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Crime Beat

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Mike Nicol interviews Andrew Gray on The Fence

The FenceAmong the new crop of local crime fiction to hit the bookshops in recent months is The Fence by Andrew Gray, published by Human & Rousseau. It’s sophisticated, stylish and sinister. Crime Beat columnist Mike Nicol had a chat with the author.

Nicol: Some years ago, James Ellroy said the crime novel was dead. A fairly typical Ellroy statement, and after the publication of American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, it became clear that he was probably referring to the police procedural, and that he was now turning his attention to state crime and corporate crime. You’ve headed into this area with The Fence, and in this respect it breaks new ground in crime writing here. Blood diamonds might be at the heart of your novel but the bad guys are actually to be found in the corridors of corporate power. An interesting and, in the crime genre, unusual place to go looking for crooks.

Gray: As you suggest, the diamonds are really incidental to these situations, just one of many different forms of ‘currency’ – like guns or money, they are without any inherent morality – until actually put to one or other purpose. So what really interests me is the moral ambiguities that emerge from the cocktail of power, violence and money which is business and politics. And of course, the ‘Africanisation’ of this mix…

…Yes, that lends a particular flavour to the book. Long hot afternoons with beer and flies. It’s a visceral world you capture.

I’m very glad that came through. It was quite a challenge to balance the more esoteric aspects of the story with a story line that must find its way through a variety of characters and widely contrasting situations and even time frames. During the editing process, I started to become quite concerned that a lot of the ‘atmosphere’ was being sacrificed in favour of story line. Your comments reassure me that the editor got it just right, and I like to think there is some authenticity to the end product!

Of course, dusty Africa contrasted with the air-conditioned corporate headquarters of your fictional diamond company, Brano, also gave you an opportunity to pull in some sinister figures. We all recognise the General who heads the company’s internal security and Jan Klein as the investigator is a deeply conflicted character facing a moral dilemma. In fact Jan Klein occupies a most uncomfortable position being the man between the fence – with whom he empathises – and the centre of power. With this novel you clearly wanted to map out the investigator’s complex moral terrain: is he working for the money or his own conscience?

Yes, it’s crazy how we all seem to need a villain – what sort of a read would it be without a decent crook? And what Jan Klein does best, of course, is to deny us the pleasure of a good read. Because he would never allow us to accept that someone was simply ‘sinister’, ‘corrupt’ or ‘evil’. In Klein’s book, there would be two sides to Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan too. And so he would ask us instead to examine our own insecurities, those which cause us to reduce our understanding of the world to manageable, but false, moral generalisations. Not all wealthy people are selfish, and the poor are not invariably virtuous, the powerful not necessarily corrupt, Jan Klein would remind us. Which is why he would never be able to answer a question as normatively absolute as whether he was working for the money, or his conscience, even after months of agonising. Jan Klein? He’s our ultimate moral wet blanket, – it’s just no fun around the man.

Oh, I don’t know, I thought he was a great character to spend time with. You clearly enjoyed him. And the relativity of his universe reflects one of the unsettling things about crime fiction, that you never know where you are. Which I suppose is why you decided on a novel comprised of people’s stories and commentaries, a patchwork narrative. We never get to know the truth, and that’s why the book’s unsettling: its difficult to pin down the crime.

I agree. In fact, the danger with this kind of topic is that all the contrasts and jumbled perspectives threaten to overwhelm not only the crime but the story itself. However, how authentic would it be if the structure of writing did not also reflect the ambiguities and imperfections of the situations it must describe? After all, is not the essence of the human condition a very contradictory and ambiguous reality, being rooted in nature, but as a philosopher has pointed out, capable through our reason, of touching the fringes of eternity. It is this reality that the book seeks to faithfully reflect, and this explains, I think, recourse to a probably rather unusual narrative style. Whether this undermines, or contributes to the authenticity of the end product is a question that I guess each individual reader will have to determine.

Now that you’ve entered the murky waters of corporate crime, will you be venturing there again in your next book? And will we be reading more of Jan Klein?

Definitely. After initially feeling sorry for him and effectively writing him out of ,The Fence, I had a change of heart and recalled the poor lad on his way to the airport. While I’m sure he’d have been more comfortable in that dull, grey and boring post in Edinburgh, I managed to reach the editors just in time. Which means that for the foreseeable future, Brano, is stuck with Jan Klein. And Jan Klein is stuck with Brano. It’s not a perfect world.