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Scott Simon talks with Martin Patience about his new novel 'The Darker the Night'


"The Darker The Night," a new novel, begins with a man shot dead in the center of Glasgow. Looks like gang stuff, though Fulton Mackenzie, investigative reporter for the Scottish Siren, sniffs out that it's more. He meets up at a pub with a source and a pal, Detective Sergeant Davy Bryant, who downs a pint of lager, pulls his chair close and tells Fulton Mackenzie it's actually way bigger. Let's ask the author, Martin Patience, to pick up the scene.

MARTIN PATIENCE: (Reading) The victim had a number in his back pocket. It was written on a piece of paper, a mobile phone number. And, asked Fulton quietly. And I dialed it. And who picked up? Davey pulled away from Fulton. He glanced over his shoulders again, then leaned forward, cupping his hands around Fulton's ear. You're never going to believe this. It was the first minister.

SIMON: Oh, the first minister as in the leader of the Scottish government - oh, the intrigue. "The Darker The Night" is the debut thriller from Martin Patience, a BBC foreign correspondent for more than 15 years, including stops in Jerusalem, Beijing and Beirut. He is now senior producer at NPR's WEEKEND EDITION and joins us in our studios. Martin, thanks so much for making the trip across the hall.

PATIENCE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: How long have you been living with us now?

PATIENCE: Do you know, almost a decade? I read a magazine article about a political murder set in South America. And I remember at the time it was so shocking. But I thought, this would be fabulous, setting this story in Scotland. And it was an idea that never left me. It was a bit like a mosquito that was locked in my room. And every once in a while it would kind of buzz at me. And then about five years ago, I'd been working on a big report in Nigeria, and I realized that report wasn't going to make the impact that I wanted. And I was so frustrated, and I said to myself, I'm going to write that book. I'm going to control something within my own life. So I started the book. The first 10,000 words came pretty quickly - a few weeks. I thought, How hard can this be? The rest of the 60, 70,000 words - well, they took two or three years.

SIMON: Your novel, in many ways, touches on the relationship between reporters and sources, the police and government. How do you see that as a novelist?

PATIENCE: What I wanted to do with this book was talk about these relationships because obviously, we're in it. As a journalist, I speak to a lot of government officials. I speak to the police. I speak to people on the street. And what you try and do as a journalist is bring together all that information and try and write a version of the truth. Journalists are often criticized, often maligned in today's society. I think most of them are trying to dig at the truth. It's not always easy, but we need journalists because journalists create trust in society. They hold institutions and laws and power to account. And what we're seeing in Scotland, but also in other countries, including the U.S., is the collapse of particularly local journalism. And I think that's been one of the big reasons that we've seen a collapse in trust across society. And that's a dangerous place to be in.

SIMON: And that's a continuing theme in this very book, isn't it? People - the people who are working at the newspaper wonder how long they'll be in business one way or another.

PATIENCE: Absolutely. I think in Scotland, but in other countries, being a journalist is incredibly difficult. Thankfully, in Scotland you're not threatened with physical violence as you are, say, in Nigeria or even in China where you can be locked up. I remember I was in Nigeria, and my first week, a man walked into a bar, and he had a suitcase. And inside his suitcase was a puppet because he was a puppeteer. And I just asked him, do you have any advice for me my first week in Nigeria - how to cover this country? And he said, everybody in this country is an eyewitness. Everybody saw the politician taking the bribe. He said, what you have to remember is you can trust nobody. And I realized that trust is the fabric that holds societies and countries together.

SIMON: There's a sensational charge in this novel against the first minister, then a sensational confession from her. I don't want to give anything away. Family relationships, the background of an independence referendum, MI5 - how do you keep it all straight in your mind?

PATIENCE: Notes. Do you know what was interesting, though? I found in some ways the plotting and the pacing the easiest part. What I found harder was the characterization, how to come up with characters. Because as somebody said to me, ultimately, when it comes to stories, nobody remembers the plot. What they remember is the characters and what they've been through. Now, I did two or three redrafts on this book, and one of the big things - actually the biggest issue - was trying to make characters that hopefully resonate with the reader.

SIMON: I admire Graham Greene and John le Carre. I wonder if there been any novelists who've been particularly influential.

PATIENCE: It's interesting. Well, I'm crossing the pond. I'm crossing the Atlantic. It's interesting how we like things that are different from what we grew up with, and I always loved F. Scott Fitzgerald for the clarity of his prose, but also the big themes that he talks about, particularly in America. I mean, one writer I really admire at the moment is the writer Don Winslow, who's an incredibly pacey (ph) writer, but he writes about the big, difficult issues of our time. And I think he does it in such an engaging fashion without dumbing down.

SIMON: What do you get out of writing a novel that's not in journalism?

PATIENCE: In journalism, rightly, you're constrained by the facts, whereas what writing fiction enables you to do is to take a leap of imagination. So you take a few things that have happened to you, and then you spin a story from then on. And I think that's fabulous, just letting your imagination run riot, because in journalism that can't happen, whereas in fiction, that's the name of the game.

SIMON: Well, haste ye back, Martin. Did I get that right?

PATIENCE: You did.

SIMON: OK. WEEKEND EDITION's own Martin Patience - his debut novel, "The Darker The Night." Thank you so much for being with us.

PATIENCE: Thank you so much. Now I'll get back to work.

SIMON: (Laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.