Next stop, Rome

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2007, 12:00am

Crime writer David Hewson is unlikely to be lost for words when he visits Hong Kong next week. Garrulous, eloquent and amusing, he talks easily about subjects great and small - including Hong Kong, which Hewson visited regularly during the 1980s as Asian business reporter for The Times.

'It's much nicer now than I remember - a real cosmopolitan, international community,' he says. 'In the 80s, it struck me as a bad-tempered place. The locals didn't make you feel terribly welcome. Some Brits were old colonial types who didn't like upstarts. There was a real touch of 'end of Empire' about it. There was still a cricket pitch by the Star Ferry terminal.'

Another subject certain to be on the agenda is Nic Costa, the young Italian detective who has featured in six fiendishly clever whodunits - The Seventh Sacrament (2007) being the most recent. Costa is no stereotypical cop: a Roman by birth, he loves Caravaggio, is a vegan and solves murders soaked in the city's long and occasionally grisly history.

'I didn't want Costa to be middle-aged, divorced, alcoholic, miserable or hanging around bars all the time,' Hewson says. 'My characters tend to be very ordinary. Heroism in ordinary people is more interesting than in heroes. I mean, Superman would be nothing without Kryptonite.'

Hewson might even discuss the illness that made him fear for his life in 2004. He was walking his dog, when he suddenly collapsed and found that he'd gone deaf in one ear. A nightmarish six months of scans and biopsies followed. 'I had a phase of thinking I was going to die.'

Doctors eventually diagnosed idiopathic sensorineural hearing loss. 'Idiopathic simply means we haven't a clue what caused it,' he says dryly. 'It was basically a virus - a one in a million thing.'

The ordeal 'scared the living crap' out of the 54-year-old Yorkshireman. Once he'd adjusted to partial deafness and constant tinnitus, Hewson found a new lease of life. 'Going deaf has probably done my writing no end of good,' he says. 'I have a sense of detachment that I never had before. I wouldn't recommend it as a writing tool, but it has changed the way I see things. I look at things more closely.'

The benefits were immediate. Having finished The Seventh Sacrament three months early, Hewson wrote Saved, a non-fiction account of the battle to protect the countryside around his Kent village from an underhand development scheme. 'It was an astonishing environmental victory,' he says. 'There was a secret plan to build a new town around the area. It was a really dirty story.'

Hewson's purple patch was still not over. He completed a non-Costa thriller, The Promised Land, in just eight weeks. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce's classic twist-in-the-tale An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, this dream-like story of murder and fractured memory is unmistakably autobiographical. A 52-year-old man, called Bierce, found guilty of killing his family is about to be executed when he's granted a last-minute reprieve and a chance to clear his name.

Woven with themes of relief and release, The Promised Land suggests a writer liberated creatively and personally. It's Hewson's first attempt at first-person narration, and the setting is an imaginary US city combining San Francisco, Toronto and Hong Kong.

Frozen in time by two decades in prison, Bierce proves to be a bemused and sceptical commentator on the 21st century. His foil is the thoroughly modern Alice Loong, a beautiful, young Chinese-American. 'Alice represents this generation of stateless, rootless people detached geographically from their cultural background.' One result, Hewson says, is that the displaced communities become more traditional than those they leave behind. 'There are Chinese-Americans in San Francisco who are more Chinese than people in Beijing.'

China recurs throughout Hewson's writing. He first visited as a journalist in the 1970s. A western curiosity to the Chinese themselves ('I was tall and had fair hair then'), Hewson transformed his impressions into his first novel - something, it seems, he would rather forget. 'I can't even say the name,' he says now of his 1983 debut.

Bearing a title that bargain bins are made for, Shanghai Thunder sank without trace. Or so Hewson believed, until a collector thrust a copy under his nose at a crime convention. 'I signed it and said please don't read it. Later, another chap e-mailed saying he'd bought this rare signed book of mine for US$500. Somebody made US$500 out of it, which is more than I got in the first place.'

This isn't the only skeleton in Hewson's literary closet. 'Oh, God no,' he says with a laugh. 'There's one even worse which, thank God, never got published.' This effort was inspired directly by his time in Hong Kong. 'Journalists often fictionalise an assignment for their first novel. Frederick Forsyth did with The Day of the Jackal. You've been somewhere glamorous; you just change the names.'

As John Le Carre demonstrated in The Honourable Schoolboy, nowhere was more glamorous than Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondent's Club. 'It was paradise,' Hewson says. 'They had typewriters, telex machines, a wonderful restaurant and a bar. Occasionally, fights would break out. It was a home from home.'

Hewson's actual home was rather different. His upbringing sounds positively Dickensian. 'I had the regulation dysfunctional childhood that authors must have,' he says. An unplanned only child, his elderly working-class parents ran a charity children's home on a remote part of the Yorkshire coast. 'During summer, I was the matron's son, so none of the kids talked to me. During the winter, it was empty. Looking back, I realise it was horrendous. As a kid, you regard it as normal.'

The saving grace was a library full of American science fiction and Victorian books about mythology. Inspired to become a writer, but unable to afford university, the 17 year-old Hewson talked himself onto his local evening paper, The Scarborough News. By 24, he was working for The Times. 'Native low-cunning and a bit of ability. I just clawed my way there.'

Blessed with a never-say-no spirit, Hewson worked everywhere from Belfast to Beijing - he would have gone to the Falklands had he not got married four weeks before.

By the mid 1990s, Hewson had made it, but he hadn't written a word of fiction for more than a decade. Inspiration arrived in 1994, thanks to a holiday in Spain and a novel by Ed McBain. 'I thought, 'Why am I not writing things like this? How did I forget this is what I was supposed to be doing?''

The result was Semana Santa, an atmospheric murder mystery set during Spain's Holy Week. 'I had to switch off the journalist inside of me,' Hewson says. Four novels later, he reached a crossroads. 'With your first books, you write something that has been festering inside. You're kind of sicking it up. By book four, you're dry retching and don't know where to go next.'

Hewson found his direction while editing Lucifer's Shadow, a gothic thriller set in Venice. 'I like to lock myself somewhere away for a week - no phones, no e-mails. For Lucifer's Shadow, I chose Rome.'

Hewson was convinced he'd found the perfect setting for a crime novel. 'You go into these churches dedicated to peace and harmony, and find depictions of martyrdoms on the walls like something out of Tarantino.'

There was still much to do. Knowing little of the city's history or culture, he moved to Rome to study the language, politics and, most importantly, the people. 'Rome is actually very secular,' he says. 'The Vatican is religious, but the average young Roman is probably not an active Catholic any more.' Although this has freed many Romans, others, including Nic Costa, 'feel something is missing - a faith that's been lost - which they try to replace with friendship and family'.

Making this foreign setting and sensibility believable in each book requires months of work. Nevertheless, Hewson wishes more novelists would spread their imaginative wings. 'There's a lot of crap advice given to writers - one of the worst being to write what you know. That's terrible. If you write what you know, you regurgitate stuff without thinking if it's important to the reader.'

Hewson returns to Rome in September, when he begins work on Costa - Episode 8. Finding fresh inspiration won't be a problem. 'Every time I go, I find so many stories waiting to be told. Books just fall out of the stones in Rome.'

Literary dinner with talk by David Hewson, Aug 23, 7.30pm, Post 97, Lan Kwai Fong, Central, HK$380 (Dymocks). Inquiries: 2850 5065; book signing, Aug 24, 12.30pm, Kelly and Walsh, Pacific Place. Inquiries: 2524 2068

Writer's notes

Genre Crime Fiction and Thrillers

Latest books The Promised Land (Macmillan, HK$187);

The Seventh Sacrament (Macmillan, HK$187);

Saved: How an English Village Fought for its Future ... and Won (Matador, HK$148)

Born 1953, near Bridlington, Yorkshire

Current home Wye in Kent, England

Family Married to Helen for 25 years; two children

Other works include Nic Costa series: A Season for the Dead (Pan Macmillan, 2003); The Villa of Mysteries (Pan Macmillan, 2004); The Sacred Cut (Pan Macmillan, 2005); The Lizard's Bite (Pan Macmillan, 2006); plus Semana Santa (HarperCollins, 1996); Epiphany (HarperCollins, 1996); Solstice (HarperCollins, 1999); Native Rites (HarperCollins, 2000); Lucifer's Shadow (HarperCollins, 2001)

Other jobs Journalist for more than 30 years at The Times and The Independent; occasional creative writing teacher

Next project A seventh Nic Costa novel, The Garden of Evil (Pan Macmillan, 2008)

What the papers say

'Better than The Da Vinci Code.' - The Washington Post on A Season for the Dead

'There are hints of Dan Brown here, but David Hewson handles the material intelligently and plot and characterisation remain the novel's strengths.' - Times Literary Supplement on The Seventh Sacrament

'The mises-en-scene of David Hewson's elaborate Italian-based novels are always so flamboyantly operatic that I keep expecting the principals to break out in song ... told with dashing style, in atmospheric set pieces that capture the theatrical grandeur of Venice and the pockets of miserable squalor behind its splendid facade.' - The New York Times on The Lizard's Bite

Author's bookshelf

I Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves

'I read them when I was a teenager and they made me want to go to Rome.'

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

'Simply wonderful.'

The Shining by Stephen King

'Not really a horror fan, but King's depiction of a family falling apart is masterful.'

Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi

'I read a lot of non-fiction. Levi's account of exile under Mussolini shows the poverty of the Italian south in a way that's still resonant today.'

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

'Harwood is a talented Australian writer who had the guts to produce a wonderful contemporary novel harking back to the ghost stories of M.R. James. Scary and immensely textured. Can't wait for his next book, The Seance, due out next year.'