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How a pandemic thriller went from desk drawer to bestseller in a month

Peter May, the author of "Lockdown," in Scotland.
(David Wilson)

When writers shove unpublished novels in a drawer, they don’t usually resurface. But these are unusual times, and “Lockdown,” a London crime thriller set during a pandemic, is a bestselling exception.

Fifteen years ago, Peter May was in a slump. The Scottish-born writer had cast aside a successful British TV writing career a decade earlier to focus on his novels. He found traction with a crime series set in China, but after six books with moderate sales, the publisher pulled the plug. Then May’s next two novels, “The Blackhouse and “Extraordinary People,” failed to find a publisher.

“I was in a bit of a pickle,” recalls May, 68, via Facetime from the south of France, where he has lived for nearly two decades. “I needed to sell a book to pay my bills, so I thought, ‘I’ve got to write a fast-paced crime thriller that I’m guaranteed to be able to sell.’”

One idea had been bouncing around his brain for years. His fourth China novel, “Snakehead,” involved bioterrorists weaponizing the Spanish flu virus, and when SARS emerged in 2003, May briefly considered depicting Beijing under lockdown. Returning to the concept in 2005, he used the avian flu, which some scientists predicted would be the next pandemic (and which is far more lethal than SARS or COVID-19). But instead of Beijing, he set it in London.

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“I did think about Paris, but I knew London better and I know the culture innately,” he says. Though May went to London for research, he wrote a scene in which detective Jack MacNeil navigates ruined streets based purely on his cabbie-sharp knowledge of the city’s tangled layout.

Details of the virus’ spread were based on three pandemic preparedness documents, two British and one American. “Those were my bible,” he says, and he believes we were “better prepared 15 years ago than we have been now.”

In “Lockdown,” MacNeil investigates the discovery of fresh human bones at a building site for a temporary hospital. He and forensic scientist Dr. Amy Wu piece together scant clues to track the killer, even as more people are murdered — all against the backdrop of a deadly virus that has felled at least half a million people and left London isolated under martial law.

Lockdown
(Quercus)
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“The city’s shopping streets were like a battlefield,” May writes, describing scenes that look more like 1990s Sarajevo than contemporary London: troop carriers in the road, the West End a blackened hulk. It’s a reminder of just how much worse a pandemic can be than even COVID-19, especially without leadership or foresight. “No one believed the figures anyhow,” May writes of the mounting numbers of dead. “There was no way to verify them. But even at their most optimistic, those the government put out were barely conceivable.”

May was pleased with the book. Publishers? Not so much. “I was told by literary establishment that it was a ludicrous idea to think that in modern times a capital city like London could be completely shut down by a virus,” he recalls. “So ‘Lockdown’ went into the bottom drawer and I forgot all about it until reality overtook fiction.”

While “Lockdown” sat in its drawer, May was “rescued from penury” when an American publisher picked up “Extraordinary People,” which became the first in his Enzo series. That helped revive “The Blackhouse,” which became the first in his Lewis series. Both sold millions of copies. It gave May the sense that the speed bumps in his career had as much to do with the industry as the books he wrote. “It does make you wonder about publishers,” he says.

Still, “Lockdown” sat tight. Even when MERS and Ebola emerged, “it just wasn’t in my mind. I’d written it off.”

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The novel was forgotten, but the lessons — about droplets and social distancing and masks — weren’t. “I’ve been paranoid ever since,” May says. “Hand gel, washing my hands, wearing masks when I travel in airplanes. I even carry wipes with me and wipe the airplane tray because I know if the person who sat there before me has got the flu or just a cold, they’ve left their virus all over that surface and it’s going to be there for the next 72 hours.”

A lifelong musician, May is doing this interview from his home recording studio, surrounded by keyboards, guitars, drums and a Hofner bass. He has been more careful than most about sheltering in place. “I was shocked at how slow the world was to respond,” he says. “I’ve been sitting here for weeks and weeks, tearing my hair out, shouting at the television.”

Yet even as the virus spread, he was focused only on his latest novel, “A Silent Death,” published in Europe in January and the U.S. in March. “Then someone on my Twitter timeline suggested I write a thriller set against the backdrop of a pandemic and I suddenly thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve done that.’”

On March 18, he mentioned “Lockdown” in an email to his editor, who asked for a PDF. The next morning May got a note saying, “We have to publish it now.” Even though the publishing staff had been sent home, furloughed or laid off, the e-book was out in Europe in two weeks and the paperback just a month later. It arrives here this week.

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These are not the circumstance under which May ever pictured “Lockdown” getting published. He wrote the book because he needed money; now that it’s newly relevant after hundreds of thousands of deaths, he’s giving away his advance. “I felt guilty about the fact that the book was only being published now because of a real pandemic, with all the misery and tragedy associated with it,” he says. The money will go to “charities and individuals on the front line of the fight against coronavirus.”

Some people can’t stomach a pandemic novel at the moment, but readers have told May they found “comfort” in it. “They’re reading something which reflects our current reality. It can be disconcerting watching TV or movies and seeing people shaking hands or hugging — you want to say, ‘Don’t do that. Stand further apart.’”

Readers have repeatedly asked for a sequel, anxious to learn how the pandemic plays out, but May will not be writing one. He’s focused on his next novel, though his research has been sidelined by the pandemic. He had a trip planned last month to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago. “I won’t be able to go there till next spring and I have a book due by the end of the year, so I’m switching to a new topic,” he says. The forthcoming novel has two timelines — one contemporary and one set 80 years ago.

As the Nazis marched on Paris during World War II, the French emptied the Louvre to protect their collection. It was hidden in the countryside and moved each time the Germans grew closer. Many artworks, including the Mona Lisa, ended up near May’s home — and a few inside it.

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“Some actually ended up right here in this room,” May says. “Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Le Sacre de Napoléon’ was rolled up right where I’m sitting. When I discovered that, it really got me going.” And it was the perfect quarantine project.I don’t have to go far for research this time.”


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