Loch-down: outsider on a remote Scottish island in gripping thriller

Eschewing his usual laugh lines, novelist Paul Bassett Davies’s new book is a brooding chiller, writes Charles Harris

Thursday, 14th April — By Charles Harris

Paul Bassett Davies

Paul Bassett Davies, author of Stone Heart Deep

PLANNING your next holiday? How about a moody Scottish island, with a populace who seem eerily calm and controlled? If that sounds like your plate of haggis but don’t fancy the journey, try the latest thriller by ex-Camden resident Paul Bassett Davies, Stone Heart Deep.

Davies’s fourth novel centres on investigative reporter Adam Budd, whose mother has died, leaving him a huge mansion – Stone Heart House.

The first catch is that the house stands on the remotest of remote Scottish islands. The second is that the islanders turn out to be rather perturbing. No sooner has Adam arrived (by the only ferry, across stormy seas) than his taxi is involved in an accident that kills one of the locals. Worse, it seems everybody – including the island’s sole policeman – wants him to lie about it.

Before long, it becomes apparent that there are deep undercurrents in the island’s society that could suck him under. The only person he feels he can trust is local lawyer, Harriet. But even she is acting strangely. And then there’s the strange shortage of children.

Stone Heart Deep began life as a screenplay, which is probably why several readers have said it would make a great film or TV series. This is no surprise, as Davies, who started his career in Belsize Park and still runs masterclasses for writers in Bloomsbury, is steeped in screen and stage drama.

As he told me over a north London cuppa, his early career “revolved around the Roundhouse” – no less than Dingwalls, Camden Market and the Heath.

He always wanted to be an actor, but was ejected from drama school for what he describes as “bad behaviour”. So the next day, as no other theatre wanted him, he co-founded his own experimental performance company. It was while performing a one-man spoof of Bulldog Drummond that he was spotted by Radio Four and BBC TV, leading to a show which was shortlisted for a Perrier Award at Edinburgh, and to writing for some of the top comedy shows on radio and TV.

However, a protracted illness led to him starting his first novel, Utter Folly. Creating its odd comic world gave him, he says, “somewhere to escape to”.

Indeed his first three books all have a strong comic twist, albeit with a dark, often dystopian, edge. Utter Folly is an entertaining coming-of-age romp among the landed gentry. This was followed by Dead Writers in Rehab, which Davies fills with his favourite real-life, authors and has much fun parodying them. While Do Not Ask for Mercy As Refusal Often Offends, turns out to be a page-turning comedy-thriller set in a future country that feels like 1984 as it might have been written by Irish satirist Flann O’Brien. However, Stone Heart Deep charts new territory for Davies, being entirely serious.

“My first inspiration was an image,” says Davies. “A huge expanse of dark water surrounded by steep, looming hills. Perhaps I was influenced by memories of swimming in the lakes of northern Italy, where my family lived for a while when I was growing up. I was told the lakes are as deep as the surrounding mountains are high, and after swimming for a while you get an eerie sense of just how much water lies quietly beneath you. Or not so quietly.”

From this starting point, Davies builds a gripping adventure. The moody loch, the tight-lipped suspicious islanders and the outsider could easily have been clichés. Instead, Davies manages constantly to keep us on our toes. The effect is to create an almost retro mood that harks back to the classic Scottish adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson or Walter Scott.

Given such dark, dystopian visions, it’s perhaps surprising that, in the flesh, Davies is a happy soul, full of comic lines, many of which he shares daily with his many thousands of followers on Twitter.

He clearly enjoys his life. “I really do like reading and writing. I also like nice food, seeing people I like. I had 10 years of being seriously unwell and major surgery and get an immense amount of relish out of just being in the world – it sounds very cliché, but life is a joy, even in strange times.”

However, for all the comic tweets, Davies’s books are based on thought-provoking themes. In Stone Heart Deep, Davies is exploring an important topical debate between logic and emotion. This could hardly come at a more crucial time: a time when we are all being asked to take sides and to decide what we really believe.

Davies has, up till now, been known for his comedy. This entertaining thriller yet serious takes him in a totally new direction. I hope he doesn’t give up the comedy, but it will be interesting to see where this new road leads.

Stone Heart Deep. By Paul Bassett Davies, Lightning, £8.99

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