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Find more Shelf Care Interview
Welcome to Shelf Care Interview, and occasional conversation series in which Booklist talks with book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by HarperCollins.
In this episode of Shelf Care Interview, Donna Seaman speaks with British writer Jeffrey Archer, an internationally best-selling author who draws on his experiences as a gallery owner, a politician, a peer of the realm, and a charity fundraiser. Archer has written more than a dozen novels, including Kane and Abel and Heads You Win; many celebrated short story collections, plays, a nonfiction trilogy about his serving time, A Prison Diary, and two crime series, the seven-title Clifton Chronicles and the William Warwick mysteries: Nothing Ventured, Hidden in Plain Sight, and Turn a Blind Eye. Archer spoke to Booklist about the latest Warwick installment, Over My Dead Body, which Booklist praises as “another winner in this consistently excellent series.”
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
DONNA SEAMAN: I want to ask you about your very clever use of crime stories within crime stories, which is how William Warwick, your current hero, first appears in the Clifton Chronicles. Can you talk about Warwick’s origin story and his character traits?
JEFFREY ARCHER: Well, the success of the Clifton Chronicles was a shock. I mean, they went to number one in the New York Times on all three best-seller lists, and that was only the second time I’d ever done that. It’s the story of a writer, based on me, called Harry Clifton. And what he wrote about was a man called William Warwick. Readers wrote to me from all over the world saying, “We want you to write about William Warwick.” So I went away and thought about that, and decided I’d try and do something different because there are so many crimes stories. So I decided I was going to write a novel about a detective and not about the crimes.
So this is a young man at an English public school who decides he wants to be a policeman in the Metropolitan Police Force, and his father, a distinguished QC, Queens Counselor, wants him to go to Oxford and read law and then join him in what we call Chambers and become what we call a barrister. Nope. William defied his father and became a constable on the beat. So we’re going to take him over eight books from being a constable on the beat all the way through to his becoming Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Now to do that, he has to go through being a detective, then inspector, chief inspector, superintendent, chief superintendent, commander, deputy commissioner, and commissioner. Now, having decided to do this at the age of 80, I realized that I actually had to live to 87 to make it all happen. Well, I’m on book four, and because of the evil coronavirus, I managed last year to do two books in 14 months.
Then I added the idea that not only do we take this man through each of the positions in the Metropolitan Police in each book, while all the books are separate and individual, each book would also be about a different crime. So in book one, he joins the art and antique squad and is chasing a stolen Rembrandt. In book two, he moves into the drug squad. In book three, he takes on police corruption. And in book four, the one we’re discussing, Over My Dead Body, he moves on to murder, but murder with a difference because the commissioner has given him four cold cases to solve because he believes if someone can get away with murder, they might do it again. So we see Warwick as a chief inspector in the murder squad, under the Hawk, his commanding officer, Commander Hawksby. But there’s a twist at the end that I hope will shock you.
Let’s add another thread to your description. I was struck by the Sherlockian tradition of an archnemesis that you draw on in the William Warwick mysteries in the person of Miles Faulkner.
Well, you’re quite right. My wife always says that the readers are far more interested in the villains than they are in the goodies, and a William Warwick is a very fine policeman doing a very fine job. But in book one, he comes up against an art collector and very dubious man called Miles Faulkner. And I got so interested in Miles at the end of book one, in which he has been moving pictures of great value from one place to another without anyone knowing, some stolen, some used for drug money, some use for money laundering. I thought at the end of that book, “I’ve got to keep this character.” And yes, there he is again in Over My Dead Body. He’s in prison at the time, but he escapes.
William works for the Hawk, but he has someone else he reports to, and her name is Beth. Can you tell us a little bit about William’s home life?
Well, I’m very privileged to be married to a remarkable woman. We’ve been married for 55 years. My wife is Mary. She is currently Chairman of the British Science Museum. She was formerly Chairman of the Cambridge University Trust Hospital, one of the great hospitals in Britain. In fact, under her chairmanship, it won The Best Hospital in Britain twice in her last three years. And Her Majesty, The Queen, made her a dame. So she’s now Dame Mary. So I use her in a lot of the books because she’s an exceptionally clever and great scientist, a remarkable beauty as well. So when you look at Beth, William’s wife, you will really see Mary at a young age, Mary when she was at Oxford getting a First Class Honors degree before she could vote. So William, being a sensible man, like myself, married a remarkable woman. And she runs right through the book, and she works at a museum called The Fitzmolean, which is a combination, of course, of the great Ashmolean in Oxford and the great Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. I put the two together, and she works there, and she’s working her way up the ladder in book four. And she’s now Keeper Of The Pictures. But of course, Miles Faulkner, who loves stealing pictures, or who loves moving them when no one’s expecting them to be moved, or buying them or selling them. So there’s an intertwining with Beth and with William and with Miles Faulkner, but worse, Miles is married to a very cunning, wicked woman called Christina. And no one’s ever quite sure whose side she’s on. She’s a friend of Beth’s, but she’s married to Faulkner, and she’s not to be trusted further than she can be seen.
Let us talk about a young American who appears at the very beginning of Over My Dead Body. Tell us about James Buchanan.
James Buchanan was based on a researcher I worked with 40 years ago. He was brilliant. He was a Harvard boy, went into law, had a quite brilliant career, but I remember him at the age of 18, 19, and 20, when he was what the British would call eccentric. I mean, he used to read The Spectator and The New Statesman, two of England’s great political magazines, one on the left and one on the right. And he read them, he said, to keep up with what was happening in Britain. So that particular young man begins book four in a big way. He’s on board a ship with William and Beth when they’re having a holiday. Because he wants to join the FBI after leaving Harvard, and he wants to talk to this policeman about his career and why he left university and went into the police force. And so we follow this remarkable young man, who’s the grandson of the owner of the shipping line, as they witness a murder in the third chapter. And the English policeman, William Warwick, a detective, and this bright young kid from Harvard solve the murder. But it doesn’t work out quite as they planned.
No, it does not! I was quite taken with young James. Will we see him again in a future novel?
Well, to be honest with you, I hadn’t intended that he would breathe longer than the first seven chapters. But once again, the fans (Over My Dead Body was released earlier in England) have been writing in saying, “We absolutely love him. We adore him. Please bring him back.” So I’ve mentally got to find a way. I mean, he’ll go to Harvard, then he’ll go to the FBI even though it was always destined he would take over the shipping line. But I don’t want that. I want him to stay in the FBI. So the answer to your question is I’m very aware of how many people have enjoyed him as a character and want to see where he’s going. But I don’t know where he’s going because I’m a storyteller, and I never know until I pick up the pen.
You don’t outline your plots? You don’t know every detail?
No. Good heavens, no. These people who outline their plots are called writers. We storytellers pick up the pen and we move it across the paper. I still hand write every word. I move it across the paper because I like the slowness with which it moves, because then you can think a sentence ahead. So I don’t know what’s going to happen to James Buchanan. I am not sure what will happen him. But yes, he will come back.
Well, I’m very impressed with your storytelling prowess, but I sense that there’s a certain amount of research that goes into it. I mean, your facts about artists and the paintings and how they’re handled are not based on intuition.
Well, I always say to young writers, “Write about what you know about.” I’ve had a passion for art all my life as a collector. There isn’t a city on Earth where I haven’t been to and seen at least three art galleries in that city. So it’s a passion and a love, and that does get into the books. As I say to young writers, “Write what you know about. If you have a hobby or something you know about, put it in the book because the reader will know you know what you’re talking about.” So yes, my love of art gets into almost every book.
But to answer your question on research, I do research two ways. One, reading a lot, but two, human beings. So on this book, I have a very remarkable former Detective Chief Superintendent, John Sutherland, who sadly retired from the police when everyone wanted him to become the commissioner. He retired because he had a breakdown and what he described in his autobiography as one murder too many. Very sad story. I asked him if he would pay me the honor of being the chief researcher, and he agreed. And I have another chief researcher, Michelle Roycroft, who was 30 years in the Metropolitan Police; 15 in the drug squad, seven in the murder squad. This is some woman. So the two of them together check every fact and make sure I can’t make a fool of myself. So if you see something you didn’t know, it’s probably come from their knowledge and their experience. They’ll give me an idea and the story, and then I will weave it together. And if you think something is totally unbelievable in the book, that will be the one thing that actually happened because they do tell me some amazing things about what’s happened in their career. So I’m always digging and pulling. So the answer to your question is that I’m perpetually stealing any nuggets from them I can get my hands on. Then I read the research, and then, after I’ve done 10 drafts of the book, I will allow them to read it, and then they can say, “Well, we wouldn’t be allowed to do that,” or “The law stops us doing that.”
Thank you so much for describing your wonderful research methodology. It really sounds like a lot of fun. I want to mention, too, that Over My Dead Body is very funny. I mean, there’s a lot of wit and humor in there, amidst all the bodies and everything else.
Well, I never see any harm, if you’re a storyteller, in bringing humor into even the most evil situation. And if two people love each other, as William and Beth do, they have a relationship in which they can tease each other. The same with Commander Hawksby, in charge of his brilliant young team. Of course, he gives them hell, and they all tease each other. If you can get a witty line or a sharp comment in, it’s sometimes more effective than a serious line because it brings it home more poignantly.
This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by HarperCollins, publisher of Jeffrey Archer’s Over My Dead Body, available in October.
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