Five Journalists turned Novelists
"Hold the front page" is a phrase we all know and have probably secretly wished we could say at least once. It’s little wonder: the world of journalism can seem heart-poundingly exciting with its deadline-based days and nicotine fuelled nights.
But hold on: can the days always be that exciting? And isn’t smoking really bad for you? The reality of life in journalism is probably less Bernstein and Woodward and more stern time with deadwood.
Which may well be why so many journalists manage to successfully turn their hands to fiction. After all, if real life doesn’t oblige, why not create the world you wished you lived in?
The history of journalists turning their ink-stained hands to the novel is a long and proud one. Charles Dickens served his time pounding out words for the press before he began his classic series of novels. The writers of old Grub Street knew a thing or two about concise plotting from their time spent on the penny dreadfuls. More recent writers have channelled the spirit of the days of magazines such as The Strand to fuse journalism and fiction to headline-grabbing success.
Here are five of the best:
1. Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning (1967)
Fryan has written many fine novels – Spies being a particular must-read - but his greatest work may well be the one where he drew on his experience as a broadsheet journalist. Towards the End of the Morning is one of the great Fleet Street novels. While hardly a thriller in the traditional sense - its plot centres around the more cerebral recesses of a newspaper such as compiling the crossword and writing the Thought of the Day – it acts as an elegy for a vanished world of long lunches and short days. It is a beautiful, poignant and strangely comforting book that now lives in the shadow of the author’s more acclaimed work. Yet somewhere beneath its ink-stained surface, there is the tension of an approaching storm.
2. Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992)
Beginning his career as a journalist, including a stint on The Sunday Times, in more recent times, Robert Harris has grabbed his own headlines with a series of tightly plotted thrillers, beginning with one of the great “What if?” books, Fatherland. Set 20 years after Hitler had won the Second World War, its nuanced and controlled denouement that details the discovery of what happened in the concentration camps adds power and shock to what is already a thrilling read. Utilising the journalist’s ability to tell a story clearly and with impact, Harris somehow manages to make the ending a surprise while simultaneously bringing the horror of Hitler’s Final Solution into sharp focus.
3. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (2005-7)
Adhering to the old adage, “write what you know”, it should come as no Stop Press revelation that many former journalists create their own fictional scribes to tell their tales. Larsson’s phenomenally successful Millennium Trilogy brought the journalism thriller to unprecedented heights of popularity. These densely plotted books transposed the investigative reporter’s eye for detail to the crime novel, while at the same time managing to create one of the twenty-first century’s most interesting female characters. The novels are notable for the author’s attention to detail, something that is arguably only surpassed by his characters’ addiction to caffeine. If there were a reward for literature’s contribution to the sale of coffee machines, then The Millennium Trilogy would be a shoe-in.
4. David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2015)
While it was probably inevitable that a sequel to The Millennium Trilogy would finally arrive, it is surely no coincidence that the author chosen to take on the daunting task is, like Larsson, a journalist. Previously known as the ghostwriter of the brilliant I am Zlatan Ibrahimović, Lagercrantz has managed to channel the spirit of Larsson to create a thriller with that familiar caffeine buzz of excitement.
5. Andrew Marr’s Head of State (2014)
5. Andrew Marr’s Head of State (2014)
While Larsson was unknown outside Sweden at the time of his trilogy’s initial publication. Andrew Marr could hardly be better known. A former broadsheet editor and BBC political chief political correspondent, Marr has moved into television and is one of the country’s foremost journalists. So why write a novel? Marr’s Head of State is in many ways the quintessential journalist’s journalism thriller. As well as being a rip-roaring read, the reader can play the game of second guessing the real identity of Marr’s characters.
From Dickens to Marr, these novels help highlight not only the way journalists can bring their news gathering skills to the thriller, but the paradox that exists in the sub-genre of the journalist-authored thriller. Journalists often rival estate agents and tax collectors as members of the most reviled profession in the country. But we readers know where our literary bread is buttered. Creating characters we love to hate must be so much easier when your working life has been filled with characters straight out of … well, straight out of a novel.
Love them or loath them, journalists have produced some of the most engaging, deliciously dark and just downright readable thrillers of the past few years. For anyone who wants strongly plotted thrillers with the immediacy of a page one headline, there’s nowhere better to read all about it.