William Boyd: Death, drugs and doppelgängers

William Boyd is no stranger to double lives and double dealing – and in his latest chase thriller of a novel, he exposes the dark side of the pharmaceuticals industry

Chelsea, with its affluent, cultivated surfaces, is hardly a hackneyed habitat for the hunted and down at heel. Walking along the embankment before I careen off into one of the most desirable postcodes in the country, I glance at the copse next to Chelsea Bridge. It is in that dense triangle that William Boyd has his hero go to ground in Ordinary Thunderstorms, the author's barrelling follow-up to his hit spy thriller Restless. I wonder if perhaps it might just be the perfect place to disappear. After all, isn't it meant to be calmest in the eye of the storm? The rich don't look twice at the soiled beggar by the deli door.

Interviewing Boyd in the lounge of his townhouse – he's lived in Chelsea for more than 20 years – is a congenial experience. He is a garrulous, jovial and diverse conversationalist. Surrounded by a striking art collection that illustrates his obsession with articulate artifice, he has, in his conversation, the same beguiling storytelling ability that imbues his fiction – what Graham Greene would have termed "entertainments". He has the air of a polymath keen to draw his listener into his varied and nebulous worlds.

In Ordinary Thunderstorms, Adam Kindred is "a cloud man" with a problem. He is a climatologist who finds himself wanted for the murder of an immunologist he briefly encountered in an Italian restaurant. There are a lot of "ists" in Boyd's fiction. The dead scientist was developing a miracle cure for asthma, a drug that is set to earn his pharmaceutical company untold riches and the secret of which Adam unknowingly possesses. His life spirals out of control as a cast of assassins, river police and corporate flunkies hits his trail.

It is a book, I tell Boyd, which harks back to that early 20th-century tradition of the chase thriller. The type that are loved by the English: a middle-class protagonist, a good sort with a profession and a wry take on proceedings, finds himself tumbling into the machinations of some dastardly plot. Think The 39 Steps, The Riddle of the Sands or, most pertinently, Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male. Household had his hero holed up in a 1930s bucolic Dorset vale. Boyd's scenario has the pursued dealing with the perils inherent in the trappings of City life in the Noughties. The electronic and paper trails that tally our metropolitan existence could prove Kindred's undoing. "That's how you disappear in the 21st century," he quickly realises. "You just refuse to take part in it."

"All my novels cherry-pick a genre to provide a narrative motor," says Boyd. "And you're right, there is that man-on-the-run concept, like in North by Northwest, the central character in jeopardy. It draws on all these narrative traditions. But really there was a novel lurking in the back of it and that's Our Mutual Friend, which starts with a body being removed from the Thames." Much like Dickens' mystery, Ordinary Thunderstorms is very much a London novel and Boyd clearly states this as his intention. It's steeped in the capital's snags and lures, beauty and banality. "It's not like Zadie Smith's reworking of EM Forster," he explains. "It's not that kind of template. It's more the Thames, dead bodies, London, every stratum of society..."

The river runs like a dark seam through the story and possesses a grisly undertow. "I read in an article that they are still taking 50 to 60 bodies a year from the Thames; that's over one a week, yet we hear only about the gruesome, ghoulish voodoo murder," Boyd says. "That's a lot of dead bodies and that's what set me going." London, he once wrote, poisoned him with insomnia and allergies. He declared it "a tax my body has to pay if I want to live in London – the most interesting city on the planet". To some extent his new novel is a kick at the city and the sham remedies that demand such a heavy levy.

Boyd's own counterfeiting skills reached their zenith in the late 1990s with the publication of Nat Tate: An American Artist, his monograph of a phoney abstract expressionist. Tate was supposedly a contemporary of Pollock and De Kooning and was notorious for destroying the majority of his output before committing suicide. Or rather, he would have been had he ever existed. "We had this huge party to launch the book in Jeff Koons' studio in Manhattan on 1 April 1998," laughs Boyd. "The art correspondent of The Independent, David Lister, who had become one of the conspirators, went around this party asking leading questions of all the glitterati and intellectuals. And anyone who was anyone would be saying, 'Yeah, yeah, Nat Tate, I know him, I went to one of his views...'"

The hoax to some degree became reality when you consider that Boyd (who originally intended a life focused on canvas) painted "Nat's" works. In his front hallway hangs a series of line drawings, signed by the fictional artist. "Well, they are rare and they do have a provenance," Boyd points out mischievously.

It is this disconcerting form of creative ventriloquism that Boyd has perfected over a career spanning three decades and 16 books, including novels, story compilations and an exhaustive collection of journalism. He acknowledges that several novels have deliberately toyed with supposedly genuine events and characters and their reportage. "I can look back now and see there are three books I tried to do the same thing with: The New Confessions, which is a fake autobiography; Nat Tate, which is a fake biography; and Any Human Heart, which is a fake intimate journal. In each case they are mixing the fictive with the real."

Identity, character reinvention and the dubious deeds of doppelgängers and dupes have always ornamented Boyd's tales. And Boyd himself possesses a mirror life. For years he has wooed the fickle mistress that is the movie business. With one directing tag under his belt, for his First World War drama The Trench, and numerous screenwriting nods, he reluctantly accepts that the industry is now shaped by "perverse industry mantras". With ageism and jingoistic restraint pervading Hollywood, he has found himself repeatedly let down by its ever- narrowing vision. "Why would you want to hire 'an old guy' when you can hire a 25-year-old who has done this rock video?" he asks mockingly. His current cinematic project is an intriguing adaptation of the DH Lawrence short story "Love Amongst the Haystacks", which Boyd has relocated to the American Midwest in the 1920s and describes as "a heterosexual Brokeback Mountain". Yet it's currently floundering in production purgatory after the original Australian director was deemed "uncool" by financiers.

Boyd concedes that book publishing is showing signs of the same lack of imagination. "I think it does trickle down," he says. "The retail side of publishing has changed so much. One publisher said to me: 'We've lost the war. The retailers have won.'" However, marketing hype and funnel-promotion has recently done wonders for Boyd. After Restless was chosen for the Richard & Judy book group, he found himself with a runaway bestseller at an age when most authors find their sales on the wane. The book went on to win the Costa Prize for the best novel of 2006.

Of course, tapering commercialism will always benefit the few. Such monopolies shape Ordinary Thunderstorms. Like John le Carré's The Constant Gardener, the novel nails the sheer immensity of the pharmaceutical racket, an industry teeming with more chancers and financiers than physicians. "Look at Tamiflu and the amount of money [its manufacturers] will make. Every time somebody says pandemic on the television, they must just go, 'Wow!'" states Boyd, punching the air. "The amount of money these blockbuster drugs make is phenomenal. It almost makes the arms industry look benign."

Murdering medicine men are a perfect Boyd conceit. In explanation, and like the Chelsea morning sun glinting off the graphic-lined canvases behind him, he accentuates the dark parameters of his work: "At the end of the book it hasn't turned out as it should have. But then that's life, isn't it?"

The extract

Ordinary Thunderstorms, By William Boyd (Bloomsbury £18.99)

' ... The only way to avoid detection in a modern 21st-century city was to take no advantage of the services it offered... If you made no calls, paid no bills, had no address, never voted, walked everywhere, made no credit card transactions or used cash-point machines, never fell ill or asked for state support, then you slipped beneath the modern world's cognizance. You became invisible.'

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project