Peter May - the man behind The Man With No Face
by Margaret Chrystall
FOR his latest crime thriller, Peter May comes face-to-face with the twentysomething journalist he used to be in the 1970s in a homeland almost as obsessed with Europe as we are now.
Peter’s first crime novel The Man With No Face had something of a time capsule quality about it for him when he read it again.
And the writer realised there wasn’t much he wanted to change or update for a new audience.
“Reading it again after all that time was quite an experience and it definitely took me back to another time,” he said.
“It was a very exciting time to be a journalist. The country just seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
“In my lifetime things have changed so extraordinarily fast and radically, but the thing that struck me most was how slow communications were then. No mobile phones, no internet and no email and thinking back to my own time as a journalist in the 70s, to send a story you had to find the nearest payphone.
“And there were other ‘weird’ social things in the book – like milk bottles on doorsteps!”
Peter described what it was like to get a ‘hot’ story to your newspaper in time to catch the first edition when he was a young reporter for the Scotsman.
He said: “You had to find the nearest payphone!
“I think back to my own time as a journalist in the 70s, during a haulage drivers’ strike sitting in a waiting room at the offices of ACAS – the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.
“They were having this meeting and it was either going to be make or break time – you knew you were likely to be missing your copy deadline 20 minutes away.
“Then they come out, read out a prepared statement, no tape or digital recorders, you scribble it down in shorthand and within quarter of a mile there is one payphone and the Daily Record had already got a guy posted in it!
“So when I was reading the book again thinking ‘You can’t move this along faster than the technology allows you to do!’.”
Peter has not changed much from the original version of the book, happy to leave the world he had created in its own time true to itself.
“The bulk of what I changed when I edited it was the dialogue, it made me cringe after writing and directing TV drama in between – I had learned so much!
“If I was writing it now and wanting to set it back in time, I would either be making it up or working from memory.
“Then, I was just writing about the way the world was. I could never have written it that accurately now!”
As an award-winning journalist, Peter’s eye was caught back then by the story of the unsolved murder of a French MP, also the story of an autistic girl who had extraordinary drawing ability.
Then so little was known about autism compared to now – had Peter been nervous about writing around it?
He said: “I knew nothing about it. All I had read was something, a review of a book I think in a Sunday supplement about Nadia Chomyn, the daughter of a Ukrainian couple who had settled in the UK.
“She was a little girl who had extraordinary drawing ability.
“I went and got the book and just sat and looked at her pictures and I thought how extraordinary her perspective was and detail and her ability to almost be out of her body and look down on the things that she was drawing.
“I read her story and I thought that with all the wires starting to cross and sparking ‘Here’s a story, here’s a story’.
“So I went away and did a lot of research into autism and read books about it and visited an autistic clinic in Glasgow.
“Once you get enthused about something like that fear goes.
“But I think my time in journalism taught me not to be afraid of going up to anything.
“Facts are facts, you can always chase them down, you can find out what the truth is, you can learn things and adapt them.”
Coming across the stories of the MP and Nadia gave Peter the spark to set a story against the political and social turmoil of the time powered by his relentless hero, investigative journalist Neil Bannerman.
“With Bannerman – a cynical, single hard-bitten journalist – you want a character like that to go on a journey, not just participate in a story, but to go on a personal journey where people discover things about themselves and find they are changed.”
Writer Peter May visited Eden Court on Wednesday, January 16 at 6.30pm to talk about his latest thriller The Man With No Face which is out now.