Neil Cross has something of a reputation. When it comes to interviews -- or meeting books journalists like myself -- he is not considered particularly biddable. In fact, so the rumours go, he has very little time for all the shenanigans involved in promoting his books.
So as I walk through a muggy Soho night on my way to Kettner’s (once a pizza parlour, now a high-end restaurant), I wonder why he has agreed to take part in what sounds like a decidedly un-Neil-Cross-like event: Simon & Schuster, his publisher, have arranged a ‘crime carousel’.
The notion is an intriguing one: a cadre of the company’s crime authors will sit in different rooms of the restaurant, never moving, while the booksellers and journos such as myself play a curious game of musical chairs between rooms and courses, hopefully getting to know each other as we move from the hors d'oeuvres to the coffee-and-mints course. I've met several of the other authors before, including the personable Chris Carter, he of the long, lustrous black mane, who I last encountered at a crime festival in Denmark -- and I was reminded that he’s as entertaining on his days as a musician as he is on his writing skills. Similarly, ex-journo Craig Robertson is one of the most likeable of Scottish crime novelists, with intelligence and humour balanced in equal measure. Also hosting one room – and seeming to enjoy it -- are the duo who comprise Casey Hill: Kevin and Melissa Hill - both equally winning.
But is this overdose of charm about to run dry? Working my way through the delicious courses, the constantly refilled glasses, the various rooms and the various authors (a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it), I'm already thinking about my final meeting with the supposedly intimidating Neil Cross. Were his responses going to be short, sharp and Anglo-Saxon? Surely not -- after all, he's agreed to this beauty parade of crime authors with his publisher, so perhaps he won’t be entirely unsympathetic to my questions. But who knows? Most journalists have had interviews with authors who make it clear how much they hate the whole publicity machine and render the experience almost meaningless.
Then, suddenly, a toy gun is detonated with a silly sound (the signal that we are all to move to the next room), and I am ushered into the lion's den. Neil Cross is sitting there, much younger looking than one expects, an empty plate in front of him, a full wine glass to his right. And he is smiling. Actually smiling.
I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised that Cross turns out to be extremely friendly, and utterly forthcoming about his life as a writer (and even regarding his -- shall we say -- colourful past life and youthful indiscretions), and he's even supremely tolerant of the various women in the room who want to know what the charismatic Idris Elba is really like (who plays Cross's bolshy copper Luther in the hit TV series). The new Luther novel, The Calling, is one of the reasons we are all here, and the surprisingly agreeable Cross is forthcoming about the challenges of writing the book and dealing with his single-minded protagonist.
It even transpires that Cross is rather important in the process of actually making the TV series (such information is imparted in a modest rather than breast-beating fashion) and, if anything, the author is a touch wistful that he's not getting the screw-you treatment accorded to such writing predecessors in the filmmaking process as Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner. "No, I have to admit," he says, "they actually appear to like my presence on the set. And Idris talks to me about his character, which -- I have to tell you -- is not all that common among actors. And actors are – with a few exceptions – a breed I prefer not to have anything to do with."
Ah-ha! A touch of rancour, however cheerfully expressed. Perhaps feeling that I might like to see a little more of the difficult, rebarbative character that I’d heard Cross could be, I try to be provocative, and suggest that his best work is not to be found in the Luther books or TV shows - however striking they are - but in his caustic, compellingly distressing standalones, such as Burial. I pay Cross the dubious compliment that I felt the desire to wash myself after reading – at one or two sittings -- the latter novel. "Wonderful!" he exclaims. "If you mean I thoroughly involved you with an unlikeable character, that was precisely what I wanted to do. Who wants squeaky-clean heroes? In fact, I’m of the Hitchcock school: I like to put the reader completely on the side of a character they’d probably cross the street to avoid."
It's late, and the waiters are clearing the plates away. I say goodnight to a still-smiling Cross, and head out into the Soho night. What a shame Neil Cross turned out to be such a nice guy.
The Calling is published by Simon & Schuster. Barry Forshaw is the author of Death in a Cold Climate.