What books do you enjoy yourself?

In terms of historical fiction I’d have to say that Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, starting with Master and Commander, would be at the top of my list. The central relationship is so well drawn, and all the details of Naval life as well as of food, drink, and music make them enormously rewarding. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels and his other series have given me a lot of pleasure too. George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels combine solid historical research with being immensely funny. Paul Doherty is incredibly prolific and, I think, underrated. His The Cup of Ghosts is a great read. At the moment I’m working my way through Arturo Perez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste adventures. I love the way he integrates poetry and other cultural references into the principal narratives, especially the recurring appearances of the real-life poet Quevedo.

And beyond historical adventures?

Of what you might call ‘classic fiction’, I enjoy Austen. Emma and Pride and Prejudice in particular are beautifully balanced books - not a word out of place. My favourite Austen adaptation, however, would have to be the 1996 Sense and Sensibility. It’s the least good of the novels but Thompson’s screenplay, which invents and enlarges a lot of material, has made it the best film. Dickens too is a writer I happily re-read, especially Bleak House and Great Expectations, though other of his works don’t do much for me, such as Hard Times. My absolute favourite novel (so far) would have to be Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which also made a fine movie. I first read it in my early twenties and must have gone back to it half a dozen times since. If my family and I take a holiday in Sicily – where it’s set – I’ll certainly be taking it with me, along with Sciascia’s crime novel To Each His Own.

It’s difficult to single out individual works but Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, Tristram Shandy, Graham Swift’s Waterland, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row have all been important to me. Last year I was enormously impressed with a couple of novels by Joseph O’Connor - Star of The Sea and its sequel (of a kind) Redemption Falls - as well as by Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Both writers do an outstanding job of making a historical context the grist for narratives that connect a spread of characters. For the pure pleasure of escape I invariably go to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective stories, of which, thankfully, he wrote so many. It’s always a joy to return to that New York brownstone house with its wonderful meals, crackling exchanges between Wolfe and his sidekick Archie, and to another well-plotted puzzle.

Several of the books you’ve mentioned have at their core a friendship between two characters. Did you always plan Mean Business along those lines too?

Yes, absolutely. From the outset I knew that I wanted to write a story that connected to that long tradition of what you might call ‘two-handers’, where a central friendship - not necessarily always an easy one - is fundamental. From Dumas’ writing, to Holmes and Watson, through Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Aubrey and Maturin, Sharpe and Harper, and countless other literary and screen pairings, I think it’s a perpetually appealing trope, though different versions need to develop their own particularities.

Such as?

In the case of my central characters in Mean Business, Arthur Yeoman and Valentine Fanshawe, I wanted the differences between them to be key to how the story was told. So Yeoman, a brave but rather naïve former soldier, must not only enter an unfamiliar world - a Victorian London of espionage, depravity and violence where Fanshawe is very much at home - but he must narrate it too. Written in the first person, Yeoman describes his introduction to a variety of unsettling places and people - a brothel, an opium den, murderers, informants, spymasters - in such a way that the reader can recognize certain situations better than he can. I was interested in playing with levels of knowledge, of ‘who knows what, and when?’ not only in terms of a mystery plot, but also for the humour that’s inherent in some of those fish-out-of-water scenarios.

Is he as slow on the uptake as Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories?

Not quite! I didn’t want that situation where the reader always knows that the malodorous tramp or bookseller or whoever is actually Holmes in disguise while Watson never does. Yet I did want to play on the idea of Yeoman’s moral rectitude, especially of his very limited understanding of sexual matters or of dishonesty, when he is plunged into a dangerous and licentious environment. So, sometimes the reader will only know as much as Yeoman, but at other times they can ‘read through’ what he misunderstands.

But Yeoman is also capable of killing too?

Completely. I needed him to be someone who was not unaccustomed to extreme violence and physical hardship. As a soldier returned from India, shortly after the uprising of 1857, he has seen and done his share of unpleasant things. He has already had to kill for his country before the main events of Mean Business begin, but now he’s out of uniform and it’s far less clear to him that his duty and what’s right can be reconciled.

How about the character of Valentine Fanshawe?

I knew that I wanted him to be the absolute master of a very specific occupation and setting, to be competent in both the ‘low’ London of the streets and taverns as well as the most elevated environments. Publicly, he appears to be a former soldier - once highly regarded, but now compromised by personal disgrace - while in reality he runs a secret intelligence operation. He is the opposite to Yeoman in many respects, effortlessly capable and smooth, but certainly not infallible and not, perhaps, altogether trustworthy.

Yeoman ends up joining a ‘team’ of sorts. Can you tell us a little more about that?

A few years ago I was researching a group of movies including The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty DozenThe Italian Job, and The Great Escape. Even though these films could be said to belong to several different genres it was simultaneously apparent that they shared a variety of features too. I ended up coining the term ‘team film’ to describe the set of family resemblances these movies shared and published the article ‘Crews, Squads, Sevens, Elevens and Dozens: The Team Film Genre’ in the journal Kinema.

Since then I’ve written another article on the relationship between team films and adaptation and a chapter for a forthcoming book on film dialogue by U.S. film scholar Jeff Jaeckle. In a way I wanted to take some of those ideas and use them in a work of fiction.

Will there be more Yeoman & Fanshawe books?

That’s my intention. At the moment I am preparing The Principality of Assassins, their second adventure.