Tony Parsons: ‘I still feel the best is yet to come’

Tony Parsons

Tony Parsons - Credit: Archant

BRIDGET GALTON talks to journalist turned crime writer Tony Parsons about rock stars, gin and writing George Michael’s biography

It was Sam Mendes who gave Tony Parsons the inspiration to write crime thrillers.

The director had just signed on to helm Bond movie Skyfall when they met at a party.

“With the benefit of hindsight it seems like a good move but at the time for the Oscar winning director of American Beauty to do a Bond movie was quite a leap,” explains Parsons over a hot chocolate in Venchi’s on Hampstead High Street.

As Mendes talked about capturing the essence of Ian Fleming’s novels it sent Parsons back to read the books he’d loved as a teenager.

“They were the first adult books I’d read, and listening to Sam talk about what it was he loved about them it was exactly my memory. I started reading Casino Royale and realised it was an incredible achievement to create a series character that can be re-discovered and reinterpreted by new generations, like Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe.”

At the time, the journalist and novelist was ploughing the guy-lit furrow, with bestsellers such as Man and Boy. He knew it was risky to reinvent himself in a new genre.

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“I thought I’d have a crack at it but it was a gamble, I had to go to market again and be chosen again. I talked to my wife, cashed in my pension and wrote it without a contract.”

It took two years to shape out his character DC Max Wolfe, a single father working the West End Central beat of Soho sex workers and organised crime.

To his “huge relief” the gamble paid off and the fourth title: Die Last is out on April 6. (Penguin £12.99)

“While writing an article for Elle I was embedded with the vice squad,” he explains.

“A lot of people don’t even know there’s a massive great police station on Savile Row. We went out raiding porn traders, kicking down doors.”

The 63-year-old’s inspiration for Wolfe’s Smithfield flat came from working as a teenager in Gordon’s Gin distillery in City Road.

“I used to work the night shift and was once taken to A&E at St Barts after splitting my head open in a gin-related mishap,” he smiles, adding: “I’ve had my fill of gin.”

“The area was so alive with pubs open at 3a.m for the meat workers and guys at the hospital with hooks in their ears and fingers chopped off. I fell in love with it, it’s hardly changed since Dickens wrote about it. It’s still a romantic place.”

Like Wolfe, the author was also famously a single dad, raising his son Bobby when fellow journalist Julie Burchill walked out on them. Instead of a hardboiled loner, Wolfe has a very human side caring for six-year-old Scout.

“I want my crime novels to have the emotional impact that Man and Boy had,” he says.

Die Last opens when a dozen trafficked girls who have frozen to death in the back of a refrigerated lorry turn up in Chinatown. A 13th passport sets Wolfe on a journey into the seedy underworld of lap-dancing clubs and people trafficking.

“I was thinking about the disappearance of car washes in London, because people are cheaper,” he says. “You don’t have to go far to see a dozen guys scurrying around washing cars. It shocked me that it’s allowed to happen in London.”

The book delves into the perilous journeys that migrants undertake to reach Britain. For the record, The Sun columnist disagrees with Angela Merkel on the subject: “She says if you can walk here we will take you in, but I don’t think refugees should have to walk here. It counts out families, children, the needy and destitute. It’s completely the wrong way around.”

Although Parson’s research has taken him from the bowels of the Old Bailey to the infamous Met Police crime museum, he isn’t big on academic research “Everything,” he says. “Is a slave to the story. If you get bogged down in endless research you end up with so much luggage that you miss the train.”

But spending time with policemen has brought home the risks of a job where “leaving your home and not coming back is a reality.”

Parsons’ break into journalism came after answering an NME ad for ‘hip young gunslingers’. But his portfolio career has ranged from covering the punk scene to TV culture pundit, Mirror columnist and writing George Michael’s authorised biography Bare.

Of the Highgate star, who died at Christmas he says: “I knew him in his late 20s and early 30s, we had a good relationship, the connection was useful to both of us. He had a journalist he could trust and I had access to this big superstar.”

Parsons first fell in love with Hampstead where he now lives, while visiting the Wham! star at his house in Oak Hill Park: “I was living in Newington Green at the time and Hampstead looked like heaven.”

Much has been said of Michael’s generosity and when the star insisted on a 50/50 split on the book it earned enough to let Parsons move to the dizzy heights of Islington.

“That never happens with a ghostwriter and a big superstar, his bigshot managers in LA said ‘no way’ but George said ‘don’t think about it just write the book’.”

At the time, Michael was taking care of himself and showed no sign of the troubles of later years.

“He was always so fanatical about the way he looked. When I went round he’d put the kettle on and get out the biscuits but if he had a shoot coming up there’d be no biscuits so George could shave that extra gramme off his cheekbones.”

Parsons believes the death of Michael’s Brazilian lover, and losing his mum Lesley to cancer in 1997 sent him off course in his mid 30s.

“I went round one day in 1998 and he mentioned he was smoking 25 spliffs of cannabis a day.”

Shortly after they had a falling out over an article and never spoke again. “It did spoil something in him. His death was very sad. I have fond memories and love for him, he was a lovely guy,” adds Parsons commenting that most rock stars, like Bowie, whom he also knew well, over indulge then clean up in later life. “George did it the other way around”.

Having been surrounded by drugs “at the high point of sex and drugs and rock and roll in the late 70s everybody was at it” Parsons wasn’t personally prepared to “check out early”.

“I still feel the best is yet to come,” smiles the Basildon-born writer who is happy in Hampstead with wife Yuriko and daughter Jasmine, going to the gym and walking his King Charles Spaniel Stan on the Heath.

The only downside is the excessive buildings works: “The council grovels to the super rich and allows far too much massively disruptive building work to go on,” he rails.

“Not just basements but huge renovations of beautiful old houses torn to the ground and rebuilt. There’s gangs of builders every day in our street and people moving in with seemingly limitless budgets. Not people who have just done well – you’ve always had to be doing pretty good to move here - it’s always been the place to aspire to - but now there’s the super rich people with body guards, There are a lot of famous people in Hampstead but you don’t see Ricky Gervais or Emma Thompson walking about with a bodyguard.

“These people aren’t superstars they are rich nobodies.”