Today, Paul Finch, author of the Detective Mark Heckenberg and the Lucy Clayburn series. The latest in the Lucy Clayburn series Shadows, has recently been released. Please check it out after reading this insightful interview.
Can you tell us in your own words what your latest book, Shadows is about, without giving too much of the plot away?
SHADOWS is the second installment in the Lucy Clayburn investigations. Lucy is a young female police officer in the fictional Greater Manchester borough of Crowley. She has now been on the job 10 years, so she is not a novice. But her dreams of moving permanently from uniform to detective were quashed in the first book, STRANGERS, when she made a catastrophic mistake during a major enquiry. At least … this occurred at the beginning of the book. Later on, she redeemed herself, and when SHADOWS starts, she is newly assigned to the divisional CID office at the appropriately named Robber’s Row, Crowley’s central police station.
Like STRANGERS, SHADOWS is a self-contained story, and in this one, Lucy, who has become a dab-hand at undercover work, plays a major role in the apprehension of a dangerous cash-point bandit, and in so doing attracts the attention of the Manchester Robbery Squad, a branch of which has now been installed at her own nick. She is very keen to work with them, and her chance finally comes when a particularly violent bunch of blaggers, known as the Red-Headed League, commence a series of armed raids that leave numerous bullet-riddled bodies in their wake. But life is never even this straightforward for Lucy, mainly because it was only in the previous book that she discovered the identity of her long-estranged father and learned that he is a leading member of the Manchester underworld. And when it becomes apparent that the Red-Headed League have been targeting fellow-criminals, associates of her father in fact, it looks as if a massive gangland war is about to erupt in which Lucy has a personal investment.
You currently have two series ongoing, Detective Mark Heckenburg and this series, Lucy Clayburn. How do you decide which plot line/ book goes to which character?
Well, Heck and Lucy are two different animals. Though they are both coppers, having originated in the Northwest of England, Heck is the slightly older and more experienced of the two, and for quite some time now he’s been a fixture in the Serial Crimes Unit, which is part of the National Crime Group based at Scotland Yard. As such, Heck automatically finds himself investigating very serious crimes, whereas Lucy, as a divisional detective, tends to deal with more routine stuff such as assault, theft and burglary (though she quite often gets drawn into more serious cases).
The different natures of their two jobs marks them for different kinds of books. Heck, who has a remit to cover all the police force areas of England and Wales, tending to get involved in much larger enquiries, which have scope for big action sequences and line him up against spectacular maniac villains of the sort you’d find in James Bond or even Batman. For example, in SACRIFICE, when a ‘calendar killer’ is abducting strangers and ritually sacrificing them on different days of the year. Likewise, in ASHES TO ASHES, when a professional torturer rents himself to the highest bidder, and always arrives on the scene with his own mobile torture chamber, a specially adapted, escape-proof caravan called the Pain Box. Lucy, on the other hand, is more of a street-cop working the dismal backstreets and grim housing estates of inner urban Manchester, talking to ordinary people and encountering day-to-day problems. Yes, I repeat that, invariably, she does get involved in bigger cases, but they aren’t normal for her.
So, really … the story ideas tend to pick the characters.
Where do you get your ideas for your books, and how much research goes into them?
Where do you get your ideas from is a question we authors get asked a lot, but it’s always one of the most difficult to answer. In my case, they literally just come to me. I’m not being glib or flip in saying that. I often have brain-storming sessions, where I sit down and try to think stuff up, but they aren’t always productive. Quite often, if I’m walking the dog, or watching the TV, or having dinner with my wife, or socialising with friends, an idea will occur. Sometimes, it’s been tripped off by something I’ve seen for myself, or heard about on the news or in a discussion. Or course, these ideas are always very raw, and from there I must take them away and meld them into a workable narrative. That’s probably much harder to do than hatch the ideas in the first place.
In terms of research … I am an ex-copper, but that’s quite a long time ago now, which means that police procedures have changed. So, I have to do a lot of basic research along with everyone else. I don’t like getting tied up too much in this; it’s a personal thing for me that I’m writing fiction rather than police textbooks. But you need to get your legalities and other essentials right; there’s no way around that – but it’s not the challenge it once was, as so much of this stuff is now available on the internet. I suppose, if you haven’t got a police background, it’s not quite as easy to get authentically into the way police officers speak to each other, how they interact between ranks and behind closed doors, how they cut corners and play tricks in order to get ahead of the villains, etc. The best thing in those circumstances – and again, I’m not being flip – is go and ask a policeman.
When writing these books, do you have a clear idea about who the perpetrator is going to be and what their motivation is? If not, how does this come about?
To me, the most important thing about creating fictional villains is not to replicate real-life felons, who, for the most part, are banal losers, sad individuals who’ve fallen through the cracks in society. Focussing on guys like this is the way to go if you’re writing social drama, if you’re telling stories set in real life. But these colourless, drab characters are no fun when what you’re actually trying to do is write a rattling good thriller. I prefer my villains to be larger than life. This makes them worthy opponents for my cop heroes, but it also, I think, thrills my readers. If you consider it, some of the most memorable characters in fiction are villains. Look at Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III, look at Bill Sikes, Professor Moriarty, Auric Goldfinger. When you’re fictionalising someone who’s either completely insane, or completely amoral, or both, you can have masses of fun. My view on creating baddies is let your imagination run wild.
When you’re discussing their motivations, my answer is ignore reality again. One of the strange things I learned as a police officer was that, quite often, criminals have no understandable motivations. Okay, they may be driven by greed, or lust, or drunkenness, or drug addiction, but so many of them take enormous risks which they know are likely to land them in prison, and for no tangible gain. If you look at serial killers, while criminologists may classify most of them as sex maniacs, they wouldn’t all put themselves in that category. Some, for example, don’t rape, or torture, or molest – they get their thrills simply from killing, and are often unable to explain their actions further than that. These gun buffs who seem to be going crazy in the States all their time; for the majority of us, it’s impossible to understand their motivations. They just seem to get up in the morning and decide to carry out a massacre. The point I’m making here is that none of that works in fiction. Publishers, editors, readers … they all expect an explanation for why your villains do terrible things. It can be as bizarre as you like, but it has to be there. For example, in HUNTED, Heck pursues a couple of people who were so besotted with the silent, slapstick comedians of yesteryear, and are so callous in their attitude to others, that when they start playing elaborate pranks on random strangers, they inevitably have fatal outcomes. Likewise, when Jill the Ripper bestrode the pages of STRANGERS – a predatory female committing the sex-murders of men – the answer could only be that this was a deranged prostitute having her revenge after years of abuse.
Do you have to go into a specific mindset when writing? If so, what is it and how do you do it?
I’m a full-time writer now, and have been since 1998, so I pretty well have to be in the right frame of mind all the time. I can’t afford ever to ‘not be in the mood’, if you know what I mean. There are occasions, of course, when events are conspiring against you. For example, it’s quite hard to write effectively about Christmas in the midst of a glorious summer. Likewise, it can be a tough writing about the summer holidays in the depths of a bitter winter. Sometimes you can’t rely on imagination alone, but there ways you can knock yourself into the zone. In my case, because I tend to write dark fiction, I’m always looking to evoke a mood of menace. And I can help bring this about by going for long walks on terrible days – here, in the Northwest of England, that’s not problem – by wandering through desolate winter woods, or taking my dogs along canal tow-paths past ruined buildings and the relics of old industry. Again, if it’s cold, and the sky is grey, and there is thunder rolling, all the better.
If all that fails, I use music. Quite literally, I put together different playlists – often derived from movies, TV shows and the like – to create the right mood. Sorry, if that sounds a bit pretentious, but it really does work.
Can you tell us anything about what you are currently working on?
I’m currently writing the next Heck novel, the title of which is KISS OF DEATH. It’s actually finished in first draft form, but obviously there is lots more work to do on it yet. I really can’t say any more about it at this stage … at least not until my publishers, Avon Books at HarperCollins, lift the embargo. What I will say is that this is going to be a biggie in terms of developing the overarching Heckenburg story. It will also be very different from previous Heck novels – at least that’s the plan at this stage. I’m also hoping, if time allows, to produce another book in the TERROR TALES series. This is a series of regionally-themed horror story anthologies that I’ve been editing since 2011. For example, we’ve had TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, TERROR TALES OF WALES, TERROR TALES OF LONDON, and lots more, the most recent being TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL. If, as I say, time allows, I’ll soon get to move onto the next one, which will be TERROR TALES OF THE NORTHWEST.
When not writing, what do you like to do? Are there any tv shows you like to watch or authors you read?
Recreation … what’s that?
I’m not entirely joking when I say that. I’m very fortunate in that I make my living doing what I love, which is writing dark fiction. In my downtime, I do my other favourite thing, which is reading dark fiction, or watching dark fiction-based TV and cinema. That said, I also like to get into the great outdoors. My wife, Cathy, and I love to drive, to hike, to sail. We certainly get out and about the UK and the Mediterranean a lot. I’m a big Rugby League fan too, but then, coming from a town like Wigan, you can’t really fail to be (even if we had a poor season last year, so enough said about that).
Are there any authors you read or who have proven to be influential? If so who are they?
I have to say that I’ve probably been more influenced by horror, fantasy and science fiction authors than I have been crime and thriller writers. I’m not quite sure why that is, but it’s probably because that’s the sort of fiction I read when I was younger (and still do to a certain extent). I suppose the first major adult novel I read was LORD OF THE RINGS, so I’d have to put JRR Tolkien high on the list. Such an exquisite story-teller, and an effortless painter of vast canvases. In science fiction terms, I love Philip K Dick, Alfred Bester and Robert Heinlein, and have long shared many of their fascinations with militarist societies, decaying economies, ruined industry, mind control, secret organisations and the like – lots of these themes have found their way into my thriller fiction.
In terms of horror, the list could go on forever. All the classic authors certainly: MR James, Algernon Blackwood, Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Aickman. Masters of the weird as well as the terrifying, they knew exactly which buttons to press and nerves to pluck, and they did it so succinctly, so elegantly. More recently, of course, there’s been Ramsey Campbell – the heir apparent to those great luminaries, and another specialist when it came to depicting dying and decaying cities; Thomas Ligotti – ditto; Adam Nevill, who can make anything frightening; Reggie Oliver – one of the finest stylists working in horror fiction today; and Stephen king and Clive Barker, who brought gut-thumping horror back to the masses after it was so defamed by the ‘video nasty’ era. The list literally goes on.
In crime, as I say, there are fewer, but perhaps they have been a more potent influence: Ted Lewis, author of JACK’S RETURN HOME (filmed as GET CARTER), who was the father of NeoNoir, the master of Brit Grit. There are also a few US authors: Joe R Lansdale, who spices his horror with the savagery of the modern urban underworld – and what a hellish mix it is; the tall tale-tellers of the Southern Gothic tradition, the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Donald Ray Pollock, Sam Hawken etc, who add a touch of magical realism to their thrillers; and the uber-tough, uber-violent crime epics of Don Winslow, the likes of THE CARTEL and THE FORCE.
Has there been any unusual time where you have been carrying out something random and inspiration has taken hold?
It’s hard to say when inspiration will strike. It certainly can happen at the most random moments, for which reason I always carry a Dictaphone – I mean literally. It’s always in my pocket, wherever I am, whatever time of day it is, and at night it sits on the bedside cabinet. Many is the time when an idea has just come to me – a neat twist in the tale, a useful bit of character development, a few sparkly lines of dialogue – and I just have to get them down; so I jump up, step away for a moment or two, and rabbit into my little hand-device.
Who would be your dream cast if your book was to be made into a movie or TV show?
Hah! This is another question I get asked a lot, but sadly have no control over.
I should say at this stage that the Lucy books are closer to TV adaptation than Heck is – STRANGERS has been optioned and scripts have been written, but those who know TV will know that this is no guarantee of anything at present. If it was down to me, Lucy Clayburn would be played by Michelle Keegan, a Manchester lass who is just the right age, and mixes just the right amount of empathy, toughness and sexiness. Her mother, Cora, would be played by Sarah Lancashire, another Northwestern girl, with a lovely acting style and a great attitude. The gangster father, Frank McCracken, would be Rufus Sewell, who again would be just right: refined and affable on the outside, but with hints of darker tracts underneath.
If Heck were ever to get the treatment – which is less likely, because it packs more explosions, car chases and gun battles into its 400 pages, and because Heck ranges all over the country, which would mean lots more locations (but you never know) – there is no question in my mind that Tom Hardy would be ideal for the lead, while Gemma Piper, his ex-girlfriend-turned-boss, with whom he has a real fire-and-water relationship, would be putty in the hands of Gemma Arterton.
As a female cop walking the mean streets of Manchester, life can be tough for PC Lucy Clayburn. But when one of the North West’s toughest gangsters is your father, things can be particularly difficult.
When Lucy’s patch is gripped by a spate of murder-robberies, the police are quick to action. Yet when it transpires that the targets are Manchester’s criminal underworld, attitudes change.
Lucy is soon faced with one of the toughest cases of her life – and one which will prove once and for all whether blood really is thicker than water…
ABOUT PAUL LYNCH
Paul Finch is a former cop and journalist, now full-time writer. Having originally written for the television series THE BILL plus children’s animation and DOCTOR WHO audio dramas, he went on to write horror, but is now best known for his crime / thriller fiction.
He won the British Fantasy Award twice and the International Horror Guild Award, but since then has written two parallel series of hard-hitting crime novels, the Heck and the Lucy Clayburn novels, of which three titles have become best-sellers.
Paul lives in Wigan, Lancashire, UK with his wife and children.