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The Dick Whittington Blues
Why should America have the monopoly on legal thrillers? Nick Stone's new novel shows that London can prove the perfect location for drama in and out of the court room...
You write what you know.
The basic concept for The Verdict came to me at Central Criminal Court – better known as the Old Bailey – in 2004. I was working as a legal clerk then, part of the defence team on a murder trial.
My job officially consisted of writing down everything said in court – every question, every answer, every legal argument, every judge’s ruling. But that wasn’t all I did. I also dealt with cops, gunshot experts and witnesses. I even did a bit of sleuthing, visiting a crime scene, working out bullet trajectories, matching location to eye witness testimonies. It was inspiration as osmosis.
I not only had a front row seat to the judicial process’s endgame, but the two barristers I was working for included me in their discussions about the trial. They’d plot and scheme and strategize in the cafeteria. They were hardboiled naturals: sharp, witty, cynical. Who says TV cops and PIs get the best lines?
It was at the Old Bailey that I got the call telling me my first novel, Mr Clarinet, had found a publisher.
Two weeks later I met my new editor, the person who’d signed me. She asked me if I had a follow up. Not exactly, I told her, but I did have a sketch for a legal thriller set in contemporary London.
My new editor listened attentively, nodded enthusiastically, and then shook her head and said she wanted a sequel to Mr Clarinet.
(That is essentially the way it works in commercial fiction: most – but not all – publishers want more of the same thing that attracted them to you in the first place. If they liked it once, they’ll like it again).
So that sketch of mine went on the back burner while I wrote a prequel and sequel to Mr Clarinet in that order. Yet in that time the idea for what became The Verdict never went away. It evolved, quietly.
The Verdict is about a legal clerk called Terry Flynt who has to help defend Vernon James, a multi-millionaire charged with the murder of a young woman found in his hotel suite. All the evidence seems to point to a locked-in guilty verdict. This pleases Terry no end. He hates Vernon, thinks he deserves it. They have history, bad history.
Like most enemies they started out the best of friends. As kids they were brothers from another mother, thick as thieves. Then they both went to Cambridge University, where things went wrong. Vernon falsely accused Terry of stealing his diary. Terry got expelled for theft, but not before getting badly beaten up by some locals on his way back from confronting Vernon. They kicked him in the head. And he was never quite right after that.
He descended into alcoholism and had a nervous breakdown. After he recovered and dried out, he moved to London. He started a family and worked a series of dead end jobs, his prospects getting bleaker with every passing year. Meanwhile Vernon prospered, getting richer and more successful.
After Vernon’s arrest and Terry finds himself working to defend him, he sees the chance to even the score. Does he get Vernon back for the lie he told and its consequences, or does he do the right thing and try to help his nemesis?
The job aside, the inspiration for Terry Flynt was neither personal nor literary, but musical.
Like a lot of teenagers growing up in a satellite town in the 1970s, I was into The Jam. Paul Weller was our voice, one of us. Hearing that clipped, sniping, biting Estuary accent cutting through the radio back then was like an allied broadcast in enemy terrain. He articulated all the petty small-town angst and thwarted ambition I was starting to see all around me; and he wrote quite brilliantly about London from an outsider’s point of view. He had the Dick Whittington Blues.
In 1979, The Jam released their fourth album, Setting Sons. I was an avid reader by then, and when I played the record on my Boots portable turntable I heard narrative. Setting Sons has nothing but character songs – almost every one is a short story. I later found out the record was an aborted concept album about three friends who start out close and wind up enemies. Weller never finished it, but its theme is intact: people who’ve drifted from closeness to enmity. Some of those songs were touchstones for The Verdict. Terry Flynt is the loser with the ‘wallpaper life’ from Saturdays Kids, Vernon the smug, sneery, successful mogul of Burning Sky, and the pair were once Thick as Thieves.
When I decided to set the book in London and write in the first person, I needed to hear Terry Flynt’s voice, to know what he sounded like. So I put on Setting Sons.
I’m big on location. Environment influences character, in fiction as in life.
At first I thought I’d set The Verdict in America. But where exactly? The story didn’t suit Miami, where I’d grounded all three of my previous books. Too sunny, too young, too vibrant, too shallow. You can have a bad day in Miami, but never a bad time. New York was out of the question. Some of my favourite writers already own that city. So I seriously considered one of the rustbelt towns as a location, particularly Detroit. It looked gloomy enough from here.
Then it hit me.
I want ‘gloomy’? What’s wrong with modern London?
It’s gloomy as hell. Pissing rain? Check. Pissed off people? Get on any rush hour tube, train or bus, or take a walk down any local high street in the dead of winter and no one wishes you well. London runs on disappointment, simmering resentment and repressed rage. Everyone bites their tongue so hard they barely speak. In other words, London was an ideal backdrop for a character quietly harbouring hatred for almost twenty years.
Nick Stone, for Waterstones.com/blog