Master crime writer from Lancashire, Paul Finch, has yet again outdone himself with his newest book: Shadows. I absolutely loved ashes to ashes and decided to ask this cop gone crime writer a few questions about his books, his writing and his research.
What is your new book, Shadows about?
SHADOWS is the second outing for my female detective, DC Lucy Clayburn, who works in Crowley, a fictional corner of Greater Manchester where there are many social problems and crime is rife. In Book One, STRANGERS, Lucy moved from uniform to plain clothes when she was co-opted to work in an undercover operation devised to catch a female sex killer of men, known as Jill the Ripper. Disguised as a prostitute, working both on the streets and in brothels, Lucy performed with such elan and was so useful to the enquiry that she was rewarded with a permanent CID post, and that’s where SHADOWS picks up.
Blue-collar in origins, Lucy is a feisty young lass, a real toughie, but intelligent, sharp and dedicated to her job. Being a police detective is her dream, but she still holds a very low rank. Much of the crime she deals with day-to-day is routine: car thefts, assaults, burglaries and the like. But then the investigative arm of the Manchester Robbery Squad is relocated to her divisional HQ, and Lucy finds herself longing to work with them. She is also attracted to their star man, the cool, streetwise Detective Sergeant Danny Tucker, though, Lucy being Lucy, she doesn’t act on this willingly. It isn’t long before a temporary secondment to the Robbery Squad looms –when a gang known as the Red-Headed League launch a series of violent armed raids, leaving many mortally wounded victims.
Even more dangerous than this, though, their targets are exclusively members of the Manchester underworld, specifically associates of the region’s controlling crime syndicate, the Crew, and here is where it gets tasty. As readers of STRANGERS will be aware, Lucy never knew her estranged father; she grew up in the care of her single mum, and only years later did she discover that he was Frank McCracken, a senior Crew lieutenant.
Father and daughter now co-exist in an uneasy truce, neither wanting their colleagues to know about the other. But when the Red-Headed League appear, it gets particularly difficult – the Robbery Squad and Lucy are chasing them, but so are Frank McCracken and the Crew. A major underworld battle is in the offing.
What inspired you to write the story of Lucy Clayburn?
I think, basically, my love of old-fashioned cops and robbers stories. Quite often in modern day crime fiction we deal with serial killers and grotesque murders. The first Lucy Clayburn novel, when the opponent was Jill the Ripper, took a similar line to that. However, on this occasion, I wanted to move completely away from that, into the world of organised crime and bank robberies. If I’m absolutely honest, the inspiration for this came from my own days as a copper in Salford, Manchester, when armed robberies were still a regular occurrence (before the drugs scourge, where most gangsters now make their money), but also from classic cop shows on the telly, like THE SWEENEY, and from famous heist movies like HEAT and GOODFELLAS.
How long did it take for you to write this book?
Well, I never have very long to write my crime novels. I’m currently working on a one-book-every-nine-months contract, which theoretically gives me nine months per book, though it’s never that simple. Quite often you must take time out of the schedule to do promotional work on the previous novel, so I’d say that, all-in, I get about four months per title.
Are there Parallels between Shadows and Ashes to Ashes?
There are some parallels between the Mark Heckenburg and Lucy Clayburn series. Heck is from the Northwest of England (Bradburn, in fact, which is an ex-coal mining town in South Lancashire, about 17 miles north of Manchester), while Lucy is from the same basic area, Crowley, which is inner Manchester, but not in the very centre, if you know what I mean. They are not dissimilar towns; formerly industrial, they are both now very run down, widely unemployed, riddled with drugs problems and high crime levels. But aside from all that, I made a determined effort to put clear blue water between them.
Heck, as seen in ASHES TO ASHES, is part of the National Crime Group, specifically the Serial Crimes Unit, and pursues serial killers all across the police force areas of England and Wales. In ASHES TO ASHES, he just happened to follow a case to his home town. Lucy, however, is a divisional detective, which means that she is mainly concerned with lesser offences; of course, Lucy almost always ends up getting dragged into larger enquiries. But on the whole, the tone is very different. The Heck stories, I think most people would agree, take place on a grander scale; he pursues extreme maniac-villains and gets embroiled in elaborate action set-pieces. But Lucy works more at the grubby street-level. It’s more procedural in her case, and so many of the characters she encounters have recognisable ‘real world’ problems. (All that said, Lucy isn’t averse to getting into the action either; if there’s a bad guy needs slapping, she won’t hold back).
You are a former cop and journalist. How does this help you with writing your books?
I always tell people that I don’t write police textbooks. In other words, I’m not interested in the fine details of procedure and protocol. That said, I do like my novels to be set in an authentic police world, and in that regard, my police background is enormously helpful. I know and understand police attitudes, I know how they interact, I know how they talk (particularly when the TV cameras are not there), I know the corners they cut and the risks they take. All that is there in my work because I experienced it for myself. Of course, I left the police a long time ago. So, there are times when I must research just like anyone else.
In terms of my journalism … after being a copper, there is probably no other job that could better prepare you for writing books like this, especially if you were a journalist in the urban Northwest, where I was. You go to court a lot, you talk to police officers and crime correspondents, you interview people who’ve been the victims of crime, or witnesses to it, or have even committed it. It doesn’t teach you everything – how could it? – but it does slot you into that world and gives you a great angle on the mindset required.
Are there any real-life events you encountered in your previous lines of work that inspired you?
This is a slightly difficult one. Because, I do it, but I always want to change names and certain circumstances. If you experience extraordinary things in life, and you’re a writer as well, you can’t help but want to replicate them on the written page. In that regard, the problem with crimes like murder is that, while it might be intriguing to investigate for the detective, and exciting for the reader to follow in book form, it’s also a tragedy for the bereaved. So, you have to be sensitive with this stuff. You must remember if resurrecting something awful that happened a few years ago – just because you want your hero to investigate it – that people who were really involved might find themselves reading it, and it could revive all kinds of unhappy memories for them. They might also, with some justification, feel insulted that you are using their bad experiences to make money. So, as I say, you need to proceed with caution. By all means, be inspired by these incidents: draw on the drama of them, but don’t recount what happened blow-for-blow and then try to thinly dress it up as fiction.
What kind of research do you do when writing your book?
As I say, I have to do lots of research these days, just like anyone else. Police procedures and protocols change all the time, sometimes on a weekly basis. Things happen now which in my day would have been inconceivable (like direct-entry superintendents!), so I have to constantly appraise myself of changes and developments.
How do I do it?
Well … like everyone else, I ask serving coppers what it’s like. I have a slight advantage in that most of the ones I know are old colleagues who are aware that I’m ex-job, and so they will talk freely. But if you simply want to check things like procedures within police stations, crime scene protocols, the legalities of custody, court appearances and what-not – all you need to do these days is go online. It’s all there.
In my Heck novels, I take him all over England and Wales … even to places I’ve never personally visited, but the internet helps there too. You’ve got Google Earth.
Do you have a special writing ritual? For instance, I once interviewed an author who could not start writing without peanut butter and jam sandwiches.
I like to think that I’ve got one of the most interesting of these. This partly stems from my lack of interest in sitting in front of a VDU all day. I love to get outside, to work outdoors whenever I can. And I do this in the early stages of a book by dictating my first draft, usually while walking my dogs through the countryside around Wigan. We cover miles and miles as I dictate chapter after chapter. That way the book gets written quickly, but offshoot rewards include keeping my weight down, and having the two fittest springer spaniels in Lancashire. I use a straightforward Dictaphone, and though, when this first draft is complete, it might sound to the average person like a load of garbled nonsense, it means everything to me. I type it up quickly – I don’t use an app or anything for that. As a result, when the second draft commences, it’s all now on the page and I can take my time working through it, refining it, producing actual, readable text. During this second draft, I usually play mood music to make it even easier. I have several playlists for this, compiled from various film and TV overtures, incidental music and so forth, anything to enhance the atmosphere of the chapter I happen to be working on, all toned slightly differently. For example, there is suspense playlist, an action playlist, an emotion/romance playlist (though inevitably with dark undertones, because this is me). So … to answer your question more succinctly, my pre-writing ritual, if you could call it that, is walking the dogs and dictating. For hours on end.
How many unpublished books do you have lying around? Anything in the pipe line?
The only unpublished novels I now have date from when I was very young, and they’re a long way from publication standard, so I’m unlikely ever to send them out again. I do occasionally cannibalise them for ideas, descriptive passages, action sequences and so on – but that’s all. In terms of forthcoming books, I have a file of ideas as thick as a telephone directory. It’s not just Heck and Lucy – it’s all kinds of dark fiction, because I enjoy horror, fantasy and science-fiction as well, though at the moment it’s crime and thrillers that are my major obsession. I’d like to say there are lots of books in the pipeline and to elaborate on that, but it would be exposing trade secrets if I gave away too many details.
If you could say one thing to yourself just before you started to write your first book, what would it be?
This is relatively simple. It’s the same advice I give to any aspiring writer if he/she asks: ‘The road is long, lonely and rocky, and you are going to stumble lots of times. But you only fail the day you give up’.
Thank you so much.