Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know. The men who make the villains and heroes...

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know. The men who make the villains and heroes...

In the second of our new blog series of interviews, author, journalist and raconteur, Garry Bushell talks about the inspiration behind his novel writing.

Your Harry Tyler Novels have become synonymous with East and southeast London crime fiction. What inspired you to set your stories in this gritty and captivating environment?

They always say ‘write what you know’. (Laughs). I’m southeast London born and bred; I grew up in a solidly working-class environment. My dad was a fireman (as they were then called) and my uncles were gamblers; one of them ran a Sunday morning card school in my nan’s house. The whole extended family would descend on social clubs, the local working men’s club, the Liberal Club, Charlton Conservative Club – that was the milieu of my earliest years. Bingo nights, billiards, roast potatoes on the bar every Sunday dinner time, and a free cigar at Christmas. Plus the annual Derby Day beano and the Valley, Floyd Road, every other Saturday.
Then I got caught up in the manic energy of punk and the new mod and 2-Tone scenes and so on, so I regularly partook of rock and comedy scenes in East London as well as southeast London and the Kent and Essex overspills, and members’ only clubs for the slightly shady. I met all kinds of characters – villains, crooks, hooligans and wideboys as well as future rock stars, amateur philosophers and drug dealers.
Crime was one of the ways out of poverty, along with sport and rock’n’roll. It made sense to immerse Harry Tyler in the decaying parts of London that had had their guts ripped out by the closure of the docks and the end of heavy industry. That almost underground working-class scene of pubs and clubs that the underworld often infringed upon.
Obviously, I have never lived the life of an undercover detective but two men I knew very well had been u/c officers. They were both colourful and engaging characters; one became a maverick stand-up comedian, the other is now a lethal defence lawyer. The stories they told me informed the first two Harry Tyler books.
Some of the kids in and around the Canning Town punk scene went from football hooligans to criminals; one of them quite notoriously. I made quite a few prison visits back then. Also, several of these kids, branded “no-hopers” at school carved out successful business careers. Little acorns, as Harry Shand often said.

The Kray Twins have left an indelible mark on the history of East London. How did their notorious reign influence your writing, particularly in your novels?

I knew them both and visited them both; Ronnie, many times in Broadmoor at his invitation, initially through the late Wilf Pine (who as well as being a heavyweight villain was also Black Sabbath’s manager for a while), and then Reggie requested I visited him in HMP Gartree up in Leicestershire. Strangely Ronnie, who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, was much easier to get on with than Reg.
Through that journalistic association I was also contacted by some of the villains who had taken over from in London, such as the Dixon Brothers, Islington faces, Frankie Fraser, Charlie Kray etc, so I got more insight into their way of thinking. I knew the late Johnny Nash quite well, he was sharp with a dry wit and went to the same borstal as one of my close friends, but I didn’t set out to glamorize their fictional equivalents. I tried to paint them as they were – sometimes engaging, always dangerous.
The Krays were romanticised to an absurd degree and brought down partly through their obsession with 60s celebrity culture and fame, later generations learnt that lesson.
I was particularly chuffed that Billy Murray, Roy ‘Pretty Boy’ Shaw and Barbara Windsor loved my first Harry Tyler novel, The Face, because they knew that old scene far better than I did. I only wish she’d been able to read the All Or Nothing book I wrote with pulp fiction aficionado Craig Brackenridge. I would have loved to have heard Barb’s take on that. I still miss her.
By the way, the ‘Tyler’ in Harry Tyler was an in-joke because I also knew the late East End face Kenny Tyler quite well through his showbusiness dealings and interest in talent shows, him and his safecracker friend Billy ‘The Bomb’ Bishop.

In your novels, Harry Tyler is a compelling and complex protagonist. How do you approach character development, and what elements do you believe make him relatable to readers?

I set out to create three-dimensional characters. Harry is brave, shrewd and a risk-taker, like the u/c cops I knew, but like all of us, he is also flawed, and he has been made more flawed by his life experiences. As he assumes a villainous persona in The Face, playing the part of someone he isn’t, we see him tempted by the idea of crossing the line and never coming back. But because he’s essentially decent, he does pull back.
Harry became a cop to protect the weak and vulnerable and ultimately that’s why we like him, no matter how amoral he might be in his dealings with women.
Some say Harry is over-sexed but all I can do is promise you in that respect he is exactly like one of the u/c men I knew well.
The problem with writing villains is you want to show their human side, they’re not cartoon bad guys just as not all cops are blameless angels, but you don’t want them to be too likeable. Violence is part of the story, but only part.

London itself seems to be a character in your books, with its rich history and vibrant culture. How important is the setting in shaping the overall atmosphere and tone of your stories?

It certainly shaped me. I miss being part of a close working-class community. Watch old episodes of Minder, and that’s what life was like when I was younger. Pubs, clubs, dodgy deals, back-handers and so on. Every great crime story has a geography – somewhere that roots it. The greatest TV show of all time was The Sopranos and you had New Jersey and that sense of place from the opening credits on. When ITV tried to do something similar with Family in 2003 they forget that element, which is partly why it misfired (Fox in the 80s was much better, and you couldn’t get more London than Barrie Keefe’s, The Long Good Friday).
The settings in my book, whether it be the Blackheath & Newbridge, WMC or the seamy side of Stratford, are hopefully recognisable. And if you’re not a Londoner, there are probably parts of Liverpool or Newcastle, or New York, that are similar.
I set some scenes in Charlton and Blackheath because I know those streets and pubs so well.

Your writing often incorporates a blend of real-life events and fictional narratives. How do you strike a balance between historical accuracy and creative storytelling in your crime thrillers?

Research. I primarily want to tell a story, but when real-life events happen around it you must make sure every reference and date is spot on, otherwise you let yourself down. I want the reader to know they’re in safe hands, to know the setting is accurate and the backdrop is accurate so they can engage in the plot, which I try and invest with as much colour as possible. Laughs too, because unlike on TV, cops and criminals laugh a lot. It’s what keeps them sane. As I mentioned, my Dad was a fireman and so I grew up with that kind of job black humour.
I think there is also an element of nostalgia in my novels. I’m taking you to a recognisable recent past, and recognisable working-class environments, all of which are clinging on by their fingernails. The working class had power in the days of AlI Or Nothing.

Crime fiction has gained immense popularity over the years. What do you think draws readers to this genre, and how do you aim to differentiate your work in such a competitive literary landscape?

Detective fiction is escapist by nature. It was popular way before I was born, and that was now a considerable time ago. As a teenager I discovered Raymond Chandler – just as much a poet as an author – and the no-nonsense prose of Mickey Spillane, and lapped it all up. I loved Spillane’s pace and Chandler’s beautiful similes, lines like “he looked as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”. When Chandler was writing for US pulp fiction magazines, the philistines used to cut that kind of thing out.
The best modern crime writers also have a kind of poetry. Don Winslow is a genius – The Force is a tour de force – and I’m lapping up everything S A Crosby has ever written.
But crime fiction now, as you say, is probably bigger than ever, it became the number one genre just a few years ago. Why? One reason I’d suggest is that if you find a great crime fiction writer you know you’re going to get a plot that grips like the Hulk in a temper, twists that pack a punch, and an ending that won’t let you down. When I buy a Lee Child book I know it’s going to engage me for three solid days. It’s not going to faff about like literally fiction does, you’re not going to have to plough through umpteen layers of pretention, and it’s not going to be weighed down with sentimental slop. A man like Jack Reacher or Philip Marlowe can’t ever be too emotional.
It’s like Caffeine Nights’ Glory Boys books. Get one of them and you’ll rattle through it because the action never stops.
Why crime? I suppose ultimately, we’re attracted to the darkness but reassured by the deductive logic of Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple or the instant justice delivered by Reacher. Bad people exist, but so do decent people, and okay, often the division isn’t either/or. There is a moral ambiguity that people can relate to. On screen we love Tony Soprano or JR Ewing but we wouldn’t want to live with them. We want Dirty Harry to blow them away, or Harry Tyler to bang them up. Justice, streets-style.

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  • harry dunn - August 11, 2023

    Garry Bushell was there and knows the London crime scene as it was. His knowledge stands out and the reader is introduced to an amazing array of unforgettable characters portrayed in his crime thrillers. Wonderful plots and storylines and a real treat for the crime reading afficionado.

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