With a prolific novel-writer career that stretches over a quarter of century now, Christopher Fowler is best known for his immensely fun Bryant and May detective novels. The story of London’s Peculiar Crime Unit, set up to investigate “cases that could cause national scandal or public unrest”, the books are a whistle-stop tour of classic detective story genres and tropes.
That wit, huge knowledge and playful approach is present throughout Fowler’s work. He changes gear and tone with grace, intelligence and an exuberant love of his subject matter. That brings us to The Sand Men, his latest novel, published this week by Solaris (you can buy it here).
Set in a luxury resort in Dubai, it follows a family of three from the UK as they try and settle in. Roy, the husband, has been hired to fix ongoing problems at the Dream World beach complex. His wife, Lea, finds herself all but imprisoned in a never-ending cycle of luxury and social obligation and both embrace the ex-pat community in the area as a lifeline. Until one of them is killed…
I spoke to Christopher about the book, the influences on it and how a text changes as it’s written.
Tell us a little about the book.
“I visited an ex-pat ‘dream ranch’ in Dubai because I have a relative who lives on one, and the more I found out about life there the stranger it got. So all of the odd stories in the book are absolutely true. Basically, it’s the story of a family that moves to Dubai to work on a futuristic resort, only to find themselves in a vipers’ nest of covert sex and violence. There are two mysteries, the main one of which is resolved and the smaller one, which the reader must make up their own mind about.”
How would you classify the book?
“My writing often falls between genres. I’d say this was part-SF, part-thriller.”
There’s a really Ballardian feel to the novel in places, especially the exploration of small, associative groups of Brits under mounting social pressure. What attracted you to that idea as an author?
“I thought that the only way we could look into this odd closed-off type of community –which is almost becoming the norm around the world now – was by being an outsider looking in and making discoveries. Of course those discoveries may be entirely true or subject to hysterical overreaction on the part of those coming in!”
The novel tackles a lot of massive issues absolutely head on, including the class system, the worst elements of expatriate culture and the different weights of respect given to the male and female viewpoints. What was most challenging to write? And what was most rewarding?
“Honestly, it was exhausting. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and how I should go about it, but the journey took me through another more apocalyptic route, until I decided that no, it’s easy to simply blame a big faceless corporation; let’s see what happens if I approach it with more subtlety and say, hey, how responsible are we for creating this situation?
“It’s not a crime novel with a neat ending. I like that as you close the book you start to think, ‘Wait a minute…?’ The hardest part was creating a likeable but possibly misguided central character. The easiest parts were the descriptions of the place, because I went there several times to finish my research and it’s all there in searing heat and lurid colours, laid out before you. The most rewarding bit was when a reader finished an advance copy and said; ‘I’ve lived there and I understand the kind of hell your heroine went through.’”
“It’s where the future lives, where modernity is all-important but you can never quite rid yourself of the past. If you work hard and keep your nose clean you’ll be rewarded. The Arabic way of thinking is surprisingly close to the American way. And in its own way, it breeds rebellion.”
How did the book evolve as you were writing it?
“For a while part of me simply wanted to destroy the resort called Dream World where one of the characters works. That happened in an early draft. Then a New York publisher read the draft and said, ‘No, you can afford to make it more ambiguous.’ Also it was important to me not to demonise the indigenous Arab population because they’re walking a complicated line and asking themselves, ‘What do we do when the oil runs out?’ They can’t go backwards. Equally, those coming in can’t understand them or conform to this strict new world. One of the book’s central questions is whether the conspiracy is real. I placed a big clue in the new title of the book. The original title was Dream World.”
What’s next for you?
“On 5 November its back to crime with the launch of Bryant & May: London’s Glory, then next year two new novels.”
Thanks for taking the time to chat with Buzz, Christopher.
Interview by: Alasdair Stuart