Howard Halstead’s outstanding fiction debut, “Limelight,” was published in our Department of First Stories in January 2014. His second story for us, “A Dark Symmetry,” is featured in July 2015—on sale this week! Another Halstead short story, in which he brings his love of history to bear on a fictional creation, envisioning the world of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, is forthcoming in The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty. Before he turned to fiction-writing, the British author was already well known for books on history and true crime, under the name Howard Watson. Recent Watson titles include Twisted History and Secrets & Lies: Elite Fighting Units. His research for his true-crime books takes him on travels well off the tourist trail, as he reveals in this post.—Janet Hutchings
Rome: It’s my fault. I’m looking for a story or at least some texture: a shard of the city beyond tourist queues, porticoes, and palisades, behind the facade. I have an excuse: I write both crime fiction and true tales from the dark side of history (which often amounts to writing true crime). And, like many writers on their travels, I’m looking for the gutter between the pages of the guidebook. I’m no better than the most guileless of tourist who points a camera through the window on a sightseeing drive-thru, feet never touching the ground. I’m just a different sort of culture-vulture, picking at the bones of the city, searching for tasty scraps.
So here we are again, Leanne and myself, in the wrong part of town, probably going the wrong way.
Disoriented by too many turns and too few signposts, we are lost. At the mouth of the alley, we stand momentarily. It is unlit except for the ambient light of the city and an unshrouded but weak moon. The deep shadows mask the unknown, but we are hungry and it is late, and surely this must be the right direction. The target, somewhere beyond this alley, is close but, for the last half an hour, has avoided detection. It is a truffle restaurant prized by locals, unregistered by guidebooks, and we only have a vague address. We are two pigs snouting the ground, being driven crazy by its proximity.
Leanne reaches out for my hand. What could possibly happen to us? We are not afraid of ghouls in the night. We stride purposefully into the darkness, feigning confidence. The pattern of the brickwork on the high wall to our right is just about visible; the shapes to the left, at the foot of shuttered warehouses, are heaped bags of rubbish, and our noses tell us they are wet with bin juice and peppered with dogshit. We walk on. The black deepens and the pattern of the brickwork is lost.
The alley is too long and seems to be curving away from our destination. There is still no square of blazing light or sound of blaring traffic to announce the main street. The aspic-preserved world of the Coliseum, Forum, and St Peter’s, tasted earlier today, seems distant beyond years. We should turn back. Of course we should. But still we walk on.
Leanne’s hand grips tighter. It is not a tweak of affection. I have held that hand for long enough to know that it is a warning. I turn towards her, ready to say something stupid and laugh her—and myself—out of any fear. But she is pointedly staring straight ahead, her face immobile. I look away and I see what she is now refusing to look at. Against the high wall, the moonlight reveals a girl’s face, at first seeming to float in isolation in the darkness. But now I see a gloved hand gripping her chin. The hand is not hers. A man, unshaven, long hair, black leather, thirties, is forcing her chin upwards with his left hand. His other hand holds a syringe.
We are just metres away. Our feet keep walking towards the strange embrace. The needle nears the pale exposed flesh of the girl’s neck. She can be no more than sixteen, seventeen. I want to shout but I don’t know the story. The who-what-or-why. And perhaps I am a coward after all. The girl keeps staring expressionless at the night sky but the man sees us as we draw level. The needle is poised. His eyes fix on mine. The remorseless expression is that of a man inured, a man immune to the thousands of years of Roman civilization and the rule of law. He is capable of anything. He seems to make a calculation and his eyes narrow. All my senses are primed. Fight or flight. I fear a flashing blade but it does not come. He simply smiles a cruel little smile. He turns back to his prey and we walk on.
We stare ahead and see nothing more, but we hear the girl’s small sigh and know that the needle has slipped into the vein.
Soon we are sitting safe in the restaurant, and it is all it promised to be, but the food is made tasteless by the sense of our own weakness and ridiculousness.
It is one of a series of events that have punctuated our research travels—in Amsterdam, desperately holding a mugger’s arm to stop him getting a weapon out of his hoody pocket; being saved from a band of thieves by mysterious, besuited, sunglass-wearing vigilantes on another street in Italy; in the Meatpacking District, before the whole area became a designer hotel-cum-gallery, wandering into an abandoned slaughterhouse and running straight out again, full pelt, having disturbed a criminal gathering and seen hands reach for hardware.
I blame myself, of course. And yes, I am a fool to place myself and my albeit willing partner in jeopardy. But, and I know this might be a stretch, I also blame Wilkie Collins for his depiction of the country house and the village of Frizinghall in The Moonstone, often regarded as the prototype for the mystery novel. I even blame Agatha Christie for the village of St Mary Mead, home to Miss Marple. And I certainly blame Raymond Chandler for his Los Angeles, Jo Nesbø for his Oslo, and Donna Leon for her Venice. In each case, these distinctive writers have pulled off the same trick that is vital to so much crime writing: they create a credible world, a place we can readily understand, and then they peel back the skin. They capture the genius loci—the true “spirit of the place.” And if the place is credible then the reader accepts that the otherwise incredible can happen.
I’m narcotically drawn toward the warp and weft, the texture of a place. Standing in the Hagia Sophia may help to disclose the incredible twisted history of Istanbul; walking along Abdi İpekçi Street, pocked by the designer shops that have made the high streets of the world’s major cities so homogenous, may reveal the city’s capital aspirations; but step off that street and walk parallel to it, just a hundred metres away, and you’ll find yourself teetering on the precipice of the third world on an unpaved road with decrepit residential buildings, broken scooters, and children playing in the dirt. It then becomes far easier to understand the ambitions and motivations of the shop assistant in one of those glamorous shops.
For me, the most satisfying crime novels capture the complex spirit of a place, which is perhaps necessarily entwined with the character of its people. And the quickest way to understand a place is to leave Main Street, to walk the back streets, to find the shadows, to eat and drink where the locals eat and drink, and sometimes that’s where the real story starts taking shape. Marlowe is “of” Los Angeles, the real city, not just Hollywood. Miss Marple is “of” St Mary Mead and all its intricacies beyond the village fete and manicured gardens. They understand the spirit of the place beyond the clinical cartography of the surface. They are the water diviners of the little known and little seen, detecting the underground streams.
And so to Kyoto. I had already written about the history of samurai, ninja, and yakuza, but had never felt close to understanding contemporary Japan despite filleting innumerable reference books, history books, documentaries, and Web sites. It had always remained “other,” steeped in stereotype, with a proper understanding of its culture escaping my remote reach. With a new project on the horizon, we flew the 10,000 miles to try and make the Land of the Rising Sun real but our initial day-to-day experience was of an unassailable wall of politeness. Politeness, civilization, and honour are the stereotypical building blocks of the British character, but compared to the Japanese we are just rude barbarians.
“It is an honour for me . . .” and “Gomen nasai, I’m so sorry, so sorry . . .” have formed the soundtrack to our travels, and bowing is even more constant than imagined, with car drivers lowering their heads to each other with stately grace. In an ancient wooden inn, where the Shoguns of centuries ago stayed, a kimono-wearing server spills a couple of drops of cha onto the tatami. Her flushed shame as she short-steps hurriedly from the room makes us fear that she is about to resign in dishonour.
The violence of the yakuza and POW camp commander seems a world away from what seem to be the safest city streets I have ever walked. Where is the undertow? Where are the rot, deceit, desire, and machination that are embedded in every human society, that make history? Where is real life beyond the politeness and order?
We take to the backstreets. We twist and turn and turn again without reference to maps, guidebooks, or GPS. We find ourselves on a very long, very narrow residential street, little more than an alleyway. It is deserted and we are lost again, but finally we have a glimpse behind the facade. Each local area has a little wooden street shrine, but the one we now pass is battered and includes a cracked orange plastic vase, a long-dead flower, and a ripped paper lantern. Above the shrine, washing is strung from windows and clotheshorses are overloaded on the tiny balconies of very cramped three-storey houses.
A motorcyclist tears down the narrow lane. His visor is pure black. He veers towards us but sweeps past at speed. We are forced to get the map out, a siren call for the criminally inclined. The map is no good to us. The lane doesn’t seem to be marked.
A young man is standing stationary, looking at us. He is just twenty yards away but there is no turning from which he could have appeared so suddenly and we have heard no door. He face is set, determined. He finally moves. His walk is direct. He is coming straight for us.
He bows slightly. “So sorry. Are you lost?” he says in perfect English.
He takes our silence as affirmation.
“I will walk you to the main crossing.” He repeatedly flicks the inside of his index finger with his thumb as he speaks.
We look ahead. We can see for at least 200 yards without any obvious sign of a crossing, main or otherwise.
“No, thank you,” Leanne says. “It’s too far. Please just point us in the right direction.”
“I’m so sorry, you don’t understand—as a Japanese it is my honour to help you.”
I detect the slightest of smiles on his otherwise expressionless face. Are we being played? He walks ahead and we follow. I’m sure I hear a quiet, high-pitched laugh, but when he turns his head back to us he seems emotionless. Still I hear the faint rasp of skin as he flicks his thumb against his index finger. My mind is racing. I hear that laugh again. This time I’m certain that I didn’t imagine it. Leanne looks at me quizzically, her senses alert. Her hand reaches out for mine and momentarily grips hard. It is not a tweak of affection. I have held that hand for long enough to know that it is a warning.
Anything can happen before we reach the crossroads.