Nicholas Shakespeare has spent much of his life in thrall to the siren call of one story or another. So it's not surprising that when, four years ago, his novelist friend Murray Bail told him about a man who had turned up at the wrong funeral and ended up inheriting the deceased's estate, Shakespeare was hooked. 'It's odd how some stories just creep into your crevices,' recalls the 53-year-old Oxford-based journalist and author of nine books, including his 1999 biography of Bruce Chatwin, his Booker Prize long-listed 2004 novel Snowleg, and Secrets of the Sea, short-listed for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize. 'Murray wasn't going to use his story, so I said, 'Can I have it?'' Now three years later with Inheritance, his 10th book and sixth novel to date, he has written an entirely different novel to the one he initially conceived. It is hard to think of another novelist who can spin the uneven strands of two disparate stories into such a cogent parable of good and evil. Moreover, a parable that weaves the disputed history of the Armenian genocide together with the fabled discovery of iron ore in Western Australia and the musings of Montaigne, and imbue it with the melancholy echo of Portuguese fado music. But then Shakespeare, who was nominated one of Granta's best young British novelists in 1993, has never been predictable on the page. And Inheritance is not a predictable novel, although its intentions are initially deceptive. Shakespeare hints at the unusual, almost mythic tilt of Inheritance with a prologue set in the West Australian desert in 1960, where an unnamed, one-eyed man trudges through a rust-coloured desert of iron ore. He then opens his narrative on a wet rainy London afternoon in 2003, with Andy Larkham, an idealistic, underpaid young publisher of self-help books who arrives late at the funeral of his former teacher only to find himself in the wrong crematorium. Too embarrassed to leave, he stays and signs the attendance register, only to later discover that, along with the one other person who attended, he has inherited the GBP17 million (HK$206 million) fortune of one Christopher Madigan. The dead man's daughter, Jeanine, who is disinherited because she arrived too late, decides to dispute the will. But when Andy, who is mired in the backwash of a broken love affair, lies to Jeanine, saying he knew her father, she drops her objections. Thus he becomes the inheritor, not just of Madigan's millions, but of his story. Andy also feels a sense of responsibility to his dead teacher who'd entrusted him with his manuscript on Montaigne and after a long, aimless and somewhat crass dalliance with all that wealth can buy, he sets out to pay his dues to his teacher and discover Madigan's true identity. Born in Aleppo as Krikor Makertich, Madigan built his fortune on hard work and talent as well as his discovery of iron ore, but lost his wife, daughter and one eye to a conman, Don Flexmore. As he unravels the secrets of Makertich's past, his survival of the Armenian genocide and his mysterious years in Australia, Andy not only grows into who he is, but the novel itself grows deeper into its original promise. Deeper too, into an inquiry into the nature of evil. This is not the first time Shakespeare has explored the ordinary face of evil. Snowleg, also a love story, was at another similarly mythic level an exploration of the banality of evil. But he likens the experience of writing Inheritance to that of penning his 1995 novel The Dancer Upstairs, which was inspired by the hunt for Abimail Guzman, leader of Peru's Shining Path, and made into the 2002 film of the same name directed by John Malkovich. 'I could just see the whole plot which sometimes happens,' says Shakespeare. With Inheritance, 'it all presented itself in the first hour of having heard the initial story. But then I began to realise the principal character was not necessarily the young hero I had in mind. For whatever reason, the story of the person who had made such a will became the real story for me.' He spent the next three years sketching out the next part of the novel 'to create the circumstances by which this person, an Armenian, had made such a will. God knows how these connections fuse together. I was aware of the Armenian diaspora and that they didn't have a homeland, but I suddenly became overly enraged about it after reading Philip Marsden's wonderful book, The Crossing Place. I got indignant on behalf of Armenians because no one wants to hear their story, and it seemed in every way as important and as tragic as the later Jewish story of the Holocaust.' But the real catalyst for his exploration of evil came with a curious encounter with an unknown Australian conman, who posed as an old university friend, and tried to convince Shakespeare to invest in eucalypt plantations in Uruguay. Many of the characteristics of this man now belong to his creation, Don Flexmore, whose good looks and ruthlessly exploitative nature embody what Shakespeare calls 'a contemporary model of the devil, a figure of greed and selfishness who darts into that crack which opens when you're not sure of yourself'. He makes no bones about writing the entire novel around 'a couple of Montaigne tropes', but says it was largely unconscious, before quoting the French Renaissance writer: 'The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.' 'If you're not true to yourself, you allow a crack for someone else, the devil if you like, or a Don Flexmore figure to creep in and dismantle your good life. And I discovered, in the writing, that I do believe that.' Shakespeare also believes in following hunches and admits that almost his entire life he has been held hostage by coincidence and happenstance on the one hand, and his unquenchable writerly instincts on the other. Yet he is still reluctant to call himself a novelist or writer. 'Writing is a process I can't justify at all, artistically or economically. But the novel is the most incredible baggy monster that can absorb anything, and when you read a book like Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detective, your socks are knocked so far off you are rejuvenated by the genre. A novel that succeeds is a victory against the darkness.'