words | Elena Scialtiel
“Spike Sanguinetti, the lawyer I never was and the action hero I will never be”: thus novelist Thomas Mogford describes his personal relationship with the protagonist of his Gibraltar-flavoured crime saga ahead of his return to the Literary Festival this autumn. Tom confesses that Spike is far braver than him: “I try to think of the opposite of what I would do, and make Spike do it. Then he comes alive.”
“I first participated in the Festival in 2013, when my second book had just been published, whereas my fifth is due in a few months’ time, so I definitely feel more experienced now,” he says. This year, he will present and sign his new book ‘Sleeping Dogs’, set mainly in Corfu, where Spike is taking a well-deserved holiday with old flame detective sergeant Jessica Navarro. It’s all fun and games until the body of an Albanian national is found at an archaeological site and a vulnerable young woman disappears.
“In this book, Spike and Jessica find themselves teaming up romantically and also in trying to solve the mystery. Jessica will play a big part in ‘A Thousand Cuts’, the next book in the series, which is set entirely in Gibraltar, when a routine case at the Magistrates’ Court leads to revelations about a WW2 cover-up. I don’t want to give too much away about book five, but I’m convinced that you won’t be able to put it down!”
Since murder and archaeology are always a winning combination, especially when peppered with lavish parties and shady tycoons, Thomas thoroughly researched the background to ‘Sleeping Dogs’. “I re-read Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, and various books that try to prove (often against the facts) that Homer’s settings correspond to real places. One such place is Corfu, where Odysseus is thought to have washed up after escaping the clutches of Calypso, who is meant to hail from Malta, the land of Spike’s forebears, incidentally. I’ve been holidaying on the north-east coast of Corfu for years, so I was sure it would make a great setting for a book.”
Albania required a specific research trip with his wife: “Thankfully, Ali and I didn’t bring the children along when, armed only with a notebook and a camera, we found ourselves visiting a mountain village that was believed to allegedly produce most of the marijuana marketed in Europe. That adventure influenced the plot of ‘Sleeping Dogs’.”
Malta has such close ties with Gibraltar that it was the obvious setting for Spike’s second adventure, ‘Sign of the Cross’, where family, love and business intertwine with intrigue and deceit. Tom flew to Malta purposely to trace Spike’s movements across the island: “I wanted to give him free rein to explore the Mediterranean – while enjoying his tax-deductable holidays, naturally.”
The idea of a rock-solid crime-investigating lawyer first dawned on the author when he spent some time in Gibraltar – “the country with the highest density of lawyers per square metre, more than anywhere else in the world” – to gain experience after his postgraduate degree in Law: he realised that the Old Town would make the ideal setting for some old fashion mystery, and soon afterwards, ‘Shadow of the Rock’ was published.
He hoped that people might be interested by Spike’s adventures in Gibraltar as an intriguing location, since he felt that the British media often portray Gibraltar just for its connections to Britain. “There is much more to the place than that, and I wanted people to discover it for themselves, and visit the Rock to learn more.”
A Gibraltarian of mixed Italian and Maltese descent, Spike runs a successful legal practice which keeps him crazy busy, but never so much that he can’t help out a good friend, or sleuth out a good mystery – and definitely never so much that he can’t score some romance along the way. Romance is a pivotal part of the story because “if you are trying to make a character breathe on the page, you have to show his or her full life, and relationships are essential to that”.
However, Thomas’s wife advised him against sexually explicit scenes, so this novel contains nothing to alarm the guardians of young readers. “I’m grateful for that advice, as writing about ‘matters carnal’ without the cringe factor is very hard. Romance is important nonetheless, yet I am inclined to sacrifice a fancy line or metaphor to the cause of making the story flow more easily for the reader. And these days I avoid gratuitous violence – there is so much sickening stuff in the news already, that one doesn’t want to add to it in fiction as well.”
Tom explains how the character’s looks and brains came together: “I originally had Spike pegged as a balding thuggish type, but my wife persuaded me that a bit of dash never goes amiss. However, I believe that a character’s ability to stir an emotional affinity with the reader is more important than their looks. I’m currently reading a Michael Connelly novel and I have no idea what Bosch looks like (and don’t really care): he just resonates! Hopefully, Spike’s moral fibre, even if he makes mistakes, particularly with women, is his most alluring aspect.”
Spike is “a composite of a number of lawyer friends I have watched over the years, who combine testing jobs with the demands of relationships and families. I get the sense that life ‘goes to work’ on lawyers in quite a brutal way: be they the commercial solicitor fighting to make partner who works a hundred-hour week and never goes home, or the criminal barrister slowly becoming inured to what they see day to day, lawyers are pulled in all sorts of directions and their personalities get sorely tested. Of course, the beauty of the legal profession in Gibraltar is that all types of legal work are available, so Spike can be pulled in any direction I want!”
He chose the less-travelled path of a lawyer protagonist over the more clichéd detective, whether police officer or private eye, partly because lawyers are such a familiar feature in Gibraltar, partly because he did a postgraduate degree in law and his wife is a lawyer too, but mainly because “I’ve overdosed on police procedurals and wanted to try a different angle.” Furthermore, Tom feels at liberty to explore the protagonist’s ‘intellectual hinterland’, as he believes that “sometimes the poetry-loving cop can be a bit of a stretch credibility wise.”
Tom had written a few books which didn’t get published before hitting the shelves with ‘Shadow of the Rock’ in 2012. “They all featured a crime as the engine for the plot, but they weren’t really crime novels as such. So I decided to write a proper crime novel: there wasn’t a massive difference between the two, just a sense that the story had to come first and that each event had to contribute to furthering the plot. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been drawn to crime fiction: I like to be whisked along by story.”
To those who dismiss crime fiction as beneath literary, he replies that there’s plenty of crime fiction that can rival classic fiction, and that the distinction is fairly futile anyway. “As long as the characterisation is strong, and the writing is fresh and truthful instead of lazy or clichéd, it doesn’t matter what genre your book falls into: good writing is good writing.” Crime fiction is highly versatile, he adds: “Most books contain a crime somewhere in the plot. From ‘Jane Eyre’ to ‘Oliver Twist’, find me a classic that doesn’t!”
The first three books in the series, ‘Shadow of the Rock’, ‘Sign of the Cross’ and ‘Hollow Mountain’ have recently been optioned for television. “No guarantee they will get filmed,” Tom sighs, “but in case they do, any suggestions for casting Spike and Jessica are much appreciated!”
For more info visit www.thomasmogford.com.