Q&A with Deborah Crombie
Q: Tony, I love, love, love your Jethro books...as should be obvious from the cover blurb on Shadows In The Smoke...and I don't know of anyone else writing anything similar. How did you come up with the idea of Jethro as a character? (And it's just Jethro—we don't know his last name? Will we ever learn it?)
A: Your blurb describes our Jethro to a T: 'A rakish Cockney cat burglar with the soul of a poet.' Lovely stuff. Thanks ever so, Deborah. And as for Jethro? He's based on the father of an old friend of mine who apparently really was an honest to goodness cat burglar in and around London after the War. I never met the man, but as my 'old china' (Cockney rhyming slang: old china = old china plate = mate) had once had a career in the London theatre, I put the two of them together—mixed in one or two other people I'd met, growing up, in London—added a touch of the Michael Caines and voila— "our Jethro". Oh—and if I knew Jethro's last name, I'd tell you, honest I would. All I know is, it probably begins with the letter 'H'—which I discovered myself by a very close reading of The Smoke.
Q: And the time period is so fascinating. London in the late forties is The Smoke. A tough place, filled with bombsites, still in the throes of austerity. The gangsters were not to be trifled with (the next decade would see the rise of the Kray twins) but Jethro, who may be a creeper (cat burglar) but is as honorable as they come, always seems to get on their bad side. But that London had its charms as well, and a thriving vitality. When I read your Jethro books, every detail is so perfect I feel as if I'm there. How do you get that authenticity?
A: That London of bombsites was there well into the Sixties—and when I was nipper—a very young kid—my father would always take me up to London—for the fun of it. So I actually visited many of the areas I write about—Church Street and Petticoat Lane (street markets) in particular—and actually saw Jack Spot—'Spottsy'—one of the Lords of The Underworld—on Church Street. (I wasn't half as impressed as I was when I bumped into and met the famous American cowboy star—Tex Ritter—at the Wembley Arena for his Wild West Show—and he tousled my hair and said "Howdy pardner". I blush to think that I must've been in full cowboy regalia myself. But all part of the fun. And different times, maybe, but heroes are ever important. And our 'body memories'—sights, sounds, smells—of time and place never really go away. All it needs is a few nice, old black and white photographs to bring it all back. The details—come from reading all manner of things—autobiographies of stage star and crime star and ex-Scotland Yard coppers—newsreel, newspapers—anything and everything.
Q: What does The Smoke—in the title—stand for?
A: 'The Smoke' was Cockney for London Town—throughout Victorian times —in the same way that New Yorkers refer to their own hometown as the Big Apple. 'The smoke' referred to the accumulative smog-like effects from all the coal fires used in industry and domestic houses.
Q: I understand there's quite a lot of Cockney slang in The Smoke series of books—will I be able to understand much of it?
A: When read in context—absolutely. As for the ongoing pursuit of Cockney slang / London Underworld slang / and (in Shadows) Polari—the traditional slang used by theatricals and those of the Lavender Persuasion (as they sometimes referred to themselves) — there's a helpful & fun glossary that comes free inside each and every In The Smoke novel.
Simply glance through it a couple of times—and you'll be able to impress all the other guests at the next dinner party you go to with your amazing dexterity in Cockney Rhyming Slang & Back Slang.
Q: What's the background to 'shadows' in the title: Shadows In The Smoke.
A: There was a huge surge in crime in postwar Britain—especially in London and the surrounding Home Counties.
The new kind of criminals—were all ex-forces, from all classes: very fit, trained in all the arts of warfare, educated in making mischief and mayhem, armed and dangerous. (There's a great British film starring Jack Hawkins—The League of Gentlemen—that touches upon this if anyone's interested.) Some of them joined the big established London gangs—most made themselves available for hire when a gangster—working once or twice removed from a crime boss or shady 'legitimate' businessman put a gang of criminals together for a specific job.
To battle this—the Assistant Police Commissioner (C Division) at Scotland Yard came up with the idea of putting together a group of undercover policemen and women—new faces unknown to London's criminals—from around the country and the rest of the commonwealth. The mission of this Special Duty Squad was for them to ferret themselves into London's Underworld—into the clubs, pubs, bars, spielers, gyms frequented by London's top villains—for them even to join gangs if necessary. And then to report back via a secret telephone control centre at Scotland Yard.
The detectives at the nerve centre at Scotland Yard were hand picked—very few in number—had their own 'locked' office to keep their operations away from any 'bent' coppers on the pay roles of the big London crime lords.
The national newspapers quickly dubbed the group: The Ghost Squad. London's villains called them The Shadow Mob—and put a price on each of the heads of the Squad's undercover operatives—if they could ever find and identify them.
Q: What happened to the Ghost Squad?
A: I, of course, have my theories — but the official Scotland Yard version as to what supposedly occurred is referenced at the end of Shadows In The Smoke.
Q: Jethro reminds me of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder and David Dodge's John Robie... Who would you see in the role of Jethro the cat burglar?
A: The first book in the series The Smoke—sold on the logline: 'To Catch a Thief in Postwar London.'
And so if the character of Jethro—the cat burglar and jewel thief—puts you in mind of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder and David Dodge's John Robie, I couldn't be more thrilled.
A review in The Chicago Tribune said that: "Cary Grant could have played Jethro perfectly" — so it seems that great minds think alike.
I see Jethro as being like a young Michael Caine—for voice and time and place. I try hear his voice inside my head as I try to write. But—oh if I could turn back the clock... the Caine in The Ipcress File and Alfie ... what a delight that would be.)
It's amazing what the right casting will do for a role. The 'truth' of it becomes universal and iconic. There's a story that Ronald Regan was first offered the part of Rick Blaine in Casablanca. How fortunate for us all that he turned it down. As for now—though—I'm content with hearing Caine in my head when writing Jethro.
Q: What's Jethro's next 'creeping narrative' called?
A: It's called Skylon In The Smoke ... it follows hard on from events in Shadows ... sees the start of a power shift in London's Underworld ... witnesses the Festival of Britain ... even touches MI5 and the emerging murky world of postwar atomic spies ... and all before Jethro even has time to put on his turtles. (a little more Cockney rhyming slang for you: turtles = turtledoves = gloves).
Q: I think it's quite a challenge to write long and complex novels in the first person, but you do it very well and I think that's part of what gives the Jethro books such a sense of immediacy. Was that a conscious decision? Does the line ever blur between Tony and Jethro?
A: The challenge in writing, of course, is to try keep your head on straight—and only ever revealing what Jethro would actually know at any one time. I've tried all manner of different 'work-arounds' to the problem—and some have succeeded more than others.
And as for 'keeping my head on straight' with the character of our Jethro. In my head, I always give him the voice of the young Michael Caine—a favorite British actor—a man of humanity and humor—born and bred in London. Although a great many the youngsters out there will perhaps know him better as Alfred the butler in the 'Dark Knight Rises' film trilogy starring Christian Bale as the caped crusader. (Again, though, our heroes are ever important—regardless of how they might kit themselves out.) All I have to do is read some lines of narrative in Michael Caine's 'young' voice and I'm away and running, so to speak.
As for the line blurring—how can it not? That's why I introduced other 'pop' heroes of mine into the narratives—the author, Ian Fleming; the actor David Niven; even the extraordinarily talented Michael Bentine—one of the originators (along with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe) of the 'national obsession' BBC Radio comedy show in 1950s Britain—'The Goon Show'.
And so—yes—when's all said and done, I just try conjure up the dark streets and alleyways of the London of the late Forties and early Fifties—and I'm away and running, itching to climb the nearest drainpipe, up and onto the rooftops—an eye open for any open windows of interest.
Shadows in the Smoke2012Q&A with Deborah Crombie