As a promoter, Paul Charles has a reputation as one of the nice guys of the Irish music
scene. He’s also an accomplished writer of murder mysteries, says Ed Power
THERE’S a perception that only Simon Cowell-types thrive in the music business. But esteemed promoter and band manager, Paul Charles, couldn’t be further removed from the tooth-and-claw stereotype. He has collaborated with big names — Van Morrison, Robert Plant and Elvis Costello, among others — yet has the bookish demeanour of a provincial librarian.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky. I only work with people I’m a fan of,” says the 66-year-old. “Their priority is to perfect their writing style and be the best artists they can. They don’t want the in-your-face rock ’n’ roll manager. That exists more on the celebrity side of the business.”
So he’s never pounded a desk or chomped the tip off a cigar in anger? “I work with people like Ray Davies. He’s one of the great songwriters and has no interest in someone going in and smashing up a record company office on his behalf. He wants his business to be conducted in a gentlemanly fashion. Those are the people I’m drawn to. Not those who want to make a song-and-dance about themselves.”
Charles’s story is remarkable. He grew up in Magherafelt, Co Derry, and started managing his first act aged 15. He was still living at home and listed the number of the nearest telephone box on his business cards. Neighbours would answer the phone, then knock on Charles’s window to let him know he had a call.
He was soon in London, working with The Waterboys, Tom Waits, and Don McClean. He drove a tour bus for The Stranglers, became a confidante of Van Morrison, and helped break the Human League and Undertones. But he never had a masterplan. He was living by his wits, and driven by a love of music and by his immense respect for the artists he represented.
“I would find it impossible to break into the business now,” says Charles. “I wouldn’t have gone to university to study how to be in the music industry. It was more a case of ‘What do I need to do to get an audience to come and see an artist, and how do I make sure that when an artist comes to play, he has such a great time that the next time I ring up, they want to come back’?”
Charles has a parallel career as a writer of fast-paced thrillers and is in Dublin to discuss his latest, St Ernan’s Blues. The plot reads like a Grand Guignol episode of Father Ted. On a remote island off the Donegal coast, a retreat for retired priests is rocked when one of the community is found dead in the kitchen. Did one of his clerical colleagues commit the crime? Or had some of the staff reason to bear a grudge?
“I love writing,” says Charles. “It is one of the most enjoyable things in this world. When you’re really into it, you’re not aware of sentences or paragraphs. You are making that connection with the page, with yourself, really.”
Some might consider it surprising that a successful rock promoter would dabble in Agatha Christie-esque whodunnits. “I’ve always written. Even starting out, I wrote a music column for a newspaper in Belfast. Later, I would do music biogs for record companies.
“If I’m working on the first draft of a story, I’ll be busy at it from 6am until 9.30am every day, then go into the office and put on my other hat. I find that taking time off [from the day job] doesn’t really work: it takes twice as long to catch up.”
Charles has shied away from referencing the music industry in his novels. One reason is that too much might be read into the books. If he wrote about a debauched, 1970s rocker up to no good, it might be interpreted as a dig at someone he knows. The other difficulty is fictional rock stars are rarely as interesting as the real-world equivalent.
“If you write something about, say, Elton John, part of the appeal is that people know Elton John. You have all these weird and wonderful stories about real pop stars — such as the singer supposed to have rung up the desk of a hotel and asked could they stop the wind blowing outside their window. But you just won’t make that connection with a fictional person. It has an impact, because you feel that you know the individual.”
Charles has lived in London most of his life, yet still considers himself Irish. He believes crime fiction from this country is riding a crest of popularity and was struck by the level of interest his new novel received on a recent US book tour. Irish noir could be on the cusp of challenging its Nordic cousin for prominence.
“I did 14 cities in 12 days and they were very strong on Irish writers, very well up on it. Irish crime writing is enjoying its day in the sun.”
With each of his novels, Charles tries to unpick the central mystery that unites all crime writing: what drives a rational person to commit the ultimate crime of taking a human life? He doesn’t aim to make the killer sympathetic, but to present their actions as rational from their perspective.
“I’m trying to find a way into understanding how someone commits a murder. How does someone make a decision that they are going to remove another person from this Earth?
“You want to come up with a motive that, when presented, makes you go ‘Yeah, okay, if the [victim] really did that, then, in the same circumstances, you might [commit murder] yourself’.
“One of my inspirations is The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer, in which he told a true story in a novelistic form. I try to take a fictional story and make it read like true crime.”
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