The novelist and scriptwriter Neil Cross talks about his new book, which covers familiarly thrilling territory.
Captured: tipping into madness on a sliding moral scale
The novelist Neil Cross has always had a taste for revenge - in his books, if not in real life. It was evident in his 1998 debut, Mr In-Between, about an ordinary-seeming introvert who turns out to be a hit man for a demonic figure known only as the Tattooed Man, and in 2004's Man Booker Prize-longlisted Always the Sun, in which a father is driven insane by the compulsion to protect his son, who is being bullied at school.
Since Always the Sun, the 40-year-old author has worked extensively in film and television, writing much of the last series of the BBC spy drama Spooks. The effect on his novels has been fascinating: they've become tauter and, structurally at least, more conventionally thriller-like. They've also become richer and better: the connection Cross forges between the page and the reader's brain is as direct and relentless as it is in Lee Child's Jack Reacher adventures, but his sensitivity to nuance remains that of a literary novelist.
It's no surprise to find that Cross is a fan of American masters such as Donald E Westlake, especially the minimalist crime novels Westlake wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark, and he admits he finds his own early books unbearably prolix when he goes back to them now: "There are long words where no long word has a right to be." Captured, Cross's new novel, is his leanest and most effective yet, a distillation of all that he does so well. Landscape informs mood: much of it is set in the desolate English seaside town of Weston-Super-Mare, a place purpose-built for what Cross calls his "narrative taste for betrayal and retribution", a taste he tries not to think about too much "because if I came to understand it, it might go away. And then where would I be?"
Captured is the story of Kenny, who has just discovered that he has a fast-growing brain tumour and a matter of weeks to live. Remarkably unfazed, he draws up a list of people he wants to see before he dies, people he wants to check up on or make peace with or just thank. Among them is his long-lost friend Callie Barton. He hasn't seen her for decades, but he has never forgotten the kindness she showed him at school, where Kenny was bullied - ridiculed for "his strange appearance and his weird smell and his jaunty demeanour".
He starts to track Callie down, but discovers fairly quickly that she went missing several years before and is presumed dead. There's a lovely moment where Kenny finds a website devoted to her - www.whereiscallie.com - and is transfixed by its photos of her as an adult: "[Her] wrinkles were like cracks in the varnish of an old painting; he could see only the flawlessness beneath." Kenny fixates on the idea that Callie's husband, Jonathan, is responsible, even though he was officially cleared of any involvement. And because Kenny is doomed and so has no need to fear the consequences of his actions, he can afford to take what we might call moral shortcuts. Before long, Jonathan finds himself chained to a radiator in a remote cottage, while Kenny starts to realise that the adult Callie was very different from the child he thinks he remembers.
Something Captured does extremely well is toy morally with the reader, using Kenny's illness to keep us on his side well past the point where we should have started to worry about the righteous certainty of his convictions. Was this Cross's intention? "It was, yes. It was a bit of a technical challenge to myself. In dramatic terms, I'm fascinated by the slippage from one moral universe to another; by how easily an ordinary human being can become an outsider, a criminal, a murderer. But I'm also preoccupied by how certain novelists are able to make an accomplice of the reader. I experienced that complicit shiver first and most profoundly when I read Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley. She makes no attempt to excuse Tom Ripley's homicidal behaviour, but we still want him to get away with it. I've been thinking about how and why ever since."
One of the themes of the novel is false memory - specifically the way that, as we age, we become obsessed with our childhoods, or rather our inability to remember them clearly. The realisation that the cherished "moments in time" we've based our lives and identities on may have been misremembered or even invented is incredibly painful. "Memories are a kind of story we tell ourselves," Cross agrees. "They're much more changeable and pliant, even in the short term, than it's comfortable to recognise. But we're the sum of our memories, too. Take them away and we cease to be who we are. Sometimes that idea terrifies me."
Cross's books can be horrifically violent. (Always the Sun has a plot that looks, from a distance, almost Nick Hornby-esque, but climaxes with a man being kicked to a pulp by hired thugs.) It's clear from reading them, though, that Cross hasn't enjoyed writing these scenes. Indeed, they feel like by-products of Cross's deeply moral compulsion to conjure up the worst that could happen, as if conjuring it up will exorcise it from the world.
"The fictional violence is never a fantasy of what I'd like to do to someone else," he confirms. "It's a way to confront the dread of what someone might do to me. But it earns its place in the story. I want the violence to scare the reader. To do this, it's got to scare me, which means it's got to be honest. And to be honest it's got to be dredged up from swampy and fearful places." Neil Cross was born Neil Gadd in Bristol, UK, in 1969. When he was five, his mother vanished. His new stepmother and her children disliked and mistreated Neil, so he was relieved when, two years later, his mother reappeared and took him with her to Edinburgh, where she had settled with her new husband, a South African supermarket manager called Derek Cross.
Derek Cross was a strange and complex man - so much so that Neil devoted an entire book, 2005's bestselling memoir Heartland, to trying to unravel him. He was a forceful, charismatic know-all, inspirational in some ways but also frightening. Neil started to notice odd things about him, such as the way that, when Derek didn't think anyone was looking at him, his face would go blank. He owned no photographs or other mementoes of his three previous marriages. He was also violently racist.
At Derek's instigation the family became Mormon. They moved to a tiny Scottish village where Derek rose through the church's ranks, eventually attaining Bishop status. Then, quite suddenly, he disappeared. Neil never saw him again, although he decided to keep his surname "as an act of defiance, like John Lydon naming himself for a mouthful of rotten teeth". It isn't hard to see the link between his stepfather and the chancers and charlatans who drift through Cross's books; also his fascination with identity and betrayal. But Cross put his dysfunctional childhood behind him long ago. He took himself to university, where he did a degree in, of all things, theology. Now he's a stable, happy, married father of two who spends much of the year in New Zealand. Does he still think about Derek?
"Not very often," he admits. "When I wrote Heartland, which was really more about him than me, I had no idea it was something I needed to get off my chest, but apparently it was. It was like I'd cut open my head, reached into my skull and tugged free that glob of brain tissue pertaining to Derek Cross. His legacy does echo in my relationship with my sons, but in a good way. They're now at the age I was when Derek exerted his most profound effect on me, so I'm acutely mindful that the right word spoken the right way - or the wrong word spoken the wrong way - can reverberate for the rest of their lives. Kindness or its opposite can alter a child's DNA like exposure to gamma radiation."
Cross's episodes of Spooks won rave reviews in the UK. Before he came on board, the long-running show, which started in 2002 and made stars of its original cast members Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes, was perceived to be flagging. Now he's developing shows of his own, one of which is a crime thriller with a difference called Luther. In it, DCI John Luther, played by Idris Elba from the acclaimed US drama The Wire, is more interested in justice than the law, a brilliant intellect hoist by the petard of his turbulent passions and a man whose hatred of violence sometimes leads him into violence.
"It won't be much of a surprise to hear I was a happy man when Idris agreed to play the role," Cross says. "Obviously, we knew he'd be very, very good. But we couldn't have guessed quite how good. I can't wait for people to see it." Cross writes full-time, often 12 or 14 hours a day. "Novels and scripts are different disciplines, though not as different as many of those 'how to' books would have you believe, especially if your style tends towards the cinematic. I suppose the difference with a show like Spooks was that I was stepping into a world that had been created by someone else, even though the producers allowed me a great deal of freedom to tell the stories I wanted. As a scriptwriter you're always a hired hand, but now I'm originating my own TV shows, that's less of an issue."
Unexpectedly, Cross gives us closure at the end of Captured: we find out exactly what happened to Callie. The absence of ambiguity is refreshing - in some novels, it's clearly the result of a lazy refusal to clarify on the author's part. The question remains, though: why nail it down so precisely? "Because if you take a reader somewhere that dark and keep making it darker, I think you owe them a proper ending." He shrugs. "Anything else would have shortchanged the people who stuck with me and Kenny right to the end."