The problem: an author in search of a book

In the Autumn of 2007 I had a problem. I hoped – I prayed – that Iceland was the solution.

Every successful author has a moment of good fortune. For me, it was right at the very beginning of my career. In 1993 Carole Blake, the ‘Blake’ of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, fell while on holiday in the South of France and broke her leg.

I was working in the City at the time, as a bond trader. I had decided to write a novel, a thriller. On the strength of the excellent advice to write what you know, I wrote a thriller about a bond trader. It was called Free To Trade.

After years of writing and rewriting, I bought a pretty box with flowers on it from the department store John Lewis, printed off the manuscript, put the manuscript into the box and sent it off to agents. Actually, I initially sent them the first two chapters plus the synopsis.

All agents and publishers have a ‘slush pile’. Nowadays, it is a virtual pile of zeroes and noughts stored in servers around the world; then it was an actual pile several feet high of manuscripts sent in from would-be authors. Since Carole had broken her leg, she decided to go through her slush pile with more care than she could usually give it, and she found Free To Trade.

Little did I know, but my timing was perfect.

In 1993 the world was coming out of an unpleasant recession and the Cold War had finished. Publishers had retrenched, sticking to tried-and-trusted authors like Frederick Forsyth, John Le Carré and Dick Francis.

But then John Grisham’s The Firm was published, a legal thriller written by a youngish American author, and things changed. White-collar crime was the successor to the spy thriller. The hunt was on for ‘the British John Grisham’. And then Free To Trade popped up.

Carole was no slouch. She applied her considerable enthusiasm to securing me publishers in Britain, America and over thirty other countries, including Iceland.

Despite my publishers proclaiming otherwise, I never was ‘the British John Grisham’, but Free To Trade was successful when it was published in 1995, reaching number two in the British bestseller lists, and staying in the top ten for three months.

Over the next ten years, I wrote seven more financial thrillers. The first three or four reached the top ten, but sales slowly, inexorably declined. There were a number of possible reasons for this: people preferred to read about courtrooms than about trading rooms, legal thrillers themselves were beginning to decline in popularity, there was a screw-up at my publisher's warehouse which meant bookshops couldn’t get my books. But during these ten years, I was learning my craft and my writing was improving.

I was a big fish in a tiny pool, the puddle that was financial thrillers, and I began to wonder how I would measure up against the Frederick Forsyths and John le Carrés at their own game. So, when my publisher decided to drop my books, I decided to try my hand at a spy thriller.

Plan B - spies

I settled on Berlin in 1938 and spent two years researching, plotting and writing a novel involving a young German and a young Briton who were friends and who wanted to overthrow Hitler. 

Carole read it and suggested some rewriting: there was too much research and not enough pace. After the rewriting, it was too predictable and lacked texture. Finally, we had something we were both happy with and we sent it out to twelve publishers.

Who declined it. All of them.

Now I was in trouble. Advances continue to roll in from individual books for a couple of years after you have written them, so I had had a breathing space to write my spy thriller, but now the income was drying up fast.

Plan B had failed. I needed a Plan C. I needed it quickly and it had to work.

Plan C - Iceland

This time, I wanted to make sure that whatever book I wrote, someone would publish it.

And they would publish it because it would sell. I needed to write a book that might end up on the shelves of a small branch of Smith’s.

So I checked out my local WH Smith’s in Temple Fortune in North London. I was looking for six-inch sections of bookshelves given over to individual authors of the type I could aspire to be. Aside from the old traditional favourites – the Frederick Forsyths and the Dick Francises – there seemed to be two distinct categories of novel that I might plausibly write: Dan Brown-type stories featuring an international conspiracy, and crime novels featuring distinctive detectives. I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories, so I needed to get myself a distinctive detective.

Crime fiction is perennially popular, but that means there are hundreds of detectives out there. How could mine be different?

One approach would be to give him (or her) a distinctive job, or a disability mental or physical, or place him in an interesting part of Britain. But I had written eight novels set all over the world. I didn’t want to confine myself to my own place of birth. I needed a distinctive country.

At that moment, Iceland popped into my head.  I remembered that book tour twelve years before and that conversation in the car in Germany.  I should have just stopped then, gone home and started researching, but I am an analytical type, sometimes too analytical. I went home and started thinking, scribbling in notebooks, umming and ahhing.

Eventually I came up with an idea involving a policeman in Saudi Arabia. It was quite a clever idea: I won’t tell you too much about it because I might yet use it. I was tempted.

But this idea, whatever it was, had to work. Fortunately, I decided to try the idea out on friends and acquaintances. ‘Which would you rather buy, a book featuring an Icelandic detective, or a Saudi detective?’

Almost everyone preferred Iceland. They didn’t know much about the country, but they thought it was intriguing and they would like to find out more. Saudi Arabia, not so much.

So, Iceland it was.

Next, I needed a detective, and I needed a plot. More on the detective later. The plot for my first book in the series needed to be distinctive too.

A Plot

Most plots of crime novels, and most crime in real life, involve families, local communities, people who know and live close to each other. My financial thrillers had been international in nature, involving people from many different nationalities and often taking place in several different countries in one book. My first case needed to take place in Iceland. But I liked the idea of an international backdrop, something with a global impact.


I remember exactly where I was when I solved this particular problem. My daughter and I were on a ‘College Tour’ of US universities that she was considering applying to, and I was sitting on a bench outside a classroom at Tufts University in Boston, as she listened in to a class.

I cast my mind back to that local branch of WH Smith’s and that other category of books taking up shelf space. Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code had been published four years before with great success: it was the story of how certain facts about Jesus had been hidden for centuries. Was there a story or myth with as global a reach as Christianity that might involve Iceland?

What a stupid question.

But it was a stupid question with an answer. The Lord of the Rings.

OK, The Lord of the Rings doesn’t quite have the global impact of Christianity. But it is a story that is known throughout the world. The book was voted the most popular published in the twentieth century by British readers. The films of the book had been seen by tens of millions of people around the world. And Middle Earth sounded a lot like Iceland.

What if Tolkien had been inspired by an Icelandic saga? He probably had been inspired by an Icelandic saga. So what if he had been inspired by a lost Icelandic saga that someone had found? And that someone had been murdered. And my detective had to sort it out.

I liked the idea. I loved the idea. And at this stage, the very beginning of the process of writing a novel, the most important thing is that the author loves the idea. Readers come later.

Now all I had to do was find out about Iceland.

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  1. I stumbled on Where the Shadows Lie one day, I think perhaps the stunning cover art met my eye. I was living in Boston at the time (and still return often). Then I read it had Iceland ( I read Old Norse in college after a being bit hard by Tolkien in High School), then Sagas, and that the book had a Tolkien mystery. Hard to imagine a book more tailored to my interests :). Loved the book, and love these blog posts! Keep them going!


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