It’s an opening scene right out of a nightmare. Girl On Fire, the latest novel by British author Tony Parsons, starts off with a bang: main character Max Wolfe finds himself in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in London. Terrorists have used a drone to crash a helicopter into a busy shopping centre.
It’s a fictional account. But one that’s scary because of how real it feels. In today’s day and age, when terrorist attacks are a common occurrence in newspaper headlines, Girl On Fire’s opening seems scarily plausible.
And Parsons is delighted with that. Because according to him, part of being a novelist is anticipating the future.
“We do get terrorist attacks in London. It’s something that we live with now. And I think as a novelist, you try to write about the headlines a year from now, two years from now. You try to anticipate the future, there’s an element of fortune-telling to it,” Parsons, 64, says in a telephone interview from Britain.
“You look at the world as it is now. And terrorism feels very close to anyone who lives in the city. We’ve experienced a lot of it recently. And you’re inspired by real life.”
And indeed, a lot of Girl On Fire, the fifth title in Parson’s acclaimed DC Max Wolfe series, feels like it could have been ripped from the headlines. It explores themes such as terrorism, radicalism, surveillance, prejudices and nationalism – weighty subjects indeed for a crime thriller.
“Girl On Fire is the best book I’ve ever written,” claims Parsons, enthusiasm travelling clearly down the phone line.
“It’s very contemporary, it’s about the world we live in now. I think it does justice to the subject matter, which is quite powerful. It’s about how a terrorist atrocity affects everybody: the guilty, the innocent, and people caught in the middle,” Parsons explains.
Parsons, for those unfamiliar with his work, is a British journalist, broadcaster and author from Romford, Essex. He began his writing career as a music journalist at much-loved indie magazine New Music Express (NME), which, in the 1970s, was Britain’s bestselling music magazine.
The NME announced earlier this month that it would be shutting down its print version after 66 years – it began in 1952 – something that saddens Parsons greatly.
According to him, the magazine’s closure was caused by changes in technology as well as the fact that music is no longer a dominant force in most people’s lives.
“Music changed. In the 1960s, you had the Beatles and the Stones, the Pistols and the Clash in the 1970s, Guns ’N’ Roses in the 1980s, Blur and Oasis in the 1990s … there was always great music around. But that’s not the case anymore. Music is not the centre of our universe like the way it was,” Parsons reckons.
Parsons later married fellow NME journalist Julie Burchill; coincidentally, they had both answered an advert looking for “hip, young gunslingers” to write for the magazine in the 1970s. After their marriage collapsed in 1984, Parsons became a single dad to their four-year-old son, Robert.
It turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life. It was his experiences as a single father that shaped Man And Boy (1999), arguably Parson’s most famous novel, the one that won him a British Book Award in 2001. (The British Book Awards, aka the Nibbies, are organised annually by publishing industry trade magazine, The BookSeller.)
The book is the first of a trilogy about Harry Silver, a character a lot like Parsons himself, who also unexpectedly finds himself a single dad. The second Harry Silver book is Man And Wife (2002), followed by Men From The Boys (2010).
Parsons looks back on the writing of Man And Boy as a very emotional time: His mother was suffering from cancer at the time, dying just weeks before Man And Boy was published (his father had also died from cancer, in the 1980s).
“I was emotionally very raw during the writing of the book. Very open and honest in a way you wish you could be all the time as a writer, but you’re not.
“I felt the strong presence of the generation that came before me – my parents – and the generation that came after me. It was like I never felt before, it was as if I could feel my place in time,” Parsons reflects.
The author currently lives in London with his Japanese wife, Yuriko, who he married in 1992, and their daughter, Jasmine, 15.
In 2014, Parsons created another popular character, homicide detective Max Wolfe, star of a new series of crime novels. While the character in also a single father raising a child – a daughter – alone, he is nothing like Harry Silver and these books are nothing like anything Parsons had written before.
How does a writer turn from writing about everyday life and families to producing tough tales about murder, mayhem and serial killers? Well, in Parsons’ case, he had to run out of options first.
Standalone works following the last Harry Silver book in 2010 did not do as well; Parsons also lost the almost two-decade old weekly newspaper column he wrote for The Daily Mirror that had added to his fame. This is when, he told The Guardian newspaper in a 2015 interview, he “sat down and had a long, hard think”.
He decided that what he really wanted to do was to write a crime novel – the trouble was, as he said in the interview, no one had any reason to think he could pull it off. But Parsons took a deep breath, cashed in his pension, and spent two years writing The Murder Bag.
The Guardian interview quotes him poignantly: “I suddenly realised, I didn’t even have a job any more. You think you’re set up for life, and then you realise, actually, kid, you’ve got to start all over again. It’s very scary, you know. It’s very, very scary.”
The fear eased when Random House snapped up The Murder Bag, and then offered Parsons a three-book deal. Max Wolfe’s adventures continue in The Slaughter Man (2015), The Hanging Club (2016) and Die Last (2017).
In Girl On Fire, Wolfe and his team’s investigations lead them to Asad and Adnan Khan, two brothers who return to London after getting military training in Syria. The brothers are soon taken into custody but they prove to be just the start of Wolfe’s woes.
The arrest draws the attention of several people – including a Bible-quoting, revenge-seeking murderer known as “Bad Moses” – and this soon results in a hellish situation that will bring personal costs for Wolfe.
And as if Wolfe didn’t have enough to worry about, his ex-wife, Anne, suddenly re-appears in his life, trying to gain full custody of their young daughter, Scout. As Wolfe deals with Anne, he begins thinking about the effects his turbulent life has on his daughter, resulting in some of the most touching parts of the novel.
“This is the first Max Wolfe book where I cried while writing it. I didn’t cry in any of the others. So I knew that if I cried, I was doing good work, if I could move myself that much,” Parsons says.
“I want to write novels that move people. I want to write thrillers which have an emotional impact. That’s my aspiration. And that’s one of the reasons I feel Girl On Fire is my best book. I feel I got it right in this book. It’s got a compelling story, but it’s also got an emotional heart.”
Parsons is currently at work on True Crimes, the next Max Wolfe book. The story involves a group of masked men who kidnap a woman who they believe is the mistress of Europe’s biggest gangster – except they got the wrong woman. And they soon find that they have crossed the wrong detective.
“I think I got things right with Girl On Fire. I’d like to stay at that next quality level for the next one. I want people to feel an excitement when they read the books, and I want them satisfied at the reading experience,” Parsons says.
The final, million dollar question: Might we one day see a movie or television adaptation of Max Wolfe and his cases? Or of Parsons’s other books?
Maybe, the author laughs. But not for now.
“I want it to be great. I’ve received a few offers for the Max Wolfe series, but no one has really convinced me it will be great. I think this is a golden age for television. So if someone can convince me that they’ll make it great, then I’ll sell it,” Parsons says.
“I’ve had stuff made before that was disappointing. People think the worst thing is something not being made. But it’s not, the worst thing is having it made and it’s not as good as the book. It’s either going to be great or it’s not going to happen.”
Fast Five With Tony Parsons
1. What’s your favourite book of all time?
Right now it’s Girl On Fire! Apart from that, I love this book, My Family And Other Animals (2004, Penguin), by Gerald Durrell. It’s a true story about an English family who go to live in Khorfu (Greece) between the two world wars.
2. What’s your craziest encounter with a fan?
There was a woman during a book event in Chicago. She asked me if I’d met the Queen. When I said no, she asked if I had met Prince Phillip. When I said no, she asked if I met Princess Diana, and then she went down about 20 members of the royal family. I think she was more a fan of them than she was of me!
3. If you were an animal, what would you be?
A dog. A German Shepherd. Because I’m very loyal, and I’m a happy animal if I’m given a task.
4. What is your proudest achievement?
Writing Man And Boy (1999). It’s quite humbling, to write a simple story that’s touched the hearts of so many people.
5. If you had the power to abolish one thing from the world, what would it be?
Cruelty. We all need to be kinder to each other.