An Interview with Aifric Campbell
Author of The Semantics of Murder
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: Almost thirty years have passed since Robert Hamilton, a genius logician at UCLA, was murdered by rent boys at his home in Beverly Hills and his younger brother Jay is now a celebrated psychoanalyst in London. But Jay leads a double life for he secretly uses his patients’ cases histories to fuel his career as a best-selling novelist. When a biographer comes to visit Jay looking for information about his murdered brother and a vulnerable patient goes off the rails, Jay finds that his professional and private life are under serious threat in a collision between past and present.
MF: THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER is inspired by the life and murder of UCLA Professor of Philosophy, Richard Montague—how did you first come across his name and why were you intrigued by the case?
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: I first came across Montague when I was a Linguistics undergraduate in Sweden and was fascinated by this man who revolutionised the study of semantics in natural language. Born in Stockton in Northern California, he was a brilliant musician and mathematician and became one of the youngest ever professors appointed to UCLA. Montague was gay, highly promiscuous and found murdered in his home in 1971 at the age of 41. The police assumption was that he was killed by some guys he picked up downtown but the murder remains unsolved. I write about this in some detail in my website www.thesemanticsofmurder.com - but it was Montague’s incredible talent, the circumstances of his death that intrigued me. Years later when I began The Semantics of Murder his story returned to me as the starting point of the novel.
MF: Would you clarify the use of the word "inspired" in terms of Montague and the plot?
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: Part of our fascination with unsolved murders is that they are unfinished stories and that’s why they linger. My starting point was definitely the dead body in the bathroom in Beverly Hills in 1971. And in the beginning I believed that Richard Montague (Robert Hamilton in the novel) would be the inspiration for the central character. But a novel leads you to places that you don’t always expect in terms of theme and plot. Very quickly a fictional younger brother – Jay Hamilton– arrived and took centre stage. He was a psychoanalyst with a double life – he steals his patients’ case histories and uses them to fuel his literary career. Early on in the novel he takes a dangerous risk with one of his vulnerable patients in the hope that it will provide him with a good story.
MF: The murder of Richard Montague remains unsolved. Tell us a little about the case as it stands today.
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: In 2005 when I arrived in LA I discovered by bizarre coincidence that Montague’s murder was being re-investigated by the Cold Case Unit of the LAPD – for the first time in 30 years! Forensic evidence taken from the crime scene had generated a fingerprint match during routine processing. I visited the Coroners Dept and tracked down and met with the detective who was handling the case and was very helpful. The original investigators concluded that Montague was a high risk taker – he had been burgled before by guys he had picked up – and that the most likely explanation was that he was killed by rent boys who then stole his car. Montague’s body was found by his housemate – who unfortunately died some years later – and the detective suspected the housemate probably knew a lot more than he felt comfortable telling the LAPD at the time. Attitudes towards gay murder victims in those days would have been less sympathetic.
MF: What sort of research did you do for the novel?
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: I read and read and read! I was also awarded a Thayer fellowship at UCLA, which gave me access to Montague’s voluminous archives. Most of these were academic papers but there were some letters and notes in there – some of these are included and credited in the novel – for example a letter he wrote when he was badly beaten up and robbed, the testimonials written by the Chancellor to argue the case that Montague should be exempted from military service… I drove around LA, visited Stockton - it was very important for me to see the places where he grew up although I had spent some time at UCLA as an undergraduate. But in the end fiction is about telling a story and no amount of research will create a good character. In fact you run the risk that it can overwhelm and destroy the novel.
MF: How long did it take you to write the book?
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: All told 3 years, though I was doing a PhD at the time so that slowed things down somewhat.
MF: In the novel, the murdered professor is called Robert Hamilton, and THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER unfolds through his brother, Jay Hamilton’s memories. Was Jay created early on in the process of writing the book, or did it take some time to conceive this character?
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: Jay arrived very early in the writing and it was clear to me that he was and would remain the central character.
I had studied psychotherapy briefly and been in therapy myself and I am very interested in the stories that people tell about their lives, how the therapist can work as editor and co-writer of those stories and how the patient might end up re-writing his/her life stories. Given the success of the TV series “The Treatment” (which has finally arrived in the UK) I am clearly not alone in my curiosity! The Semantics of Murder imagines the dark side of therapy – what happens if the therapist is unethical? What happens when he is more interested in his own story than yours? And I am very interested one of Freud’s central ideas i.e. that we are formed by our earliest childhood experiences.
MF: No one has written a biography of Robert Montague. Why do you think that is?
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: Frankly I’m amazed that this hasn’t yet been done given his incredible talent, the importance of his contribution to Linguistics and his controversial life. Admittedly he is a difficult subject – his writings were notoriously difficult and I think any biographer would need to work closely with an expert in the field. I would love to see his life story written – there is the sense that a biography would dignify a life cut short so violently.
MF: There have been two other novels inspired by Montague’s life and death: LESS THAN MEETS THE EYE by David Berlinksi and THE MAD MAN by Samuel Delaney. Have you read these novels? Did the fact that there have been two novels inspired by Montague discourage you at all?
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: I had never heard of either of these books until my novel was reviewed in Quarterly Conversation and I haven’t read them or seen them mentioned anywhere else. From their descriptions it sounds as if they bear very little relationship to mine.
I was however very interested to read a rather brilliant biography of Alfred Tarski who was Montague’s teacher at Berkeley (written by Fefferman & Fefferman, Cambridge University Press).
MF: In the process of researching and writing the novel, did Montague become more or less elusive?
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: While I was a Thayer fellow at UCLA it felt like a sort of haunting. The effect of re-tracing someone’s footsteps is very powerful and fictionalising a real life character can feel very uncomfortable. I got very absorbed in researching his life and then I stopped abruptly when I came to the realization that this was not a biography and when it was clear that the novel was really about a fictional brother.
MF: What’s next?
AIFRIC CAMPBELL: My next novel The Loss Adjustor is out in February. This is a story of a young woman haunted by lost love and the tragic events of her childhood. Set in present day UK it is partly inspired by the story of Canadian soldiers who were stationed in our house during WW2 and went on to fight at the ill-fated invasion of Dieppe.
Read our review of The Semantics of Murder at MostlyFiction.com