It’s fair to say I love my films. And I love me a bit of TV, if you discount snooker coverage, soaps and all reality shows – I am proud to admit that I never watched Big Brother after the first series, and wouldn’t know what a TOWIE was if it kicked me in the plums.
As a writer, I find there’s nothing better than hitting the sofa or cinema chair and soaking up other people’s work as it plays out on the screen. Absorbing it all. Just having that hour or two of mental space away from your own creative endeavours while you enjoy somebody else’s.
There’s a definite link between the novels I write and the things I watch. As a kid, devouring books, I also developed a love for television – Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, for starters – and came to adore the cinema. I can remember sitting with my mother and having the bejesus scared out of me during Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, when the evil Zenobia runs out of the potion required to turn her back into a human. When I saw her foot, mangled and marbled and still that of a seagull, I cowered into my mother and the film’s work was done: I went home and wrote stories where people turned themselves into all sorts of weird and troubling malformed creatures, a cabal of half-human, half-animal horrors.
Now, when I write, I picture the scene as if it were through the lens of a camera – the zooms and quick pans and dolly shots and fades to black. The wipes and overhead crane views, the tracking of characters as they move from room to room. The moving image has had such a profound effect on my life that I can’t work any other way.
So what films and TV shows inspired my latest novel, ‘Unforgivable’? The book covers five days in the UK city of Cardiff, which has been brought to a halt by a murderous bomber who is attacking the populace. I wanted it to be rich with detail, stuff that I learned during my twenty-plus years as a cop. But more than anything else I wanted it to be taught, mean and pacy as hell.
So here’s what I used as a reference. Some of them I love, and watch repeatedly. Some I’ll never watch again, but for just a couple of scenes, they blew me away and fed into ‘Unforgivable’.
The Wire – this should be required watching for anybody who writes crime thrillers or police procedurals. David Simon’s five season epic is richly detailed, intricately plotted and one of the most authentic cop shows I’ve ever seen. From the street dialogue to the slightly dodgy cops in McNulty and his long-suffering partner, Bunk, this is what I consider to be The Finest Cop Show Ever Made. It reeks of the streets, the police station, and is the benchmark I aim for in my work – to make it as accurate as possible.
Die Hard – you might think this an odd one to include, but the 1998 original was a jolt to the action genre, introducing us to off-duty cop John McClane and his rather awful evening battling Alan Rickman’s deliciously nasty Hans Gruber in the fictional Nakatomi Plaza in this – for the time – hard-hitting, streamlined, brilliantly plotted and realised film. The little switcheroos and the way the bad guys pull a flanker on the police is lovely – the true reason for their actions is hidden behind a pretend ‘terrorist attack’.
Two Minute Warning – this seventies Charlton Heston effort sees a lone sniper secrete himself in the clock tower at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where he plans to go on a killing spree as soon as the ‘two minute warning’ is sounded during the American football match going on below him. The film is considered a bit of a misfire, but the tension as we watch the various crowd members – people we get to know, and care about – being lined up in the psycho’s sights is, at times, deliciously unbearable. The downside is we learn nothing of the gunman himself, his motivation or the reason for railing so awfully against the world. As a result I wanted to make the bad guy in ‘Unforgivable’ human and believable and a person who – despite the awful crimes – you could, in some way, identify with. He is me, and you, and all of us, just incapable of dealing with bad news or painful incidents in a rational manner.
The Kingdom – do I like this film? Not hugely; I’ve seen it a few times and I can’t say it’s a classic. What I can say is that its opening scenes are incredibly powerful, and not a little frightening: we see an American oil company housing compound in Saudi Arabia, stuffed with families, with woman and children, just people enjoying life, a softball game going on. Then: boom. Terrorists attack, shooting people indiscriminately and one of them detonates a suicide vest. It is a shocking, visceral moment. And the armed forces and police descend to the blast site and ambulances arrive to treat the wounded, the dying, and you watch it play out and shake your head and then (SPOILER ALERT) an ambulance, packed with explosives, is detonated and it is huge, ten times bigger than the first bomb, and it kills everyone you’ve just been watching and almost demolishes the compound. It’s brilliantly done, a quick one-two sucker punch to the gut. This is what I wanted for ‘Unforgivable’: the sense that, certainly after the opening chapter, nothing is what it seems, and more carnage could easily be just around the corner.
Call of Duty – yes, it’s not a film or TV show, but I simply had to include it here. This famous video game console ‘first person shooter’ has been going in various iterations and sequels for many a year, but it’s a particular ‘mission’ in one of the games that has always stuck with me. It is the infamous ‘No Russian’ sequence in ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’. Without giving too much away, as it plays an important part in ‘Unforgivable’ (even though I don’t name it directly), it is a horrific slice of butchery where you control a person who is attacking a particular location. When I wrote the bomber’s point of view scenes, I wanted to invoke the same reaction in the reader as I had when I first – and last – played ‘No Russian’: revulsion.
One might conclude from this that people either have the capacity to commit crime, or they don’t, and that the tendency to be delinquent might in some way be genetic.
Whatever the answer is, it’s clear that this possibility is now being taken seriously. In 2013, an analysis was carried out in the University of Connecticut of the DNA of Adam Lanzer, an American spree killer who, aged 20, walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School with a shotgun and murdered 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself.
There is no biological proof of the existence of an evil gene yet, but the implications of finding one are profound. Should people be punished for crimes that they have not yet committed?
Paradoxically, can we then legitimately reward or even recognise positive behaviour, if all the hero is doing is what he or she is biologically programmed to do?
And as for the idea of demon DNA, you’ll have to wait for a new Charlie Priest thriller to see that strange notion hauled to the surface for all to see.
About Mike Thomas:
Mike Thomas was born in Wales in 1971. For more than two decades he served in the police, working some of Cardiff ’s busiest neighbourhoods in uniform, public order units, drugs teams and CID. He left the force in 2015 to write full time.
His debut novel, 'Pocket Notebook', was published by William Heinemann (Penguin Random House) and longlisted for the Wales Book of the Year. The author was also named as one of Waterstones' 'New Voices' for 2010. His second novel, 'Ugly Bus', is currently in development for a six part television series with the BBC.
The first in the MacReady series of novels, 'Ash and Bones', was released August 2016 by Bonnier Zaffre. 'Unforgivable', the second in the series, is released in July 2017.
He lives in the wilds of Portugal with his wife and two children.
Follow the author on Twitter at @ItDaFiveOh.
More details can be found on the website www.mikethomasauthor.co.uk