Cheshire Life

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Picture the scene. Great Budworth July 4 1964. The redoubtable actress Margaret Rutherford is about to land by helicopter in the grounds of a large property in the village called Sandicroft. The mansion has been taken over by a certain American, John L Snyder, a former MGM film studios movie man who is now casting himself as an English country gent. A bit like Madonna without the yoga. And Snyder like the Queen of Pop is something of an exhibitionist. He has hired Rutherford to appear at screenings of the world premiere of her Agatha Christie ‘whodunit’ ‘Murder Most Foul’ which are taking place in a marquee in his grounds. Such is the stir that many hundreds of people are flocking to the event. Among them is a young lad from Northwich, Martin Edwards. The day will change his life.

Today Martin fits the mould of other successful Cheshire based professionals. The former Sir John Deane’s Grammar School pupil is head of employment law at leading solicitor’s firm Mace & Jones which has offices in Knutsford, Liverpool and Manchester. He lives in Lymm with his wife Helena, whom he met at Oxford University, and two teenage children. However, all is not quite as it seems. Martin, who attended Chester College of Law, leads something of a double life. Away from the austere corridors of court rooms and tribunals he has steadily built an international reputation as crime writer, publishing ten books and numerous short stories. Meeting him in Mace & Jones’ office on a sweltering Friday afternoon, he is relaxed and diffident. His mood is buoyed by the news that his latest paperback, ‘The Coffin Trail’, has made the final shortlist of six for the Theakston’s prize for best crime novel of the year. This bloodcurdling yarn of murder and secrets set in the Lake District is competing for the title with global best-seller Ian Rankin’s ‘Fleshmarket Close’. A book that Edward’s rates as ‘very, very good’. In the surprisingly close-knit world of crime writers Rankin and Edwards have known each other for a decade or more, going back to days when Rankin was an unknown and Edwards just starting out to write an ingenious and witty series of books set in Liverpool and featuring his lawyer-detective Harry Devlin.

When my mother heard Edwards on Radio Five Live recently, in his role as employment law spokesman for Cheshire based pressure group the Forum of Private Business, she described his manner as methodical and reassuring. As it is when, in one of the airy meeting rooms at Mace & Jones’ office, he recounts that mid sixties day when ‘Murder Most Foul’ ignited a lifelong desire to write crime fiction.

“From the moment I got back home I read all the Agatha Christie paperbacks I could find,’ he tells me. “Then through my teens I began writing mysteries and carried that on to my time at Oxford.”

He achieved a first class degree in law, but the fight to hone his writing skills and eventually win a book deal was hard fought. Edwards continued to write after joining Mace & Jones, then with just six partners - it now has 40- in 1980. The fateful day a publisher, like the national lottery’s glowing white hand, finally plucked him from obscurity came in the late 80s. In 1991, Edwards published the first Harry Devlin book, ‘All the Lonely People’, which was shortlisted for the Dagger for best first crime novel of the year. Edwards was to write six more Devlin books – which he describes as Agatha Christie meets Taggart - before unveiling new characters Nic Gabriel another lawyer turned writer in a book called ‘Take My Breath Away’ and DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind in a new series of Lake District Mysteries. Devlin, however, is likely to make a comeback in time for Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year in 2008.

Back to pressure. Edwards novels are crafted around plot and character rather than the intricate scene setting prose of say Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novels which launched an mini industry of clumsy parodies. Edwards, a student of crime fiction, wisely sticks to what he knows. And that seems to be people. People under pressure. ‘The Coffin Trail’ is notable for its gritty, honest and very real characterisation of both men and women. I would hazard a guess that Edwards is as much a student of people as he is of his beloved crime fiction. And given the nature of his work he meets a lot of people, and there are few more strained situations than office politics turned sour.

“I am interested in human motivation. Most of the best crime novels are about character. Ordinary people in extreme circumstances. One of my novels is about why an exceptionally decent person would want to kill another. I am driven to create interesting and unusual puzzles and bring together the strands.”

I am keen to press Edwards on what motivates him to write after a tough day’s work. Surely having a demanding job must constrict the airflow of ideas and energy?

“It is certainly difficult and does require stamina to write creatively and in the Theakston’s award I’m up against full time writers! But I find I can relax by writing. It’s a bit like a cricketing all rounder. If one discipline isn’t working the other does. But my motivation is to be make each book better than the last, though I’m not saying I’ve achieved that. I’m more relaxed about writing now. I don’t plan every detail. I always know the ending and a surprise or twist. Knitting it altogether is the motivation.”

Edwards is clearly proud of his publishing record and recalls joining the exclusive club of authors who have completed another writer’s work posthumously. He was approached by the publisher of Scottish author Bill Knox to finish a novel, ‘The Lazarus Widow’, he’d been working on at the time of his death.

“It was a great manuscript, very polished with lots of notes but no clue whatsoever how it ended! His publisher didn’t know, his wife didn’t know. But it was a fascinating and hugely rewarding experience.”

And what of the future?

“I’ve had books turned into scripts for TV,’ he says. “But for one reason or another they haven’t quite made it. I have a new book the ‘Arsenic Labyrinth’ due to be published in February, and I’m very excited about it. My goal is simply to continue writing books that people enjoy.”

‘The Cipher Garden’, the second Lake District mystery featuring Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind, is published in paperback by Allison & Busby.