Meet Martin Booth, the novelist behind The American

By Scott Macaulay | September 2, 2010
Martin Booth

Martin Booth

Martin Booth, the writer whose 1991 novel A Very Private Gentleman inspired the George Clooney film The American, is a writer’s writer.

“My ideas come from traveling all over the world,” said author Martin Booth in an interview. “I get good ideas when driving long distances in big countries, say the USA, and I've always exercised my imagination. It's just like any other muscle — you have to keep it in trim.”

Indeed, a kind of wanderlust––not just the physical kind embodied by the constant traveler, but also the mental sort, as evidenced by a bibliography that includes spy novels, poetry, travel writing, biographies, children’s books, and histories of not one but two drugs (opium and cannabis)––characterizes the career of this writer’s writer. Born in 1944 and the son of a clerk in the British Navy, Booth spent his childhood in Hong Kong and Kenya, traveled as a young man back and forth to Eastern Europe, and worked as a long-distance truck driver (experience he mined in his 1978 novel The Carrier). By the mid-60s he was publishing poetry, limited editions by Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney through his Sceptre Press. His own poetry was collected in 1971’s The Crying Embers but Booth didn’t achieve larger public recognition until the 80s, when he began a prolific run of novel-writing that lasted until his death in 2004. It was then Booth was called “a giant of modern English letters” by Donald Morrison in his Time magazine obituary, who, after citing all of his accomplishments, asked, “So why haven't more people heard of him?”

A Very Private Gentleman

Now, with the re-release of A Very Private Gentleman [re-titled The American: A Special Edition of A Very Private Gentleman], his 1991 character-based thriller that is the basis of Anton Corbijn’s The American, starring George Clooney, a new generation of readers is discovering Booth’s eclectic oeuvre. In A Very Private Gentleman, a retiring hitman (named, in the novel, Farfella), retreats to a small Italian town to try and escape his violent path and find a sort of redemption. It contains elements found in many of Booth’s stories––a displaced protagonist living in a foreign land; the emotional and philosophical challenges of living a solitary life; and the writer’s skillful and well-researched evocation of a specific craft––in this case, gun-making. As in several of his novels, the ostensible thriller narrative of A Very Private Gentleman deepens into a moral inquiry not limited to hired killers. Wrote Karen Campbell in her Boston Globe review of the novel, “With Farfalla, Booth has created a rich, conflicted anti-hero whose clever rationalizations mask a soul weary with self-doubt. Despite his criminal pursuits, we can almost identify with him, almost respect his sense of honor and integrity. And on many levels, we find it hard not to sympathize with him, which, in the end, has the disturbing effect of making us question our own moral values, our sense of right and wrong — and where exactly to draw the line.” 

Another of Booth’s best-known novels grapples with these same themes, again presenting us with a protagonist contemplating stark choices regarding the end of his life. In Industry of Souls, a Brit is arrested by the Soviets for spying, imprisoned in a Gulag for decades, is released at the end of Communism and finds he has no reason to return home. Wrote Michael Porter in his review in the New York Times, “As we accompany Bayliss on a tour through his present and past, this meditative, unadorned novel, short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1998, raises questions about home, freedom and the meaning of a life that resonate long after the final page is turned.”

Hiroshima Joe

Similar themes appear again in the novel that brought Booth his share of commercial success: Hiroshima Joe, a 1985 international bestseller about a gay opium addict, a British soldier, traumatized by World War 2 and living out his final days in that decimated city. The novel begins with the kind that creeping fatalism that Booth’s characters often struggle against: “The night before, as on the nights before that,” Booth writes, “he had forgotten to wind the clock and it had run down at 2:09. Even after seven years he could not get used to turning the key before sleeping. He had forced himself to grow so much out of the habit of counting time. It was enough to just let the days slip past, unheeded and uncared for. Every so often, he found a deep need to time-keep, and this worried him. He knew he should not count the days and yet sometimes he did. To mark off a mental time-sheet was a sign of optimism, anticipation, a readying for a time to come; yet he knew he had nothing for which to prepare.”

In the range of his interests, Booth stands outside of current publishing’s demand that authors specialize, that they connote a “brand.” His fundamental inquisitiveness and wide range of interests were cited by Alan Brownjohn in his Guardian obituary. Brownjohn wrote, “Booth's fiction continues and reinvigorates a tradition — Buchanesque might be the word if the settings, values and dates were not so different — of well-made, well-documented storytelling in which the detail is grippingly authentic: take the small arms in A Very Private Gentleman, or the pre-first world war railway compartments in the last novel, Islands Of Silence. These novels can be read to find out things, as well as enjoy the pace, prose and brisk intelligence.”

Industry of Soul

All of this is not to speak of Booth’s non-fiction, 10 books including that Crowley biography (A Magick Life), a biography of wildlife conservationist Jim Corbett (Carpet Sahib), the two drug books (Opium: A History and Cannabis: A History), and a monograph on the Sherlock Holmes author, The Doctor, the Detective and Arthur Conan Doyle. There were also six books of children’s fiction. But Booth may perhaps be best remembered for his final book, one in which the end of life meditations were the author’s, not the protagonist’s. Booth’s own father had died young, and following his own diagnosis with cancer, his son and daughter urged him to write not of a fictional assassin or beaten-down prisoner of war but of himself and his childhood spent in Hong Kong. The result was the posthumously published Gweilo (“Golden Child”), Booth’s tale of a child’s free-spirited adventures in a foreign land while his parents were imprisoned there in an unhappy marriage. Wrote the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley, “Golden Boy is anything except a sad book. Instead it is filled with stories of Martin's adventures with his Chinese friends, his exploration of Kowloon's Walled City and its opium dens, his acceptance of ‘the inevitable cruelty of life in the Orient’ for the coolies and rickshaw drivers and amahs, his visit to a fortune teller (arranged by his mother without his father's knowledge), his move from Kowloon to Hong Kong island, to an apartment with a view that ‘left me speechless.’

“….No doubt [Golden Child] gives great comfort to the author's son and daughter, but it rises far above private memoir. It is a vivid recreation of a lost time and place, and a quite unsparingly candid portrait of a marriage in disarray. There is a great deal of dialogue in it, leaving the reader to wonder how much is accurately recollected and how much is invented, but this doesn't really matter. For one thing, memoir is as much a creative art as fiction -- at least in the hands of gifted, imaginative writers -- and for another, Golden Boy rings true from first page to last.”

To purchase Martin Booth’s books, visit his author page at Amazon.

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