Futuristic detective novels are nothing new. Alfred Bester, for instance, combined science fiction with crime fiction in his 1953 work, The Demolished Man. Isaac Asimov showed the durability of such crossovers in The Caves of Steel (1954) and its sequels, starring New York City homicide investigator Elijah “Lije” Baley and his robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. Ben H. Winters’ trilogy of tales about rookie cop Hank Palace (beginning with 2012’s The Last Policeman) are all set in a pre-apocalyptic America. And Lauren Beukes’ 2013 thriller, The Shining Girls, imagines a time-traveling serial killer abroad in the City of Broad Shoulders, Chicago.
Paul Johnston’s new Heads or Hearts belongs in the “what if” category of this subgenre. It’s the unexpected sixth entry in a series the Scottish-born author began publishing in 1997, with Body Politics. His setting is a dystopian Edinburgh, which has survived as an independent city-state in the wake of drugs wars that tore the United Kingdom and much of the rest of the world asunder during the early 21st century. While China has “disappeared in the biggest financial crisis in history,” the United States has been balkanized beyond recognition, Russia has become the province of oligarchs and serfs, and the last surviving members of Britain’s royal family now “run a llama farm somewhere in South America,” the former Scottish capital is controlled by a “benevolent” totalitarian regime, the Council of City Guardians. Borrowing their ideals from Greek philosopher Plato, those guardians curbed crime in the city, but they also banned cars, computers, smoking, popular music and facial hair, and even required that citizens engage in weekly sex sessions—but only with partners selected by the authorities. Their edicts are enforced by bureaucrats and police.
Body Politics, set in the year 2020, introduced readers to Quintilian “Quint” Dalrymple, who’d been a keen supporter of the guardians and a senior policeman until he “lost…faith in the system” and was demoted for insubordination. He’s since worked as a quasi-private investigator, solving crimes in “the perfect city” of Edinburgh with the forbearance of the guardians, who don’t appreciate his maverick ways but recognize his success. Following his initial outing, Quint returned in The Bone Yard (1998), Water of Death (1999), The Blood Tree (2000) and The House of Dust (2001).
But then Johnston seemed to quit Quint. The onetime student of ancient and modern Greek went on to produce more than half a dozen mysteries starring Alexandhros “Alex” Mavros, a Scots-Greek private eye based in modern Athens (A Deeper Shade of Blue, The Black Life), as well as four yarns focused around a struggling crime writer named Matt Wells (The Death List, The Nameless Dead). Only now, at age 57, has the author resurrected his near-future protagonist in a story that shows Edinburgh becoming less isolated—and in crucial ways, less safe than it had once been.
As Heads or Hearts opens, the year is 2033. The guardians have loosened some restrictions: citizens can again listen to blues and rock music, watch previously banned movies and acquire “half-decent coffee.” There’s also a referendum in the works to reconstitute Scotland. That reunification might be endangered, however, by a rash of crimes beginning with the discovery of a human heart in the middle of a football stadium. When a headless corpse is later found close to another playing field, the guardians summon Quint’s help. Once more paired with his old police colleague, the violence-prone Davie Oliphant, Quint sets out to determine whether these grisly finds are linked to a rise in local gang activity and sports betting, black-market dealings that implicate the guardians themselves or perhaps the upcoming referendum.
I recently asked Paul Johnston about the evolution of his Quint Dalrymple series, his use of humor in fiction and whether we can expect more of these tales to come.
Your Quint series was your first, and Body Politic won the British Crime Writers’ Association’s prestigious John Creasey Memorial Dagger for Best Debut Novel. You then penned four sequels in rather quick succession. Since the series had brought you such recognition and acclaim, why did you stop writing it?
Yes, there were five Quint novels in successive years, starting in 1997. But even after the first two I was planning to write the [Alex] Mavros series. It may well have been the case that I should have stuck with Quint for longer back then—many authors have a single protagonist for their entire careers. That’s turned out not to be my way. Having studied Greek language, history and literature for so many years, and having lived in that country for a long time, I was always going to write about it. I have to say that I felt a change in the reception of the Quint novels after he left Edinburgh in the fourth, The Blood Tree [which sent him off to Glasgow], and the fifth, The House of Dust [in which he traveled to Oxford]. I was getting a bit tired of the relentless nature of the first-person narrative voice, too.
Did you anticipate, after House of Dust saw print in 2001, that you’d return to Quint and Enlightenment Edinburgh 14 years later?
I never shut the door on a possible return, but other projects got in the way. I guess if you’d told me back in 2001 that I’d do another Quint 13 years later, I’d have laughed at you. More fool me….
What motivated you, in the first place, to write a futuristic crime series?
Slipping into my mind as it was 22 years ago…I was living on a small and remote Aegean island and was nostalgic about my home city, Edinburgh. The problem was that I hadn’t been there often in recent times and I just couldn’t get the story to work with a contemporary setting. So I jumped forward to 2020—and then realized I had to invent a society that merited the leap. So I went back to Plato’s Republic and [George] Orwell and started thieving.
In Body Politic you imagined an early 21st century where drug wars had ripped the world apart and left Edinburgh an independent city-state. When that novel was published in 1997, those fictional turns were all firmly in the future. But since then, time has caught up with your fiction. Your Quint yarns must now take place in an alternative universe, where incidents are supposed to have occurred in years that readers have already lived through. Do you wish now that you’d set Body Politic in a future farther ahead than you did?
Yes, that’s become a challenge! Though in Heads or Hearts I moved the action on five years from The House of Dust, to 2033. That’s still far enough in the future to give me room for messing with political and social ideas. Of course, all books set in the future or past are really a reflection of the time in which they’re written. I’m a satirist at heart. The back story to the regime is now out of date, you’re right. By 2015 the drugs wars were just coming to an end. Then again, drugs wars in Mexico and in cities all over the world are still going on…I don’t really wish I’d gone further into the future because that would have reduced the relevance to today’s readers. Plus, my Edinburgh is distinctly low-tech, though even that’s changing in 2033.
You seem to take great pleasure in making up your “future history” for the Quint mysteries. I mean, really, you married Britain’s Prince Charles off to a “Colombian drugs heiress.” Does such speculation find you smiling a lot?
Well, the Prince Charles gag is one that still makes me laugh. Oddly, I’m not a fan of the hereditary monarchy and I rather doubt they’ve taken any of my books for their summer break in Scotland. Of course, the Prince has gone on to marry Camilla, which means “camel” in Greek, so the humor never ends.
I was deadly serious about my future society when I planned it, but I soon realized that using the classic wise-cracking PI as narrator meant that jokes were essential. The thing that Edinburgh natives pick up on most [in my fictional future] is the idea of the year-round festival. When I was a kid, Edinburgh turned into a global arts center only for the month of August. Now there are festivals of one kind or another all the time.…I’ve had a lot of fun with buildings too. [In my stories] churches become brothels—the tourists are provided with sex, drugs and gambling for a price—and the site of the Edinburgh International Book Festival is a casino. And my old school [Fettes College]—well, I blew it up [in Body Politic].
It’s interesting to see, in Head or Hearts, how much corruption and rules-breaking have crept back into “the perfect city” of Edinburgh. The restrictions originally put in place by the guardians are being quietly disregarded, even by the guardians themselves. Black-market goods can be had in the city, while legalized gambling and criminal gangs are starting to pop up again. Did you always have in mind that Edinburgh’s “enlightenment” couldn’t last, that humans simply weren’t that disciplined?
Yes, you’re right to put enlightenment in quote marks. History shows that periods of progressive thinking tend to end in disaster. For instance, among many good things, the 18th-century European enlightenment led to the French Revolution. I’m afraid my view of human nature isn’t positive. It isn’t a coincidence that Quint’s classicist father’s favorite author is the savagely indignant Roman satirist Juvenal. All repressive regimes have black markets as people are inherently covetous, a fact that unchecked capitalism has made much of, financially and metaphorically. Even in Body Politic, the first book, the heart of corruption was in the city’s leadership. That’s always been a basic theme of the series. For better or worse, it’s how I see the world. Back to Plato—those who seek power are not worthy of that power.
There are lots of great partnerships in modern crime fiction, and I’d have to rank that between Quint and Davie Oliphant as one of the most enjoyable. Quint is a sardonic maverick, while Davie is a sensualist, a glutton and something of a blunt instrument. Did they appear on the page as a perfect crime-fighting pair, or did you have to struggle a bit to make them a good team?
I’m hugely flattered, thank you. From very early on I decided I didn’t want Quint to be a [Philip] Marlowe-figure, solving cases on his own. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the Scottish communitarian tradition. So Davie—whose surname we only learn in Heads or Hearts, and boy did I have fun choosing it—was his Dr. Watson (Arthur Conan Doyle is one of my masters), though a Watson with bigger boots and fists. I really enjoy writing the dialogue between Quint and Davie. Their banter and mockery are essential to keeping the reader on board through some pretty horrendous scenes. I never struggled with them. As soon as Davie pounded up the stairs to Quint’s flat in Body Politic, they clicked. The trick is to keep them fresh. I hope I’ve done that.
Now that you’ve given us a sixth Quint Dalrymple tale, dare we hope for a seventh? The ending of Heads or Hearts certainly suggests one is coming.
Dare away! The seventh novel, Skeleton Blues, is written and has been given a huge thumbs-up by my editor. It’ll be out in December 2015 in the U.K. and a few months later in the U.S. The book ties up loose ends from Heads or Hearts and ends with the [Scottish reunification] referendum taking place.
Photo: Author Paul Johnston, by Francesco Moretti