YOU want a riot? Then Martyn Waites is the man to deliver the goods.
The third instalment in the Newcastle-born writer's Joe Donovan series serves up a blistering concoction of racial tensions and simmering political discontent in the North of England.
And it's a tale so real, so of the minute, it could be headlining on tonight's Ten O'clock News . . . if only the weather was a bit better.
In a Newcastle heatwave a Muslim student is beaten to death, then torched, and the finger of blame points to radical Nationalists. Add the edge of looming elections and the death of a suspected suicide bomber to the mix and it's a tinder box.
Fast-paced and furious White Riot delves to depths all to rarely seen in bookstores these days. A master-class in pumped and pitch-black urban storytelling from one of the best writers operating in the UK today.
With his eighth book Waites delivers a radical bombshell that will have crime fans gripping their paperbacks tightly from page one to 'The End'.
Shots sent TONY BLACK to meet the author and find out what stokes Waites's interest in the tougher than tough Northern world where he sets his stories.
TONY BLACK: So, White Riot... bit of a Clash fan?
MARTYN WAITES: Absolutely. I think most right minded people are. And I don't think it's just a question of my age, my daughters love the Clash too. But all the books have been named after song titles, some, admittedly, more obscure than others. White Riot was such a perfect fit for this one that I couldn't resist.
Do you have a 'I remember where I was when Joe Strummer died' story?
I think I was at home on the computer, just for a change. Saw the headline on the BBC website, couldn't believe it. What about you?
I was in a bar in Melbourne, asked the pimply DJ to play some Clash and he said, and I kid you not ... who?
Jesus. I hope you smacked him one.
Never more tempted ... But, tell us about the book, it's what, number three in your Joe Donovan series?
Number three, yes. It's set in Newcastle during a heatwave with tempers already getting out of control and tension hitting the streets. When a Muslim student is murdered in the west end of Newcastle and blame far right party, the NUP, the temperature looks like it's going to get even higher. And that's before a would-be suicide bomber immolates himself. In the middle of this is Trevor Whitman, a one time member of the Hollow Men, a kind of Angry Brigade bunch of Seventies radicals, who's been receiving death threats. Donovan and the team are called in to deal with them. Of course, all these things are connected, or there wouldn't be a book.
White Riot deals with the politics of the far right, what prompted you to explore this in your work?
Most of my books start out as questions. I write to understand things more fully. Or I want to explore things that make me angry. As a great poet once said, anger is an energy. It certainly is for me. With White Riot I wanted to try and look into the mindset of an extremist, discover what forms them, what makes them believe the things they believe, act the way they act. They're not born as monsters. They're made into monsters, or certainly people capable of monstrous acts. I wanted to look at certain kinds of extremism, political and religious, because I think they've got more common ground than is often noted. When you're holding views so extreme, you're not diametrically opposed. You're touching each other.
Now having said all that, I didn't want to make the book worthy and dull, a Guardian reader's guide to those nasty boot boys. I wanted to treat those people as human beings and get inside there heads. If I could come some way to understanding what drove them then hopefully I would be able to communicate that through the book. Some reviewer once said I make monsters nice. I don't think I do. I just refuse to look at them as monsters. To them, they're not monsters, are they?
It appears the far right are getting their tentacles into poor white communities in the North, do you think that's the legacy of Thatcher and the miners?
I think there are a lot of different reasons but yes, you can lay a large part of the blame at Thatcher's door. Especially in the North and the Midlands. Pit communities were closed when they were still profitable. It was a political decision by Thatcher's government to destroy any opposition. They had no plan for anything to replace those industries and no adequate form of compensation or benefits in place. Consequently ex-mining towns now have some of the worst unemployment, housing, education in the country. And far and away the worst drug problems. They're also fertile ground for far right extremists. Agitators move in, try to convince the indigenous white populace that the reason they haven't got a job or enough to eat or somewhere decent to live or their son's a smackhead is because of the Pakis. Or the niggers. Or the Poles. Whoever. And the government's helping them. Who's going to stand up for the white working class? They are, of course. It's so obvious. And so tempting to believe their lies, to find easy targets to blame in complex situations. this is the reality of the situation. Jesus, this is deep. Did you know I used to be a stand up comic? Know any good jokes?
Hmnn ... well, how's this: My wife has a blackbelt in cooking ... one chop and you're dead! BOOM-TISH! Think there's a slot for me in the Northern club circuit?
I'm afraid so. You haven't put that one in the book, have you?
No, unfortunately it's Copyright Les Dawson. So what was your stand up routine like?
Better than that! But not by much, I don't think. We started out as trio then a duo then just me. I was the only one who couldn't take the hint. I still do the odd bit now, but just when I'm asked. And usually by Stella Duffy. She got me on several occasions to perform impro with her. I thought that would be the kind of thing I would hate but I really enjoyed it. Loved it, in fact. And we work very well together. Although she would probably say I'm shit.
What comedy acts do you rate now?
I'm a big Mighty Boosh fan. We all are in our house. The League of Gentlemen, although they don'tseem to be doing much these days. I really like Sharon Horgan's writing too. Her BBC 3 series Pulling is brilliant. Really looking forward to the new series. And I really rate Catherine Tate. We used to have the same agent and appeared in The Bill together. Even then you could tell there was something about her. She was brilliant to work with. When we'd finished she asked me if I fancied doing some stand up with her. I said no. No future in that. Personally, that ranks alongside the guy who turned The Beatles down because there was no future in beat music. Although having said that there's no guarantee she would have been any good with me tagging along.
Did your research for this book turn up any surprises?
Sadly not. Just confirmed every prejudice I had. The only surprise, I suppose, was just how ingrained those attitudes are. It's frightening, it really is.
Your protagonist, Donovan has his flaws, do you think you would like to hang out with him?
I think I would. However he may be a bit too much like me for comfort. We may be too similar to get on. We've got the same tastes in music and books and TV and films and even comics. So we'd have plenty to talk about but we'd know the answer already. It's been said that a series character is an idealised version of the writer but five years younger. Hmm. Is he an idealised version of me? And should I be worried if he is? We share our collection of comics and rock 'n' roll t-shirts. Which is quite advantageous for me as it makes buying new clothes tax deductible.
You set your novels in Newcastle, but you don't live there anymore, is this a difficulty or advantage?
I think it's an advantage. I still go up regularly, still got friends and family up there. And they squire me round and take me to places I wouldn't otherwise be able to get in to. And that's great, that's really good research. But I wouldn't be able to write it down up there. I wrote one novel, , in London when I was living there. So damned difficult to describe things I saw every day. I need space to let it all sink in and recreate it in my mind. Was it Wordsworth who said that action should be remembered in tranquility? Something like that.
You grew up in the North East of England, specifically Newcastle-upon-Tyne, what was the place like then?
Quite different to what it is now. When I was growing up I was very aware that England (never mind Britain) was very London-centric. It felt like because the M1 stopped at Leeds the country did too. Newcastle itself was a city that was neither English nor Scottish. When you went over the bridge into the city it was like crossing a medieval drawbridge into some castle with a siege mentality. I felt that all the more acutely when I moved away from Newcastle and started to travel. When I saw the rest of the country I realised I never felt English, always Geordie. It's the same today, I think. My cousin and I were talking about it recently, how if you've never been brought up in that place at the time you can't really understand. It's all different there now, of course. Three hours away from London, lots of new software companies, cultural rebirth, etc . . .
Newcastle has some famous exports, off the top of my head there's ... the Broon, Gazza and Viz ... got a favourite?
Got several unfavourites - Ant and Dec to name two. Responsible for the rest of the country thinking the city is full of miniature cheeky monkeys. It's hard to decide which one's the more slappable. It changes, hour to hour. Viz is, of course, a work of genius. I don't like Brown Ale, which is a terrible admission to make. I mean, I'll drink it if I have to, but it's not my lunatic soup of choice. The one thing that really bugs me about Newcastle is how many terrible bands we've inflicted on the public. There was Bryan Ferry, who was great, and The Animals and I suppose we've got Maximo Park now, but don't forget, Newcastle is the town that gave the world Sting. You can see why Southerners have had it in for us for so long. Bet he wants to buy the Donovan series film rights, now. No, honest, he's a lovely bloke . . . his lute album was brilliant . . .
You got a fav Viz character? (Biffa Bacon gets my vote! ... and Matha and Fatha, of course.)
I think it might have to Biffa for me, too. Mind you, The Modern Parents always reminded me of my ex-girlfriend's family so I used to get quite a few laughs out of them too. And of course there's Sid the Sexist. I was back in Newcastle at the weekend and out on Friday night. Nothing's changed. The clans of Sid and irony are still distant bedfellows.
In your novels you seem to be building up the psychogeography of Newcastle, do you think the dark deeds of yore continually reflect on the present?
I do think it's interesting that things happen in certain place at certain times that couldn't have happened anywhere else. Mary Bell, for one. was all about the ghosts of the past informing the lives of the present. It was great fun (if that's the right word) to research - where the gallows used to be, for instance, is now where the blood transfusion offices are. Is that a connection? Here's a strange thing. When I was writing The White Room I had a dream, which makes its way into the book, about a cathedral- like place in Newcastle with pillars made of animal fat wax and hanging skin with an abattoir in the back just down from where Worswick Street bus station used to be. When I was researching Bone Machine I found out that there used to be a church with an abattoir that skinned animals and made candles from their fat in exactly that place. I honestly didn't know that. It wasn't even something that I had taken in on a subliminal level. So yes, I think, is the short answer.
You went to drama school, and afterwards said you played 'rogue and vagabond' bits, did you feel suited to those roles?
I think I felt more suited to the rogue and vagabond lifestyle and whatever parts came up, they came up. I'd go and do them wherever they were. It was great. I loved living out of a suitcase (or rather holdall) for a couple of years and just going where the work is. It was a really natural way to live. Like being permanently on tour. It's true, I gave my flat up in the end. Of course you can't keep living like that (unless you're Bob Dylan) and you have to stop sometime. I suppose that was when I started to write.
Is it true you grew up wanting to play Dr Who?
Oh God. I should never have said that. Yes, it's absolutely true. I thought it was the perfect part for me. That and loads of Arthur Miller and Sam Shepherd. Never did any of that, unfortunately.
There's still time, you could be the next one! I'll start the campaign here ... Who was your favourite Dr Who?
Tom Baker. I've ranked them all, actually, because I've obviously got too much time on my hands. But yes, Tom is top. Closely followed by David Tennant. Truly, we're living through a golden age. Then Patrick Troughton then either Sylvester McCoy, believe it or not. Then Chris Eccleston. Then the rest. Sorry, should I be working?
Tell us your dream acting role, and who would you co-star with?
I don't think I've got one any more. Honestly. I just don't think that way now. Although Bob Horwell who's currently in Coronation Street and directed the trailer of White Riot which is now on You Tube and other places is brilliant and I would love to work with him again.
Not even a slot on the new Minder remake alongside ... Shane 'Arfur' Ritche?
Oh Jesus, you're joking, right? I suppose I could play a miserable Geordie in that, as long as I get to do a full on fight scene with baseball bats on Mr Ritchie. Oh well. At least it's not Guy Richie.
Y'know I'd actually watch that. Cheering, probably ... When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I'm not exactly sure. I don't think acting was giving me the creative kick I needed - I wanted to be more in control - and I'd told everyone that I was going to be a writer because I liked the romance of sitting at a typewriter with a bottle of whisky in a vest like Dashiell Hammett. One day I thought I'd better do that. I'd just done a couple of commercials so didn't have to leave home for a while so I sat down and wrote what I thought was a novel. It wasn't, but five years later, called Mary's Prayer, it was.
It was always crime writing that appealed to you, why was that?
Because it was the only thing that really moved me. Chandler, Hammett, Ross MacDonald, Jim Thompson . . . then I discovered (in the late Eighties) the new wave of American crime writers. They had a sense of social engagement that was so lacking in stuff over here at the time. Crumley, Burke, Ellroy, Vachss, Izzi, Paretsky, Mosley . . . all those guys, just starting to hit their peak. Brilliant. It was a great time to be a reader and they were great writers to discover at the time. I just wanted to translate that into my stuff.
Do you prefer the American crime writers to the home-grown lot?
On the whole, Americans. They just, over the last century, have got it so much better than over here. However I think now that we on this side of the Atlantic have, if not bested the best, then certainly matched them. Like us taking Elvis Presley and giving them back the Beatles and the Stones.
Never a fan of Agatha then?
Oh please. No. For the same reason I'm not a fan of crosswords or the Tory party. but I'm not going to go on about her as I've mouthed off on the subject on more than one occasion. Enough to say I have no time for that kind of writing. It has no relevance to my life.
I believe we share a literary hero in Andrew Vachss, what draws you to Mr V?
I read Blue Belle in 1989 and it just blew me away. I had honestly never read anything like it, the total synthesis of character, plot, narrative, action and social commentary. And the writing was hard as nails. Naturally I read all his other stuff after that and got his plays performed over here in London. I played Burke. It was great. I think he's a really underrated writer and I wish he would ditch the Burke novels and flex his writing wings more.
Ali Karim has described you as the UK Pelecanos, do you agree?
That's really sweet of him and a great compliment. Can I use that on my next book? I really rate George Pelecanos because he's just about the best there is. I think I know what Ali means - there's a large degree of social writing in his books as there is in mine. And hopefully we do it the same way - through character and incident rather than through being preachy. Nothing turns me off a book more than being told what to think. He uses his novels to ask questions of situations not provide answers which I think is damn right and I'd like to think I do the same. And he's a mean TV writer and producer too. So if anyone would like to offer me a writing job on The Wire or an equivalent TV series, either here or in the States, I would be more than happy to accept and continue the analogy further.
What do you think of the current state of health of the crime genre?
I think it's at an interesting stage. The traditional lines of cosy vs. noir have blurred with the cosy being reinvented as the forensic novel - less cake, more blood - and also as a novel of social commentary in some cases. This has made the noir side either retreat into pastiche or try to find genuine ways to reinterpret the genre. It all seems to be up in the air at the moment. And that, I think, is a good thing.
Which of your own novels are you happiest with/most proud of and why?
Well, you're not supposed to have favourites, goes the received wisdom but that's bollocks. Obviously some are going to be better than others and some are going to have been more fun to write than others and it's not always the same ones. I suppose to use that tired old cliché about all books being children, and Bone Machine, all for different reasons.
What have you been reading lately?
I've been putting a lot of books down unfinished because they've been so boring. Everything from airport thrillers to supposedly great works of contemporary literature. All bollocks. I have, however, just read Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and loved it. Then there's Duane Swierkzynski - The Blonde and The Wheelman are utterly fantastic. And now he's writing for Marvel Comics. I can't tell you how jealous I am. I've finally got round to reading Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Station which is just amazing. And Hard Case Crime continue to be a source of brilliance.
You have spent some time working with prisoners and young offenders -- at Huntercombe Young Offenders Institution and at HMP Chelmsford -- what have they taught you? Has any of this experience found its way into your writing?
How long have you got? It was an incredible experience, really polarised. Either brilliant or awful, nothing in between. Especially at Huntercombe. Again, I had all my prejudices about the judicial system confirmed and not in a good way. I didn't really take anything that they said and use it directly - that would be stealing - but it all permeated. I think my writing improved drastically as a result.
Your good friend Cathi Unsworth wanted me to ask you why all detectives are into cool jazz like Charlie Parker and Miles and not Chris Barber and his Jazz Mags and Mister Acker Bilk?
Oh God, I'll kill her . . . It's true though, isn't it? That grew out of a conversation the pair of us were having one day (one quite drunken day, actually) about why detectives in novels always put something moody and cool on like Charlie Parker. Never When The Saints Go Marching In or Stranger on the Shore. Although after reading my comments on the subject, Laura Wilson is threatening to turn her new series character, Stratton, into an Acker Bilk fan. Bring it on!
There's a murder squad detective I know from the Met and he's about as far removed as you can get from the image of the hard drinking hard bitten loner 'tec. He hates jazz. He loves Yes and Rick Wakeman and goes trainspotting. Don't see that turning up in many books . . .
You're a Newcastle United fan, I believe ... how do you think the Magpies will do under Mr Keegan?
Terribly. I couldn't think of a worse idea that bringing Keegan back. It's wrong on so many levels and the results have borne it out. I really wouldn't be surprised if we went down this season and we'd deserve to. Keegan left one Soccer Circus to join another one. Once again Newcastle United are the laughing stock of English football.
Was 'Special K' a better player than a manager?
Yes. No argument. A man who's management philosophy can be boiled down to the phrase 'run around faster, I'm feeling lucky' is not a great manager.
Do you think he lost some of his powers when he ditched the bobble-perm?
Like Samson, yeah. But do you think he should bring it back? Do you think his powers would return along with it? It might be worth a try . . .
And finally, what's next for Martyn Waites?
Well, there's another Donovan book to do - Murdered Sons. I'd like to do another book in the Born Under Punches / The White Room mould and have already got a story in mind for it. But I don't know. I honestly don't know.
WHITE RIOT is published by Simon & Schuster pbk £6.99
For more on Martin, visit: www.martynwaites.com
TONYBLACK's first novel is published by Random House in July. Allan Guthrie, called it ‘a fine debut’ adding: "Black is the new noir". He lives and works in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. More of his fiction can be found at Thug Lit, Pulp Pusher, Demolition and in Out of the Gutter. Find him at: www.tonyblack.net