Whenever I’m asked where my ideas come from I usually shrug and say I have no idea, trying to give the impression that whatever I write is the result of some mysterious Muse-inspired connection with my subconscious, far too complex to be explained with the crude tools of language. This is, of course, not the truth, but it’s an easier option than trying to explain something you don’t always understand.
Sometimes, though, I have a much clearer idea of where my ideas come from and that’s definitely the case when it comes to the creation of DI Jim Garibaldi, the detective who makes his fictional debut in The Final Round.
The first thing that came was the name. Garibaldi – as in the biscuit and as in the key figure in the unification of Italy. I was familiar with the historical figure from distant memories of History O Level and with the biscuit from my enthusiastic consumption of them when I was a kid – those currant-filled thin oblongs otherwise known as ‘squashed flies’.
But it was more recent events that led me to name my detective after the hero of Italian unification and the Peek Frean’s treat.
When my wife was researching her family tree she came across a relative born in the East End in 1861. He was called Joseph Baker – a very English name in what the records showed to be a very English family. What was surprising, though, was his full name – Joseph Giuseppe Garibaldi Baker.
Why were Joseph Baker’s middle names those of the Italian nationalist hero? The discovery led to excited speculation that there might be Italian ancestors in the family, maybe even a mysterious Italian lover.
The truth may have turned out to be less romantic, but it was equally fascinating.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, it seems, was a very big thing in Victorian England. When he came to the country in the mid-19th century the nation was seized by what would now be described as Garibaldi-mania. A romantic hero, a freedom fighter and a champion of the underdog, Garibaldi had universal appeal, inspiring veneration and almost cult-like adoration. The upper classes vied to host him, the London working class turned out in their thousands to greet him. People adorned their walls and mantelpieces with pictures of him. His image appeared on plates, cups and tankards.
Such enthusiasm for the Italian hero might explain why my wife’s ancestors chose to give their son the middle names Giuseppe Garibaldi. It’s unlikely they were the only ones to do so.
(Evidence of Garibaldi’s Victorian celebrity status can still be seen today. Pubs and streets are named after him. Nottingham Forest wear their red shirts in honour of the uniform worn by his men (when a group of fans came together in 2016 to mark the 150th anniversary of the club they called themselves ‘Forza Garibaldi’).
Another big influence on the creation of Garibaldi was Inspector Montalbano. When I came upon Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian detective I fell in love with him. And when I learned that Camilleri didn’t publish the first Montalbano novel until well into his sixties I loved him even more. There was still hope. I’d always wanted to write a crime novel so now that I had stopped teaching what was there to stop me?
And that name. Montalbano. There was something about it – four syllables, and with that pleasing stress on the third. Just like Garibaldi.
My detective wouldn’t live in Sicily. He’d be located much closer to home – in Barnes – a quiet London ‘village’ beside the Thames between Hammersmith and Richmond where I have lived for nearly thirty years. He’d have a few of my traits (a love of books and music and an inability to drive, for example) and he would, like me, be half-Italian by descent. His complicated personal life, though, would be a far cry from my own.
Equally influential was Inspector Morse. In my youth I read Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes but it was Colin Dexter’s Oxford – based novels that really ignited my interest in crime fiction. Garibaldi may have as little in common with Morse as he does with Montalbano (though they do share a certain grumpy cerebrality) but the Oxford inspector made a big impact, as did Dexter himself.
I met him (Dexter , that is) several times when I was teaching near Oxford, interviewing him for the local newspaper and inviting him to speak to Sixth Formers about Morse and detective fiction. A former teacher himself, he knew how to hook an audience. I remember the way he introduced his talk by saying that it would contain three deliberate errors and that whoever identified them at the end would win a prize ( a surefire way to grab attention and one that I would have emulated were it not for the fact that I generally made more than three errors in my lessons and none of them were deliberate).
Like Dexter, I’m a big crossword fan but, unlike Dexter, I’m not very good at them. Whereas he was a seven-times UK crossword champion I do a lap of honour if I manage to complete the Guardian cryptic. There may seem an obvious link between a love of crossword puzzles and writing detective fiction but Dexter attributed it to something more general – ‘this business of wanting to know’. It’s something I share with him, together with his desire to set his novels in a place he knows well and his emphasis on character and plot.
I also greatly enjoyed Dexter’s Hitchcock-like cameo appearances in the Morse TV films. Spotting him gave almost as much pleasure as identifying the perpetrator.
So there he is. DI Garibaldi. He may not have much in common with the historical figure whose name he shares. Nor may he have much in common with the fictional detectives that inspired him. But I still like to see him as the bastard son of Morse and Montalbano.
And that really takes the biscuit.