Murder with a Mersey Beat

Sixties pop music forms the soundtrack for my novels about the Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin. The titles of the books (seven of them so far, with an eighth due in 2008) are all taken from songs that made the ‘hit parade’ charts in that decade: All the Lonely People, Suspicious Minds, I Remember You, Yesterday’s Papers, Eve of Destruction, The Devil in Disguise and First Cut is the Deepest have already appeared. The next book in the series, which opens the second generation of Harry Devlin novels, will be called Waterloo Sunset after the wonderful Kinks hit, written by the legendary Ray Davies (whose agent, by the way, is that excellent crime writer Paul Charles). These titles are, to my way of thinking, much more than a gimmick. In one way or another, each reflects a theme, concern or plot element in the novel in question and I like to think that they add richness to the story-lines.

All the Lonely People has a special place in my affections, as it was my debut crime novel. In the UK, it appeared originally in 1991, and was nominated for the John Creasey Memorial Dagger for the best first crime novel of that year – the eventual winner was Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. The book introduces Harry, and opens with the brief return to his riverside apartment of his estranged wife Liz. Before long Liz has been found dead and Harry becomes a prime suspect. So he has a double motive to uncover the identity of the person who has murdered her. He needs to clear his name, but also – and more importantly – he yearns to see justice done for a woman with whom he remained infatuated.

A crucial plot element in the book concerns an alibi provided by a night club singer’s rendition, in Harry’s presence, of ballads including ‘Don’t Make Me Over’ and ‘The Look of Love’. Both tracks were written by my favourite American composer, the legendary Burt Bacharach, and the success of the book prompted me to utilise Bacharach references in each of the Devlin novels, as a sort of leitmotif, or at least lucky charm.

The title of All the Lonely People comes, of course, from a line in the classic Lennon and McCartney song ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and naturally a series set in the Beatles’ home city makes plentiful references to the Mersey Sound of which ‘the Fab Four’ were the leading exponents. The fourth book in the series, Yesterday’s Papers, focuses on the sixties scene in Liverpool, as Harry investigates a crime dating back to the era of Beatlemania. The cover of the UK hardback edition of the book depicts (rather imaginatively, I must say) the Cavern Club, where the Beatles first made their name. Nowadays, I act as the lawyer for the company that owns the Cavern Club and my clients were generous enough to hang a framed copy of the artwork in the Cavern bar. In the story, Harry picks up a vital clue to the solution of the mystery when he studies the cover of an old record album. One day whilst I was writing the book, I was driving to work through the Liverpool suburb of Aigburth (a stone’s throw from the house in Riversdale Road, near the cricket ground, where James Maybrick, allegedly a murder victim, allegedly Jack the Ripper, died.) I was wrestling with a plot problem. Stopping at traffic lights, I listened to Hal David’s sharp lyric to ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’. I’d heard it a thousand times before, but by the time the lights turned green, I had been given the answer to the riddle that was teasing me. In much the same way, Harry sees light dawn as regards the murder mystery he is investigating when he listens to Dionne Warwick singing the song.

The titles of two other Bacharach songs, ‘A House is not a Home’ and ‘I Say a Little Prayer’, gave me titles for two Devlin short stories, both of which appear in my collection

Where do you find your ideas? and other crime stories. In the sixth Devlin book, The Devil in Disguise, Bacharach and David’s musical comedy ‘Promises, Promises’ features in a Liverpudlian revival which plays a crucial part in the plot. By this time, though, I was beginning to wonder if I ought to start seeking out other sources of inspiration! As a result, once I had completed First Cut is the Deepest and the late Bill Knox’s Scottish police novel The Lazarus Widow (no musical references of any consequence in that one), I resolved to write a novel that stood apart from the Devlin series and had a title that owed nothing to pop music. After much agonising, I decided to call it Guilty Creatures, only to discover that another author, albeit not in the crime genre, had decided to give her latest book the same title. So I had to find another title – and the choice was made when my eyes fell upon a CD named after its own title track, Take My Breath Away. The phrase was too perfectly suited to the story-line for me to resist.

Waterloo Sunset will, I hope, take the Devlin series to a different level. By the time the book is published (and this is the very first time a Devlin book has been bought in advance by an American publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, as well as by a British publisher) almost a decade will have passed since I wrote First Cut is the Deepest. If a week is a long time in politics, then ten years is an eternity in the life of a detective character. Harry has moved on, in ways the book will explain, and so has Liverpool. In 2008, the year of publication, the city will be European Capital of Culture, and there is every reason to hope that after long years of economic depression, Liverpool is transforming into something modern, vibrant and prosperous. Harry’s main concern is that the much-needed urban facelift doesn’t become a heart transplant. There’s no need, because Liverpool has never, ever, lacked heart. But just as the city in which I’ve worked, and which I’ve loved, since 1980 is changing, so is Harry’s life changing. What the future holds, nobody really knows. But it promises to be exciting. As well as a little scary….