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Seville service


Being in the wrong place at the wrong time couldn't have been more right for the man who has brought new life to crime writing.

HIS clothes are immaculate, the manners slightly less so. In fact, the man looks close to bursting as he cuts in on the conversation. ``You're not the writer Robert Wilson?'' he demands, buttonholing the slightly diffident Englishman who has just given his name to the hotel receptionist. ``You are, you are,'' the Italian guest continues excitedly as he reaches out to engulf hands. ``You're the reason my friends and I are here, in Seville.'' He gestures towards the two women and a man grouped nearby. ``I made them read The Blind Man of Seville before we left Rome ... now we are on a Falcon pilgrimage.''

``This doesn't happen every day,'' a slightly shaken-if-still-stirred Wilson confides later, after he and I had plunged into the cobblestoned labyrinth of old Seville on our own pilgrimage to visit the haunts of his charismatic character, the Spanish homicide inspector Javier Falcon. ``But it is gratifying,'' he smiles, ``because writers are usually so anonymous. Especially if, like me, they live far off the celebrity circuit.''

That's only slightly disingenuous. For starters, he stands out in any crowd, anywhere, given that he has the looming presence of someone who was tipped to reach the top as a rugby union forward until a car accident almost killed him, curtailing that career. And his Mediterranean home base (he has another in England) is relatively isolated: he lives four hours' drive from Seville across the border in Portugal's rural Alentejo -- a trip that took three hours longer this time after he and his wife Jane had a puncture three minutes from home and had to wait through siesta for repairs -- but his fame is transcontinental and spreading widely.

His first Mediterranean-set crime novel, A Small Death in Lisbon (1999), catapulted him to international prominence after four earlier West Africa-based political thrillers had attracted cult consciousness. The primarily Portugal-based spy-cum-love story The Company of Strangers consolidated his Small Death readership. And his continuing series of Seville-set police procedurals, featuring the seriously flawed but deeply intriguing Falcon, has confirmed him as a leading talent in the crime and political thriller zone dominated by the le Carres and Deightons of literary land.

The Falcon narratives take few prisoners: as yarns, they are multistrand and tightly woven. They are peopled by crowds of eccentric, larger-than-life characters. They delve into the extremes of psychological and anti-social behaviours. They are splattered with often gruesome violence (of the spirit as much as of the body) and singed with cynicism and Hispanic surrealism. They are also written with subtle skill as they explore place, people and evolving perceptions.

The inspector is a work in progress, evolving from the psychologically stunted and insecure loner of The Blind Man of Seville to a man shedding emotional shell-shock in The Silent and the Damned to a post-therapy cross-cultural voyager in touch with his inner man in the new release, The Hidden Assassins (HarperCollins, $32.99). These changes are reflected in Falcon's approach to sleuthing as he goes from the coldly clinical and scientific to the intuitive.

In his world of homicide and heartache, history influences the present as a complex of back stories traverses art, society and politics (of the fascist, fundamentalist, familial, sexual and career kinds), with a seasoning of modern corruptions, accommodations, secrets and betrayals. ``The essence of crime fiction,'' Wilson says, as we stop for a coffee and tapas top-up, ``is one of those fundamental Shakespearean themes which concerns appearance and reality: you're looking at what you believe is a stable situation but for some reason it becomes unstable. I'm interested in why it has become unstable, what has happened inside a particular person that makes them an extreme liability.''

Constant throughout his expositions of deadly dramas and dirty dealings is Seville's seductive allure. Which is why we have met here. And why Wilson is leading me on a tour of Falcon's world. We're both in love with the city: Wilson from long acquaintance, me from his literary evocation. Ancient and undaunted, Falcon's Seville is Moorish and moreish: here is the stately home he inherited from his famous artist father, there and there are the tapas bars he frequents to skulk or sulk, here another landmark (both literal and literary), there is the church where he ... and so it goes, text contextualised in 3D. And in the evening we eat at the restaurant upon which the feisty love interest Consuelo's eatery is based. The food, naturally, is as fiery as its fictional owner's nature. ``I rather like strong women,'' Wilson says, smiling at his wife as he pours us another vino tinto.


THE key to him writing at all, he says, is the same as the key to all of his writing: place. First you find the place, then you find the story. Yet his own place was for a long time problematical, as was his story. An Oxford graduate son of an RAF father, he grew up feeling like an outsider because the family changed operational base so frequently; he was also a boarding school boy.

``You become this person who can adapt to any situation, and to any personality, because you want to fit in.'' That's why he focused on sport and why he was relieved to be good enough to be accepted in the clubhouse culture.

Then came his pile-up. He was a passenger in a putative brother-in-law's car, and he remembers hearing two paramedics ``decide `not to bother with that one because he's gone'. `I'm alive,' I wanted to shout, but I couldn't make a sound. I was terrified I was going to die because I couldn't get their attention.''

After a long recovery, he went from being a sport-centric jock ``to making different friends, being more open and getting an insight into a different world entirely. In a way, I've used Javier Falcon as a way of talking about what happened to me, how my vision was opened up by a traumatic experience. Experiences like that either make you or break you.''

He developed a quiet desire to be a writer but didn't know how, so he worked in finance in London and travelled whenever he could. In his mid-20s he met Jane, who worked ``in the film world'' and was adamant she would never marry a writer ``because her father was a screenwriter and she'd seen what he'd gone through''.

They married and travelled in Africa for a year before washing up in Sintra, just outside Lisbon. Some time later, friends told them of a farm for sale 160km east of the Portuguese capital. They visited and fell in residential lust with Monk's Spring. So they sold their rented-out flat in Clapham to buy the wooden-roofed derelict farmhouse and its 3ha of cork oaks and olive trees. The property was 3km up a dirt track from the village, had no electricity, two drinking springs and at one time had supplied the nearby monastery's grocery needs.

It was the kind of romantic and cheap place in which a Hemingway-admiring, thriller-inclined tyro could start writing. But it was a long learning curve. Over the next few years, the house absorbed all their financial resources as they made it livable in a climate that in summer touches 45C in the shade. As penury approached, the couple were commissioned in 1993 to write a guidebook to the Alentejo. That paid off a desperate bill or three and more importantly showed Wilson how to forge on: taking a setting that intrigues you, research its history and set a story there. So he wrote a book set in Africa because ``it was the first place I had been to that really affected me. I had violent swings of emotion about Africa, as most people who have been there do. You love it, you hate it, you love the people and then you hate them. It can have a very powerful influence on you.'' His stories were large-scale adventures with political involvement ``and a sort of noir-Chandleresque tone'' and paid enough to keep them eating. Just.

In 1998 he decided ``to write about Lisbon because we knew it well and it intrigued me: it seems to have some type of passion that I've got close to several times but never quite cracked. It's a sea port, built on hills and on the river, and it's really cool but it has mysterious undercurrents, a violent past and its history of Nazi involvement and machinations''.

That book, his fifth, won a Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award for fiction and tipped the financial balance. And then, of course, came Seville. ``Everybody knows about it, even if they haven't been there. Sevillanos will tell you it's the most beautiful place on earth. That's a wonderful starting point because clearly it's a state of self-belief, isn't it? And other Spaniards think of Sevillanos as happy-go-lucky people always singing, dancing and clapping in the streets and staying up late every night. But there's no immunity here to the human condition, and that's why I find the city absolutely ideal for my stories.

``Seville is actually a series of little villages and it's a jigsaw of relationships: everybody knows each other and they're all friends, and they are also competitors.'' As for Falcon, ``he started after I was wandering around in Seville and I looked at the map one day and realised that the whole centre of Seville is not unlike the human brain. I thought, `what about a detective here who has some sort of psychological problem and has to work in this brain-like environment?'''

I suggest that an outsider would think Wilson's career is his own brainy plan to allow him to live and research in exotic climes ... Africa, Lisbon, Seville, Morocco. ``Let's just say I won't be setting a story any time soon in Minsk,'' he laughs.

* * *

IN The Hidden Assassins, Wilson upped his narrative ante by entwining crime procedural with terrorist thriller. All of his books are elemental morality plays, and of special interest to him are the victims -- what happens to them or their families -- and ``why people kill in the first place''. This time, he has become more ambitious in reach, adding to his criminal conundrums the complications of religious fundamentalism, cultural conditioning and the fatal dedication of zealots. ``My big difficulty with The Hidden Assassins,'' he says, ``was how to make it work when you've got extremists: how do you make people believe and understand fanaticism? How do you get people to emotionally engage with these people? How do you stop it from just being what everybody sees terrorism as, which is a brutally cold act?''

Just as Falcon is learning to come to terms with both his discovered Moroccan family and his Spanish background and ties, so Wilson wants to ``help people understand through showing both sides of the story, and by personalising it, just what fanaticism is. And to help people understand what the effects of terrorism are by showing it happening on the personal and mental levels.''

There is psychological terrorism, he explains, and ``there is a sort of domestic terrorism, andthat's what we're all having to deal with today. It is changing our world perspective. But it is vitally important that we know where terrorism is coming from, and that we don't respond to it only from fear or from national or religious prejudice.''

It seems, in some ways, quite distant from Monk's Spring, now transformed into a two-storey, two-apartment solar-powered writer's retreat, complete (as of this year) with swimming pool. Yet all of the above was almost lost last month when a bushfire torched much of the surrounding groves and touched the house. When you find the right place, the stories and the dramas just keep coming.


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian,  26 AUG 2006. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren

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