Interview: Simon Marlowe Author Of Medusa and The Devil
Simon, the Mason Made trilogy has garnered significant attention, especially with its darkly comic undertones. What inspired you to blend crime and comedy in such a unique way?
It wasn’t intentional, it just happened through finding my voice as an author. I’ve had to write a few books to get there (and a few not published!), all ways trying to learn from what worked and what didn’t. Plus, crime is a great vehicle for being subversive, and so I like to layer the stories with strong social and political undercurrents, laced with a surreal and absurdist sense of humour. This provides plenty of scope for a sharp one liner in the darkest of dark moments in a story. If I can get the balance right, laughing one minute, shock and awe the next, that for me is exciting storytelling: take nothing for granted and expect the unexpected, even if you think you know what is coming next.
Your protagonist, Steven Mason, has been described as a "quirky Essex anti-hero." What elements of his character do you believe resonate most with readers?
Well, I think with any anti-hero, their duality of character, their virtues and lack of, that has an attraction. An unpredictable moral ambiguity has a strange fascination for most of us – a combination of self-interest and calculated concern for others. Steven has that light and shade, a naughtiness (that is very naughty!) and a mischievousness. He is also self-aware and socially aware. He understands the world is not an equal or fair. Not that he would necessarily choose to do anything about it, because he has chosen to survive as a professional criminal. That requires an ugly ruthlessness. But when there are opportunities to get things right and help others, he is a good Samaritan.
"Medusa and The Devil" seems to draw inspiration from modern British crime films, especially those reminiscent of Guy Ritchie's style. Were there particular movies or directors that influenced your writing?
Not really, although I am a big film fan, so perhaps there are sub conscious influences rather than anything overt on my part. For this crime fiction trilogy, I took literary inspiration from British authors such as Eric Ambler, Patrick Hamilton, and Graham Greene. It was only once people read my books and reviewed, that this comparison with Guy Ritchie came about. However, I can see why people make the link with the style of the film auteur in the narrative and characters. To some extent, perhaps it is inevitable, being born and bred in Essex and writing about crime!
The book's setting transitions from a rundown Essex estate to the sunny Mediterranean. How did these contrasting settings influence the narrative and the challenges Steven faces?
In book one, The Dead Hand of Dominique, the action takes place in three main settings: a run-down housing estate on the border land territory between outer London and Essex, then in London, as Steven searches for his bosses missing mistress, and climaxing on the Essex coastline. These three settings symbolise the Steven’s life and aspirations for himself. He hates the estate, and dreams of escaping; he knows London is ‘different’ and provides contrasts between success and failure, between great wealth and extremes of poverty; and the bleak Essex coast, made-up of over 400 islands, is his gateway to escape. At the beginning of Dead Hand, Steven dreams of living on a sun-drenched island, and in theory his ambition is fulfilled in book two, Medusa And The Devil. But as is the way with dreams attained, his new life on a small Medertarainian island has as much complexity (if not more) as his old life, because it is soon knocking on the door of his villa! So with freedom curtailed by the past, the environment is as stifling and as intense, as his life back in the UK. The island represents the illusion that isolation cannot prevent the past coming after you – perfectly illustrated in D H Lawerence’s short story, The Man Who Loved Islands.
How does "Medusa and The Devil" build on the themes and events of "The Dead Hand of Dominique"? Can readers jump straight into the second book without having read the first?
There are recurring motifs, narrative and thematic expansion in Medusa And The Devil. For instance, the issue of diaspora, that sits as a sub plot in Dead Hand, becomes a personal experience for Steven in Medusa. The over-riding theme of Dead Hand, the commodification of needs and wants, is given far more dramatic expression through the introduction of children and their plight – disposed and disenfranchised. And at the core of Medusa, is Steven’s internal conflict, the pragmatism to operate as a gangster whilst juggling with his own instincts, that are far more natural and caring than he would dare to admit. And yes, you can jump straight into book two, as there is sufficient back story to inform the reader. You may even think that I have given away some of the plotline from Dead Hand, but trust me, nothing is true until the last page in book three!
You mention Steven Mason possibly transitioning to the big screen, akin to Daniel Craig's crime comedies. If given a choice, who would you cast to play Steven?
Oh, I didn’t realise I’d said that, but I’ll go with it! So for no reason other than I like this particular actor at the moment, I would cast Timothée Chalamet – although we might need to beef him up a bit and get him to spend a day with me to perfect that Thames estuary accent.
Your plot revolves around the retrieval of a small ivory sculpture and its subsequent connection to an illegal immigration case. Why did you choose these specific plot devices, and how do they reflect larger societal issues?
Well, there are two Medusa’s in the story: one, the mother of children who are illegally travelling to escape a war zone, and the sculpture of the death of Medusa. It seemed symbolic to have the Greek mythology, reflecting the Mediterranean, whilst leaning on my love of film noir and the The Maltese Falcon – there’s a clue! Having earlier mentioned the societal themes in Dead Hand, the underlying themes for Medusa are political and financial corruption and the plight of the disposed. We live with the most appalling barbarity and criminality at the top of our global systems, and increasingly, legitimised gangsterism at the head of political and economic authority. People have become so disposable in these criminal enterprises, that immigrants washed down the Mediterranean drain, is a potent example of the ongoing inhumanity. There is very little compassion on offer for this disaster, usually greeted with a shrug and a bellicose exploitation for political gain. I felt I had to say something because these are voices that have no voice.
In the book, Steven constantly finds himself drawn towards morally ambiguous and dark paths. What do you hope readers take away from his internal conflicts and choices?
We do not live perfect lives, and there are times when we make negative choices. Steven is a stark example of how we live with contradictions, about ourselves, our actions and how we think. We seem to live in an age where purity of thought is a pre-requisite to all things wholesome, but Steven is an example of how I believe we think through contradictory consciousness. We can think things that are completely incompatible with our actions, and we can do things that do not reflect how we genuinely think.
Growing up, you faced class barriers and discouragement in your pursuit of writing. How have those challenges shaped the stories you tell and the characters you create?
Oh, that is a very good question! I think it informs everything and is the main driver behind my desire to become an author. However, it does not make me a better person or a better writer, because that does come down to the acquisition of an author’s skill set. And overcoming class restraints, whether working class or bourgeois, is not an easy task (class imposes different types of shackles to be released from to achieve self-expression and art). But growing up with low levels of expectation and aspiration, means I want to tell stories that reveal the working-class experience, and the oppression and exploitation that underpins our class societies. For instance, Steven is socially aware not by accident, but because as the protagonist, he needs to shine a light on the inequities that all class societies excel at (and all societies are fundamentally class based).
You describe yourself as a "satirical realist." How do you incorporate satire into your works, and why do you believe it's an effective tool in crime and mystery thrillers?
The phrase satirical realist comes from an attempt to understand my own writing. The harsh terrain I describe and the characters I use, reflect the realist element in my work, and is a nod to the literary tradition of dirty realism, stretching back to authors such as Celine and Genet, and especially American writers such as Bukowski and Selby. But I also have a highly developed sense of the absurd, and this comes out in using caricature, plot device, and lithe comic dialogue. So I like to emphasise the satirical, partly because crime fiction can be a genre that is hideously formulaic, but also to give the story a harder edge, and a knowing self-awareness.
The title "Medusa and The Devil" is incredibly evocative. Can you share the symbolism behind it and how it ties into the overarching narrative?
The mythology of Medusa is that she has two children, born at the point of her death, and there are two children who have migrated illegally, in transit with a devil-like character called Max Schmidt. These two elements dovetail and interact throughout the narrative, evoking the myth at key moments for the children, whilst personifying the acts of evilness that Schmidt and others commit.
You mentioned that the crime and mystery genre chose you. Can you delve deeper into that sentiment? What about this genre captivates you?
My ambition as an author was purely literary and I had no thoughts on a genre when I set out on this journey. As I made mistakes in my writing, mainly a consequence of naivety and over ambition, I began to understand the mechanics of the art form and the need to use parameters that provided structure and control. It then occurred to me that there are very few genres available - I know there is a plethora of genres out there, but these are purely marketing tools - and crime, drama and comedy seemed to encompass most of the big ones. Once I was reconciled to the disciplines of the genre, my writing flowed far more cohesively. I like to think I am pretty much where I need to be as an author – but it has taken about ten years of very hard work.
Given that you've faced discouragement in your early years, what advice would you offer to budding authors facing similar challenges?
Advice is never easy, because for every rule there is an exception, and advice can be a very long book. However, an obvious one, that is easier said than done, is perseverance. My own journey started when I was a teenager in school. By the age of nineteen, this ambition was smashed – and a tale to be told further down the line. But in my mid-forties, I rekindled the ambition, and I have achieved what I thought was never possible. So whatever the obstacles, and there are many, not only does life find a way, but so do artists. Hang in there, accept defeat, dust yourself off and get back in the ring. Because if you don’t, you’ll only regret it come the day of reckoning!
Steven Mason’s adventures don’t seem to end. Can you give us a hint about what to expect in the final instalment of the trilogy?
Good timing because I am working on the second draft of book three. What I can tell you, is that Steven is crude, rude, cruel, and heartless, because he’s on a mission to get to the heart of the matter. Expect things to be at volume 11, with a climax that is more explosive than anything you’ve read so far. And it should be out at some point next year.
Finally, looking back at your journey as a writer, how does it feel seeing your works gain recognition and resonate with so many readers
This sound trite and self-satisfied, but honestly, it is self-actualisation.