Kindle Book of the Week - the Michael Ridpath Anthology
The Making of Magnus
- Once every ten years, possibly once every twenty years, a crime writer gets a fascinating opportunity: to create a new detective. When I decided five years ago to start a detective series set in Iceland, I had that opportunity. And it was scary.
The pressure is intense. Plotting is important for a crime novel, obviously, but even more important is character, and especially the character of the detective. If you create someone bland, or unpleasant, or annoying, then no one will want to read your books. Any of them. But if you create a new Marlowe, or Morse, or Poirot, or Rebus, or Salander, then the world will fall at your feet.
It often makes sense when you are trying to learn a writing skill to look at how the masters do it and adapt. But in this case this approach turns out to be a problem; the phantom that stalks you as you create, is cliché. It’s easy enough to decide at the beginning that your detective won’t be a middle-aged loner, divorced, with an alcohol problem, a disrespect for authority, a desire to go his own way and a taste for interesting music from the generation before his. But as you struggle through the process of trying to create an interesting, flawed but sympathetic character, you keep coming back to these characteristics. Because they work.
In my case, there was another problem, which actually turned out to be my salvation. I was writing about Iceland, a country and a language I did not know. The more I learned about the place, the more fascinating I found it. In Iceland, the ordinary is extraordinary. Not just the countryside, which is surreal with its barren lava fields, its mountains, its waterfalls, its glaciers and its fjords. But also the people who are energetic, optimistic, literate and who have a refined sense of the absurd. I realised that if I created a fully Icelandic police inspector, I would find it difficult to enter his character, and it would be awkward for him to remark upon and interact with the extraordinary things around him. To him, they would just be ordinary.
So I spent several weeks coming up with a “backstory” for my detective, which dealt with it. The only easy part of the whole process was the first: deciding on a name. I chose Magnus. It’s the name of Iceland’s most famous male export to Britain, Magnus Magnusson, it’s easy to say and I like it.
Now, back to the backstory. What I came up with was this. Magnus was born in Iceland, but when he was eight his parents divorced. His father, a mathematics professor, got a job at MIT in Boston. Four years later, after the death of his mother, Magnus and his little brother followed their father to America. When Magnus was twenty and a student his father was murdered. The case was never solved, despite Magnus’s own efforts, but he was inspired to join the police. He later became a homicide detective in Boston. Which meant that when the National Police Commissioner in Iceland required an adviser who was both an experienced homicide detective and spoke Icelandic, Magnus was his man.
The idea of all this was simply to put Magnus in Reykjavík speaking Icelandic with a foreign point of view. But this decision had more interesting and useful consequences. Because embodied in this backstory is movement. There are conflicts, unresolved problems: Magnus’s father’s murder, Magnus’s attitude towards Iceland and towards America, the change that a cop who deals with several murders a week might feel when faced with three a year. And as I learned more about Icelandic society, it jarred against Magnus’s American norms. Binge drinking at the weekend, but teetotal on a Tuesday night. Reserved irony. Everyone knows everyone, but Magnus knows no one.
I exploited this with Magnus’s love life. Although he isn’t divorced, he has a serious girlfriend in America, who ditches him. Then he meets Ingileif in Iceland, who seems far from serious. Both of them confuse Magnus. He finds the parade of dating, followed by engagement and then marriage too much, but on the other hand Ingileif’s free and easy attitude towards sex puzzle him at first and then hurt him.
There is no doubt that the most important decisions are made before the writing of the first book in a series, in my case Where The Shadows Lie. Here Magnus is introduced, as is the back story. But what I didn’t expect, and what has been great fun, is developing his character. Part of this is static: getting to know him better, fleshing out his past. But part of it is dynamic: if you make someone’s past unstable, and you throw them in a difficult situation where they suffer pain, confusion and indecision, that person’s character will shift in ways which are neither predictable to the reader nor, more excitingly, to the writer.
So, in the second book in the series, 66 Degrees North, we learn more about Magnus’s past, which makes us question his assumptions about the present. His relationship with Ingileif develops in unanticipated directions. And Magnus has second and third thoughts about the home of his ancestors.
As I keep writing further books in the series, my motto is “Keep Magnus off-balance”. Who knows which way he will fall?