Civilized Murders: An Interview with Hugh Fleetwood

Hugh Fleetwood’s chilling and dark mysteries deal with psychologically-damaged characters, ones whose actions are usually the result of some personality disorder often undisclosed to everyone but the reader.

Above: Hugh Fleetwood's Self Portrait (partial, 2005/6). Used with the permission of the artist.

Hugh Fleetwood's chilling and dark psychological mysteries deal with psychologically-damaged characters, ones whose actions are usually the result of some personality disorder often undisclosed to everyone but the reader.

British author and painter Hugh Fleetwood’s life began at a pivotal moment, waiting at a train station in Munich. After many spells in different places around the world, the writer, on a whim, decided on a train leaving for Florence, Italy, with the resolve of never going back home to England again. The rash decision proved fortuitous; upon arriving in Italy, Fleetwood would soon experience an entire world of new discovery opening up to him in a way it never could have anywhere else. Landing a job teaching English got him by while he diligently worked away at a novel he hoped to soon publish.

Fleetwood would indeed manage to have his first novel published after a few years (A Painter of Flowers). But it wasn’t until the publication of his second work, The Girl Who Passed for Normal (1973), that Fleetwood really came into his own as a writer of significance. His novel was at once puzzling and deeply insightful, a bone-chilling descent into the dark, nethermost regions of the mind which dealt with parental obsession, fractured identity and disintegrating sanities taking place in the affluence of bourgeoisie society. The Girl Who Passed for Normal would go on to win the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1974, granting the writer wider notice and significant returns on his novel, which would enable him to continue his work in fiction.

You could say that my books and stories on the whole are about people who have to come to terms with their inner Nazi; who have to accommodate The Beast.
Fleetwood’s material more often than not deals with psychologically-damaged characters, ones whose actions are usually the result of some personality disorder often undisclosed to everyone but the reader. Mired in pitch-black humour, his stories are peopled with characters afflicted with moral dilemmas; we see the sordid humour in their personal and professional lapses, and our primary focus is on how they manage to manoeuvre their way out of their predicaments.

In The Girl Who Passed for Normal, we often know the protagonist, Barbara, is working against her better judgement when she decides to continue tutoring for a dysfunctional family who harbour seemingly murderous tendencies. Yet, the thrill lies in watching people rectify their blunders in judgement, which usually happens with little success. The Order of Death, possibly Fleetwood’s most known work to North Americans (thanks to a film version with Harvey Keitel and John Lydon of the Sex Pistols in the leads), deals with the amoral influence that a stranger has on an already corrupt police officer. He outlines both the danger and comedy of allowing outside forces to invade personal space.

Fleetwood has professed his admiration for the work of Agatha Christie, finding inspiration in her perfectly crafted plots of murder and deception. But the author excels at building characters, giving them equal shadings of sympathy and malice, which further complicates their crimes in the name of passion, greed or, simply, madness. These characterizations, deeply-rooted in Freudian logic, were particularly unique and pioneering in the author’s early days. They leaned more toward the tonal emotional shifts of Flannery O’Connor than they did the laid-bare horror of Stephen King and they opened up new dimensions of story-telling that would provide Fleetwood’s characters with nuance and depth and his readers with plenty of gristle to chew on.

The Order of Death, a disturbing exploration into dangerous symbiotic relationships, caught the attention of a few studio execs in Italy who wished to turn the novel into a film. On judgement of the film alone, one gets the sense that it was Fleetwood’s ability to craft a narrative that was pushed along by the at once ambiguous and volatile emotions of his characters that made his work compelling and therefore fertile ground for cinema.

Fleetwood’s paintings explore a similar terrain of emotional confusion. They seem to pull at once from an archaic sense of mystery and a new wave of contemporary expression. But while his written works exhibit a deeply intricate pattern of logic in his narratives of delusion and murder, Fleetwood’s artwork opts for enigma painted in bold, expressive colours. His literary characters may hide their true purposes behind the rhetoric of fear and desire, but there is no hiding for the people who inhabit the world of his paintings. They are laid bare for every pain, lust and emotional tumult reflected by the mirroring viewer.

Recently, Faber & Faber reissued Fleetwood's novels. Many of these titles have been out-of-print for years. These works reintroduce the fashions of literature that in recent years have become obscured by the weight of popular fiction that line the top seller shelves of chain bookstores nationwide. Though his stories reach nowhere near the sensationalized atrocities found in the works of a new generation of novelists, or the silly exploits of religious and political intrigue of an author like Dan Brown, Fleetwood’s fiction remains significant.

Outside, the world may be tuned anew by the onslaught of digital revolutions, social media and a rampant culture of celebrity. But the ancient and primal fears of our internal worlds are untouched by the inevitable societal shifts. And it is in here, in a universe at once unholy and sanctified, that Fleetwood puts pen to paper.

Can you discuss your life when you moved to Italy? You seemed to find and develop your artistic sensibilities there. How did you begin in the visual arts and then become a novelist?

I painted from an early age, and encouraged by an art teacher when I was at school, wanted to go to on to Art College. But in my last year at school that teacher went off to the States on some sort of exchange deal, and was replaced by an American who disliked me and I disliked, and he put me off the idea of continuing with any formal art education. Though it is also true that by the time I was 18 I was desperate to get out of England, that I found stultifying, smug and obsessed with class, so I may not have gone on to college even if my original teacher hadn't left. I liked the idea of living abroad and becoming "a writer", having started writing when I was around 16: poetry mostly to begin with, then short stories and a couple of novels that I knew weren't good enough to be published, on the other hand weren't totally bad.

In any event, once I had finished school I went off to Paris for six months, not to become a writer, but partly to learn French and mostly to go to the movies three times a day, and catch up on my cinematic education. (Paris in those days was amazing for film; if you were diligent you could see the complete works of Sergei Eisentein, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Hitchcock, Renoir -- everyone, anyone -- within a few weeks.)

At the end of six months my parents persuaded me to come back to England and try to be "sensible" at least until I was 21. And since they had funded my Paris stay, I agreed. I enrolled in law school, which I hated with a passion, but put up with because it meant I could at least live in London. I stuck it out precisely 'till I was 21, becoming more and more depressed; eight days after my 21st birthday I left England again -- and this time forever, I told myself (I was on my own financially, now).

I went initially to Munich, since I had met a Bavarian publisher who said he would offer me some sort of job if I came to Germany for a few months first to learn the language. (The summer before my departure I had worked in a bookshop in London to save enough money to get me through those first months abroad.) But I found Munich cold and expensive and realized my savings wouldn't last even a few weeks, let alone months. So after three days, faced with the prospect of having to crawl back to England with my tail between my legs, I went to the station, and saw that the following morning at eight there was a train leaving for Florence. I had never been to Italy, and didn't speak a word of Italian, but thought oh what the hell.

I bought a ticket immediately; left the next day; and that evening arrived in Florence, where it was still summer, and I felt immediately at ease. I found a very cheap pensione; enrolled in a course at the university to learn Italian; and stayed in Florence writing another novel and going to every museum and church in town... until I completely ran out of money. I thought the only thing I could do was teach English, but there were so many foreigners in Florence the competition was too great; so I hitch-hiked down to Rome with an American girl I had met, who knew a boy with an apartment in the city who said he would put us up for a few days if she slept with him.

Since she liked him and was aiming to sleep with him anyway, she agreed. The day after our arrival I set off intending to trawl round the language schools in Rome asking if they needed teachers. The first place I went to I was told no, but was advised to try another school a couple of streets away. There, I was shown into the office of the directrice, and she immediately said yes and asked when I wanted to start, and did I need an advance? And since I had just over a pound left in the world, I nodded; whereupon she opened her handbag and gave me eighty thousand lire; back then a month's average wage in Italy. I was a total stranger…That same day I found a place of my own to live in.

I worked for the language school for just over four years; I had told myself I had to get a novel accepted for publication by the time I was 27, as I could not go on teaching English all my life. I used to think I would commit suicide if I didn't succeed, though whether I would have... who knows?

While I was teaching I managed to get some poems published in a respected literary magazine of the '50s, '60s and '70s, The Transatlantic Review, the owner and editor of which was an American called Joe McCrindle. In January 1971 Joe sent me a post card saying he was coming to Rome in March and asked if we could meet and have dinner together. I thought if I had a novel he would be the person to show it to, as he would know what to do with it. So I took some time off work, and started scribbling.

Vaguely basing my story on a messy affair I had been having and had recently finished, it came to me very easily, and unlike my earlier efforts, I felt that this probably was all right; it just seemed to work. I finished it the day before I met Joe for dinner; we got on well, and at the end of the meal I confessed what I had done. "Oh my God," Joe said. But I asked him if he would read the manuscript, and the following day dropped it off at his hotel. He called me the day after that and said he had finished it -- it was very short -- and liked it; I asked him what I should do. He advised me to find an agent; I asked him if he knew one; he said yes, and took the manuscript back to London with him when he left Rome.

Ten days later I got a telegram from a publisher in London saying yes; and soon after another telegram from the Viking Press in New York. So I had made my deadline -- or suicide line! -- with a year to spare. I immediately quit my teaching job, and vowed I would never do another honest day's work in my life. And forty two years later, I still haven't had to!

But I got a tiny advance for that first book, which meant I quickly had to write another. And that, luckily, The Girl Who Passed for Normal, was quite successful; so enabling me both to stop worrying about money for a while, and to start painting again on a regular basis. And that combination of writing and painting, too, is a pattern I have pretty much managed to maintain over the years, though now I seem to have returned more to my first love, painting.

Whether I would have been able to live as either a writer or a painter if I had not gone to Italy is something else I cannot know; but I very, very much doubt it. As it has for so many northern Europeans, Italy opened my eyes to something I hadn't seen before; both literally and figuratively it showed me the light.

Your novel, The Girl Who Passed For Normal, earned you a John Llewellyn Rhys Literary Prize. And then you found a niche writing many psychological mysteries. One thing I notice in a number of your works is the theme of moral ambiguity. In fact, a number of your characters seem to be model citizen types or middle class people who just have no business getting involved in sordid affairs (for example, the protagonist in A Picture of Innocence or the officer The Order of Death). Can you discuss this underlying theme in your work?

You’re right about my writing psychological mysteries. I think that was both because I liked the genre and, if it’s not the same thing, because it, or they, came to me naturally. I was first inspired to write by Pushkin’s novella, The Queen of Spades. That struck me when I first read it, still strikes me, as perfect. Then in my teens my great loves were Dostoevsky, Isherwood -- above all the Berlin stories -- Henry James and Agatha Christie, whom I have always thought a much better writer than literary critics generally give her credit for. Not just for her clever plotting and simple style, but for the fact that she did always present this solid middle-class world. But it was riddled with, rotten with, if you like, murder. And I believe it is this sub-text in her books that accounts for her colossal appeal. People like to think there is a ‘normal’ world; but they know at the same time that if you just scratch a little, beneath the surface... Of course in Christie’s world, order is always restored, whereas in real life it tends not to be, but that, too, is part of her appeal.

All that said, two books in particular showed me the type of book I wanted to write: Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer. And having a) been inspired to set off, and b) been as it were given vague directions as to which way I should travel, away I went. That I think accounts for the type of book I wrote, particularly at the beginning, and also to some extent answers your question about ‘normal’ people getting involved in sordid affairs.

Though I might quarrel with your use of the word ‘sordid’. I think that everyone to some extent comes to an accommodation with murder in his or her life, since -- without wishing to get too heavy about it! -- I do believe that all civilization is based on murder. We like to ignore the fact, and condemn murder as ‘wrong’; at the same time you only have to look at the history of the human race, and see how we got to where we are now. I suppose what my protagonists tend to do is have their eyes opened to this reality, find themselves forced not to ignore the truth; and then have to live, or try to, with the consequences. Sometimes they succeed.

And to go back to your former question for a moment: I think the smugness that I reacted against when I was a teenager in England in the '50s and '60s was accounted for by the fact that growing up in the immediate post World War II years, one had it drummed into one that the Nazis, i.e., the Germans, had been bad, and we, the English, had been, and by implication still were, good. But I never thought of the Nazis as being specifically German; they just seemed to me human -- even in their inhumanity. And if they were human, and we were human…

To be a bit facile, and repeat myself: you could say that my books and stories on the whole are about people who have to come to terms with their inner Nazi; who have to accommodate The Beast.

And the fact that many of my protagonists are ‘artists’ of one sort or another? Probably because in a way all my writing is a form of autobiography, moral autobiography, let’s say, if not literal. And I have always believed that ‘artists’, who like to think they perceive the true nature of reality better than your average non-artist, not only make this accommodation with The Beast more willingly and cynically than most non-artists, but are a good deal more hypocritical than your average non-artist, in that they too often claim, or seem to, that they are not making any accommodation at all. Mind you: it is from their accommodation with murder, or at least death, that their art -- that all art -- springs. End of rant!

Your stories are not constructed like typical whodunits. In some cases, villains are presented upfront and their motivations remain a mystery. Your stories seem more concerned with what the character will do next. Clearly, your interests lie more in human behaviour and the intentions behind the actions are sometimes undisclosed or, rather, ambiguous. Would you agree that your writing tends to be character-driven and less plot-oriented?

Yes, I am more interested in character than plot. That is, I think the plot is a product of the characters, and not the other way round. It certainly should be, at any rate, since the plot of our lives tends to be the product of our characters. Of course accidents happen, but on the whole: we make (make up?) our own stories.

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