A portrait of bestselling Scottish mystery writer, Pete Brassett
by publisher, Erik Empson
Following the seismic shifts in the publishing industry over the last decade, one tendency has been for the onus of responsibility for promotion to shift from publishers onto authors themselves. With academic books this has led to such absurdities as “proper” publishers only taking on authors’ books if they agree to purchase a crate of copies themselves. So embattled and embittered are these erstwhile bastions of intellectual and cultural life that they debase their once proud name by cashing in on it in one final grab. But like burgeoning global warming, it is only a matter of time before these ivory towers are swamped by the rising tide.
Beyond the world of the official bestsellers lists of sanctioned respectable names, as readers will know, there is now a sea of material out there from fan fiction writers, self-published authors, crowd-funded publications, hybrid publishers – vanity publishers who’ll never really go away – and indie publishers like ourselves, who use innovative marketing strategies and nuanced methods to get their carefully chosen books seen and heard about. We lie somewhere in the middle of this sea, buffeted by winds from both sides – or to put it less politely, shat on from above and kicked up the arse from below – but can bring to the market truly original voices like Pete Brassett’s, which makes it all worthwhile.
If authors pretty much everywhere are now expected to self-promote their books, Pete is something of an exception. He’d firmly established early on in our relationship that he wanted to protect his privacy and have no public presence. I have always been concerned that straying so far from the norm might display indifference, but his books are good so it has been a risk worth taking. Still, we can forgive readers for wanting to know more about the man himself, and therefore the job of being the narrow conduit for as much about himself the author will allow to escape into the ether, falls upon my hunched shoulders.
Pete has form in this regard. Though having had a successful career in design, being the creative hand behind the branding of many familiar household products, and winning several design competitions for logos, record covers, and packaging, he was a frequent no-show at awards ceremonies and has avoided the limelight like a mole who’s lost his shades. He left the UK to work in New York for several years, “catalysed” by reading Jack Kerouac, went on to Paris, and only following a sojourn in Africa – visiting Zambia, Kenya, and Tanzania whilst living in the back of a truck – returned to the United Kingdom.
Pete describes himself as being ridiculously curious about the world. This explains, in part, his desire to travel, although he puts it down to not fitting in and looking for somewhere that he did. It also comes, no doubt, from hearing stories from his immediate family who – his father was born to a marching Irish Scot who ended up in India – grew up on the sub-continent. When life in Calcutta became difficult for the British, they packed up and went home. The transition from a colonial life in the sweltering heat to south London must have been something of a culture shock to the family, but his parents ensured that Pete, who was born in the early sixties, had a typical British upbringing. That involved kiss chase in the playground, tumbling over a bike’s handlebars and eating dirt – considered roughage – blackboard rubbers carefully aimed at the head by teachers – Pete got more than his fair share, it seems – and teenage stirrings for an art teacher; in short a normal life for a kid in a working class neighbourhood.
If readers are curious about these times, Pete has opened up about them in his memoir, Yellow Man. It is really a book about his father, not himself, but it does give an insight into the author. If reticent to give much away about his current life, with Yellow Man it is as if the 30-year rule on state secrets declassification has kicked in, and he is remarkably candid about his childhood. Having worked night and day as a post office worker, yet selflessly spending most of the modest family funds on taking the kids on holidays to Scotland every year in a campervan, his father developed cancer and was eventually stolen by it. Pete describes the moment he returned home from school and noticed his father was “yellow”. After some years struggling with the disease, and doctors telling him to take two aspirin and a nap, “the sun finally set in Yellow Man”.
Pete has written about post-traumatic stress in one of his quirkier novels Kiss the Girls, which describes a serial killer, a man who returns to London after the Second World War, and the detective who makes it his life’s goal to catch him. And it is not difficult to imagine the extent to which the passing of his father, who was his sun, and moon, impacted on him. It might explain his reticence to put himself about publicly, but I think it is more pertinent to Pete’s character. One can image the small boy – Pete is not a big lad now, though he walks upright with the kind of straight gait his upbringing produces – his head burrowed into his drawing, sheltering from a world full of brightness which had turned grey. This hyper attention is what allowed him to produce superlative design work, and what has allowed him to create a series of detective fiction, near perfect in its delivery.
I ask Pete who out of the characters in his twelve- soon to be thirteen-book series set in Ayrshire, is most like him. DI Munro is a jovial, politically incorrect Scot who brokers no bullshit; DS Charlie West is a cynical southerner, whose coarse edges Munro gradually files down; detectives Dougal and Duncan are a nervy nerd and a shower-shy maverick, respectively. All of them, Pete replies. And there is a truth to this impossible equation. Not to say that he doesn’t draw on other sources in his characterisation, but the human element stems from somewhere buried deep in the author’s mind and experiences. His characters don’t mirror his own, but emerge like troubled ripples out of it. As in his mysteries, the clues are unearthed rather than found.
DI Munro, like Brassett, is an avid meat eater and his disdain for anything that resembles a vegetable is a running joke throughout the series. Pete is too, though he abhors “supermarkets’ preservative-laden, water filled gunk”. Having moved permanently to Scotland – his heart having never really left the place – he trumpets how there the meat is “fresh, 90% organic, and 100% Scottish” as if he’s writing a marketing strap line. Haggis wellington is sublime, he says, but I do wonder about the 10%. I wonder if Pete’s fondness for protein extends to Sturgeon, but he quickly sinks the suggestion. Probably too salty.
Munro, Pete says, is never satisfied until he’s happy with a conclusion. And this is another reason why the dogged detective has such appeal. He is always one step ahead of his team, and the reader. This allows Pete to foster the detective’s paternal side when coaching his protégé, Charlie West. We’ve all been frustrated by these kinds of wily educators who force on you the formation of skills by not providing the answers, but it also keeps readers guessing until they reach that, ever delightful, conclusion.
He confesses that he enjoys being an enigma. He does “things for the pleasure of doing of them, not for recognition.” He is not unique in that, but our own sense of uniqueness is more often than not a defence against our very common mortality. He is very fond of animals, despite the carnivorous streak, and kept his readers waiting several weeks whilst he mourned the passing of his miniature Schnauzer, WeeT. He now has BigT, another Schnauzer, for company and enjoys long walks with him. I’m amused that the taciturn author’s chosen breed is known for its barking. But the guard dog qualities are less surprising.
I tease Pete for living in the south west of Scotland, like our other authors based there, did he head up the motorway and get cold feet on seeing serious mountain country, taking a hard left and hiding somewhere England and civilisation is in sight? He bristles visibly and rises quickly to the defence, describing, off the cuff, the nooks and crannies of his hideaway in detail. In earlier times he scaled Ben Nevis and Scafell, and doesn’t feel the need to prove anything, besides, one can easily come a cropper on the rugged terrain he has ensconced himself within. One nearby cliff walk, with its 300ft drop to the ocean, is “enough to make you check your underwear on a windy day”. Let that be a warning to me, then. He has killed off a fair few nasties in his books, and a fair few others have only survived by the skin of their teeth.
If as a young man he travelled to the Americas and Africa in search of a home, I am pretty sure he has now found it. There has been no need for transitioning, here. The seeds were sown long ago with a Lothian grandfather and a father who wanted to bestow on his son an appreciation for his heritage. The hearth is warmed by a loving partner who hails from the area, and thus the great wheel of life has turned full circle.
Some things speak for themselves and need little fanfare. Pete Brassett’s books have touched the hearts and minds of readers the world over and it is always a pleasure to do our job of promoting them. I hope Pete will one day emerge out of the shadows and show the many other sides to his complex character, but for now, patient reader, you’ll just have to be content with his and your own imagination.
A full list of Pete Brassett’s books with links to purchase them on Amazon can be found here.