[NB – There are no spoilers in this review…]
It’s not often that an interview with an author, let alone a crime author, starts with a conversation about Proust and In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). Mind you, it’s not often that I interview crime writers, and I’m not usually asked to review crime fiction. But this book isn’t really crime fiction, as the publishers would make you believe, but something completely different; original, intriguing and compelling.
I Know What I Saw tells the story of former banker Xander Shute, who has been living on the streets for thirty years. One evening, after an attack by another homeless man, he finds himself hiding in a luxurious Mayfair house where he witnesses the murder of a woman. Confused, he tries to tell the Police what he saw. They don’t believe him, and as the story develops and Xander searches for answers, his memory continually plays tricks on his mind as he confronts his past that he has been hiding from.
Written in the first-person present, I Know What I Saw goes to the heart of what we remember and what we choose to remember. It shows Xander as a flawed, unreliable protagonist, someone who is so lost and confused that he finds it hard to piece things together, apart from memories of his childhood living with his disciplinarian father and competitive, over-achieving brother. It is these memoires, like Proust’s madeleine that are etched into his mind, as he wanders through London’s streets looking for answers to what he saw, or didn’t see.
Reading the book I was startled by Mahmood’s ability to make the reader doubt their own view of what is going on. That might be the point of great crime writing, I suppose; the writer’s capacity to create doubt and uncertainty at every twist and turn. But reading I Know What I Saw, I began to doubt my own thoughts about what was actually happening, just as Xander Shute’s memory also plays tricks with his mind. I wanted to know what was really going on and managed to catch Mahmood one Friday lunchtime over zoom.
I started by asking, why Proust?
Imran: When I was 15 or 16, I met a homeless man in my local library who asked me if I was interested in some of his French books. I was into reading French literature at the time and he gave me a copy of In Search of Lost Time. I thought and still think it is the greatest piece of literature ever produced because it deals with the idea of memory so beautifully. It questions the idea of what we mean by memory and identity, and how, the older you get, the more you are changed by what you remember, and this is exactly what happens to Xander Shute. He is constantly taken back to memories of his previous life, but because he’s been on the streets for so long, everything is a blur. Proust also makes us think about what it’s like to stand on the edge of a precipice looking into the abyss, and that we sometimes need to go to that edge to fully understand what we are suffering. That’s why I included the quote ‘we are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full’ at the start of the book. Proust was my way into Xander, who was previously protected by privilege and education but isn’t anymore, and life has now caught up with him.
Miki: Is this a book about the self?
I: The crime is just a vehicle. I’m keen to use it to explore other themes and in fact, I’m not massively interested in the crime itself. I’m a lot more interested in what it tells us about the human condition. Here you have a man, Xander, who was from a perfect background, but I wanted to show what it must have felt like for him living and being trapped in this new impossible life. This life on the streets, moving from place to place, living hand to mouth. That’s why I wrote it in the first-person present. I wanted to give the reader a sense of claustrophobia. I want readers to be right there, with him, in that moment.
M: It seems to me that your work inspires your writing?
I: Being a Barrister is relentless and the subject matters I work with can be pretty dark. What has amazed me though throughout my career is that people are incredibly tenacious. I see it every day. Sometimes I wonder how certain people can go on, but they do, which is a testament to the human condition. People, like those that I represent have an innate desire to keep on going, even when everything else aaroundthem falls apart. I find it remarkable, and I wanted Xander to have the same qualities of resilience.
Also, in my experience, criminals always deny responsibility. I see it all the time. The fact that they have denied a crime makes me think that there are trying to re-write who they are as people. That is fascinating to me, and in some ways, it is what Xander is doing; trying to re-invent himself, make out that things didn’t happen when in fact they might have done.
M: Xander was on the streets for 30 years. This to me seemed like a long time, but we see very little about that period of time. Was that deliberate?
I: The first title I had for the book was ‘Exposure’ because I wanted to show that someone is likely to die in three days if they have no shelter. The publishers weren’t keen on that title, but I was more interested in what being on the streets for a long period does to someone. What is left of that disfigured, slightly twisted person? What has Xander experienced that has influenced how he thinks and what he does? I didn’t want to look at his daily life, as the risk is that you then comment about the phenomenon of homelessness and every experience is different. So, I kept coming back to this idea of memory and identity. Who was this person before they became homeless and who were they now?
M: Do you plan your books carefully before you start writing?
I: Not at all. I remember Lee Child saying that he never plots anything and just likes to find out where things will go. That’s how I like to write. I plot late at night when I’m in bed and let things visualise in my mind and then I’ll maybe write a line or 5-6 words per chapter, so I know what I’m doing. So there’s not much structural planning. Some people find it easier to plot, but maybe I’m like Xander, I like things to percolate. But it suits me as I have a very unstructured writing routine which means I end up writing in cafes, courtrooms, while waiting for verdicts, on trains, buses or when everyone is asleep at home.
Mahmood is the latest in a long but distinguished line of high-profile crime writers from British-Asian backgrounds, that includes Amer Anwar, Abir Mukherjee, Alex Caan and others. Throughout our conversation I was struck by his thoughts, not only about writing and how his ideas evolve, but also about the publishing industry that he feels still has some way to go before it truly represents writers from underrepresented backgrounds.
I Know What I Saw is a captivating, relentless read, but also a thoughtful and stunning look at how memory and identity can fade and change over time.
Buy a copy of the book here
Miki Lentin took up writing while travelling the world with his family, and was a finalist in the 2020 Irish Writer’s Centre Novel Fair for his novel Winter Sun. He has also been published by Leicester Writes, Fish Publishing (second prize Short Memoir), Litro, Village Raw Magazine and writes book reviews for MIR Online. He dreams of one day running a café again. He is represented by Cathryn Summerhayes @taffyagent. @mikilentin