RUSS THOMAS explains "Why I Chose Sheffield for my Killing Ground"

Written by Russ Thomas

When I began my debut novel Firewatching, I figured a good police procedural series needed a good setting. Rebus had Edinburgh, Roy Grace had Brighton; where would DS Adam Tyler be based? The obvious answer was the place I lived, Sheffield. After all, I’d heard that old creative writing adage “write what you know” often enough. Plus, it would save me a ton of research.

In fact, I got that last part wrong. I discovered that we don’t always pay full attention to the places we know well. I started going on long walks to take photographs and notes, and found myself asking questions like, would that be a good place to bury a body? And, perhaps more disturbingly, wouldn’t that be a terrible place for a body to be found?

I began to realise that Sheffield would feature heavily in the books, almost as a character in its own right, and why shouldn’t it? I wasn’t born in the city but I came here as a student in the mid-90s and I’ve lived here longer than anywhere. The people are friendly (although a woman I once met at a tram stop told me, “that’s nosiness, love, not friendliness”), and I’ve always felt welcome here, perhaps more so than I expected to be ‘up North’. Okay, I still occasionally have to field the odd Southerner joke but it’s all in good spirits.

To me, Sheffield is a hidden gem. In terms of population it’s one of the largest cities in the country (it ranks somewhere between 4th and 7th, depending on the source) but the centre is actually very small, so it isn’t unusual to bump into someone you know when out and about in ‘town’. I’ve heard it described as the city that thinks it’s a village, and while that can lead to a certain parochial feel at times, it also makes for fertile ground for a crime writer.

It’s a city more famous for what it used to be than what it is now and that long history of industry makes for a rich vein of material. In Firewatching, the smelting pots and blast furnaces of industry made a useful metaphor for the stuffy summer heat of a city beset by a serial arsonist. In Nighthawking, my protagonist, Dave, is a former steel worker who joined the industry just as its death knell was sounding and has since tried to reinvent himself as a hipster artisan of bespoke knives. And in my latest novel, Cold Reckoning, Tyler’s investigation into the unexplained death of his father takes place against the backdrop of an old steel factory that has been converted into a desserts manufacturer.

Despite its industrial past, Sheffield is regularly listed as one of the greenest cities in the UK. There are 80 public parks and 650 other green and open spaces, and, according to the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, approximately 36,000 trees. In fact, the people of Sheffield love their trees so much that when the council tried to cut them down in 2014 as part of a controversial Private Finance Initiative, the residents took committed action. After a number of arrests, many of them later deemed unlawful, the tree felling protests came to an end in 2018 when the council backed down and rethought its plans. But even through the leafy green suburbs you don’t have to look far to find that cold bite of Sheffield steel.

And if all that greenery isn’t enough for you, well then, the city is nestled in the eastern foothills of the Pennines and a short drive, bus or train journey will take you right into the heart of the Peak District National Park. Sometimes referred to as the gateway to the Peaks, Sheffield now has a thriving industry of Sports and Leisure. Bouldering, Rock Climbing and Cycling are all major pastimes for the city’s residents and after a number of Olympic successes, The English Institute for Sport was established in Sheffield in 2002 to provide sport science and medical support to elite athletes.

Many of the modern industries Sheffield has turned to in the wake of its former industrial decline have been driven by its increasing younger population. With two universities and a large further education college, Sheffield is currently home to more than 60,000 students and has a high retention rate when it comes time to go home (just ask the author of this piece). Borne out of this, the city has a thriving Arts and Music scene, and a nascent but rapidly expanding video games industry.

It’s a city that’s a curious mix of the old and the new, the traditional and modern. I suspect that’s why I find it such a fascinating setting to write about. I don’t think DS Tyler will be moving anytime soon.


Cold Reckoning by Russ Thomas (Simon & Schuster UK) published in hardback, ebook and audio on 12th May 2022.

Read SHOTS’ Review here

Author Photo © Johnny Ring

Russ Thomas

Book Reviews
About Us
Contact Us

Privacy Policy | Contact Shots Editor