bad guys are so much more interesting to write. I’m roughly a third into what will, I hope, be the next book. This involves a criminal who makes a serious error of judgement to find himself deeply in the soup. But my rotund heroine, fond though I am of her, has hardly made an appearance yet.
There’s another one on the back burner that may become an e-book, if all goes well with it. Or it may become a full-length book and I could find that the hapless criminal will make a better novella.
Apart from that, I’m tinkering with something rather different, and it remains to be seen if it will come to much. This has a Nordic setting, in what is, as far as I’m aware, a Nordic setting that nobody has used so far. There aren’t many of them left now that there are so many Nordic detectives about and I’m hoping that nobody else has beaten me to it. No, I’m not saying what the mystery location is. Not yet, at any rate.
How do you feel about sex and violence?
Human life as a whole seems to revolve very largely around these two; not that it makes them any easier to write about. Unfortunately, they sell well, so I really ought to be packing a good bit more of both into the pages. However, being English, middle-aged and middle-class makes it remarkably easy to not write about sex and violence. I have to keep reminding myself that a little of both needs to be sprinkled across a manuscript.
The violence is actually easier, but I like it to be short and sharp. That’s the way real fisticuffs is, not that I have vast experience of this, but square-jawed chaps repeatedly socking each other on the chin happens in a boxing ring, not in reality.
As for the sex, well, there’s a lot to be said for those three dots that tell the reader to exercise a little imagination… This is not least because horizontal jogging is so difficult to write in a way that’s not either laughable or downright pornographic, and I have no wish to be either.
So, violence; short and sharp, used sparingly like hot chillies, but with a bite. Sex; paint a picture of what’s going on, then draw a discreet veil and retire discreetly to let the reader figure it out in his or her own mind.
Thank you Quentin for an informative and perceptive interview.
Read the synopsis of and an excerpt from ‘Chilled to the Bone’ here.