Russ Litten is a self-styled “typist and layabout” from Hull. His first novel, “Scream If You Want To Go Faster”, set around a single weekend at the city’s annual fair, was published in 2011 and won praise from writers as varied as John Niven and Richard Milward. “Swear Down” is his first crime novel and is published by Tindal Street Press, April 2013 and is already gathering praise from writers of the calibre of Jake Arnott, who says it is “convincing and compelling. This is not a crime novel, this is real life.”
“When a young gang leader is stabbed to death on the streets of London, DS Ndekwe is in the unusual position of having two people confess to the murder. At first glance, the confession from McKenzie, a youth from the same inner-city estate is the most compelling. But why does his workmate, Jack Shepherdson, a sixty-year-old former seaman from Hull also confess? Who didn’t do it?”
Russ talks to fellow Hull crime writer, Nick Quantrill, about “Swear Down”…
Nick – Let’s start with the two suspects. Jack Shepherdson, a former sailor from up North confesses to the murder. What’s his story?
Russ – Jack is an old fella living on his own in Bethnal Green. He’s originally from Hull, but left his hometown in the mid seventies and joined the merchant navy, travelled around a bit, moved to London and opened a pub. At the end of the eighties his relationship hit the rocks, he lost the business and he’s been drifting around London ever since. He’s like betting on horses, drinking heavily, and listening to the music of Dean Martin. When we meet him he’s employed as a glass collector in the same bar as Carlton McKenzie.
Nick – But McKenzie also confesses? Tell me about him?
Russ – Carlton is a nineteen-year old lad from Hackney. He lives at home with his Mum and his sister. He has a juvenile police record, but is trying to distance himself from the criminal life and is saving up for a trip to Jamaica to visit his Dad.
Nick – As a native of Hull, I can imagine it wasn’t too much of a stretch for you to get into Jack’s head, but how about McKenzie? I totally bought into his portrayal. Where did that come from?
Russ – Carlton came mainly from a few different lads I met in prison who were involved in gang life. I wanted a character who had been touched by that, but who was trying to go in a different direction. Carlton is essentially a good kid who is unimpressed by the seemingly limited nature of his options. I lived in Hackney for much of 2008 and I got to know parts of the area. This was the main reason for the novel being set in that part of East London.
Nick – The third key player is DS Peter Ndekwe. He’s quite a different detective to the sort you normally meet in a crime novel. Tell me about him?
Russ – My original plan for the book was just to have two testimonies side by side and let the reader decide who to believe. But there seemed to be large chunks of the story that seemed too opaque to me, so I used Ndekwe primarily as a vehicle for me to explore the back and side-stories. It was my intention to see what sense he made of it all, incorporate his findings, and then erase him from the picture. But then I started to realise he had problems of his own, which made him more interesting. So he became the focus of the third person.
Nick – Are we likely to see a follow up to “Swear Down” in respect of Ndekwe? He seems like a character with potentially a lot of mileage.
Russ – No, I don’t think I’ll be writing about policemen again any time soon. I think if you’re conscious of any sort of obligation towards realism then they’re quite impaired as characters, the police. This is why crime novels often employ maverick cops, I suppose. If they had to stick to the rules they’d never catch anyone. I had to have Ndekwe as the kind of professional who does things very much by the book, mainly because of all the subterfuge going on around him. I wanted him to be the calm at the centre of it all. He doesn’t pull too many stunts for a London copper. I might have him as a minor character if I set any more books in London. Just to see how he’s doing.
Nick- Although “Swear Down” isn’t your first novel, it is your first crime novel. How did you find the process? Did you even think of it as being a crime novel as you wrote it with all that the genre implies? Will you be sticking with crime writing?
Russ – I like and read crime novels, but I didn’t set out to write one. There’s actually more criminal acts depicted in my first novel than this one. There’s a dramatic crime as the catalyst of Swear Down, but the book is mainly about friendship and loyalty. As a writer in residence at a prison, I see one of the consequences of criminal behaviour from an offender’s point of view. I think that informed the process more than anything. I spent a lot of time with people who had been immersed in very particular codes of conduct. It was this mind state I was interested in exploring, rather than writing a straightforward cops and robber’s thing. Why would one person be prepared to go to prison for another? It intrigued me. And then I slotted Ndekwe in to make sense of it all and it veered more towards a crime book. I suddenly found myself doing a lot of research on the police side of things, which was different for me. My research usually involves looking out the window. For that reason alone I don’t think I’ll be tackling any more crime novels. I’m far too lazy. My next book is about a ghost.
The book trailer can be seen here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csBiA5Px70E
Russ can be found on Twitter – www.twitter.com/RussLitten