An Interview with Charlie Higson
By Sarah Morgan
“Writing crime novels is like making love to a beautiful woman…”
Or at least, that’s what Swiss Toni, one of Charlie Higson’s most memorable characters from The Fast Show, might claim.
But the man who played him knows exactly what it’s really like. He wrote four crime novels in the 1990s, and returned to the genre in February after a quarter-century absence with Whatever Gets You Through the Night, and he was in Harrogate at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival recently to talk about it.
“It’s a return after a very long time,” says the actor and writer. “I wrote the first ones in quick succession, and then other things happened, like having children and making TV series.”
He did, however, continue to write fiction, penning various children’s novels, including a series of young James Bond novels.
“I wanted to write something my three boys would love,” explains Higson. “Then out of the blue I was approached by the Ian Fleming estate, who were looking to revive their literary side, including for younger readers. They asked me if I’d be interested in writing some young James Bond stories, so I jumped at it. It was a dream come true.
“I got to meet members of the Fleming family and became a member of the Bond family, but I realised I didn’t want to get stuck writing somebody else’s character forever. But writing ‘Bond, James Bond’ was a thrill!”
However, crime writing remains his first love.
“I love crime books and that’s all I ever wanted to write. But in the 90s, before the crime boom, it was viewed as a little grimy. My books back then were marketed as sort of in the Iain Banks mould. When the crime boom came along, I wasn’t part of it, I was part of the comedy boom instead.”
Although there wouldn’t appear to be much common ground between the two genres, Higson thinks writing sketches has helped him: “With The Fast Show, you learned how to establish character quickly with just a few words. It’s something I’ve carried on now.
“You need a really strong, central idea”
“I’ve been really lucky to write in a lot of different fields, which is great because you get to revitalise yourself.”
He adds: “But you get attuned, so you’re looking for ideas for whatever you’re doing. So my crime antennae wasn’t tuned, but then, during lockdown, it felt like the time was right to return to crime at last.”
Higson was inspired by a family holiday to Corfu, during which they saw the Rothschild estate, to come up with a story involving a cult led by a wealthy man. McIntyre, a ‘fixer’, is hired to rescue a 15-year-old girl from its clutches, a task that proves to be far easier said than done.
“If you’re going to write a book, you need a really strong, central idea,” claims Higson. “I started a couple of books back in the day but I didn’t have that. Then one day, I was sitting in the bath – that’s when I do most of my thinking – and it came to me.
“If you’ve never read any Dashiell Hammett, you should – he’s the grandfather of American crime fiction. His novel Red Harvest, Akira Kurosawa nicked part of it for his film Yojimbo, which was then nicked by Sergio Leone for A Fistful of Dollars, and then I nicked it for my book!”
Whatever Gets You Through the Night is as much an adventure as anything, and should appeal to the now grown-up readers of his young James Bond novels.
“I like crime writing that gets inside the mind of a screwed-up person, rather than police procedurals,” he explains. “With a procedural, you have to keep who did it hidden, so you can’t get inside their minds. I’m also really interested in conspiracy theories, you dig and there’s something deeper in there.”
Having now launched a new hero onto an unsuspecting world, Higson hopes he’ll be back for more.
“I like McIntyre, he’s quite fun. He’s sort of the anti-Bond, he uses his mind more than being physical. I’ve really enjoyed coming back and doing it.
“In the crime world, what publishers are always looking for is a franchise, a series. I had lunch recently with my publisher and my agent and they asked if I’d do it again, and I said ‘yes’.”
And that can only be good news for readers. Or, as a Fast Show character played by Higson’s old mate Paul Whitehouse might say, “It’s brilliant!”
Top image: Charlie Hopkinson