Having appeared on stage, TV and film, Hugh Fraser is well known as an actor. He is perhaps most famous for his roles as Captain Hastings in “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” and the Duke of Wellington in “Sharpe”. In addition, Fraser is an accomplished musician, a theatre director and a playwright. He is now also a well-established novelist. His most recent novel, Stealth, is the fourth Rina Walker adventure.
Paul Burke: You are a well-known actor, but over the years there have been many more strings to your bow. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hugh Fraser: My other occupation apart from acting has been writing and playing music. I worked as a guitarist and bass player in various bands in the sixties and seventies (my last band was called Freedom Pass). I co-wrote the theme tune for the TV series Rainbow and played flute on it. I have recently been taking part in music workshops in homes for dementia sufferers, which I have thoroughly enjoyed.
PB: When acting, writing and directing, do the same creative impulses and energy drive you?
HF: I’m not sure that they do. Energy is certainly required for all three pursuits but whereas acting and directing both involve realising something that already exists on the page and bringing an individual interpretation to either a character or a production, writing is creating something from scratch without any stimulus beyond what exists in one’s imagination.
PB: Did you always want to write novels or was writing something that you came to after finding success as an actor? What drew you to crime fiction? Have you always been a fan of the genre?
HF: I wrote a couple of plays and a radio series many years ago but gave up after they narrowly failed to be produced. When I was out of work a few years ago I took a short story writing course with Guardian UEA which I very much enjoyed. Towards the end of the course I showed the beginnings of my first crime novel Harm to the tutor, the novelist Bernardine Evaristo, and she encouraged me to continue with it and so I did. I have always enjoyed crime novels of the darker sort, particularly the American writers like Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy.
PB: You are clearly very familiar with Agatha Christie’s work. Do you sense her influence on your novels? You explore the darkness in people, as did Christie, albeit arguably in a more restrained way.
HF: I only wish the Queen of Crime had influenced my novels, as she consistently outsells The Bible. Unfortunately my stories take place a long way from the genteel world in which her novels are set. What I admire about Agatha Christie, even more than the excellence of her plotting, is her ability to create such rounded and fulsome characters. From the pompous, purple-faced Major ranting in the living room, to the adenoidal maid opening the door to Miss Marple, each one has a distinct personality and appearance and all created with remarkable economy of style.
PB: Do you intend to concentrate your efforts on writing for the time being or do you have other projects in the works?
HF: I am currently unemployed and hoping the phone will ring but I’m also considering a couple of possible bookish ideas.
PB: As an actor, you are used to interpreting the words of others, giving life to their characters, and portraying many different voices. Does this experience help with your own character development?
HF: I think it might well. When an actor gets a job and he’s got over the initial shock, the script arrives. There is little or no character description in most scripts and all he has from which to grow his performance is his character’s dialogue and so it may be that viewing character development from this angle helps when it comes to creating a character on the page.
PB: Acting is a collaborative process, while novel writing a solitary activity. How did you experience the difference between the two?
HF: I love the collaborative aspect of working as an actor. Being involved in a production on stage or on film means working closely with and depending on a group of people who are all working towards the same end. The closeness, humour and mutual respect that develops is irreplaceable. Writing books, on the other hand, is a solitary pursuit, at least until the editing stage, and that is the one aspect of the activity that I find difficult.
PB: Rina Walker is a great creation, a female contract killer with a heart. Why did you decide to use a female lead for the series?
HF: It wasn’t a conscious decision to write a female lead. I was writing the description of the foyer of the tourist hotel in Acapulco when Rina just walked in on her high heels and took over.
PB: In the kind of circles that Rina moves in, the attitudes are sexist and disrespectful towards women. This leads men to underestimate her (which can be a costly mistake), which adds to the enjoyment of the story. Was it fun to write a character who a) goes against the grain and the expectations of the times, and b) gets to behave very badly?
HF: It was. I remember the sixties and the sexist attitudes and disrespect with which women were treated in those days. I worked as a musician in the house band in a couple of Soho hostess clubs at that time and witnessed at first hand the degrading treatment the girls had to put up with and I’m glad Rina gets to take revenge occasionally.
PB: With your inside knowledge of acting, who would you like to play Rina if the series was adapted for the screen?
HF: I believe I would have to leave that one for the casting director. I’d like to think the part could go to someone who hasn’t been seen before.
PB: Stealth is rich in cultural references, from the pop scene to the gangster scene (bearing in mind there is a lot of crossover). How much of that is based on research and how much on your own personal experience? You would have been very young at the time, but was this your London? Was the sixties a special era for you?
HF: The sixties was a special era for me. I went to drama school after leaving school in ’64 and, as I mentioned above, worked as a musician as well as acting after I left in ’66. The sixties was a great time – there really was a cultural change after the post-war gloom of the fifties. The economy was booming, pop music took off and young people felt empowered.
PB: I love music impresario/gangster Bobby Grant. Would it be fair to say that he’s a composite of a couple of managers who were on the scene at the time?
HF: You could well be right, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
PB: Stealth explores the dark side of human nature, the setting is important, it crosses genres (crime/spy) and is non-stop action. It feels very contemporary despite the period-appropriate dialogue etc. Was that your intention?
HF: I didn’t really have an intention or a plan when I began the book. I tend to start with an initial incident, in this case Rina’s meeting in the pub with Bert Davis which turns into a fight with a local villain, and just see what develops from there.
PB: Without giving anything away, we know that there is “blood on the dancefloor” at the end of the novel, so I hope that means we can expect more from Rina next year? Any titbits you can offer?
HF: In a previous book Rina says. “My life is like a lobster pot, easy to get into but f——g difficult to get out of.” I think maybe she won’t be straying far off her manor.
PB: What are you reading at the moment?
HF: The Book of Joy. The Dalai Llama and Archbishop Desmond TuTu with Douglas Abrams
Our thanks to Hugh Fraser for taking the time to participate in this Q&A.
Stealth by Hugh Fraser
Urbane Publications 9781911583660 pbk Oct 2018