Partners in crime

FROM the terraced garden of their flat in the Albayzin, the labyrinthine old Moorish quarter of Granada, Philip O'Brien and Jane Brooke enjoy breathtaking views across to the ruddy battlements of the Alhambra, the astonishing final flourish of Moorish culture in Spain.

Its 14th-century Arabic palaces rub shoulders with the later Renaissance palace built by the Christian monarch Carlos V, symbolising what the city's great poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, described as "the fatal duel that throbs at the heart of every Granadan". I meet them, however, in their other home – a flat in Glasgow's West End, looking on to Kelvingrove Museum and Glasgow University, where O'Brien used to teach Latin American studies.

Although the prospect, this December morning, is of ice-bound pavements rather than sultry Andalucian skies, we are discussing the historical divisions that still haunt modern Spain, and the niceties of marital collaboration in evoking them. For, under the pen name PJ Brooke, the couple have jointly written their first thriller, Blood Wedding, introducing a Scots-Spanish detective, Sub-Inspector Max Romero, and set in a modern Andalucia still stalked by the unlaid ghosts of the Spanish Civil War and that dual, Moorish-Christian heritage stirred by present anxieties about terrorism.

The couple found, however, that joint authorship could prompt conflicts of a more domestic nature. It was O'Brien, 65, who started writing. A one-time Scottish Green Party candidate and member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, he had gone on a creative writing course as a form of therapy after his first wife died, and the idea of a thriller set in Spain came to him later when he and Brooke were on holiday in Orgiva, the market town for the western Alpujarra, the rugged hill country of the southern Sierra Nevada. "Then Jane started making comments, changing bits," he explains, "and, in fact, she became so involved that it became very clear that it was a joint effort. We developed plots together and everything, although in the present book I did the first drafts of everything."

"I describe Phil as being the front half of the pantomime horse," says Brooke, a former urban planner and policy adviser.

"But as you know," Philip interjects amid laughter, "it's the back half that controls everything."

"There were some amazing disagreements," O'Brien admits. "We're still married but sometimes we've wondered how. I found it very difficult at first, you know… to have Jane's red pen going through a rather remarkable amount of stuff. At times I wouldn't speak to her for a day, I felt so annoyed, but nine times out of ten she was right."

Their favourite place for plot development proved to be a long, second-hand bath the couple bought: "We would often just sit in it together and discuss things. Sometimes the water would go cold…"

Blood Wedding is conspicuously free of gratuitous sex and violence, but Jane has her own views on how such things should be portrayed in print: "It is extremely difficult for most people to write sex or even romantic scenes that work, and Phil is no exception," she says as her husband grins sheepishly. "His rude bits are terrible."

Rude bits aside, the thriller embraces the couple's love of Spain and fascination with its history, as well as further afield. O'Brien spent time in Chile during the late 1960s, and was chairman of the Chile Solidarity Campaign in Scotland during the early 70s, helping Chilean refugees arriving here following the Pinochet coup. He had close friends who simply vanished there, and the brutal end of democracy in Chile and the tragic ranks of its "disappeared" had clear echoes in what had happened in Spain in the 1930s.

Spain had its own desaparecidos – many thousands of them – but even today, some 70 years on from the Civil War, and 33 years after the death of General Franco allowed the return of democracy, the Civil War remains a powerfully emotive topic, which still haunts families yet is still obscured by the pacto de olvido or "collective pact of forgetting" adopted to ease the country into democracy.

"Initially," says O'Brien, "the plot (of Blood Wedding] started off as a sort of terrorist thing, then, when staying in Orgiva, we became increasingly aware of the deep scars left by the Civil War among the older generation. It's very unspoken, and with a very clear generational gulf. It was only the younger generation who were becoming concerned at the mass graves. In fact, just outside Orgiva, there is a very large mass grave."

"The Alpujarra, for reasons which I don't fully understand, suffered disproportionately during the Civil War," adds Brooke. An expert investigating these deaths for Andalucia's regional government and compiling a map of mass graves, largely of Republican sympathisers, many of them killed by Nationalists following the war, has estimated there are as many 10,000 bodies in 57 mass graves around Granada, more than half reckoned to be in the Alpujarra.

As the couple point out, it is the younger generation who are starting to ask questions, often within their families, and Blood Wedding revolves around the murder of a young Muslim student researching the effects of the Civil War in one village.

And if the novel unabashedly takes its title from a famous Lorca play, the mercurial but ill-starred poet and his brutal murder by Falangists during the Civil War provide another thread of the plot. Brooke and O'Brien had no qualms about borrowing the English title of Bodas de Sangre, for the book. "It was done with permission," says O'Brien.

They'll probably change the title to avoid confusion if the thriller is eventually published in Spain – something they'd like to see. The novel paints a pretty brutal picture of certain elements within one of Spain's police forces, the Guardia Civil – who were notorious during the Franco era, and who cast long shadows through Lorca's poetry. They reckon, however, that the book and its ouside take on affairs would be well received in Spain: "It's amazing how, 70 years after the Civil war, the issue is still very emotional, very passionate."

The city of Granada itself, where the couple now live for much of the time, is a leading player in the plot, particularly the steep and narrow streets of the Albayzin, with Andalucia's tumultuous history encapsulated in ancient churches that were once even more ancient mosques, although the cultural clash goes on to this day. There is a certain right-wing Catholic element in the area which still celebrates the Reconquista – the expulsion of the Moors by the Christian monarchs in the late 15th century, in a manner not too far removed from the way the Battle of the Boyne is still commemorated in some quarters here. The Reconquista, says O'Brien, "is part of the daily iconography". The city's present immigrant Muslim community built a new mosque on the hill of the Albayzin, but only after quite a struggle, says O'Brien, "and even then its tower had to be lower than the spire of the neighbouring Christian church – which was itself an ex-mosque."

Asked if the post-9/11 climate and anxieties over international terrorism have inflamed old cultural enmities, he reckons it's not too bad. "The terrible Madrid train bombing had a massive effect, but on the whole I think Spain has been very good. It would be silly to say there isn't racism – there is, but on the whole the Muslim population have handled things well. Prime Minister Zapatero's response was to launch what he called the Alliance of Civilisations initiative (to foster dialogue between Islamic and Western societies], as opposed to Bush's notion that it was a conflict of civilisations, and the 'crusade' mentality under Zapatero's predecessor, Aznar, who strongly supported the Bush-Blair line on Iraq."

Following book launch events in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, the couple are due to return to Granada and resume work on the next Max Romero book. Just as Lorca was part of the background of the first novel, St John of the Cross, Spain's 16th-century mystical poet, finds his way into the next one, juxtaposed with very current issues of corruption and property development. "The guy who gets murdered is a character who appears in the first book," says Brooke, cheerfully.

&#149 Blood Wedding is published by Constable & Robinson. See www.pjbrooke.co.uk

BACKGROUND

Nicci French

Nicci French is actually the husband-and-wife writing partnership of journalist Nicci Gerrard and writer Sean French, who met when Gerrard was working at the New Statesman. Both also pursue their own writing careers. Their novels include The Memory Game, Killing Me Softly and Until It's Over.

A E Maxwell

A E Maxwell is the pen name of the American writing duo Ann and Evan Maxwell, who have been married for more than 40 years and whose crime works include The Frog and the Scorpion and Just Enough Light to Kill. Described as "a cottage industry of genre fiction", the Seattle-based couple jointly wrote a "novelisation" of the 1992 Val Kilmer movie Thunderheart under the name Lowell Charters, while Ann Maxwell's output also includes science fiction and bestselling romantic novels, the latter under the name Elizabeth Lowell.

Maj Sjwall and Per Wahl

The Swedish husband-and-wife team Maj Sjwall and Per Wahl produced ten acclaimed and influential novels featuring the world-weary Inspector Martin Beck, of Stockholm police homicide squad. They plotted and research each novel together, then wrote alternate chapters. All the books, including the award-winning The Laughing Policeman, have been filmed.

The Mulgray Twins

Not husband and wife but identical twin sisters, Edinburgh's Morna and Helen Mulgray started writing crime fiction after retiring from teaching.

Featuring in two books so far – No Suspicious Circumstances and this year's Under Suspicion – their protagonist, Deborah "DJ" Smith is a undercover HM Revenue & Customs inspector, with a "sniffer cat" called Gorgonzola.