Christopher Galt Novels

Publishing News 4th February 2005
Article and Pic Courtesy of Graham Marks/Publishing News

Germany Calling
Graham Marks meets Craig Russell, a former cop and copywriter whose debut, Blood Eagle, seems set to fly high.

There is a duality about Craig Russell. He's as Scottish as a single malt, yet also an avowed Deutschophile with a particular place in his heart for the city of Hamburg, which he's been visiting for more than 15 years. He speaks German better than he admits to and likes the place and the people so much that he's used the city as the backdrop for his first novel, a gritty, tense police procedural called Blood Eagle.

An ex-advertising copywriter and creative director - he left the day job he'd had for a decade as soon as his publishing deal was done - he says the process of ending one career and starting a new one hasn't been that life-changing. "I sit in the same environment and basically do the same thing. The only difference now is that it is so much more fun and fantastic to be doing something that combines all of my passions," Russell explains. "Also, and maybe I shouldn't be saying this, I find what I'm doing now much easier than copywriting - with a piece of direct mail you've got two seconds to get the reader's attention before it goes in the bin, which is why so many ex-copywriters succeed as novelists."

Russell admits he's always wanted to be a novelist but was just too busy to do anything about it. So what happened? "I'd had the idea for Blood Eagle for some time, maybe three or four years, and I thought that if I didn't do it now I never would. So I set myself a challenge so see if I could get published in a literary fiction magazine; if that succeeded I would then send a synopsis of a series, and a few sample chapters, to some agents and see what that did. Both things worked right away." The truth is that what Russell did was prepare a pitch document for his idea, complete with marketing plan and cover designs. You can take the man out of advertising…

To be snapped up so quickly was, Russell knows, a highly unusual occurrence, but one that gave him the opportunity to finish his book very fast. The end result is a visceral, disturbing crime story, with roots going way back to gruesome Norse rituals, intricately woven into an atmospheric plot that's as current as the daily news. It's an extensively researched story, so had he done a lot of work before he secured a deal? "My knowledge was pretty good already, even some of the police procedures, having served as a policeman myself."

Russell found it useful - for example, when he was talking to the Polizei Hamburg about murder cases, looking at evidence photographs - to be able to say that his job, at one time, was to pull corpses out of car wrecks. "But I think my police experience and (hero) Jan Fabel's police experience are probably only parallel in that he directs murder cases and I used to direct traffic." Russell's cop is no 2D creation: he's a complex personality, not German but a hybrid mongrel, a half-English, half-Friesian character, connected to Hamburg, yet separate from Germany at the same time.

In a funny way he's almost Dutch, and, says Russell, the Dutch were very keen to buy into the series. "In the same week they bought, so did Random House, the Canadians and the Italians. I did hear a discussion at the London Book Fair, between a German and the Dutch publisher, about whether Jan was Dutch or a north German name." The hero and the storyline grew together, Fabel developing as a way of getting past the stereotypical portrayal of Germans, and because Russell felt there was an open goal because no one had written about a contemporary German detective before. "I thought I was there on my own and I'd got a clear run at it."

As Fabel came together in his head, Russell also devised a plan which would allow him to write crime novels that would bring together all of this enthusiasms for medieval as well as modern, post-War history. Blood Eagle came about, he says, because of an ancient Viking ritual in which a living victim's lungs are torn out of their body and flung upwards, like wings. "This is so dark and so menacing, but may actually well have been a piece of anti-Viking propaganda. But the point isn't whether it happened or not, but whether some psycho out there would believe it happened and decide to go about replicating it."

As with all the best crime fiction, Russell isn't taking it easy, just describing a crime and sorting out the jigsaw pieces, fitting them together s artfully as possible until his placid reader gets the picture. Here we have the realpolitik of modern Europe rubbing shoulders with 1960s fanaticism, Third Reich mythology mixed with echoes of the Dark Ages, and the reader is engaged, gripped and made to follow, even if, at times, it might be easier not to.

Though he likes crime fiction, he's not, he says a true aficionado. "I chose to write it because it's a fantastic medium for exploring a good story; it's always a journey of discovery and you take the reader along with you. This may sound old-fashioned, but for me Raymond Chandler is the guv'nor, and sometimes Paul (Sidey), my editor, has picked up the odd Chandleresque phrase in my books. A lot of my influences - and this is going to sound so poncey - are people like Gunter Grass and Heinrich Böll, who wrote about the post-War German experience."

The second Fabel story, Brother Grimm, is already delivered and Russell is now working on the third book in the series. Could he have just as well set them in UK? "No, it was much more interesting to do it in Germany, to get inside the heads of these complex characters - although, if I'd set the books somewhere else I know I'd have become just as enthusiastic and committed to them."