"I would never consider writing fantasy as I couldn’t make it credible," Tolkien recently told the Book Serf. "I don’t think there is any point in writing fiction if the writer is unable to get his readers to suspend their disbelief."
For nearly 15 years Tolkien practiced as a barrister in England, all the while secretly contemplating a career in writing. But there was always the mammoth shadow of his grandfather to consider.
In 2000 Tolkien began to write and after an initial failure (the book was never published) he succeeded in having published his first novel, the courtroom drama Final Witness.
His most recently novel, The Inheritance, was published by Minotaur Books in April. The novel begins with a brutal crime committed by two British officers against a French family in Normandy at the end of World War II and follows the crown's case against Stephen Cade, who is accused of murdering his father.
The Book Serf asked Tolkien the following questions:
BS: John Mortimer once quipped, “No brilliance is required in law, just common sense and relatively clean fingernails.” Discuss.
ST: As a barrister I always felt that the vital part of presenting a defense case was to find a way to persuade the jury that common sense was or at least might be on the defense side. Brilliant pyrotechnics were of little use if their purpose was to try and make the jury believe that the earth is flat.
BS: “The law,” in the abstract, is a gorgeous thing. Less so when it's administered in The Inheritance by the likes of Judge Murdoch and prosecutor Gerald Thompson.
ST: In my experience partisan judges can have a major influence on the outcome of trials in the U.K. Some judges can be quite intimidating which can have an adverse effect on barristers’ presentation of their cases, particularly if they are inexperienced. Alternatively judges can push juries toward one side or the other when they sum up cases as Judge Murdoch does for the prosecution in The Inheritance.
It is very difficult to have a judge removed and so some of them seem to think they can say what they like. Of course prosecutors can also be unfair, but, speaking personally, I found this less of a problem when I was practicing. Perhaps this is because barristers in the UK regularly appear on behalf of both the prosecution and the defense and so there’s no time for them to become entirely prosecution-minded.
Once barristers become judges, however, they must withdraw from the combat, and I think that then some of them become frustrated by their essentially passive role and start to intervene in a mistaken belief that juries need directing toward the truth.
BS: You place a premium on telling a good story. Though you may have a “message” for readers, you never explicitly tell us what it is. Why is important to avoid pedagogy in fiction?
ST: I have no message. Like my grandfather, I feel strongly that a fiction writer’s task is to try to make his readers believe in his story, and that this is an end in itself, not a means to an end. Years ago I read The Plague by Albert Camus and afterward someone told me that I’d missed the point - the plague represented the state of the world. I felt like an idiot. Using fiction to convey a message seems to me like a cheat. I think D.H. Lawrence was a great writer – I loved Sons and Lovers, but I can’t stand many of his other books because his characters are there simply to convey a message and develop his philosophy. The allegorical intent behind the Narnia stories was, as I understand it, my grandfather’s primary objection to his best friend’s fantasy fiction.
BS: Detective William Trave has misgivings about the case against Stephen Cade from the very start. What are you suggesting in Trave's behavior about “gut feelings,” “instincts” and the like?
ST: You’re right that I have tried to set up a tension in the book between Trave’s reliance on instinct and the weight of the evidence against the accused man in the courtroom. It is an extension of the old conflict between the heart and the head. In my new book, The King of Diamonds, this tension is taken even further with Trave risking everything to follow his instinct, and his colleagues having every reason to doubt that right is on his side.
BS: How much of your fiction comes out of the endless stories you must have accumulated as a barrister and how much out of your imagination?
ST: My stories are all rooted in my imagination, not personal experience. I would feel hamstrung as a writer if I was using a novel to retell a real life story. It would be like reheated food! Where my background in the law has helped me is in making the courtroom drama in my novels more believable and thus more satisfying to the reader.
BS: Our killers these days are over-the-top, monsters like Hannibal Lecter and reformed monsters like Dexter Morgan. You take a different approach to crime/mystery. Can you discuss the violence (or more aptly the lack of violence) in The Inheritance?
ST: I think I do villains well. Certainly part of the secret is not to show too much – it’s a cliché that what we can’t see if often more frightening than what we can, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In The Inheritance Silas has a physical terror of Sergeant Ritter because Ritter once squeezed his wrist, but he squeezed it in such a way that Silas knew exactly what the Sergeant was capable of if Silas crossed him again. I think that another essential ingredient in villain creation is to provide the evildoer with some redeeming quality in order to make him credible to the reader. Thus in The Inheritance Ritter is a born killer and yet he has an unswerving loyalty to his employer, Professor Cade.
BS: The Inheritance has been described as “historiographical.” Does that description please you? In a related question, you could have written a contemporary mystery. Why set The Inheritance in 1944-1959?
ST: I have always been fascinated by history. It was almost an obsession when I was young and I am half ashamed to say that I hero worshipped Napoleon Bonaparte until I was well into my teens.
I believe that the past is truly another country. It’s so mysterious because we can get so close to it but can never enter inside. I love the idea of fusing history and fiction, and so in The Inheritance I consciously set out to create a strong historical dimension to my story. Many of the characters are in different ways prisoners of past events over which they had no control and the detective has to go back into the past to solve Professor Cade’s murder.
I also think the late 1950s setting of The Inheritance is suited to the old-fashioned quality of my writing, and I like the way the period looks Janus-like in two directions – forward to the new world of the 1960s and back toward the cataclysm of the Second World War. Another advantage of the historical setting is that scientific crime detection techniques in the fifties were far less advanced than they are now. DNA profiling is good for law and order, but for my fiction I prefer a world where the human element is critical to solving crime.
BS: Were you worried that the mention of a “codex” in your novel would attract all the Dan Brown/Da Vinci Code fans? Because your book in so many ways couldn't be less like The Da Vinci Code, don't you think?
ST: The Inheritance is less sensational than The Da Vinci Code, but both books deal with historical mysteries, and I am pleased if I can appeal to all readers who like this type of novel.
BS: Whodunnit seems a less interesting question to you than, Why did they dunnit? Even after readers may have guessed who killed Cade, we're still riveted following Sasha back to France. Is that by design?
ST: No, I wanted to keep the reader guessing about the identity of who killed Colonel Cade right up until when the truth is revealed in Chapter 25. Readers will judge whether I succeeded or whether I provided too many clues to the killer’s identity.
BS: You are interested in the relationship between a father and his son (or sons) and between a father and his daughter. Why did you find those relationships such good fodder for fiction?
ST: Family rivalries and jealousies interest me as material for my fiction partly because they are so potent and partly because they are good for creating a tight cast of characters all with different motivations for committing a crime.
BS: Will you continue to write legal thrillers/mysteries?
ST: My next book, The King of Diamonds, is a mystery thriller coming out in April 2011. It further develops the characters of Inspector Trave and Detective Clayton who first appeared in The Inheritance.
In the new book Trave is convinced that a diamond trader, Titus Osman, has committed two murders, but Clayton is concerned that Trave’s judgment has been warped by the fact that Trave’s wife has deserted him for Osman.