PC discussing The Lonesome Heart Is Angry...
Questions by Colin Midson
The location for The Lonesome Heart is Angry is the fictional, albeit vividly believable, village of Castlemartin in Northern Ireland. Is it inspired by a real location?
Name wise it's a combination of two neighbouring villages—Castledawson and Desertmartin—to my home village of Magheratfelt. I still don't know know if I wanted to protect the innocent or the guilty, by moving it out of my home village, but I also wanted this village to be closer to the shores of Lough Neagh which I'd been magnetically drawn to for as long as I can remember.
The protagonist, Michael Gilmour is a matchmaker whose role is to find partners for eligible young men and women in the area. Was thing something that really happened in these communities?
Matchmaking was very much part of local communities such as Castlemartin. As in The Lonesome Heart is Angry, as the 1960s galloped in, matchmaking was pretty much a dying art. It would have been the forerunner to computer dating. As in the book, small farmers just didn't have the time, nor, in some instances, the social graces, for the courting game. In a lot of instances they needed a wife rather than fell in love. I would have been aware of the matchmaking stories as I was growing up and, I suppose, as I was growing up I was a romantic. I was intrigued by how love could be negotiated and not happen naturally. Having said that, in the majority of cases and thanks to the excellent work of the likes of Michael Gilmour, the match would stick and resulted in very happy and lifelong marriages. I heard stories as I was growing up of some of the more bizarre arrangements; like 19 year old girls looking for 90 year old farmers; like two brothers looking for two sister; like randy farmers being happy to invest the ten bob registration fees in the hope of scoring a quick ride; of two farmers negotiating directly with the matchmaker for one's son and the other one's daughter to marry in order to protect both their neighbouring farms, in other words the Ulster version of an arranged marriage. I often wondered what might have been the strangest request a matchmaker received and that thought was the beginning of The Lonesome Heart is Angry.
While a criminal investigation takes up a sizeable part of the story, this isn't a conventional crime book in the way that most of you novels are. Were you deliberately trying to do something different in this book?
It wasn't so much that I was wanting to try something different, although it turned out that way, it was more I was interest in telling the story of people's lives from before the point where there may or may not have been a crime committed. When I started off on this story I really didn't know what was going to happen, I wrote it from a point of view that as our story starts and twins, Joe and Pat Kane, visit the Matchmaker, Michael Gilmour, to make their strange request, it's most definitely not a crime novel. But as a result of that strange request something bad may or may not have happened. This is where the local gossips take over and due to what they imagine may have happened the local police are called in. I also wanted to put a couple in the middle of all of this unwanted attention and see if they could get through it with their love intact.
There is a great deal of nostalgia in the book, for a simpler way of life. Yet there is also talk about the need to escape small-town life. Which of these feelings did you feel most keenly about your hometown?
Well you see that's exactly it. I loved the small village life, I really enjoyed the first seventeen years of my life there, being part of that community and financing my teens by being a messenger boy for a local grocer's shop. But I suppose the need to escape it eventually leads you to appreciate it all the more. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I really believe I could only write this story (and the previous Castlemartin novel—The Last Dance) as an exile.
Music plays an important part in the book. To what degree did music and the emerging culture of pop music shape your teen years in Northern Ireland? And did rock 'n' roll fill a vacuum or was it seen as part of a tradition that was already there?
Music was the guiding light that went on in my head one morning when I walked into my mother's kitchen only to be totally floored by the sound on the radio. This sound was so joyous, infectious, enlightening, melodic, pleasing that it had the power not so much to change my life but to set it off on my current course. The sound was being created by four young lads from Liverpool, they were the Beatles of course. I'd say their music didn't so much fill a vacuum as create a world that I'd most certainly never even dreamt existed.
One of your protagonists, Police Inspector Doyle, has an obsession with Sherlock Holmes. Do you share his fascination?
Well I love the detail of the Sherlock Holmes books. I love the way ACD, as a writer, effortlessly passed the glory to Holmes (and Watson). The brilliant thing for me is that he is very content to do so. I much prefer it when the detective takes the star billing over the author. I read Morse and I don't think of Colin Dexter, I think of Morse. I read Sherlock Holmes and I think of Homes, not ACD. I also think it's a major achievement to create a character that, on paper, is more intelligent than the author.
There's some wonderful rural detail in the book: obsolete farming practices; richly described farmhouse interiors; tales of the local community all helping out at harvest time. Do you remember this from your own childhood?
Yes indeed, this is all from my childhood, from growing up in a rural community, from working on farms picking potatoes for two weeks every October; from visiting farmhouses to buy half a dozen eggs for my mother and follow the farmer around the house as he scattered chickens all over the place, feathers aflying in order to steal their precious eggs; from being a messenger boy delivering groceries all around the village and popping in to the various houses for a wee cup of tea and soaking up all the village gossip, even at the times, particularly at the times, when I wasn't even meant to understand what they were on about. So in The Lonesome Heart is Angry it was a real joy for me to go back and relive these experiences.
Do you think that the changes of the 60s were felt more keenly in a rural community in Northern Ireland than they were in, say, London, or even Belfast?
Difficult question but a good one and food for thought... I mean the fashions of the day would eventually hit Magherafelt. For instance I got a chequered pair of hipsters about six months after seeing someone wearing them on Top of The Pops. For instance I remember impatiently waiting 15 months in order for A Hard Hay's Night, the movie, to reach Magherafelt. The radio and Toners (record and religious trinkets shop) meant our access to the music was a lot quicker. When I moved to London in 1967 you could physically feel the gear change beneath your feet when you stepped off the train onto the platform in the manic Euston station. It as all there and all around you and moving so fast a poor Ulster messenger boy's head was not only turned it was continuously revolving through the entire 360 degrees.
You don't seem afraid of bringing romance into the equation which is unusual in a crime-plotted novel. Was this a deliberate decision?
I like to try and keep the stories as real as humanly possible and whereas I accept that most mysteries seem to avoid this area I feel that, on a daily basis, it takes up a lot, if not the majority of each and every one of our lives. That doesn't change if we're in a relationship, not in a relationship, looking for a relationship or trying (at all costs) to avoid a relationship. So I feel it has to be addressed in order to paint the details of the character properly. On top of which I really enjoy writing about how we all try to deal with our relationships.
Your detective, like those in your crime fiction, is a sober kind of a fellow. Is this a deliberate response to the traditional hard-drinking gumshoe type?
Again slightly similar to the above in that I like to try and keep it real. The members of the police I have met who have to put their minds to trying to solve these puzzles, resolve the crimes and put away the criminals, are mostly ODF (ordinary decent folk) and live normal lives. I find them much more interesting than the traditional hard-drinking rough living types. On top of which if the detective is to address the complicated riddles of these crimes then most certainly they will need a clear mind in order to be able do so.
Given that the book is self-evidently inspired by your own youth, do you feel that a particular character resembles you?
I'd have to admit that there must be a lot of my early life creeping in there; maybe not so much myself but more my-wannabe-self.
What do you think you would have done had the music business not worked out for you?
Well I think if it hadn't been for the Beatle bug I caught, I might have been a teacher or a solicitor in a small village, like say Castlemartin for instance. I think I would have enjoyed that life.
How have you found time to write when you've had such an impressive roster of clients to keep you busy?
When I'm working on the first draft of a new book I'll write each and every day from 6.00 a.m. until about 9.30 a.m. Then I'll head to the office and put on my other hat. To be honest I'm not so sure writing for longer than those three and a half hours would be productive for me, so it's never a problem.