Posted by Billy in February's Magazine
The Editor catches up with Edinburgh based crime writer Tony Black as he launches Loss, the latest book in the Gus Durie series.
Dougray Scott,” says Tony Black, his unflinching gaze meeting my own. “I originally thought of Robert Carlisle but he may be slightly too old.” He is replying to my rather dull prodding on who would play his ex-journalist investigator Gus Durie on the small (or big) screen. He looks into his empty coffee cup as if reading the grains, the absolute antithesis of his antihero Durie, for Mr Black is teetotal. Gus is to teetotalism what Tony Blair is to pacifism. He does dry out by book three in the series – we’ve had ‘Paying For It’ and ‘Gutted’ so that would be ‘Loss’ – only to embrace an enthusiastic amphetamine habit. Another damaged private investigator then, and why the hell not, when he is as rip-roaringly entertaining, visceral, lovable, unlovable, and downright fucked-up as Mister Gus Durie.
Promises made to be broken
We are sitting in the Malmaison Hotel in Leith – curiously up for sale as it is ‘too far from the city centre’ – and Tony is an engaging and, dare I say it, darkly handsome interviewee. Indeed, if all my attempts to get him to have a bevy had not been rebuffed, he would have been my idea of a shoo-in to play his own creation, Gus Durie. In the latest book in the series, the just published and already reprinted Loss, Gus is (literally) off the Edinburgh streets and back with his estranged wife on the back of a series of promises, but what the hell…it’s Gus, we know they will not be kept. His brother is found with a bullet in his heart – get that, in his heart – and his ravelled life begins to unravel. It was ever thus with Gus, most people run away from screams, Gus Durie runs towards them.
Is it a truism that the main protagonist in crime fictions has to be flawed?
Flaws are much more interesting. If everyone was perfect, if no one had anything dark in their locker, the world would be a duller place. Look at George Best, great footballer, but what were we fascinated by? The booze, the girls, the back-story. I wanted Gus Durie to have something going on behind his eyes, but you don’t necessarily know what it is. So yes, he starts off in denial about his drinking and is increasingly out of control, but I want him to be aware of his actions. As the series develops you will see he is always in danger of losing people who are dear to him. I want him to be aware of the consequences of his actions.
The blurb says Gus is a reluctant PI and enthusiastic alky…
Ha! Ha! That’ll be the publishers. The genre is laden with clichés so I wanted the character of Gus to ring true within his environment. He is very down to earth, comfortable among hardened drinkers and those who have nothing. He would be uneasy on George Street or among the tartan tat on Rose Street. He’s definitely a ‘glass half empty’ sort of bloke, in Gus’s Edinburgh it is nearly always raining, which is handy because he’s not a sunshine type of guy. On the other hand he is not impervious to its history or the beauty of the place. It is his love for the city that makes him acutely aware of its flaws. And yes, he is not keen on digging around in other people’s lives; he usually gets dragged screaming and kicking into a case.
You talked at the reading, about Edinburgh’s schizophrenic heart?
Yeah, Robert Louis Stevenson was a huge influence on me as a child. Treasure Island blew me away from page one. How he brings characters alive. Later of course, Jekyll and Hyde and too The House of the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown – the black heart of Scotland rendered in dense Scottish vernacular – I return to it every year. It is a terrain that Irvine Welch inhabits as well, I’m a huge fan; he is a very underrated writer. People say The Great Gatsby is the perfect novel, but so is Maribou Stork Nightmares – absolutely beautiful writing, if you are taking a creative writing class it’s all there. Even my lecturers at university had a (grudging) admiration for his ear for dialogue. All the Gus Durie novels are dialogue driven.
Some of the (mainly glowing) reviews have made a virtue out of Gus’s ‘unlikeability’, one even calling him the ‘punk rocker of the Scottish crime scene’.
I don’t know about unlikeable, a big proportion of my readers are women, so he must be doing something right! I would say unconventional. Publishers tend to want what they call sympathetic characters, which is to say characters that the reader can identify with. Gus is multi-faceted, sometimes you want to slap him and tell him to sort his life out but at his core he has a good heart. I don’t think you’d kick him if you passed him in the street!
What about the creative process, do you start with the murder and work backwards?
It’s different with every book, even superficially, one was written in the morning, one in the middle of the night. Always one at a time. I get ideas for the next book whilst working on the current one, but I jot them down on a post-it note and forget about them. They are all character based; I’ll start with where Gus is in his life now, how his personal relationships, relationship with the bottle and his working life are. The story springs from there. I’m not big on research; I always think it shows when a book is dripping with research. I’ll only do the research necessary to make the story work.
With that we leave the warm embrace of the pub and skulk through the neon flecked back streets of Leith – proper Gus Durie territory – in search of Mr McGoverne’s squalid lodgings, erm I mean studio, for the cover shoot.
“How do you see the series progressing?” I ask on your behalf. Tony hunches into the icy wind, “Well I’m contracted to Random House for six Durie novels, but I honestly think I could write twenty, he’s such a multi-dimensional character, there is no end to the scrapes he could get himself into. Having said that, I’m also developing a new character who I hope to start writing about soon.” And of course I ask, “What will his flaw be?”