British crime author, Keith Nixon, takes a scientific approach to noir, without sacrificing the artfulness.
By Will Viharo
Keith Nixon is a British author I’ve known virtually for sometime via social media. I can “hear” his words in my head, whether fictional or Facebook posts, even though we’ve never met in person.
This is partly because he has a very affable public platform presence, but also because he’s one helluva skilled writer.
Sometimes we share a common language, but with different accents. This is true not only regarding national identity, but also when it comes to literary voice. For instance, there are many equally valid ways to translate “noir.”
Since I may never make it across the Pond, the colloquial term for the Atlantic Ocean, there’s a good chance I may never get to shake Keith Nixon’s hand. But I still feel a virtual kinship with him, since while I’m not a “crime writer” per se, we do share a certain hardboiled sensibility, even though my stuff is both acutely American and distinctly unconventional.
Keith, on the other hand, is a skilled wordsmith and storyteller who dedicates himself to the authentic art of grittily realistic noir fiction with the precision and passion of a serious scientist interested in solving problems large and small, leaving his own unique impression on the field as he goes.
And since we’re talking about carefully crafted creativity, I should mention this approach is no accident…
You have experience as a chemist. Does this scientific background inform your crime fiction (since several are police procedurals) in any way, in terms of content, structure, or even daily writing regimen?
No and yes! Initially the science background was a drag, I was far too specific about the facts in the early days. I didn’t have sight that the story is the most important factor and specifics are there for support, not the other way around. So now I attempt a balance between the two – get the details right, but not so layered as to lose the plot (literally).
I used to be pretty rules orientated in most walks of life (cooking, for example. If a recipe said two hours at 250F, that’s when it came out, finished or not!) but a combination of 20+ years of my more artistic wife kicking me and a commercial job in sales where you have to think on your feet have altered the science stuff. Now it’s just a thread in my life.
In your view, what are the unique distinctions as well as the universal similarities between American and British noir fiction?
Wow, great question! It always amazes me when I see authors crossing the pond – American writers set in the UK and vice versa. I work for an American company and have travelled Stateside a lot. There’s a lot the same in terms of language and culture, and some yawning gaps too.
In terms of distinctions, language is one. The differences between how we speak are subtle, but then again, so are readers. I’ve read a couple of books where the author thinks they understand the British crime psyche but don’t. The result is everybody speaks like the Queen. Likewise with the reverse, everyone speaks like an Italian American from Goodfellas.
Ultimately, there’s a bit of a problem pigeonholing noir on such a broad basis – there are differences between Scottish, Irish and English noir (I’ve never read Welsh noir, so wouldn’t know). I’m sure it’ll be the same in the US. Most people revel in localization these days.
I guess ultimately everybody likes an engaging story, living characters, sappy dialogue and a sense of realism across pretty much every genre, right?
You are amazingly prolific, with several ongoing series to your credit, including Konstantin and Detective Solomon Gray, as well as historical fiction set during the Roman Empire. Commercial considerations aside, what compels you most to devote so much of your talent to this particular medium?
I’m a compulsion writer – I do something every day with regard to a book. Either at least 1,000 words on a manuscript or a marketing task, anything really. I have a full time job and a family so what little time I have needs to be used effectively. I can’t ever imagine not writing. I do so on holidays and birthdays too.
I started with historical fiction, I felt I needed a factual event to base a fictional story around (because of my scientific background!) as I didn’t feel I could come up with a whole book by myself. The research that went into those two books was ludicrous. Eighteen months from start to finish.
Then I was made redundant – which I wasn’t overly happy about. I realized I could kill people I didn’t like, but not get arrested for it, by writing a book and that got me into black comedy crime. Then I gravitated towards police procedurals – primarily for commercial reasons. Until then I’d written what I enjoyed.
The trouble was I lost sight of why I was writing – for fun. I started the Gray series and was fortunate enough to work with Allan Guthrie as an editor and mentor. He broke me apart as a writer and I feel I’m a lot better for it.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
I take little pieces of influence from all over. Lines of songs give me ideas, for example. Maybe for a character or a small scene. Then there’s the overall structure of a film and how it plays out. For example Fight Club, I love the multi-perspective aspect of the movie. And Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – how the seemingly unconnected strands of the story and the characters miss each other all the way up to the end.
From a literary perspective, I’ve read for as long as I can remember. And I’ve been writing on and off since I was nine – the two are inextricably linked, I think. I started with adventure stories, then to sci-fi, to fantasy, to thriller, historical fiction and finally to crime where I’ve stayed. My wife bought me three books by Scottish writer Ian Rankin. I’d never read police procedurals before and I was hooked. These days I read a lot less. Primarily because if I’m reading I’m not writing and I don’t want to subconsciously absorb other people’s ideas. However, it’s probably too late for that!
What’s next for you?
I’ve taken back the rights to all my previously published books, so there’s some marketing to be done (when I get time!). The fourth and final Gray novel is being edited and should be out November 1st. I also have the first book of a new series (black comedy crime again) written. I’ll be looking for an agent with that one. And I’ve just started a new Konstantin for a bit of fun.