The best bit about writing a novel on a drug deal, Amsterdam, forgery, a bent spy and gambling is the ‘research and development.’ How else would one explain away frequent trips to the dodgiest city in Europe? I deliberately omitted to thank any of my contacts that gave me chapter and verse on the world in which ‘Switch’ is set because I didn’t want to end up in the bottom of a Dutch canal.
My favourite source, however, was an alarmingly frank MI6 officer who filled me in on the reality of being a spook. To start with, they’re extremely badly paid given the talents with which they need to be blessed. So it wasn’t stretching the truth when Max Ward admits to his lover Sophie – who is distractingly sexy – that he couldn’t resist shorting an African government’s currency after he’d heard the content of their phone calls. He knew it was wrong – that it had to stop – but he certainly wasn’t giving the money back on his wages.
The opportunity to meet a real forger was a stroke of luck. He was, in the nicest possible way, the most devilishly naughty person I’ve ever met. Which is probably why he’s so good. I now feel quite intoxicated with the knowledge that generations of Dukes have been selling off works of art on the quiet to fix their roofs. And replacing them with copies, so not to upset their heirs.
Good forgers have an immense amount of guile, even if it is channelled in the wrong direction. But what I hadn’t realized about forgery is that it’s equally important to forge the provenance as the work of art itself. Sophie’s father Jacques comes unstuck because the forged magazine, dated sixty years previous, which he created containing an essay on his creation, was unfortunately not published that month. Unlucky, because only a bent spy such as Pallesson might have checked such a detail; but Jacques should have been more thorough.
Sophie creates two copies of the Peasants in Winter, that well-known Breughel masterpiece. And I love the way she distinguishes between the two of them. ‘You always add a detail, rather than subtract,’ she explains to Max. ‘People miss what they know should be there, but they don’t see a small added detail.’
The obsession with delusion that a forger must have is also interesting. Knowing that a yellow pigment derived from the urine of cows, which were only fed mangoes, for instance, is an opportunity for the meticulous forger. Because any painting containing that pigment will be assumed to pre-date the era, during which that pigment production was made illegal.
Some say that a good novel revolves 80% around the plot, and 20% around the characters. Others say it is the opposite. I don’t agree with either. What is the point in Max Ward having a beautiful French forgeress as his lover and a seductive banker’s wife as a mistress if every male [and some female] reader doesn’t want to screw them? In addition, how can Max work as a hero if women reading Switch don’t want him? Moreover, none of that works, anyway, if there is no sense of place. Therefore, if Eton, Castle Vleuylen or the British Embassy in The Hague don’t feel instinctively real, the characters also fail.
I hope Switch doesn’t.