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Michael Ridpath   The Ridpath method

25.02.10 Alice O'Keeffe

“I enjoyed writing financial thrillers and thought I was getting better at them, but the problem was as a genre it wasn't selling very well,” he says candidly when we meet at his north London home. “I wanted to write in an area that I thought would be popular.”

In order to determine what might be popular with the reading public he paid a visit to his local W H Smith, where he found two genres dominating the shelves. One was “thrillers about secret societies, lost manuscripts", which left him uninspired; the other he describes as “distinctive detectives”.

The idea of a series about “a detective set in an interesting, distinctive place” took hold and two possibilities suggested themselves: firstly, “a good detective in a corrupt regime. I thought of a Saudi cop – that really intrigued me. I had all sorts of story ideas for that.” But the idea he eventually pursued, following interest from “bookish friends” whose opinion he canvassed, was that of an Icelandic detective.

His new novel Where the Shadows Lie (Corvus, June) features Sergeant Detective Magnus Jonson – born and raised in Iceland until the age of 12 when he moved to the US – who has now been seconded to the Icelandic Police Force from Boston P.D. after a violent altercation with a Dominican drugs gang. Newly arrived in Iceland, the murder of a professor of Old Icelandic leads Magnus to investigate rumours of a “lost” Icelandic saga about a ring with terrible power, a saga which may have a connection to J R R Tolkien himself. There are plot twists and red herrings aplenty and the culture-clash aspect of the American cop in Iceland is nicely done. The book is the first in a planned series, although at this stage Ridpath isn't sure how many titles there will be. Linking the books will be the mystery of Magnus’ father's murder “which will unravel and deepen and get more complicated.”

Ridpath first visited Iceland back in 1995 while on a book tour for his début, Free to Trade, and had found it “extraordinary”. However, he knew little about the country, and so started his research with books by arguably Iceland's most famous export – aside from Björk – Magnus Magnusson, and discovered a passion for Icelandic sagas – “incredible medieval literature which [Icelanders] say, and I believe them, is the best vernacular literature in Europe”. He positively enthuses about Njáls saga, describing it as “really very modern, very down to earth, short sentences, a lot of action – like a legal thriller” adding that "the women have a strong and active role, rather than being the prize for the knight to win.”

Where the Shadows Lie is Ridpath’s ninth novel. His first was written over three years in his spare time while he was working as a bond trader in the City, and has become the stuff of legend. Agent Carole Blake picked Free to Trade out of the slush pile and proceeded to sell in 35 territories. In the UK William Heinemann won the auction with a six-figure deal and published in 1995. It enabled Ridpath to leave the City and write full time. Ridpath recalls that the book trade was coming out of a recession in the early 1990s and, with the end of the Cold War meaning spy thrillers had lost their appeal, publishers were casting around for a new type of thriller. “John Grisham was doing well, so publishers thought financial thrillers might be next.”

Taking risks
Where the Shadows Lie is also his first book with Corvus after six with Michael Joseph. When Penguin decided not to renew his contract after declining sales, he took the opportunity to change genre. He spent 18 months working on the book: six months on researching and planning, six months on the first draft and then six months redrafting with freelance editor Richenda Todd. Ridpath decided that, rather than showing potential publishers "a good synopsis" he would do better with the whole novel. “It seemed to me that the nearer a finished product there was, the less risk publishers would be taking. And with the change of genre and everyone being so risk-averse, anything I could do to minimise the risk would help.”

Agent Oli Munson sent the final draft out in early 2009 under a pseudonym, as Ridpath says: “I wanted people to focus on the book rather than relaunching my career.” It was perhaps not the best time to be looking for a new publisher given the recession, but Ridpath remained level-headed. “Having been involved in financial markets I knew exactly what was going on. Everyone was feeling bearish and didn't want to take a risk.” But he found a new home at Atlantic where Nic Cheetham was building a new list. Ridpath is very pleased to have had the opportunity to get involved with a new imprint early on. “If it works for both of us it will be absolutely brilliant. It’s been a real rejuvenation exercise and great fun.”

Does this pragmatic, business-like attitude stem from having worked in the City? “I always think about how to do things hard, before I actually do them,” he says. “At university, they used to talk about the ‘Ridpath Method’ which was just the way I went about doing exams or anything like that. I've always done it, and I applied it to writing. For me, it works.”

Authors Alice O'Keeffe author profile Michael Ridpath Corvus