Monday, 15 January 2018

Tony White: You are What you Read.

The Fountain in the Forest is a detective novel set in contemporary London, in the South of France in the mid-1980s, and at Stonehenge on 1 June 1985. It’s the first of three novels exploring the immediate aftermath of the Miners’s Strike: the 90 days between the end of the strike and the Battle of the Beanfield, the largest civilian mass arrest in British history outside of the Second World War.

The Fountain in the Forest was partly inspired by the French Revolutionary Calendar: a radical non-hierarchical system of ten-day weeks created by the playwright Sylvain Maréchal and implemented during the French Revolution, which offered a new and revolutionary way to experience and think about time. The Revolutionary Calendar did away with days dedicated to saints and royalty. Instead each day celebrates an item of everyday rural life: honey, rake, blueberry, pigeon, alder, etc. Looked at through the lens of the Revolutionary Calendar with its ten day weeks, those 90 days of defeat and despair following the Miners’ Strike become nine revolutionary weeks, which for me begs the question: revolutionary how? To investigate this I needed a man or woman on the inside, as it were. So Detective Sergeant Rex King of Holborn Police Station’s Homicide and Serious Crime Command was born. The novel opens with DS King hurrying down Lamb’s Conduit Street to a serious incident in a nearby London theatre, where a body has been found backstage.

This is my first detective novel. I’m not sure why it should have taken me so long, since I love the movement and the lightness (in a good way) of a well written detective story, and have been a fan of the form since childhood loans of Agatha Christie from Farnham Library – graduating by the mid-1970s to the superior Ellery Queen mysteries, having recognised the name from the US import TV series that I enjoyed at the time.

Later, in my twenties, I’d devour as many of Ed McBain’s ‘Precinct 87’ novels as I could lay my hands on. While briefly working at Foyles on Charing Cross Road in 1989, I once excitedly took a couple of dog-eared, second-hand paperbacks to a signing the great man was doing at the old Murder One bookshop down the road. He was very gracious about it.

But I’m also interested in a different kind of literary detective. One that goes back to the author Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde true crime story Blood on the Dining Room Floor, which recounts a summer of strange events in a village in the South of France that culminate in the death in suspicious circumstances of neighbouring hotelier Madame Pernollet. Stein presents these events over and over, from different viewpoints, like a Cubist painting, but the whole remains as light and airy as a lace shawl.  This more experimental lineage of detective fiction would include Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. And Samuel Beckett, in whose compelling and terrifying masterpiece Molloy, the detective Moran and his eponymous quarry seem at the very least to reflect each other, or even (once the reader is forced to imagine the novel’s two chapters reversed) to be the same person.

All of which might be another way of saying that you are what you read. And with The Fountain in the Forest I was looking to bring both traditions together: Ellery Queen’s laying bare of the machinery of the thriller, and the lightness and experimentation of Gertrude Stein. But writing a novel is not just about genre and influences, it’s not just about starting the engine, but keeping it going: finding something that generates enough of a spark, enough momentum or velocity to get both story and writer through the year or two that it can take to complete the task. With The Fountain in the Forest this was provided by the ten-day framework of the Revolutionary Calendar, with its rich daily imagery and observances. A litany of everyday rural life, which of course includes medicinal plants, as well as tools that can easily be repurposed as weapons: valerian, nightshade, hemlock, henbane, sickle, spade, knife…

The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White is published by Faber & Faber in January 2018 (£14.99)
When a brutally murdered man is found hanging in a theatre, Detective Sergeant Rex King becomes obsessed with the case. Who is this anonymous corpse, and why has he been ritually mutilated? But as Rex explores the crime scene further, the mystery deepens, and he finds himself confronting his own secret history instead. Who, more importantly, is Rex King? Shifting between Holborn Police Station, an abandoned village in rural 1980s France, and Stonehenge's Battle of the Beanfield, The Fountain in the Forest transforms the traditional crime narrative into something dizzyingly unique. At once an avant-garde linguistic experiment, thrilling police procedural, philosophical meditation on liberty, and counter-culture bildungsroman, this is an iconoclastic novel of unparalleled ambition.

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