I love reading. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved reading and been encouraged to read, by both my parents and my teachers. I love books; the look, the feeling, the sense of creation involved in opening a new book, opening an insight into the mind of another human being. Great books, even good books, let us know that we are not alone, that we all share similar experiences and emotions. Even ‘bad’ books reflect the urge to create, to control, to consider to some extent. So, I love reading.
I also love writing, though it developed after the reading bit. Amongst everything else, great books spark in me an urge to create. The first stories I wrote reflected the stories I was reading. Then I went to Queen’s University in Belfast to study English and, after three years, got fed up reading for exams and, eager to read something for pleasure, wandered into No Alibi’s Bookshop on Botanic Avenue which had just opened. The first book that caught my eye was Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue. I bought it and an omnibus of Colin Dexter, read them all in a week and went back for more. And I suppose, the more crime I read, the more I wanted to write crime.
Borderlands developed over a number of months, around the time my wife was pregnant with our first child. I had planned a crime story for some time, set in my native city of Derry. The story involved abduction of children and was set around Hallowe’en which is one of the highpoints of the civic calendar in Derry when tens of thousands of people in costume parade around the city walls before congregating at the river front for a fireworks display. However, as I wrote, I realised that I was so preoccupied with geographical accuracy and concern about who owned which shop and when, that I couldn’t concentrate on plot and character. I also worried that, having grown up there and still working there, people would wrongly assume that the characters in the book where based on people I knew.
The other problem was that Derry is in Northern Ireland. Around this time, the police force in Northern Ireland, the RUC, was a political hot potato. If I set a novel in the ranks of the RUC, or the newly formed Police Service of Northern Ireland, rightly or wrongly, people would read the book looking for a political angle. And I didn’t want a political angle. In fact, post Troubles, I didn’t want politics at all. I wanted an Irish crime novel about crime without political affiliation. So I moved the book’s setting.
We live near the Irish border between Strabane and Lifford. It’s an area of outstanding beauty, built on the meeting point of three rivers. It was also an area of high unemployment and which, during the Troubles, witnessed its fair share of difficult times. It’s a strange position where the towns are less than half a mile apart and yet are in two different countries with two police forces that seemed resistant to working together for years. It’s area where houses straddle the border, a kitchen in Ireland and living room in the United Kingdom. The possibilities are endless and, as a consequence, it seemed an obvious idea to set a story around the border.
Then one night, walking our dogs, I took it a step further. What if the murder happened on the border? What if the police of the South (An Garda) and the North (PSNI) worked together? It would provide an interested alternative, where the protagonist Devlin would have to work with and seek permission from other police men to conduct his investigations. Devlin, his counterpoint, PSNI Inspector Jim Hendry and Borderlands, were born.
Devlin himself then developed. Many of the fictional detectives I’d read were heavy drinkers. Whilst this is probably fairly accurate in terms of real life, I thought it was getting a bit hackneyed – particularly for an Irish detective. Devlin then should not be a drinker. Likewise, I wanted to avoid the idea of the divorced cop, however accurate a phenomenon it may be. My wife is my most solid point of reference in life, so I thought it only fair that Devlin should have the same. To my mind, Debbie is the only character in the Devlin books who doesn’t compromise herself or her principles, even when old Ben oversteps the mark personally and professionally.
Then my first son was born, Benedict, who gave Devlin his name. As a result, my primary concern in the real world, while I was writing, was dealing with a young family and all that that brings. Devlin then has young children too. Why should I have been the only one not getting any sleep? How, I wondered, could a man deal with all the horror and brutality that crime brings, then go home to a baby growing up in that world without feeling some sense of a mission, some need to set the world to rights. The books then find Devlin trying to define himself and reconcile his various roles as father, husband, policeman and human being. Regardless of his actions, however questionable, Devlin does nothing in his professional life that is not motivated by his desire to do the right thing. Even in Gallows Lane, where he makes some very poor judgement calls, he believes he’s doing what is right. It’s just his means are sometimes questionable. That doesn’t vindicate his actions, but it does perhaps explain them and is, I think, one of the complexities of being human.
I also quit smoking before my son was born and missed it – not enough to start again, but enough to do so vicariously through Devlin who, despite the smoking ban in Ireland, smokes like a chimney through most of the books. The rest of the character though - his complexities, his moral ambiguity, his roving eye - are entirely his own. Honestly!
I also seem to have started writing during a period of unparalleled variety in crime writing in Ireland. Declan Burke’s Crime Always Pays is testament to the interest in and the vitality of Irish crime fiction, reflecting perhaps also a period of unprecedented wealth in Ireland, an end to the Troubles and the attendant rise in traditional crime and drugs-related violence on Irish streets that both of those events brought. Crime fiction for me represents a sense of control and justice. In real life bad people get away with horrible deeds. Our fictional detectives at least solve crimes and bring those who commit them to some sort of justice. Writing around the time of the birth of my son, Borderlands may have been, on some level, an attempt by me to make the world a safer place for a baby to live in. That the hero of that world takes his name from my son should be no real surprise.
In terms of the series, Borderlands and Gallows Lane are published this year in paperback and hard back respectively. Gallows Lane allowed me to develop themes and issues I felt I had touched on in the first book – justice and vengeance, the ghosts of the past haunting the present - as well as putting Devlin through his paces professionally. The third Devlin book, tentatively called Bleed A River Deep after an Ed Harcourt song of the same name is slated for April 2009. That book is finished now and, I feel, widens Devlin’s concerns out a little from Lifford featuring issues that relate to Ireland as a whole. Book 4 is about to start; at the minute the title is The Rising. With each book, I’m trying to be careful to stay true to Devlin’s voice and the world he inhabits without repetition of plot or character type.
With each book that I have written I sincerely believe that it is the best that I could make it at the time of writing. No matter how sniffy people get about crime fiction and its place as genre fiction, as a reader of crime I hope I understand its impact and importance. As a fan of Ian Rankin and James Lee Burke amongst a host of others, I understand the role crime fiction can play in raising serious issues with a wide reading public whilst never compromising on style or entertainment. I hope that my fiction reflects that understanding and I am proud to think that it shares shelf space with those great writers and great books that inspired me to write.
GALLOWS LANE is published by Macmillan New Writing Hardback £12.99