City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Leif Davidsen and Paul Johnston


By Per Fischer - Posted on 20 August 2007

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Sunday's second pairing between a Scottish and a Danish author was between thriller writers Paul Johnston and Leif Davidsen. Both are, in their own ways, men of the world. Johnston, born in Edinburgh, has been living in Greece for many years and still spends time in both Athens and the UK. Davidsen has travelled around most of the world as a journalist and foreign correspondent.

Johnston's latest book The Death List is a departure from his earlier novels set in either Greece or a near future Scotland, and written after a period of cancer. "It was a very different book for me," Johnston said, "about the theme of revenge. I wrote it very quickly, in about a month. If you write something quickly, it will be read quickly."

The novel's protagonist is a failed writer who himself faces the reality of murder. Jonhston said: "What would it be like for a crime writer to come face to face with a killer? Writers are as horrified by crime as anyone else."

The book's antagonist, The White Devil, is named after John Webster's revenge tragedy of the same name. Johnston sees many similarities between modern crime fiction and Jacobean revenge tragedies. "Plays like Webster's White Devil are seriously over the top, and this stuff was acted in front of people, rather than re-enacted in the reader's mind."

Johnston's Danish counterpart this evening approaches writing from an entirely different direction. Leif Davidsen finds inspiration for his thrillers on his experience and as a journalist paired with a political engagement. "I'm a political animal," Davidsen said before describing the historical backdrop for his latest novel to be translated into English, The Serbian Dane. The novel was first published in Danish 10 years ago.

It was in the early 90s when Denmark was the first place Salman Rushdie emerged after the fatwa, invited by Danish PEN. The Danish government refused to meet Rushdie, according to Davidsen because of the large export of feta cheese to Iran. Appalled by this, Davidsen decided to write a novel with the chairman of PEN as one of the protagonists, and also make Rushdie a character, albeit turned into the female character Sara Santanda. And to have the novel's antagonist Vuk take on a contract to kill her during a visit to Denmark.

"[The Yugoslav character] Vuk was perfect for the job," Davidsen said, "he speaks Danish, he grew up in Denmark, he is one of us." In the novel, Vuk is a changed man after being a soldier in Yugoslavia. "I used Vuk to see my own country with his eyes. Denmark is a small peaceful country, where nothing really ever happens."

Paul Johnston spoke about creating evil characters and the morality of crime novels. He said: "There's something about writing villains that's attractive. Every novel has to construct its own system of morality. Extreme characters can construct their own morale system."

To the question whether the murders in The Death List were too graphic, Johnston replied: "I'm a deeply depraved individual. They are gory. You should have seen the first draft! Cancer has changed my attitude to, if you like, bodily harm."

Davidsen wasn't sure about the morality in his novels, but admitted that "for it to be interesting to read, there will be a hidden morale." In the Serbian Dane it was the cowardness of the Danish political establishment.