DC Max Wolfe, hero of The Murder Bag and The Slaughter Man, is every bit as butch as his name suggests. He’s tough and loyal, decent but dangerous. For a certain kind of Top Gear-watching, Fleming-weaned middle-aged man, he’s the very pinnacle of masculinity. When he’s not assaulting paedophiles or wrestling with murderers, you can find him brooding in London cemeteries or sparring in the local boxing ring. He wouldn’t be seen dead in a bijou chocolatier in Hampstead, but that’s where the man who invented him suggested we meet.
“Hot chocolate alright?” asks Tony Parsons, as we walk into the shiny delicatessen. For all the tough talk, in person he’s sweet and softly spoken. He knows more than most about the many-sided nature of this city: the London of his working class childhood; 1970s punk London in which he cut his teeth as a journalist; and this, the bourgeois London he now inhabits.
“I’ve been poor in this city, and it’s a completely different world to the privileged place sitting outside that door. It’s one of the reasons property prices are so insane around here. Good schools, green spaces, safe streets. Most of London isn’t like that.”
Parsons has sold millions of books throughout the last decade. His 2000 novel Man and Boy, loosely based on his experience bringing up the son he had with fellow journalist Julie Burchill after she walked out on their marriage, is the UK’s 48th highest-selling book of all time. But a couple of years ago he found himself in a precarious position: his 2012 book Catching the Sun tanked and his Mirror column, which he had been writing for 18 years, was cancelled. It was a wake up call: time to try something new. He wanted to write crime fiction, but no one thought he could do it. In a Wolfelike display of gumption he did it anyway, cashing in his savings and pension to support him over the two years it took to write. The gamble paid off. Twenty-four hours after sending the manuscript to publishers, a bidding war broke out and he was signed up to write three books.
It turns out all the things that made him a popular columnist – macho morality, mouthy charm, a keen appreciation for rough justice – make him ideally suited to the genre. The first book in the series, The Murder Bag, was a number one bestseller, and the second, The Slaughter Man, is heading that way too.
“You start with a hunch, and the hunch with The Slaughter Man was the fragility of happiness: even when you love and you’re loved and you’re safe, secure, warm and affluent, someone can take it away, just like that.”
Parsons seems to think failure or ruin lurks around every corner. “With the The Murder Bag I was fighting for my survival. If it had flopped, it would have been catastrophic for my family. Sometimes people don’t try things because they’re afraid of looking stupid or failing, but with this there was much more on the line; I’d spent a couple of hundred grand funding it. Success is largely an act of will. It’s about being prepared to risk failure, because failure is always a possibility. But I also believe if you work hard then good things happen.”
Parsons surprised many by saying he would vote for UKIP in the European elections. But all the stuff about making your own luck and success being an act of will, it’s pure Thatcher. Who did he vote for in the election?
“I voted for the Conservative party. I know Ed Miliband a bit and I think he’s a man of conviction and principle, and I have no doubt that he meant everything he said. He wanted to do to this country what François Hollande did to France, which in my humble opinion, is totally wreck it. There are 700,000 French people in this city, because of what Hollande did. Big taxation: I don’t think it works. To me it seems a pretty well established economic fact that the less you tax the more revenue you get for schools and roads and nurses and doctors. It would have been national suicide. It was an interesting election: the shy Tory phenomenon. And now all these shy Tories are standing for the leadership of the Labour Party,” he says mischievously.
Does he feel a tribal loyalty to the Conservatives? “I didn’t when I voted, but then I saw ‘f*** Tory Scum’ written on the Cenotaph [he means the Women’s War Memorial] after the election. Those three words made me think I’ll vote Tory for the rest of my life. It was my ‘Je suis Tory scum’ moment.” The desecration of a war memorial is a defilement of the things he holds most sacred: valour and honourable sacrifice, values instilled by his Navy commando father.
Class is still a preoccupation. “There’s a house for sale where I live for £18m. Quite an ordinary little house. You wouldn’t look at it twice and there is enough of the working class boy in me to find that obscene. How did you get that money? Who did you rob that from? This money from the Middle East, Russia, China, its warping our society. I live in a nice house but I know how hard I had to work to get it, the years of working seven days a week.”
And what would that working class boy think if he could see himself today, living in a big house in Hampstead, voting for the Conservatives? “My mum was a strong Labour supporter so maybe as a kid I would have thought the Tories were just for the rich. But now if you drive a white van you’re probably better off with them. I don’t know if that’s practical or cynical: probably a bit of both. When I was young I spent a large part of my childhood leafleting for the Liberals. My father hated Labour because they represented the trade unions and the Tories because they were only for the rich. Not that my dad was a liberal man by any stretch; he killed many men.”
Unlike his father, Parsons leaves the violence to his characters: “All I ever wanted was to make a living as a writer. That was my dream: to do what I love. Money or fame were never important to me. I wanted to be successful enough to do this and it happened, so I’m pleased with how things have worked out.”
The Slaughter Man by Tony Parsons, published by Century, is out now in hard-back for £12.99