Adieu Enzo Macleod: Peter May on his crime-solving alter ego

The trouble with developing a God complex as a writer is learning the hard way that not everything you create can be controlled

While a Lannemezan prison inmate provided the inspiration for the serial killer in Cast Iron, I based him physically on a notorious British criminal, the armed robber John McVicar

While a Lannemezan prison inmate provided the inspiration for the serial killer in Cast Iron, I based him physically on a notorious British criminal, the armed robber John McVicar

 

There is an inherent danger for every writer of fiction that he or she might develop a God complex.

In the beginning God created the Prologue. God saw that it was good and so embarked on Chapter One.

Then God said: “Let us make a principal character in our likeness, and let him have dominion over the story.” And so God created characters in his image. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply!”

And that pretty much describes the genesis of Enzo Macleod, forensics expert, lover, bon vivant, an expat Scot living in France having left his wife and lost custody of his daughter.

To describe Enzo as having been created in my own image is not so very far from the truth. He is a lover of music, and as a teenager played in a band – which I had done. At the opening of the series he was just turning 50, which was around my own age at the time. He had long hair tied back in a ponytail, just like me. He even dressed like me, in cargo pants and baggy shirts and sneakers – an old hippy, as I had often been called. He is a lover of good wine (I am a chevalier of the wines of Gaillac in south-west France), and loves to cook, as do I.

Part of his personal life even mirrored my own – I, too, had left an unhappy marriage, losing custody of my daughter in the process. My lifelong guilt about this became Enzo’s great emotional burden, and the series in many ways deals with his process of coming to terms with that.

But the character of Enzo was very nearly stillborn. I had conceived of the idea for the Enzo Files after (what later turned out to be my breakthrough book) The Blackhouse had been universally rejected. I wanted to write something in the crime genre that would fit neatly into current interest in forensics and cold cases, but would also give me the chance to explore the culture and history of my adopted country, France.

When I first pitched the idea to my then UK publisher, the editor dismissed it out of hand. Enzo, she said, was far too old to be the leading character of a series. I took umbrage. It was almost like saying that I was too old to be a writer. That might have been the end of Enzo right there and then, but ironically it made me all the more determined to write him, and I am happy to say that time, and sales, have proved me right. Enzo is probably one of the most popular characters I have ever written.

The series is predicated upon a bet that Enzo cannot resolve France’s seven most notorious cold cases with the use of new science – as he claims during a Rabelaisian meal with his local police chief. Emboldened by too much wine, Enzo accepts the wager and embarks on a foolhardy attempt to do just that.

And this is where the tale got taken out of my hands. I had written five of the books when my then US publisher attempted to sell the series, and all my other books, to a nascent UK publishing house without my permission (as required by contract). We got into a legal wrangle, the biggest casualty of which was the Enzo series itself – and all his readers, who were denied the sixth and ultimate book which was to have resolved the final two murders.

It wasn’t until five years later that I was finally able to create the time to tackle that last book in the series. And it turned out to be Cast Iron.

And as always, Enzo took me on yet another tour of France that was well off the beaten tourist track.

The most unusual location was the Lannemezan high security prison which nestles in the lee of the Pyrenees, a stone’s throw from the Spanish frontier. I am not new to French prisons, having visited several around the country to talk to inmates. But Lannemezan was my first high security stop – a prison which harbours some of France’s most notorious and violent murderers. While one of its inmates provided the inspiration for the serial killer in Cast Iron, I based him physically on a notorious British criminal of the sixties and seventies, the armed robber John McVicar who was declared Public Enemy No1 by Scotland Yard after several prison escapes.

I interviewed McVicar in the late seventies after he had been paroled and become a journalist and media commentator. I visited him at his mother’s house, where I was struck by his extraordinary presence. The interview was part of the research for a book which I never wrote, but I was happy to recall and make use of the encounter many years later, and imbue the character in Cast Iron with at least some of McVicar’s extraordinary characteristics.

My researches also took me to Bordeaux in west France. This was a research trip of some contrasts, leading me to the ultra-modern Palais de Justice during the day, and the bars and dark and seedy streets of the city’s red light district at night – providing me with insights into the city which I had never had on previous trips.

For reasons outlined above, it is not unreasonable for readers to have made the assumption that Enzo is me, and that I am Enzo. But while there are many aspects of Enzo’s character and background which were drawn from mine, he definitely took on a life of his own, exhibiting plenty of character traits that were never foreseen by his Creator!

In the end, however, I would have to say that of all the characters I have created over a long career as a writer of television and books, I have never felt the same affinity as I do towards Enzo.

When, at the end of 2015, I finally came to write Cast Iron, it was like being re-acquainted with an old friend. And writing the final words of it became a very emotional farewell to that same friend – because I knew I was never going to see him again.

Which is the trouble with developing a God complex. You have to learn the hard way that not everything you create can be controlled.

Cast Iron by Peter May is published on January 12th by Riverrun

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