This is the first part of the conversation between author William Ryan and Damien Seaman.
Damien Seaman has a degree in modern history from Oxford University and before becoming an author worked as a journalist, parliamentary assistant, financial analyst and security guard. His debut novel, The Killing of Emma Gross (Blasted Heath) is set in the Weimar Germany of the 1920s and is based on the real-life serial killer Peter Kürten and the unsolved murder of Düsseldorf prostitute Emma Gross. You can find Damien at his blog (Go here) and also on Twitter (@Damienseaman).
William Ryan was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and the University of St Andrews and worked as a lawyer before taking up writing full-time. The first two novels of his Captain Korolev series, The Holy Thief and The Darkening Field (The Bloody Meadow), are set in the 1930s Soviet Union. They’ve been shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, The CWA John Creasy New Blood Dagger, a Barry Award and the Ireland AM Irish Crime Novel of the Year. You can find William at his website (here) and also on Twitter (@WilliamRyan_).
In a virtual world where anything is possible, William and Damien met in a pre-war Prague coffee house, with the “Harry Lime” theme from The Third Man playing in the background. Talk turned to their respective crime novels, historical crime fiction in general, the pitfalls of research and the challenges of digital publishing. Not to mention their shared love of interwar intrigue…
Damien: The first thing most people want to know about any kind of historical writer is what drew them to the place and time they write about. So what was it that drew you to early Soviet Russia? Do you have Russian connections?
William: I don’t have any direct Russian connections although I did a fair bit of work there back in the 90s and almost went to live there in 97. The real interest came from reading Russian writers like Bulgakov, Babel and Pasternak. I suppose the question for me is how people functioned in the thirties, when the novels are set, when people faced possible arrest for the smallest of political indiscretions. I think they must have had to compartmentalize their minds– in other words people had public and private personas that could be quite different. On top of which, Korolev, my detective is still coming to terms with his experiences during the First World War and the Russian Civil War. I found that interesting about your novel, the way that the 1914-18 war was still having effects on people many years afterwards. Was that one of the things that drew you to the twenties? And why Düsseldorf in particular?
D: I wasn’t really drawn to Düsseldorf as such. Not at first. I lived in Berlin for three and a half years and that got me interested in Berlin as a setting. But I do think I was drawn to the period because of the hangover of the war. I mean, the immense loss – of people, of property, of innocence – of the First World War has passed into legend for the Brits and French. Now imagine all of that and losing the war on top, so you don’t even have the salve of victory to cover all those wounds.
W: That’s interesting – both Russia and Germany were losing countries (Germany having defeated Russia before its own defeat) and they both ended up with political systems which aspired to global domination. I suppose the connection is obvious.
D: Some historians now talk of the period 1914-1945 as a 20th century Thirty Years’ War, like the second war was inevitable because there was so much unfinished business. Set against that, the pleasure seeking and decadence of the 20s and early 30s in Europe – and Germany in particular – takes on the atmosphere of tragedy. Frankly, that was irresistible. The fact that so many great films and paintings came out of the period didn’t lessen its appeal any, either.
Common to almost all of the films and paintings we remember from the time are the themes of violence and madness, and images of serial killers abound.
This drew me to research real life killers of the time in Germany, and the most interesting case turned out to be in Düsseldorf. The crimes of Peter Kürten drew me there. When I found out that amid all the sordid details was a genuine unsolved murder of a prostitute – well, then I had my ultimate subject: the killing of Emma Gross.
W: I’m curious about that. Without giving too much away about your novel’s plot, I hope, I found Emma’s murder and the way it was dealt with interesting because it seems to reflect the cheapness some people held life in during that period – and the corruption that was endemic in many countries between the wars. Is that something you wanted to show?
D: I did want to explore the nature of corruption, that’s right, but one of the points of the book is that much of what happens spins out from good intentions. I’m also not convinced that much has changed. Corruption never goes away, whether under capitalism or Communism. And in terms of cheapness of life, a murdered prostitute still gets fewer column inches than a missing school girl – or a glamor model’s breasts, for that matter. Serial killers have always been good for newspaper sales, at least from Jack the Ripper onwards. The public loves serial killers, and that’s just as true today as it’s ever been. As soon as they hit the media they become celebrities. How cheap is that?
Talking of serial killers, your debut novel The Holy Thief manages to include many of the features readers would expect of a serial killer novel, yet it remains fresh and exciting. How did you approach the serial killer angle? And, since your second novel The Bloody Meadow is not a serial killer novel, what made you decide to feature a serial killer at all?
W: I wanted to have a very strong first scene for The Holy Thief and I wanted to try and explain why someone like the killer did the things he did. That’s another common theme between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia – the fact that ordinary people became brutal yet attempted to maintain normal lives away from their “work”. You read about concentration camp commanders who have these idyllic pastoral lifestyles while a few miles away half a million people are being murdered and to them it must just have been this unpleasant day job that they left behind them. They were completely divorced from morality but, at the same time, they wanted to live moral lives. Odd.
D: Very true. That’s another compelling thing about the interwar period. The world turned upside down so quickly for so many people that what was normal or acceptable changed utterly.
W: I think that’s what I wanted to explore with the killer in The Holy Thief but, and it’s a big but, The Holy Thief is really about Captain Korolev, the detective who does his best to uncover the truth and bring relative justice to the guilty in a state where both are in short supply. The Bloody Meadow is probably closer to a spy story in some ways but I think both novels are about an individual trying to do the right thing in a society that almost sees honesty and moral behavior as a form of rebellion.
Your detective, Klein, is a bit different but along the same lines. To me he’s a tough, cynical veteran who, despite all his bravado, is an honest man and perhaps a little sentimental. Is that how you saw him? And how did you put him together as a character? And, if I can ask one last supplemental question – how did you research the minutiae of his profession? (I took some notes, I’ll admit).
(The second part of this conversation will appear on Mystery Tribune on April 2, 2012. We greatly appreciate the time and dedication by bother authors).