Phil Brett has just published Gone Underground, the second of his Pete Kalder novels. It’s a crime novel, set in a future revolutionary Britain, and here he explains how he got the idea.
It was reading a number of the Lew Archer novels by Ross Macdonald which inspired me to write my own crime novel. The trouble was that whilst Archer or Chandler's Philip Marlowe or Hammett's Sam Spade are believable in the whisky bars of hard-boiled America, I didn't think I could envisage the same in Britain.
My imagination of such a novel set here merely extended to some seedy bloke investigating divorce cases. Not my cup of tea – let alone a bourbon on the rocks. So should I write a police procedural? Here was another problem though – for someone who considers himself a socialist, could I write a novel with a good guy from the Metropolitan Police? Hmmmm…….. The experience and memories of policing for many people has been one of kettling, Orgreave, or miscarriages of justice in such cases as the Tottenham Three. Making them good guys takes a very good writer, a whole lot of empathy and a cargo ship full of suspension of disbelief.
There was the option of writing a novel where the cop is the bad guy, maybe like Irvine Welsh's Filth – but then I'm a romantic, I like a hero.
So why not make sure that the reader sees the cop as being very different from the police force? P.D. James made her Inspector Dalgliesh a poet, and Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse is someone who as the great writer, journalist and activist Paul Foot said, was the type of liberal, cultured and fair police officer that everyone wants – but never encounters in the real world. Now I love both – yes, I know James was a Tory peer, but such are the contradictions of capitalism – but again, I couldn't see myself being able to write like that.
One final possibility was that in many novels (and indeed TV series) nowadays, the murders are brutal, serial and usually involve torture (often of women). (For more on the sub-genres of the crime novels see my Murder, Mavericks and Marxism). This allows the reader to support the cop breaking any law whatsoever 'to get the job done' because that is the lesser of two evils. Again though, this wasn't something I wanted to write.
So I returned to the problem of writing a novel in Britain – but if it was serious crime, where were the cops? The answer was obvious and was staring me in the face. I believe that a revolution is possible in Britain. Here, as in so many other countries, people have shown that the existing order can be overthrown. Why, we even chopped old Charlie Stuart's head off, and at the Putney debates that followed in 1647 there were days of revolutionary discussion of what a new Britain would look like. Just look around: Russia 1917, Hungary 1956, Paris 1968, the eastern bloc in the late eighties: when there is upheaval, the repressive state apparatus crumbles. So there was my answer: set the crime novel in a future Britain, which is undergoing a revolutionary change.
I wrote Comrades Come Rally (the first Pete Kalder novel - see Ian Birchall's book review ), taking place on the eve of a revolution. This would solve the 'where are the cops?' question and also allow me to ponder what such a situation might look like. What might dual power of a still functioning, but increasingly desperate parliament, alongside nation-wide workers’ councils look like? It is a crime novel, but the central characters include Pete Kalder, an ex-cop, Victoria Cole, and the revolution itself.
It isn't science fiction, purely for the reason that I am a techno-idiot – my greatest discovery of recent years is learning how to use the Microsoft Snipping Tool! Writing it, I did notice that so many of the novels set in the future do not share my optimism. The norm is dystopian. Brave New World, the Handmaid's Tale, the Hunger Games, 1984 et al – all oppressive and reactionary futures.
Now, these are great works of fiction. Indeed, it was Orwell's 1984, alongside the Clash’s first album, which helped form my politics, but I see the future as having the possibility of liberation. Rosa Luxembourg wrote that we face the choice of either socialism or barbarism; many liberals will see our world of global warming with the likes of Trump and Johnson, with their reactionary politics and bad hair, as advance guards of the latter.
Many of these types of novels act as warnings. Which is all well and good, but what of the working class? If they are mentioned at all, they are victims of this society – not agents of change, able to challenge and defeat it. Dystopian novels, let me repeat, represent some brilliant writing, and I rank them as some of my favourite reads, but they are obviouslypessimistic in their world view. I am not.
So the future in the Pete Kalder novels is a positive one. In my latest, Gone Underground, the revolution has happened. It is not utopia. There is still the muck of ages, as Marx called it – people are not perfect. It is a transitional workers’ state, based on freedom and democracy. It’s one which the former ruling class of the UK, and those in other countries, want to topple. With the police force collapsed, who will tackle the crimes of MI5 and their ilk?
Here was my crime, and here was the reason for the police not being around. Kalder himself is not a cop, he is a type of outsider, being a Party member – but cynical, and a vain, rather self-obsessed one. Clothes are rather important to him, he's as likely to take against someone for wearing a naff pair of jeans, as he is for their reactionary politics. Yes, he is aided by ex-cops which have switched sides – and which as Ian Birchall has pointed out, did in some cases happen in Paris 1968 – but it is categorically not the police force we know today.
My books are not intended to be political discussions, they are crime novels with a political dimension, with a few jokes thrown in. But while hopefully engaging the reader to guess the murderer, they do ask a few questions. What might this future look like? How would law and order be organised? What environmental action would be taken? Would people be organised in Leninist parties or in looser movements?
In C.J. Sansom’s wonderful Shardlake novels set in the Tudor era, and S.G. MacLean's Seeker series set in Cromwell's Protectorate, the events and politics of the time are used as motors to help drive the plot. I attempt a similar thing, only in the future. They perhaps contain, to quote a lyric from the punk band Buzzcocks, a "Nostalgia for an age yet to come". Of course, you don't have to share my politics to like them. Indeed, you might actually share my politics and hate them, but there is a political basis to them – one of hope, even in a murder enquiry.
You can purchase either Comrades Come Rally or Gone Underground here.
Phil Brett is a primary school teacher, who has written two novels (Comrades Come Rally and Gone Underground) set in a revolutionary Britain of the near future. In between planning lessons and marking, he is writing the third.
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