by Decca Aitkenhead)
Tony Parsons has been many things in his life – amphetamine-fuelled rock journalist, gobby Late Review critic, tabloid columnist, author of a laddish bestseller that made Jeremy Paxman weep, Julie Burchill's husband. But vulnerable and slightly insecure? I've met him a few times in the past, and can safely say that self-doubt is something completely new.
"Well, as you get older you lose the cockiness of youth – or even the cockiness of your middle years, you know?" he agrees softly. "I mean, after I wrote Man and Boy I really felt I couldn't do wrong. I thought I was kind of dusted in magic, that people would always want my work, that it would always go to the top of the bestseller lists. And then you realise, it's not true. It's a complete fallacy, and you're just kidding yourself."
Man and Boy wasn't Parsons' first novel, but everyone thought it was, because his previous efforts had sunk without trace, whereas Man and Boy was an overnight sensation. It came out in 2000, sold 2m copies worldwide, won awards, and reinvented Parsons as a novelist who wrote popular fiction about family, parenthood, romance and heartbreak. He thought he was made. When I interviewed him a few years later he was moving out of his lovely Islington house, next door to Boris Johnson, into an even lovelier Hampstead home, and was in truth rather full of himself. "The good old days," he chuckles ruefully.
The sequel to Man and Boy sold another million copies, so he kept writing – but after more than half a dozen novels the magic dust had clearly run out. "I worked hard on them, I tried, you know. But you can't always tell what's going to happen." His last book came out two years ago, and "tanked". It was the summer when Fifty Shades of Grey was the only novel you saw everyone reading on the tube – "it just buried everything else" – and so Parsons sat down and had a long, hard think. What he really wanted to do, he decided, was write a crime thriller. The trouble was, no one had any reason to think he could pull it off.
Parsons cashed in his pension, and spent the last two years writing his first thriller on a wing and a prayer, just hoping a publisher would want it when it was done. "I felt I had to prove it to the world and myself that I could do it. And I knew I'd only get one chance. I couldn't afford to do it again, there wouldn't be another pension to cash in. The money wouldn't be there for a second go."
He hadn't been scared when he wrote Man and Boy, "because I wasn't really risking anything. I had a nice career, nice house, I wasn't risking anything by writing it. But this was a serious gamble." There were a lot of sleepless nights, and things got even more precarious last summer when the Daily Mirror editor called time on the weekly column Parsons had written for 18 years. "And I suddenly realised, I didn't even have a job any more. You think you're set up for life, and then you realise, actually, kid, you've got to start all over again. It's very scary, you know. It's very, very scary."
It must have been quite tense in the Parsons household on the day his agent sent publishers the completed thriller, The Murder Bag. But within 24 hours Random House had snapped it up with a three-book deal. "People have said to me, you must be so happy. But, more than anything, it's just relief, you know. It was a gamble, and it worked. And now I feel I understand what I didn't understand 10 years ago – that careers are not linear. You get setbacks. You get really hard knockbacks that you don't see coming, and you don't expect. Some things are just beyond your control."
I'm not sure if Parsons realises how much more likable the experience has made him, but the transformation is quite striking. And funnily enough, although The Murder Bag features a string of grisly murders, I found it more likable than his earlier work, too. The protagonist, Max Wolfe, is a former surveillance officer who went slightly rogue on a suicide bomber stakeout and mowed down the suspect – but as the suspect's backpack turned out to be packed with explosives, DC Wolfe was forgiven and transferred to the homicide squad. His first case is that of a serial killer who is slashing the throats of what appears at first to be a random selection of victims. But they turn out to have all been at boarding school together, and share a dark secret that gradually unfolds as the story proceeds. It's a pretty busy plot, featuring war veterans, paedophilia, a sexy Russian widow and lots of coppers, and I'm no expert in crime fiction but Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher novels, says it's "spectacular", and my guess is that it will be a hit.
The idea for the book first came to Parsons in 2010, following a chat with the director Sam Mendes. "I don't know him very well, but he'd written me a very nice email once about Man and Boy, and would I be interested in making a film of it? But I just completely scared the poor guy off. I said: 'I must be the person to write it, Sam. You understand that only one person can write this, Sam, and it's me.'" He grins a little forlornly. "What a dick I am. What an absolute dick I've been for most of my life. He made Jarhead instead, you know." Nevertheless, Mendes stayed in touch, and when he mentioned he was making a new James Bond film he got Parsons thinking about thrillers.
"And I was thinking, how would I do it? How would I go about it? I can understand why Ian Fleming made Bond a man alone, and I can understand why Lee Child makes Jack Reacher a man alone, because there's something about having someone completely unencumbered by family that's very attractive, because they can endlessly have sexual and romantic adventures. They're very open to the world, open to offers, as it were. But I wanted my guy to be more rooted in family. But I didn't want to domesticate him. So I thought a single parent would work, I can tap into that."
As anyone who has ever heard of Parsons will know, when Burchill walked out on their marriage 30 years ago he brought up their four-year-old son Bobby as a single dad. Man and Boy was about a single father raising his son after his wife walked out, and now we have Wolfe in a similar role. It's hardly news that single fathers are congratulated for their selfless devotion, in notable contrast to single mothers, and no one could accuse Parsons of having downplayed his own moral high ground in raising Bobby. Does he not think it's time to give the theme a rest?
"It's not really a theme," he protests. Then, "Well, yes, there is a theme there." The thing is, he explains, he wanted to write a thriller "with a heart". He loves crime fiction, "but what it tends to lack is the emotional power of a book like Man and Boy".
For my money, the thriller dimension of The Murder Bag is more successful than the "heart" bit. In fact, Parsons seems so well suited to classic crime fiction that it feels a shame he didn't give it a go earlier. His father was a war hero whom he idolised, and masculinity is his great preoccupation; he tends to view the world in terms of heroes and villains, and favours short, terse sentences. Emotional nuance or complexity, on the other hand, are not his strong points for me – particularly when it comes to women.
DC Wolfe is the father of a young daughter, while Parsons and his Japanese wife, Yukiro, have an 11-year-old called Jasmine. He says he is a "huge feminist, I think every man with a daughter is a feminist". Having been an enthusiastic womaniser in his youth, after Jasmine was born he told an interviewer: "Having a daughter has changed my whole attitude towards women and girls. It's a totally different chord being struck inside you. I'm already thinking of 16 years' time, when boys come knocking on the door. I want to protect her from men like myself."
But surely, I say, that says his attitude to women hasn't changed at all. He's still seeing them as sex objects; the only change is how he sees himself, no longer as predator but protector? I'm slightly taken aback when he agrees. "You're right, you're right. But of course, as time goes by you see them not as sex objects, you see them as your daughter, and you see them as individuals." He says he's a great believer in gallantry, so I ask if he was being gallant when he wrote of the TV gardener: "If my dog had a face like Charlie Dimmock, I would shave its bottom and teach it to walk backwards."
"Oh God, that's horrible. Did I really say that? Did I? Oh I'm sorry, I'm ashamed of myself. Maybe I was trying to be clever. You know, you kind of live and learn. There's an element of growing up in public, of being a bit of a Macaulay Culkin figure, or Lindsay Lohan – you're kind of making your mistakes in public. I can't justify every word I've written, and I'm not going to argue with you."
He does want to point out, though, that he's been a passionate critic of pornography for the best part of 30 years – ever since he was dispatched to write about the vice squad, and saw some of the material they dealt with. "Really, really horrible, it just put me off for life." He worries about what porn is doing to his daughter's generation, because "when I was interested in girls, but was too shy to talk to girls, if you'd said to me: 'How about this magic TV that can help you access this limitless number of things you hadn't even thought about?' I'd have said yes, and I'd still be in my bedroom in Billericay. I just wouldn't have been able to resist. I think it's incredibly addictive if you're weak enough to succumb to it."
Parsons was famously one of NME's "hip young gunslingers" in the 70s, chronicling punk and guzzling drugs. He says he used to be stopped by the police "all the time", and yet The Murder Bag paints a warmly sympathetic portrait of the force. Critics have sometimes wondered how such a bad boy could have turned into such an old-fashioned patriot, for his values these days seem to owe more to the 50s than the 70s, but I wonder whether the transgressive youth might have been somewhat mythologised, and actually an aberration in a life that has always really been quite square.
"Yes. That's interesting, yes. I think it could be true, because you know I was quite a good kid. I was sporty, and in Essex terms, I was quite bookish. I've never been particularly wild or anything. I come from a nice, decent, working-class family."
If he were starting out in life today, he thinks he wouldn't stand a chance of becoming a writer. "I'd be like some bitter working-class bloke who read a lot of books and thought he was smarter than Cameron and Clegg. And probably drive a black cab or something like that." The days when a bright working-class boy could leave school at 16, work in a gin factory, and then land a job on NME are, he fears, long gone.
Parsons hasn't voted for 15 years. "I haven't voted for so long because I feel there's a disconnect between the political elite and the people. And I've felt that politicians are just completely removed from any kind of life experiences in a way they weren't when I was growing up." But he will be voting later this month? There can't be many other Hampstead writers with mixed-race families who are fans of Nigel Farage, but Parsons will be voting for Ukip.