The journalist and author’s new book The Fountain in the Forest (Faber, £14.99) is the first of a trilogy following Detective Sergeant Rex King. In the first instalment King becomes obsessed with the brutal murder of a man in a theatre. But the Thatcher-era set novel is more than crime fiction – it’s a linguistic experiment and a philosophical meditation on liberty.
How did the idea for the book come to you?
The Fountain in the Forest is a detective story set in contemporary London, on the French Riviera in the mid-1980s and at the Battle of the Beanfield at Stonehenge on 1 June 1985. I’d been planning the novel for a decade, slowly piecing it together in my mind. Then, by chance I visited the paint frame – a vast workshop behind the Theatre Royal Drury Lane where theatrical backdrops are painted. Looking around this huge space I suddenly saw it as my crime scene. It’s a place where illusions are produced, and the suspended wooden frames upon which the theatrical gauzes and backdrops must be stretched for painting are absolutely immense, crushingly heavy, but they’re so delicately counterweighted that they can be lightly raised then dropped back down into the depths, like great wooden guillotines. Of course a crime scene by definition needs an investigator, so graduate policeman Detective Sergeant Rex King of the Homicide and Serious Crime Command at nearby Holborn Police Station was born.
Much of the book relates to a period in 1985, between the Miners Strike and the Battle of the Beanfield. What was the significance of that period?
I think that’s partly what I’m exploring: how were these two cataclysmic political events connected? How did we get from the Battle of Orgreave to the Battle of the Beanfield, said to be the largest civilian mass arrest in British history outside of the Second World War? And what is the legacy today of the period that these events bookend? We may think we know plenty about the Miners’ Strike itself, but by comparison, the days of defeat and despair in the immediate aftermath of the strike are distinctly overlooked. Yet I’ve always felt there was an important story that needed to be told about them.
The book is organised according to the French Revolutionary Calendar. What did that allow you to do?
It gave me a different approach to thinking about time. The French Revolutionary – or Republican – Calendar was created during the French Revolution by a playwright named Sylvain Maréchal. In the Revolutionary Calendar, each day of the year has equal value and none are dedicated to royalty or religion, but instead celebrate the stuff of everyday rural life, from primroses, mushrooms and rhubarb to livestock animals, natural medicines and tools. It also has 10-day weeks, so when looked at through the Republican Calendar, those 90 days in 1985 between the end of the Strike and the Battle of the Beanfield become nine revolutionary weeks. Which for me begs the question, revolutionary how? Was there a revolution in policing in the immediate aftermath of the Miners Strike?
You also set yourself the task of incorporating certain words – a mandated vocabulary – into the book. What was your aim in doing that?
I love the work of the writer Georges Perec. I’m fascinated by his approach: he wrote a whole novel without using the letter “e” – incredible! Perec was part of a group called Oulipo, whose members applied mathematical and other constraints (experimental techniques) to writing, including the idea of a mandated vocabulary, where the words used to write a story or poem are predetermined in some way. Using this revolutionary technique to write a novel gave me a new way to write about historical events while paying tribute to Perec. And the mandated vocabulary dictates everything – not just names, places, objects and animals, and the historical figures that are cited, from Walter Mondale to Spike Milligan, but the story itself, right down to romance. When words like “expectant”, “touch”, “erect” and “flagrante delicto” have to be used in a particular chapter, you know that love is in the air!
Is it too much of a spoiler to ask you specifically why you chose the words you did?
In the mid-1980s I bought the Guardian newspaper and did the quick crossword every day without fail. So when I was researching that period in the newspaper archives at the British Library – initially for a collaboration with the artists Jane and Louise Wilson – I couldn’t resist redoing one of those same crosswords again. But I wasn’t prepared for this Proustian effect: the memories and associations that it triggered. So I did more, then idly wondered what would happen if I used these crossword solutions as an Oulipian mandated vocabulary. The Fountain in the Forest and the next two volumes are the answer to that question. The crossword solutions themselves bring a shot of period authenticity, each one a 26-word time capsule. But beyond that decision, there is no element of choice. Each chapter is mapped against a day in 1985 and must be written using all of the solutions to the Guardian quick crossword from that same day in 1985. So in a way it feels more like the words have chosen me – as if the whole thing was predestined.
This is the first book in a trilogy. Can you give us a hint about where the next two will lead?
I can promise that you’ll be seeing a lot more of Detective Sergeant Rex King. The story is inexorably mapped out by the Revolutionary Calendar and the mandated vocabulary: the crosswords have been completed for the whole trilogy and their word is law. So I can tell you, for example, that we’ll be back on the Riviera in chapter 22 of volume II, and that a certain highly significant character from The Fountain in the Forest must reappear in chapter seven of volume III, which is really going to put the cat among the pigeons.