Where Everybody Knows Your Name by Russ Thomas

I’ve just been redrafting my fourth book, Sleeping Dogs (cue contractually obliged plug… out later this year… all good bookshops, etc.) and I realised something that I have been vaguely aware of for a while now: my characters spend a lot of time in the pub. Not just pubs; there are numerous cafes, restaurants, a bubble tea takeaway, and, in the new one, a none-too-salubrious club from the 90s called Honkers

The reason for this is obvious once you consider it. My detectives need places to talk to each other about their cases and there are only so many scenes standing around a conference table that a reader will put up with. That well-worn scene of two coppers haranguing their suspect under a spotlight is cliché for a reason. Much better if my detective can visit the witness in a vibrant Sheffield location that adds to a sense of place, and offers a chance for the writer to flex his descriptive muscles.

Fine. But why does my default setting seem to be the local watering hole?

The honest, if somewhat unflattering answer is that it’s because I spent far too much of my own time there. It’s true, I have been known to enjoy the odd tipple, and some of my favourite alehouses appear in the pages of my books. I’m not the first to do this, of course. The Oxford Bar in Edinburgh is now famous for having been featured in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. Daphne Du Maurier named one of her most famous novels, Jamaica Inn, after the smuggler’s tavern of choice in Cornwall. And even Geoffrey Chaucer begins his pilgrimage to Canterbury at the Tabard in Southwark, where he dissects the varied personalities and histories of his motley travelling companions.

Writers who drink are hardly a new concept either. Anyone who’s been propped up at the bar at 2am at the Harrogate Crime Festival can tell you that much. The list of world-renowned writers who struggled with alcoholism is depressingly lengthy. Raymond Chandler, Dylan Thomas, Dorothy Parker, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Joyce… And Hemingway, of course, often attributed with the writers’ adage, “Write drunk, edit sober”. (The quote is apocryphal: Hemingway did his writing in the morning and didn’t start on the martinis until the afternoon).

But if we discount the theory I have a serious problem (and I’d very much like to) perhaps there’s something deeper going on here. Pubs have long held a place at the heart of story-telling tradition. They are the lynchpin of the community, where folk can gather and interact and tell each other of their lives. The days of the attentive glass-polishing barkeep may have passed, and we might not get together in quite the same numbers as Chaucer’s crew did, but, even in these days of shared memes and Whatsapp message circles, many of us still come together in the pub to swap jokes, complain about our managers, and generally put the world to rights.

In fact, when I was stumbling around looking for an idea for Sleeping Dogs, it was the pub that came to my rescue. Or more specifically, a chat with a friend over a pint. Dave’s a former DCI with South Yorkshire Police and currently heads-up their Major Incident Review Team, the real life version of DS Tyler’s Cold Case Review Unit. We met when Dave read my first book, Firewatching, and got in touch to praise me on how much I got right. He kindly skirted over what I didn’t, other than to point out that real life investigations take place over many months (sometimes years) and involve far more paperwork and far less hanging around chatting down the pub. For the new book I was keen to reflect this reality a bit more, albeit keeping the paperwork to a minimum, so I took him to the Fat Cat to ply him with ale and bombard him with questions about police procedure. After a mouthful or two of the amber nectar, he reflected that all crime stories (mine included) tended to start with the team being called to a grisly crime scene. In reality, this hardly ever happens, and most of what he does is the routine examination of old evidence. “’But what other ways do you come across new leads?” I asked, really meaning, “Have you got anything a bit juicier than that?” He thought about this for a while and said, “Well, we sometimes get anonymous letters…” And so a novel was born.

Pubs are also an ideal setting for interactions with strangers. It was another night out on the sauce that saw me chatting with a group at the neighbouring table. Actually, it was more a case of me listening in on their conversation, because this is another great benefit of the pub to the writer – material. I had decided, in that way that writers do when eavesdropping and taking mental notes, that they were probably actors or directors working on the latest production at The Crucible. I asked them if I was right. I wasn’t. But I wasn’t far off. They worked in TV and film and one of their students had just that day pitched them an idea for a crime series set in Sheffield based on a novel they’d read called… wait for it… Firewatching. I know, I didn’t believe it either but if you live in Sheffield you’ll know that stuff like this happens far more often than you’d think. You just can’t put it in a novel because no one believes it.

Before anyone gets too excited, no deal has been done yet, but I’m reliably informed that talks are progressing. It made me think though. I’m single and I live alone, and much of my life consists of sitting behind a desk inhabiting my own imagination. If I didn’t go to the pub once in a while, not only would I have no new material, I’d probably go insane. Added to that, you never know where the evening’s going to take you. Anyway, those are my excuses and I’m sticking to them. Cheers.

Russ Thomas – Author of the DS Adam Tyler series Fire watching, Nighthawking and Cold Reckoning. Published by Simon & Schuster in the UK and by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin Random House) in the US. I’m represented by Sarah Hornsley of Peters, Fraser + Dunlop.

I was born in Essex, raised in Berkshire and now live in Sheffield. I grew up in the 80s reading anything I could get my hands on at the library, writing stories, watching large amounts of television, playing videogames, and largely avoiding the great outdoors. I spent five years trying to master playing the electronic organ and another five trying to learn Spanish. It didn’t take me too long to realise that I’d be better off sticking to the writing.
After a few “proper” jobs (among them: pot-washer, optician’s receptionist, supermarket warehouse operative, call-centre telephonist and storage salesman) I discovered the joys of book-selling, where I could talk to people about books all day.


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