Interview: Barbara Nadel

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Barbara Nadel trained as an actress and worked in mental health before taking up her pen and becoming one of the UK’s leading crime writers. She received the CWA’s prestigious Silver Dagger award for Deadly Web, one of her excellent İkmen and Süleyman novels set in Turkey. Now, the 14th novel in the series, Dead of Night, is out. Barbara joined us to discuss her work…

Tell us about Dead of Night…
Dead of Night basically revolves around a cold case. İkmen and Süleyman go to a policing conference in Detroit where they become involved with an elderly man whose son died back in the 1970s. İkmen in particular relates to this man, Ezekial Goins, as he too is a bereaved father of a dead son. So the Turks go on a dangerous journey into the history of Motor City, its industry, its race issues and its music.

This is the 14th İkmen and Süleyman book. How has your relationship with their characters evolved?
When the series started back in 1999, with the exception of İkmen’s smoking and drinking, he and Süleyman were pretty straight up characters. And while they are still the type of police officers who want to do their best and who hate corruption, they have developed flaws as the years have gone by. I like them all the more for it. People do get angry, have affairs, experience envy and have less than satisfactory relationships with their families in real life. That İkmen and Süleyman do these things too, makes them better characters.

What initially drew you to Istanbul?
A combination of curiosity, friends and relatives. When the late, great Quentin Crisp first saw New York he said that he ‘wanted it’. I felt very much the same way the first time I saw Istanbul.

The city is vividly rendered, how much research goes into each book?
It depends. If I’m writing about a part of the city I know very well, then not a great deal. But if I’m in a district I don’t know then a lot. When I wrote A Passion for Killing, which is based around the carpet trade, I went to a place I know very well, the Grand Bazaar. However because I was going to be writing about the carpet trade I had to get behind the scenes and go into the workshops behind the glossy carpet retailers. I also went up into the small work rooms that hide in the roof of the Grand Bazaar to meet with men who risk their lives travelling into Afghanistan to buy now very rare Afghan and Baluch carpets.

What prompted a change of setting to Detroit for the detectives in Dead of Night?
Every so often I like to take one or other of my characters away from the city. So far they’ve been to Mardin in eastern Turkey in River of the Dead, Cappadocia in central Anatolia for Dance with Death, and to London in Death by Design. An occasional new location challenges them and me. In the case of Detroit I was fascinated by what is sometimes called America’s most violent city long before I set a book there. Once the engine of western capitalism, Detroit is now a ghost city featuring mass unemployment, poverty, gang violence and urban blight. It is also a place with a thriving art scene, vibrant music and an emerging role in the slow food and urban farming movement. It’s a warm and friendly city where people have been labelled bad when, in reality, they are just down on their luck. I wanted to see how İkmen and Süleyman would deal with a place bristling with firearms, with endless empty factories and with the crack houses that I was taken into while I was in the city. As Istanbul booms, so Detroit contracts. I wanted to expose İkmen to that contrast.

You’ve recently launched a new series set in the East End. What can readers expect from it?
A Private Business is set in Upton Park in the London Borough of Newham and is based around a private detective agency. Run by an ex-copper called Lee Arnold, the Arnold Agency is experiencing some financial problems when Lee decides to nevertheless get some help in the office. This comes in the shape of a young Muslim woman called Mumtaz Hakim. A widow who covers her head, Mumtaz is also an astute psychology graduate who soon proves her worth when the agency is asked to provide surveillance on a stand up comedian who believes she is being stalked. But is the stalking real or just in the comedian’s head?

With three successful series on the go how do you keep finding such compelling material?
New ideas are never problematic. I keep my ears to the ground and my eyes open and they just sort of happen. Finding time, however, can sometimes be a bit challenging!

How far does your background in psychology influence your work?
Hugely, especially in the new Hakim and Arnold series. Psychology not only helps you to understand people’s motivations, it can also tell you what they might not be thinking too, and why. I worked in mental health for many years before I became a full time writer too and that experience has been massively influential.

What’s come up next for you?
My next İkmen book, Deadline, will be out in January 2013. This takes place in the famous Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul, with much of the action centred around Room 411 which was where Agatha Christie always used to stay when she was in the city. A Private Business paperback will be out next year too as well as a new Hakim and Arnold called An Act of Kindness. I’d also like to get into some performance work next year too, so watch this space…

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