Tony Parsons: I wanted to prove to the world I could do a crime novel
Contrarian Tony Parsons steps out of his comfort zone for his latest murder-mystery. Inspired by James Bond, he wanted to create a character that would stand the test of time, he tells Hannah Stephenson
Throughout history, crime buffs have savoured the talents of great fictional detectives, from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot, Maigret to Morse, Wexford to Wallander.
Now, award-winning writer Tony Parsons, famed for his romantic, heart-rending tales of love, loss, parenthood and personal relationships, in novels including Man And Boy, Man And Wife and One For My Baby, is hoping to join the ranks of the great and the good in crime writing with The Murder Bag, his first thriller in a new series.
"I'm taking on the biggest thriller writers in the world," he says boldly. "I want John Grisham fans to pick up The Murder Bag and say, 'This is better'. A lot of thrillers don't have emotional clout, but a lot of books that do have emotional clout don't have excitement. I wanted to do both."
One thing you can never accuse Parsons of is a lack of ambition. He wants his crime writing to be up there with the likes of Ian Rankin and PD James. He wants to be better than Grisham.
The new series introduces detective and single dad Max Wolfe, recently arrived in the homicide division of London's West End Central, 27 Savile Row. He's a man who likes boxing, loves his work but equally dotes on his five-year-old daughter Scout and their Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Stan.
The first instalment sees DC Wolfe on the trail of a serial killer who brutally cuts his victims' throats. Wolfe finds a link from a picture of seven schoolboys taken 20 years previously, who are now being systematically bumped off. They were all pupils at the same posh private school years before. Think stereotypical public school bullies and the worst behaviour of the privileged and you get the picture.
The Murder Bag is an impressive page-turner, an exciting read with a clearly thought-out plot, enough characters to keep you guessing and the trademark pathos and emotion expressed by his hero when it comes to his daughter, his dog and even his ex-wife.
The idea for a crime series came about when he attended a film screening organised by the director Sam Mendes, who told Parsons he was going to make the next James Bond film and was reading all the Ian Fleming books again.
"I started reading them myself and thought, what an incredible achievement it is for any writer to create a character that lives long after they die and can be endlessly rebooted, whether it's James Bond, Sherlock Holmes or Dr Watson. I thought, 'I want a crack at it, I want to create my own character'.
"Although I'm a new crime writer, I'm steeped in crime fiction. My favourites include Robert B Parker, John D MacDonald, Lee Childs, PD James and Ian Rankin. There are so many of them. But the trick is to find your voice.
"I wanted my guy rooted in some kind of family life, rooted in loved ones, but at the same time, I wanted him free to have the romantic and sexual adventures of a James Bond or a Jack Reacher. So a single parent was perfect. And I wanted the book to be recognisable to my old readers. "
So, is Max Wolfe really Tony Parsons? Single dad (Parsons was once a single parent), likes boxing (Parsons has boxed for years), has a daughter (as does Parsons) and a dog called Stan (Parsons regularly tweets about his pooch, also Stan).
"Wolfe's sentimental and romantic, exactly like me. I want him to shop around [for love]. You never know if he'll ever be as badly hurt again as he was by his ex-wife. Hearts harden as time goes by."
Parsons began his writing career on the New Musical Express in 1976, enjoying wild-child days, hanging out with The Sex Pistols, clubbing, taking drugs and sleeping with lots of women. There, he met writer Julie Burchill, with whom he married and had a son, Bobby. Four years later she walked out on him. So single parenthood is something he can write about.
But that was all a long time ago. He's been married to his Japanese wife Yuriko for 22 years and they have an 11-year-old daughter, Jasmine.
"It taps into that memory [of his first marriage] for the story and gives it a power because of my experience. But I've been married [again] for 22 years."
He says he's already turned down one offer for the rights to a TV adaptation, but can see his police hero coming to the screen.
"The book is good. People have responded with incredible enthusiasm. I would love for something to be made that's as good as the great American TV shows, like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.
"I would want the lead actor to be an unknown. It notches it up a bit, so you believe in it a bit more. I want him to be some good-looking, hot young hunk that knows how to look after his dog!"
Parsons recently turned 60, but didn't see his age as a milestone.
"It was a huge milestone for me selling this book in 24 hours," he observes, explaining that he parted company with his publisher HarperCollins to write the thriller and cashed in a large part of his pension to be able to afford to take time to write it.
"Without going into figures, if you walk away from a job, you have to find another source of income. That's the milestone. I wanted to prove to the world, to the industry and to myself that I could do it. My contract with my last publisher was generous. I was walking away from a lot. "
Within a day of submitting the manuscript, a three-book deal was struck with Century for a generous six-figure sum.
His hero detective will get older with each book, but time has been compressed to prevent the daughter and the dog growing up too quickly, Parsons says. He's already working on the second novel and hopes Wolfe will find romance in every story.
There's a lot about class in The Murder Bag, about the behaviour of the privately educated privileged and how they contrast with the people who live in a harder world.
Parsons, who has often trumpeted his working class background and grammar school education, reflects: "After the last general election, people were saying we've got the 19th Old Etonian prime minister, yet it had been nearly 50 years since we had the last one.
"I'd grown up in a country where prime ministers were educated by the state and something had changed.
"You started to see these pictures of conspicuous privilege, of Old Etonians, of the Oxford dining club [Bullingdon Club]. It didn't annoy me, because I'm not a traditional class warrior."
Once a 'tribal' Labour supporter, Parsons now doesn't know who he'd vote for in the next General Election.
"I have my reservations about all of them. Politicians have become more removed from the rest of us. When I was growing up, many of them had served in the Second World War or had some experience of life, whether you're talking about Jim Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher or John Major," he says.
"They all came from quite modest backgrounds and had a little bit of experience of life, rather than these completely out of touch career politicians we have now."
The Murder Bag by Tony Parsons is published by Century, priced £9.99