Publishers Weekly interview – questions by Tim Peters

Dead Lions is the second in your Slough House series, which seems like a big departure from the five earlier books. What prompted this funny but still very suspenseful shift? Does some equivalent of Slough House really exist or is that created from whole cloth?

It didn’t feel like so much of a departure at the time, though I was conscious of wanting to write about a group of characters, rather than concentrate on a single viewpoint as in the earlier books. Making them all failed spies had a peculiar appeal; it would make them resentful, eager for redemption, and prone to bad behavior in equal measure … Once I’d decided, quite unfairly, that a particular office building near where I work has an air of desperation about it, which doubtless infects anyone unlucky enough to work there, all the major elements had fallen into place.

As far as I’m aware there’s no real-world equivalent of Slough House, but it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that there was.

Talk a bit about Jackson Lamb--he might be the most despicable agent and boss I've seen depicted in a  work of fiction in some years.

Well, I wouldn’t want to work for him myself, but he’s fun to write. Lamb is less despicable than conflicted, really. A spy out of time. In his undercover days in what was then the Eastern Bloc, he was brave and resourceful – which he might still be, if he can be bothered – but, as the end of
Slow Horses makes clear, his voluntary exile in Slough House was triggered by disgust, with both the system and himself. He’s ended up in management, but he left his heart in the field.

The others are there against their will, so there’s bound to be conflict between them. But while Lamb comes on like a despot, he can be ferocious when outside forces threaten his crew. Partly this is because his loyalties remain with the field agent rather than with the bureaucrat, but it’s also because he can’t tolerate other people messing with his stuff.

Russia seems to figure in spy fiction today as much as it did during the Cold War. The threats are different, of course, but is corporate and financial intrigue the reality of today (or is it more that it's pretty hard to put a humorous spin on terrorist-related intrigue)?

Russia looms large in
Dead Lions because the central characters are Cold War veterans, refighting old battles. But in reality, yes, the world’s faultlines have shifted – though, typing that, I’m wondering how true it is. Terrorism has always been around in one form or another: the difference between a sarin attack on a subway and a blanket laced with smallpox is one of technology, and while corporate and financial intrigue make up many of today’s headlines, the underlying stories could be written about the East India Company and the South Sea Bubble. The fundamental things apply…

Christopher Brookmyre’s
A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away is proof positive that you can put a humorous spin on terrorist activity. If I could write a book that good, I’d do it like a shot.

There aren't many comic spy novels in general; obviously this one and
Slow Horses have done well, but what has been your readers' response to these? (I've read two of the earlier novels and was surprised at the humor in this book.)

The humour mostly comes from the characters’ interaction, I think, and from the narrator’s cynical viewpoint – which isn’t necessarily my own, or not always. Fundamentally, I regard both books as thrillers, which seems to be how most readers have taken them. But I’d hate to write anything which didn’t have a discernible sense of humour, and readers have responded positively to that , too.

Any interest from Hollywood or TV? Your plots are complex, but could be very effective dramatized.

Down Cemetery Road was optioned, and a fine screenplay written (not by me), but it didn’t get made. Reconstruction generated some excitable emails too, a couple of years ago. I think some of them are still awaiting a reply.

A while ago, a film agent explained to me that “
Slow Horses is not a movie title.” He preferred The Misfits, or maybe The Losers, presumably on the ground that they are definitely movie titles.
I suspect he fancied Bruce Willis as Jackson Lamb. Which would be kind of awesome, now I think about it, but it wouldn’t be the book I wrote.

But things have moved on since then. Watch this space…

Where or how do you learn enough about spycraft to write about it with authority? 

When imagining how an intelligence service might operate, I simply bear in mind that the corporate mindset is naturally Machiavellian, then aim for an extra layer or two of deviousness.

As for spycraft, John le Carré showed that spying, like every profession, has its own language, and once you know that, you can make up your own. The more confidently you use it, the more authority you appear to have. (le Carré’s more important lessons, about treachery and betrayal, transcend genre concerns.)

There’s straightforward theft too, of course. This morning I learned, from Salman Rushdie’s memoir
Joseph Anton, that Special Branch code for making sure you’re not being followed is “dry-cleaning”. I’ll be stealing that at some point.

This book has an enormously complex plot. How much of that emerged as you did the writing, and how much did plan out ahead of time?

Almost all of it emerged as the book was written. At times, I was on the same page as the reader.

Ideally, I’d like to plan a book in minute detail before I begin, so I can concentrate on the important stuff – the characters, the dialogue – but that never seems to happen.

Will your Kindle book, All the Livelong Day & Other Stories make it to America? 

Has it not? I hope it will do. It contains a Christmas fable, “The Usual Santas”, that I’ve always been proud of. (A title, I subsequently discovered, previously used by The Muppets, so I was unwittingly standing on the shoulders of giants.)

There’s a hard-copy version, if people get really desperate.

Your biographical blurb states you live in Oxford and work in London. It can't be easy to write novels and work at a full-time job (and commute). Does having a day job help in any way?

Well, it pays the bills.

What's next from you? Will you reprise Zoe Boehm’s character in a future book? Or more from Slough House?

There’s a Zoe story in an upcoming
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Lamb appears briefly in a long story, “The List”, written last year, which I hope will be available in some form or other soon. Neither feature in the novel I’m currently working on, though the Slough House crew will be back in the book I write next.

February 2013