I have recently been very lucky to be interviewed live on MKFM by Nancy Stevens, an award-winning radio journalist, on her Arts programme, and one of the questions she asked me was why I thought Charles Holborne, the hero of my 1960s London noir series, was so attractive to women (she actually use the word “sexy”!). I wasn’t able to answer the question very well and I wasn’t even sure she was right. However afterwards I looked through some of the Amazon reviews and realised that she had picked up on something. This is a small selection of reviews posted by women:
“I loved Charles.”
“I think I’m a bit in love with Charles and can’t wait to find out when the next book comes out.”
“Loving Charles Holborne’s character.”
“The tragic relationship between the main character and his wife is beautifully drawn.”
“Despite myself I’m rooting for Charles Holborne, the flawed hero.”
“I do like and admire Charles.”
“I adore Charles Holborne for all of his nuances, although I think I would have a few words to say to him.”
Then I thought back to the Twitter and Facebook competition I ran in the run-up to the publication of The Lighterman, which invited people to vote for the actor they thought should play Charles on screen. The competition produced a far greater response than any other social media outreach I have ever undertaken and 99% of the responders were women. In case you’re interested, this was the selection from which they could choose and Matthew McFadyen (No 5) won by a significant margin, despite a late surge orchestrated by the Robert Pattinson Fan Club. (I confess, in my head Charles was more like Aiden Turner with his shirt off, but everyone has their fantasies, right?)
So, what is it with Charles Holborne, ne Charlie Horowitz, ex-criminal, amateur boxer, built like the proverbial brick s***house, and now out of place barrister? Truthfully, I’m not really sure, but here are a few thoughts. I based Charles loosely on me but, as every author will tell you, that’s just the outline, the initial line-drawing for a character. Characters grow from that to the point where they are unrecognisable from the person who was their inspiration. So, Charles has become something that I am not. He’s bigger, stronger, and sexier for a start; he’s a real East End boy who grew up with criminals; he gets off on the adrenaline rush both in court and in the ring; and there’s a streak of violence in his personality which even he doesn’t understand. None of that is me at all. I was a safe, law-abiding, middle class lad – albeit from a family with little money. While I had to work as a council labourer, hedge-cutter, car-washer and kitchen hand during vacations to pay for my next term at Uni, and I very nearly missed out on pupillage because I couldn’t afford the pupillage fees, wig and gown, I never engaged in a spot of robbery as a teenager to make ends meet.
On the other hand it is true that, like mine, Charles’s early family life was difficult and his demanding, mean-spirited mother made him feel useless and unlovable. That set him up to be driven to succeed but on the other hand it left scars which are evident in his personal relationships, especially with the women in his life. At the same time Charles knows he is flawed, and he tries his best with his limited emotional responses to be a good person. He is always trying to “do the right thing”, which makes him kind and thoughtful to the world at large, even if he struggles with those close to him.
As a result people say that he is a more complex and nuanced human being than the protagonists in most crime thrillers. He wants to be a hero – and he usually succeeds – but he’s a hero who keeps on making mistakes in his private life. More than one woman reviewer has commented that they love Charles but at times they just want to slap him. Spot on.
Although these books are thrillers – all with the legal slant to be expected with a barrister anti-hero rather than a policeman or detective – and I try to make them as accurate as humanly possible both as to the police and legal procedures and the social mores of the 1960s, I think what appeals to women most is that Charles is real. Add to that the fact that he’s a perennial underdog who just won’t lie down and take the kicking, and perhaps that’s why he gets such a good press from women readers, many of whom like him but also want to take him in hand and teach him a good lesson.
So those are my thoughts, but coming from a bloke I might have got it completely wrong. I’d welcome comments from women readers as to why they like/don’t like Charles; what is it about him, if anything, that makes him lovable or, at least, makes you root for him?
If anyone would like to listen to Nancy’s interview and some pretty good music you can find both here: www.mkfm.com/on-air/listen-again/sunday/. My blethering starts at about 5 minutes in.
I would like to record my thanks to Juliet for the opportunity to ramble on about my favourite fictional creation, and wish her a speedy recovery. I am well aware that busy, successful bloggers can be put under enormous pressure by the size of the TBR pile (and thoughtless demanding authors!) and what should be enjoyable can become a stressful chore, especially when one is not at 100%. So I am hugely appreciative of the space given to bloggers to emerging writers like myself, without whom we would have little chance of getting off the ground at all. Thank you.