Russ Thomas has created a much talked about debut with Firewatching, featuring D.I. Adam Tyler. Tyler catches a high profile case when the body of a loathed businessman is discovered walled in his own estate. Tyler was picked up by the man’s son the night before. Paired with the funny and feisty Det. Amini Rabbani, Tyler pursues the case his lover could be a part of that is also connected to several fires being set around Sheffield. Thomas will be at BookPeople on March 3rd at 7PM to sign and discuss Firewatching, but was kind enough to volunteer for this advance grilling about this character driven and moody police thriller.
Scott Montgomery: Firewatching is a very unique police thriller and very character driven. Which came first, DS Adam Tyler or his adversary?
RT: Hmmm. Interesting question. Stories always start with character for me but in this case it was the character of Lily which came first. I wrote a short story about her many years ago, and she stayed with me. I think I always planned to revisit her and try and tell more of her story. Then, when I realized I was writing a police procedural novel, the rough idea of DS Adam Tyler was formed. It took a long time, many, many rewrites, and a name change or two before I got him right. The book was called Firewatching from very early on though and the concept of an arsonist setting light to various places around the city hasn’t changed all that much. So I suppose the concept of Tyler came first but it took me a while to fully realize him.
SM: The way you deal with Tyler’s homosexuality is deft. It’s definitely a part of him and he has obstacles because of it, but it doesn’t define him. What did you want to explore with that aspect of the character?
RT: I always saw Tyler as a gay character, right from the start but I really didn’t want the story to be about the fact that he’s gay. Growing up gay myself in the 1980s and 90s I always wondered why, when they included gay characters in TV shows/books/films (which was rarely), the story always had to be about them struggling with their sexuality or coming out. I’m not saying those stories aren’t important, I just feel they’ve been very well-explored and that there are other gay stories to tell. After all, LGBTQ+ people are also husbands and wives, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons; they are police officers and fire-fighters too. I wanted to write a story with a gay character where his sexuality is just one part of who he is and not necessarily the driving force of the plot. Yes, he has issues with his sexuality in the workplace, and his love life puts him in a very tight corner in this book, but his bigger problems stem from his past and who he is as a person. If he’d been a straight man in this story I think the outcome would have been the same, pretty much.
SM: Rabbani is already a character readers of the book love. How did you construct her?
I didn’t really construct her, she just turned up fully formed. I wanted another voice in the book, someone who could show us a side of Tyler he perhaps doesn’t see himself. And someone who would be his ally in the novel, even though he doesn’t necessarily think he needs one. So I wrote the scene near the start of the novel where he turns up at the crime scene and the officer on duty tells him he isn’t allowed in. I made her a woman, for contrast, and Asian for much the same reason, and also because there’s a large Asian community in Sheffield, much as there is in most major cities in the UK and it felt right to reflect that. But other than that I didn’t plan her character. She just turned up, got in Tyler’s way and suddenly began to steal the show. I love her so much.
SM: History plays an important part in the novel. Where there any challenges of dealing with the past?
RT: I had one major problem, which was Lily and Edna’s ages. Without giving too much away, it was crucial that they met during World War II but that made them a little older than I would have liked. It’s one of the reasons the book is set a few years in the past. Some people are very fit well into later life but Lily has to be quite able-bodied in the story and I was stretching credulity a little bit. Other than that, not really. I did some research of course but mainly into the famous fires detailed in the blog posts. The flashback scenes with Lily and Edna came almost wholly from my imagination so if I’ve got some historical detail wrong it’s entirely my fault.
SM: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
RT: I’m sure I did in all sorts of ways both conscious and unconscious. There are definitely shades of the Golden Age of crime here. I read an awful lot of Agatha Christie when I was young and I love that way she had of presenting a small cast of characters as suspects in a locked-room mystery. That’s much harder to do across a city landscape but I’m sure there are reflections of that, especially in the village of Castledene and its dubious residents. I read a lot of Lee Child and I’m in awe of his ability to leave you breathless as the story rattles along. If I’ve managed to echo that even slightly then I would be happy. Finally, there’s a definite nod to Chandler and the gumshoe detective. I like to think of Oscar as an homme fatale, dangerous and seductive, with an agenda the reader is not quite sure about.
SM: Do you have another case for DS Tyler ready?
RT: Yes, indeed. The second book is already written. Nighthawking picks up a few months after the end of Firewatching and we discover that Tyler is a little preoccupied by something Doggett has told him about his past. Then a body is dug up by a metal detectorist in Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens and… well, I’d better leave it there for now.