Noir’s rising star
Featuring razor-sharp dialogue and scheming gangsters, Jukebox is a novel that makes Clerkenwell the backdrop for a gritty crime caper.
Andre Paine talks to author Saira Viola about her satirical targets, EC1 inspiration and Hollywood.
London gangsters have long been a fixture in fiction, from the crime family sagas of Martina Cole to Clerkenwell local Jake Arnott’s bestsellers featuring real-life characters. Now a new author, Saira Viola, has taken inspiration from EC1 and come up with a fresh, satirical take on gangland culture.
“When I was researching the area there seemed to be an old school, gentlemanly kind of attitude [attributed to] the criminals, which is where the satire comes in because a lot of people are glorifying criminality,” Viola explains.
Jukebox is a witty, riotous story populated by larger-than-life characters in EC1. There’s a Jewish mob boss described as the John Gotti of London, a tenacious female journalist who’s sick of celebrity news, and a trainee solicitor who’s desperate to escape the fusty legal world and break into the music industry. As the novel’s ostensible hero, Nick is no straight-laced legal eagle – he’s a swaggering, sociable thrill-seeker known as the “prince of Clerkenwell”.
These three characters are thrown together along with comical villains, aspiring rock stars and a 21st century shaman in a novel that’s notable for its heady, rhythmic prose style, which was inspired by hard-boiled crime, Beat writers, the poetry of Baudelaire – and rock.
“One of the greatest poets is someone like Paul Weller,” says Viola. “Within three minutes, he has a social polemic and there’s a tenderness as well as a passion.”
She was also influenced by post-war US crime writer Chester Himes. “He writes from the streets,” she says.
It was the streets of Clerkenwell that she turned to for Jukebox, which features several recognisable locations, including The Eagle gastropub, Fold Gallery (recently relocated to Fitzrovia), Smithfield Market and the now defunct TARDIS club. Sculptor Nick Reynolds – son of Great Train Robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds – hosted parties at the artists’ studios up until the early Noughties. As it was named after a timetravelling police box, Viola used artistic licence to portray the Turnmill Street venue in a contemporary novel.
While working in London in advertising and as a writer (she’s published poetry and an earlier novel), she was drawn to EC1. “It is an amazing place,” she says. “Everybody knows about gangland Clerkenwell and the Clerkenwell Crime Cartel, but there are so many bohemian artists, musicians, poets and daydreamers.”
With her international background, including early childhood spent in various African countries and a recent spell in the US studying and working at a New York law firm, Viola brings an outsider’s perspective to EC1. She hung around London’s legal heartland off Chancery Lane, eavesdropped on conversations in pubs and met some “colourful” characters.
‘Clerkenwell deserves to be on the literary map’
“Clerkenwell is a hotbed of creative influences with a bohemian insanity that lends itself well to London noir,” adds Viola. “It certainly deserves to be on the literary map of London.”
Of course, Charles Dickens first wrote about the criminal underworld of Clerkenwell in his 1838 novel Oliver Twist. “He wrote for the times and his writing created social reform,” says Viola. “Dickens is one of my favourite authors of all time.”
Having moved from Africa to London in the Nineties, escaping into books was her way of dealing with the upheaval. Today she still considers herself a “punk outsider” (she once wrote lyrics for a short-lived band called Suburban Acid).
Viola had early discussions with major publishers, but she was unwilling to compromise her writing style for Jukebox. Having signed a deal with tiny independent Bloodhound Books, it was published with a cover blurb from poet Benjamin Zephaniah and found a readership as an ebook.
The online success of Jukebox has led to movie interest – our interview has to be arranged around a trip to meet film producers in LA. “They really liked the characters,” says Viola. There’s also talk of a theatrical adaptation.
Of course, low-key publishing origins are no barrier to success in the digital age: Fifty Shades of Grey and The Martian both started out small and ended up on the big screen.“The rules are changing,” agrees Viola.
This rising star of crime fiction is already fielding offers for her next novel, which is set to feature a female mob boss. “She’s not going to be one of your hackneyed female mobsters, she’s going to be super cool,” says Viola. You wouldn’t expect anything less from this sharp, satirical author.
“Jukebox” (Bloodhound Books) is available in paperback and ebook