Which was the first book (of any type) to make a strong impression on you – and why?
The Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton was a mystery I found exciting at the age of six or seven, although I never expected then that I too would myself one day write a mystery – The Arsenic Labyrinth – set among abandoned copper mines!
At what point did you discover that you had some facility with the written word?
From a very young age, I was fascinated by words and the art of story-telling. A useful facility to have, compensating to some extent for countless skills that I lack.
What attracted you to crime writing?
I encountered Agatha Christie’s novels at the age of nine. By that point I already knew that I wanted to become a story-teller, and my enjoyment of Christie’s puzzles led to my falling in love with the genre.
Was All the Lonely People (1991) your first completed novel? Any rejections along the way?
After I left university, I wrote a thriller about football called Dead Shot. I ran out of money to pay the typist, so although it was written out in longhand, no complete typescript ever came into existence. Probably just as well. I knew it wasn’t good enough to be published, so I never sent it anywhere. But writing it was a way of proving to myself that I had the stamina and commitment to complete a novel. All I had to do then was to write one that people would be willing to pay good money for.
What were you trying to achieve with those first few novels?
I wanted to write entertaining whodunits with a nod to tradition, but with a contemporary feel. Harry Devlin was the same age as me when I started writing – but he has aged rather less rapidly than me! I was keen to keep readers guessing, just as Christie used to tease me many years earlier. Without wishing to be in any way didactic, I also wanted to say something about British life in the late 20th century, not just in Liverpool, but in urban society generally. Similarly, the more recent Lake District Mysteries include reflections on the pressures of rural life in the 21st century.
Major influences on your writing?
Apart from Christie, I have long admired the likes of Julian Symons, Michael Gilbert, Ruth Rendell and Reginald Hill. And there’s something about Kafka’s The Trial that has haunted me since I first read it at school. But all these influences are indirect; I’m writing my own books, not trying to follow in anyone’s footsteps.
Which comes first for you – plot, place or characters – and why?
I start with an intriguing reason why one person might want to murder another. So it’s character-driven, because of the focus on psychological plausibility. But because the motive for the crime isn’t immediately obvious, it acts as a spark for plot creation, too.
You are also a noted anthologist and short story writer. What draws you most to the short story form?
The opportunity to experiment with my writing, to stretch and develop my talents, and try out fresh ideas for character, setting and theme. Plus the fact that you don’t have to invest a year or more of your life into the creation of a short story – so you can be bold, and take risks you might not dare to take in a novel. I wrote historical and rural short stories before I wrote books with a historical or Lake District background, and I also enjoy exploring ideas that might not work as well in a full-length book.
What do you consider your strongest points as a writer?
I set out to integrate plot, character, and setting in a way that I hope readers will find enjoyable.
In what skill (as a writer) would you most like to improve?
I’d like to find it easier to write descriptive passages. Although my Lake District settings have been praised by reviewers, I find those atmospheric rural scenes rather hard work.
Any (printable) views on critics, particularly in the crime field?
It’s a shame that major critics in newspapers and magazines are given so little opportunity to consider books other than the inevitable best-sellers. There is more leeway with online reviews, but of course, their quality tends to be variable. I’ve been lucky with my reviews over the years, so my over-riding feeling is one of gratitude to critics – most of all, to those who have made an effort to understand what I am trying to do. When I review the books of others, I remind myself that a critic who doesn’t make an effort in good faith to understand what an author is aiming to achieve probably shouldn’t be a critic.
What is your definition of writing Heaven? And writing Hell?
I’m tempted to say, endless time to write – and the opposite! On a more practical, yet extremely important, level, having a publisher who really believes in and cares about you as a writer, and is prepared to show long-term commitment has to be pretty heavenly.
How do you relax?
I enjoy watching soccer and cricket (except when my teams are losing), reading, watching films, and listening to music. I also rather like wandering round gardens when I ought to be working in my own. As for travel, relaxing on the deck of a cruise ship as it sails towards or from some beautiful island like Santorini or Madeira is wonderfully therapeutic, and I’d like to do a bit more of that in the future.
Favourite news media: old (print) or new (electronic)?
Increasingly, I am resorting to the online versions of those broadsheets that don’t have a paywall.
What book(s) are you reading at the moment?
A translation by my wife of Les Magiciennes by Boileau and Narcejac, and Highsmith by Marijane Meaker.
Which new(ish) writer have you most enjoyed reading recently?
I really enjoyed Belinda Bauer’s debut Blacklands. Novels about serial killers are two-a-penny, but this was a new take on a tired old concept.
‘Desert Island’ films, plays and/or music?
Body Heat, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Don’t Look Now, The Real Inspector Hound, Death of a Salesman, The Caretaker, pretty much anything written by Burt Bacharach, John Barry or Paul Simon. My all-time favourite song is Walk on By (the Dionne Warwick version, not The Strangers’…)
A favourite book shop?
Poisoned Pen, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Plus many new and second hand bookshops in the UK – it would be invidious to choose between them.
Are you in favour of the death penalty for murder?
Which living person do you most admire?
Burt Bacharach, whose subtle yet instantly accessible music has enriched the lives of countless millions of people, including mine.
Who or what makes you laugh?
P.G.Wodehouse, Tony Hancock, Monty Python, One Foot in the Grave, the original Reggie Perrin series, FawltyTowers, Outnumbered, and Billy Liar.
What excites you most about contemporary Britain?
Seeing it through the eyes of my children, who are 21 and 18 respectively, and being reminded that it remains a country of infinite possibilities.
What depresses you most about contemporary Britain?
My aim is to avoid getting depressed, but I do think there is a tendency to settle for mediocrity instead of striving for excellence. When this happens in education, as it often does with the best of intentions, it amounts to a betrayal of young people. When it happens in business, for instance with “quality standards” and other forms of bureaucracy that have nothing to do with real quality, it explains why our economy is weaker than it could be.
What single thing would most improve the quality of your life?
Not having to commute to work. So I am starting to scale down my day job and have more time to devote to writing.
Which non-crime book would you most like to have written?
Lord of the Flies
Which crime novel would you most like to have written? And why?
Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion, because it so brilliantly integrates plot, character and atmosphere. If you allowed me a second choice, I’d opt for And Then There Were None, because it is superb both in concept and execution.
Which, of your own work to date, is the book which you consider came off best?
Dancing for the Hangman, a novel about the life of Dr Crippen, told from his point of view. I stayed true to the established facts and tried to use the novelist’s imagination to explain those features of the case that have baffled so many criminologists. I’m rather proud of the novel, and it earned great reviews. It also, I suspect, sold fewer copies than any of my other books. I’m not quite sure what lesson to draw from that – perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it too much!
Reproduced from CADs 63 by kind permission of Bob Cornwell, who put the questions, and editor Geoff Bradley