For those who don’t know his work, Louis Theroux is a British investigative journalist and film maker. Specialising in the ‘weird’ and unsettling, in the past he has covered such topics as the ‘swinging’ scene in America, Scientology, the lives of porn stars and, famously, he interviewed DJ and paedophile Jimmy Savile before his death.
Because I don’t know Louis Theroux, I don’t know whether he’s always been interested in the unusual or not. But I know that I have. Right from very young, my interests were… well, different.
When I was very small I spent a lot of my time in bed suffering from acute ear infections with a brief diversion into Scarlet Fever when I was six. Because I wasn’t able to do very much, my dad would get me books to read from the local library. Quite how I ended up with adult tomes about Ancient Egypt I don’t know, but I did and I was very quickly hooked. Quite honestly I couldn’t think of anything more fantastic than being an early archeologist, preferably Italian, hacking my way into an untouched tomb of the Middle Kingdom and finding loads of mummies. Even better would have been to find the mummy of Queen Cleopatra who was my absolute heroine, probably because she had a snake in a basket. As well as having some unconventional relatives, this mummy thing was my first foray into the world of strange.
Shortly afterwards, I began to realise that my ear illness thing didn’t do much to endear me to many people at school. Anyone who was ‘cool’ thought me a bit of a pale freak and so, understandably, I began to hang out with other people like myself. I was one of the kids who was picked last for team sports along with the fat kids, the kids with glasses and the ‘sickies’ who had asthma or wore callipers on their legs or who twitched.
They were great. They almost all possessed the same lugubrious sense of humour as I did and they didn’t mind about the mummies. Secondary school was a bit harder for me as everyone always wants to be ‘cool’ when they are 13. But even there I found ‘rogues’ who hid in the toilets during games and told weird tales about rat eating fathers and neighbours who looked like red monkeys. Even David Bowie didn’t talk about some of the strange things we discussed.
And so my life continued into adulthood and numberless encounters with people who, like me, appear to have some sort of radar for the strange and absurd. Long bus journeys were always particularly fruitful, especially the massive trips across Turkey. One in particular stands out when I met two elderly ladies, on English, one Turkish who told me all about their romantic adventures in Istanbul at the end of the Ottoman Empire. I was spared no anatomical detail. Bits of that encounter can be found in my books.
What happens these days however is that, while the unusual still comes and gets me, I also pursue it wherever I find it. If I can get a remote East End cemetery where a Jack the Ripper suspect is buried into a book, I’ll do it. And I have. When I went to the eastern Turkish city of Mardin what fascinated me more even than the 5th century Syrian Orthodox churches was the local snake goddess deity who became so real to me through the stories I was told about her that I swear I almost saw her.
I’ve followed strange suggestions, hints and leads in London and Istanbul to some of the weirdest places in those cities. I’ve wandered on roofs that people shouldn’t wander on, found bizarre swingers clubs next door to charismatic churches and spent time with society’s rank outsiders. Because although I live in the conventional world of the middle aged in my house with parking for three cars and a large kitchen diner, I am not OF that place. On closer inspection the kitchen diner is chaotic and the cars on the drive are disreputable. I don’t actually have any mummies in my house but there are plenty of other things that can and do, appal. I’m just not comfortable any other way.
So why do I think I’m the Louis Theroux of crime fiction? Because in every one of my books you will find something truly bizarre that will surprise you. It surprised me when I first came across it and I’m just passing that on (within the constraints of the plot of course!). I remember back in 2002 when my Ikmen book ‘Arabesk’ came out, nobody believed that some of my characters, who were Yezidis, actually existed. Now the whole world knows I didn’t make them up.
And so to my latest Ikmen book ‘On the Bone’ which features a very unusual but very practical place in which to hide a dead body. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether I made that up or not…
Louis Theroux eat your heart out. Literally.