Why Graham Norton turned to a life of cosy crime

By Stephen Jewell

Graham Norton
Graham Norton

"I wrote this book almost to try and get around the fact that Graham Norton had written it."

A laid-back thriller set in the small Irish village of Duneen, Holding is not the debut novel you would have expected from the ebullient chat show host. But having always wanted to try his hand at fiction, the 53-year-old needed to explore different territory after delving into his past for his 2004 autobiography So Me and 2013 memoir The Lives and Loves of a He-Devil.

"For good or bad, most people's first books are some sort of coming-of-age story or a reflection of their own story," Norton says when we meet at a central London hotel. "But I really couldn't mine that again as people would just go, 'sounds familiar', so that's how it ended up being this book instead."

Having presented The Graham Norton Show on the BBC for almost a decade, and similar programmes on Channel Four for 10 years before that, he admits his reputation inevitably precedes him.

"I got the publishing deal because I'm Graham Norton, which is such a great thing to say out loud and you just know that any aspiring writers will want to kill me for it," he says, laughing, and adds that there are also drawbacks to his fame.

"It can be a difficulty, because reading a book is such a lovely intimate experience, as it's just you, the story and the characters, but once my name was on the cover of this book, I was very aware I'd be looming over people's shoulders so I wanted to distance myself from this book as much as possible.

"If I wasn't Graham Norton off the telly, I probably would have written something far more urban and much funnier, which is just what people would have expected me to write. But actually I'm really pleased that this is how it turned out because I loved spending time back in Ireland with these characters."

Born in Dublin but raised in Bandon, County Cork, Norton drew on his own childhood experiences in a rural environment that wasn't too far away from the fictional Duneen.

"I had to find my way into the characters, so they all have bits of me in them," he says. "They say, 'write what you know,' but I didn't want to write about my own peculiar life as it is right now. I wanted to try and do something that would resonate with a wider audience so I had to go all the way back to 1980s Ireland to do that."

Overweight and unfit with a constant craving for cakes and hearty English breakfasts, main protagonist PJ Collins, Duneen's only police officer, is unflatteringly nicknamed Sergeant Sumo by big-city colleagues. Having operated at a sedate pace for so long, Collins finds himself out of his depth after a body is discovered on a building site.

"Up until this point, he has used his size and his uniform as an excuse for not engaging with the people around him but when an actual crime is committed, he has to engage with people on a different level, as it's not like just stopping somebody for drink-driving."

Suggesting that "there's something about growing up on an island, it's that New Zealand/Australia thing," Norton moved to London in the early 1990s, starting out by performing stand-up at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe before becoming a regular panellist on Radio 4 show Loose Ends.

"It's interesting that people always ask why did you leave, but no one really addresses why some people chose to stay," he says. "It's a passive choice but it's still a choice, as all of those people have chosen not only to stay but to be bogged down by the past, so they're literally stuck in the past."

Arriving hot on the heels of Sophie Hannah's second Hercules Poirot novel, Holding has been included in a revival of so-called Cosy Crime, which harks back to the carefully constructed, genteel whodunits of classic crime authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and New Zealand's own Dame Ngaio Marsh.

"I didn't know Cosy Crime was a genre, but a friend of mine was in a meeting with a publisher when a literary agent came in and said, 'Cosy Crime is going to the next big thing!'" says Norton. "He immediately rang me and told me 'Cosy Crime is going to be big!' So apparently Cosy Crime is a thing and I love a bit of Cosy Crime!

"This isn't the book that you thought you were going to get from Graham Norton but then human remains are found in the first chapter, so you immediately know what sort of world you're in, which is the crime genre," he says. "You know we will find out who those bones belong to, as well as discovering who killed this person, so that immediately gives the book a familiar structure."

Rather than Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, Norton is a big fan of Jackson Brodie creator Kate Atkinson's more offbeat thrillers.

"She will have a crime thread in her books but they'll actually be more about the characters and their back stories. What goes on with the crime is actually just something to give those characters a reason to meet."

Although he didn't embark upon Holding with a sequel in mind, Norton is open to the prospect of a follow-up. He says rather than leaving the door open for a second book, he simply wanted to end it with a sense of optimism.

"I didn't want it to be overly bleak and that's why it ends the way that it does, so maybe I will revisit some characters."

- NZ Herald

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