We’ve read that you struggled for ten years to get this book published. Is there a prejudice about crime novels set in the industrial north?
It would be reassuring to think that it was only the northern setting that prevented me getting published for all those years, but I’m more of the opinion it was the fact that I was writing self-indulgent drivel at the time. Still, all the books I failed to get published were indeed set in the North, so perhaps that was an element of the problem. It’s interesting that the finest novels set in Northern England are in fictional places, whereas those in the South are in real cities like Oxford, Brighton and London. I didn’t want to create a fictional version of Hull. I wanted to set my books somewhere real. I knew it would polarise opinion, but I’m a journalist by trade so I’m used to being unpopular.
Why does such prejudice exist? (After all, US crime fiction isn’t set only in New York and L.A., but in any number of small American towns.)
Somebody somewhere has probably written a fascinating essay on that subject using graphs and statistics and demographics. I’m not that chap. All I would say is that the publishing industry is very London-based. The publishing houses and the literary agents all tend to live and work in a very small pocket of the city and, let’s be honest, London is like nowhere else in the UK. When you can see a different play or exhibition every night and can take the tube to a meeting, and then order a skinny chai latte without being laughed at, perhaps you struggle to see how much life there is north of Watford, or feel able to empathise with it. I would love it if every northern city was synonymous with a fictional detective but I’m not sure that’s likely to happen. Would the great Peter James have had so much success with his Roy Grace novels if they were set in Scarborough rather than Brighton? It’s an interesting debate. It would certainly be intriguing to look at the facts and figures on whether people prefer to buy books set locally. These sort of questions tend to make my head hurt. I’m much better sitting in a darkened room coming up with murder plots.
We loved your hero, DS Aector McAvoy. He’s unusual in that he is happily married, a devoted dad, and transparently decent with no hidden demons. That’s unusual in a crime fiction copper, isn’t it?
It’s unusual for a fictional copper, but not for a real one. The best detectives I’ve come across are the ones who go home each night to a family they adore and who serve as some sort of antidote to the horrors they see on a daily basis. I didn’t want to write about a hard-drinking, rule-breaking maverick. There’s no shortage of those. I wanted to write about a clever, decent and somewhat bewildered man who accepts his limitations. McAvoy wants to be a good man. He wants to be a good husband and father and also catch villains and get some degree of justice for people who have encountered horror in their lives. He just doesn’t understand it on a cosmic level. He obsesses over notions like justice and pity and mercy and whether they are human constructs or some fundamental force in the universe. He knows he’s not clever enough to ever get answers so he just tries to do the best he can. He has his demons but they’re not the usual ones. They’ll start to come out in the other books in the series but trust me when I say there are things going on beneath the surface that cause him consternation. When all is said and done, he’s driven by love. He loves his wife and children and thinks that if they continue to love him back then he must be doing things right. Really, he’s as confused and full of self-doubt as the rest of us. He just happens to be in a position to atone for his imagined failings by catching very bad people.
You describe Hull as ‘a city on its arse’, yet you choose to live there. What do you like about it?
I actually live half an hour away from Hull these days, but I did spend more than ten years in and around the city, living everywhere from the leafy suburbs to a flat over a pub in the centre of the Old Town. I don’t see anything wrong with being on your arse if there’s a good reason for you being in that position and you have every intention of getting up again. Hull is an energetic, vibrant and hard-as-nails kind of place and I am immensely fond of it. You just can’t pretend it’s pretty when large parts of it are not. Hull was the most bombed city outside of London during World War Two. It had the stuffing knocked out of it. There are still buildings with fenced-off bomb craters out the back, but, despite that, the people kept going. It was once the world’s greatest fishing port, but the Government decided not to fight for the trawlermen’s rights and the entire industry died almost overnight. A city that existed for essentially one purpose, suddenly had none. And again, it kept going. There is no arguing with the statistics about crime, unemployment and attainment in schools, but despite propping up all of these league tables, the people of Hull have a vitality and worldview that I have always empathised with. Don’t forget, this is a city at the end of the railway line. You can’t go further east without getting wet. You have to want to come here, as you don’t pass it on your way somewhere else. All of that leads to a feeling of isolation. For me, it’s like nowhere else. When the wind blows in off the North Sea and you look up at a pewter sky that promises another day of sideways rain, you can be forgiven for getting a bit glum and coming up with a story about a serial killer. It’s a very cinematic city as well. It has some extraordinary architecture. Really, it’s just somewhere that I instantly bonded with. It just feels different to everywhere else. It’s perfect for the stories I want to tell. And people should remember that I moved to Hull as a journalist. You get a very different view of a city when you’re reporting on its murders and its hapless politicians than you do when you just live somewhere.