As fierce as ever in his attacks on holy humbug, Christopher Brookmyre tells Mark Fisher about his conversion from Catholicism to Humanism, and why he's happy to fall under the conjurer's spell in his latest novel
THERE'S a game Christopher Brookmyre used to play as a teenager. Whenever he was bored at Sunday mass, he'd choose two words and keep a tally of how many times each of them came up in the sermon. It was a two-horse race with Brookmyre as the bookie and the priest as the unwitting jockey. "I'd imagine it like the build-up to a goal," he says over coffee in his South Lanarkshire kitchen. "I even kept a little league table."
At the age of 39, as he corrects the proofs of his 12th novel, A Snowball In Hell, Brookmyre has made a profession out of playing with words, just as he did all those years ago. Perhaps it's no surprise that the boy who began to doubt the certainties of Catholicism as he grew up in Barrhead is also one of the latest recruits to the Humanist Society of Scotland. He is also its new president.
Despite his early private act of rebellion, however, the novelist was slow to reject his religion outright. He and his wife, a consultant anaesthetist, were regulars at the chaplaincy centre when they met at the University of Glasgow and it was only through long discussions into the night that they faced their doubts in earnest.
"Even in my second or third year of university I still felt I had to keep going to mass," he says. "My wife and I would spend all our time discussing how we couldn't accept what was being taught us, yet we still kept going. It was an act of faith as well as of observation. I guess you feel you've invested so much of yourself in it for so long. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I don't believe this. So it was not just liberating to give it up, but a sudden realisation of it all making sense. It was closer to a spiritual experience than anything I'd had."
They went ahead and got married at that same chaplaincy centre – to have upset two extended Catholic families would have caused needless conflict – but they had cast off their faith. "We realised that all our doubts, all the things we had been fobbed off about by priests and teachers, we had been right about all along," he says. "We were right to ask these questions and, no, they didn't have an answer, they were just very good at telling you to stop looking for it."
Catholicism might be a thing of the past for Brookmyre, but its influence haunts his fiction. He's known as a popular writer, turning out pacy urban crime thrillers with an upfront sense of humour and a gift for eye-catching titles such as A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye and Quite Ugly One Morning. He has been praised for his "rampantly surreal imagination and anarchic humour", but just as prevalent is his interest in contemporary life, whether it is the politics of the Scottish Parliament in Boiling A Frog or the inanities of celebrity culture in the forthcoming A Snowball In Hell.
"I finished the book before Christmas and there hasn't been much revision. There were a few things it was suggested I might want to look at to avoid being sued. It's not so much that being sued is a big danger, it's more that it would be ironic in the most painful way. It's a book about celebrity culture and celebrity reality TV and the desperate publicity whoring of people whose job it is to be in the limelight. If any of them were to have sufficient grounds to bring some kind of suit and thus get more publicity from it, that would really annoy me, so it's less to protect myself than prevent them from making any hay from it.
"It's a sequel to two previous books: A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away and The Sacred Art Of Stealing. The villain of A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, a guy called Simon Darcourt, is believed dead, but has reappeared after seven years and is picking off these X-Factor-type pop stars and other worthless celebrities in gruesomely appropriate ways. He's creating his own reality game shows that all involve people dying. The book looks at how people are living their lives vicariously through the soap opera of celebrity culture.
"I tend to want to write characters who are interacting with modern life or to show them against that backdrop. I'm always setting out for my books to be entertainment, but I can't help but engage with the things that are engaging me, whether it's our purpose on the Earth or down-and-dirty politics."
Nowhere does his fascination with faith, credulity and the nature of belief come more to the fore than in last year's Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, a book dedicated to James Randi, the celebrated debunker of the paranormal, and Richard Dawkins, the outspoken author of The God Delusion.
On the face of it, the novel, published in paperback next month, is just the latest of his Jack Parlabane stories, a series of escapades about a cynical investigative reporter with a fondness for putting himself in mortal danger. Like any good crime caper, it features a string of apparently accidental deaths, a tangled web of intrigue and a dramatically over-the-top denouement. All this keeps the pages turning, but it doesn't detract from the novel's bigger theme about our willingness to believe in the supernatural.
In the forthcoming A Snowball In Hell, due out in August, Brookmyre is returning to the theme of magic as he follows the fortunes of a professional magician caught up in celebrity culture. Conjuring fascinates him, but despite all his research, he has acquired no tricks of his own and remains eminently deceivable. "There's a lot of detailed descriptions of magic routines, which I really enjoyed writing, but I don't think I've got the grace to do magic myself," he says.
"I'm like putty in a magician's hands. I saw Jerry Sadowitz last summer and I couldn't see anything coming at all. I'm glad I can't see through any of it."
• Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks is out in paperback on June 5; A Snowball In Hell is published in August.
• Christopher Brookmyre is president of the Humanist Society of Scotland. An interview with him can be found in Humanitie, the Humanist Society of Scotland Magazine