Born in Belfast, Adrian McKinty is an Irish crime novelist who has made Melbourne Australia his home since 2008. He has also lived in the United States where he taught English.
Adrian has written two trilogies (the Michael Forsythe and Lighthouse trilogies), a six-part series (the Sean Duffy series), and several standalone novels (Fifty Grand, Falling Glass, and The Sun Is God). Adrian has also written for the The Washington Post, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Melbourne Age and Harpers Magazine.
Adrian's awards include (and are by no means limited to):
- Rain Dogs (part of the Sean Duffy series) won the 2017 Edgar Award and was shortlisted for the 2016 Ned Kelly Award and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger 2016.
- Gun Street Girl was shortlisted for the 2016 Edgar Award and the 2015 Ned Kelly Award.
- In The Morning I'll Be Gone won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award and was named as one of the 10 best crime novels of 2014 by the American Library Association.
- I Hear The Sirens In The Street was shortlisted for the 2013 Ned Kelly Awards.
- Dead I Well May Be, Adrian's debut novel, was short-listed for the CWA Steel Dagger Award 2004.
- Adrian’s love of reading started with science fiction, and in particular Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson.
- Adrian enjoys reading the crime writers Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson.
- Adrian set the Sean Duffy novels in the street, and indeed the house, he grew up in.
- Venerable Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History of England inspired the s’s at the beginning and end of Gun Street Girl (the fourth volume in the Sean Duffy series).
- When writing crime, Adrian prefers decision-making (for example, in King Lear) over bad timing (like in Romeo and Juliet) to drive the action. He gives an example from Breaking Bad, when Walter White (in all his arrogance) leaves a copy of Walt Whitman in the bathroom, a mistake of his own making that eventually leads to his downfall.
Intro: Adrian McKinty is an Irish-born crime writer who lives in Melbourne. His Sean Duffy novels have won critical acclaim and numerous awards. Set in Ireland in the 1980s, his stories contain all the elements of great crime fiction: fast-pace, fraught characters, and twists and turns galore. Adrian’s love of storytelling started in the same place as so many of the writers I’ve interviewed: science fiction.
Adrian: It was the era of just when all those guys were still alive.
Nic: Yeah, so who were your favourites?
Adrian: Guys and gals. Like Ursula Le Guin was one of my huge… and she’s still with us, thank god! She was one of my favourites, and Isaac Asimov was still alive and Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, so I, basically Brian Aldiss… It was… Arthur C. Clarke was still alive and on TV a lot. So, I was so fortunate to live in the Golden Age of science fiction. Those guys were all still coming, and then you had those outsiders who were just reaching their climax as well. Philip K. Dick wrote about 15 or 16 novels in the 70s. And then to the early ‘80s you got the birth of cyberpunk with William Gibson and all those guys coming through. So, it was mostly science fiction.
Nic: What was it about science fiction that grabbed your attention then? Why?
Adrian: It was because it had absolutely nothing to do with Belfast, because Belfast in the 70s was a nightmare.
Adrian: And I just didn’t want anything to do with Ireland or the UK or politics or any of those idiots that I would see on the TV all the time. And science fiction was just this wonderful escape.
I wasn’t so much into the fantasy, the high fantasy, but I loved speculative and science fiction.
Nic: OK, yeah that makes total sense, as escapism from the world around you which I imagine was pretty gritty and brutal.
Adrian: Yeah. I mean the circumstances were just… Well, there’s no way of sugar-coating it. I mean really when I was watching the scenes of the evacuation of Aleppo about two or three months ago, and Belfast in about 1974 was really like that. People were just fleeing the city, there was fire bombs and bombs going off all the time.
Where I lived, which was this little town called Carrickfergus about four miles from the centre of Belfast, it was just filled with people leaving the city all the time. So, there was really this sense of doom, and this feeling of being under this blitz that was happening all the time.
But there was all this strange and interesting vibe, this feeling of community. And I grew up in a working class street, a council house, and basically everybody was working class. And at the end of the 70s everybody lost their jobs because everybody worked for the same factory, and the factory closed and moved onto Malaysia, and so basically every single person that we knew there, their Dad lost their job. It sounds awful – and it was terrible – but also everybody was in it together, and there was this tremendous sense of community that was really ripe as well.
And I felt really fortunate in a lot of ways because my street, the street where the Duffy novels take place – I was a bit cheeky, I put Duffy, Sean Duffy, in the house where I was born and grew up. So, I actually have them in my street with all my real neighbours under assumed names because I don’t that great imagination.
But my street, it was the very last street in the Belfast urban area. So, if you went one way, it was all city city city, right to the very centre of Belfast. But if you went the other way, in about two minutes you’d be in this Irish countryside… like 19th century. You know, there wasn’t a lot of… there were poor farms, so people didn’t have a lot of farm machinery, they used donkeys to get around, they had horses and carts and they lived in these white-washed farmhouses. So, you know, it was very strange because 10 minutes one direction and you’re in the middle of this low-level civil war, with army soldiers filling streets with helicopters above your head – you’re basically in Blade Runner. Then you walk five or 10 minutes the other way, and you’re in this bucolic 19th century Maeve Binchy novel, you know, it was a very odd place.
Nic: I mean in your novels you mix that urban environment and the country very well, so, that’s obviously where it came from. At that time, of course there was one other way of escaping Ireland, I guess, was through music. There was some unbelievably great bands that came out from that time.
Adrian: Oh yeah.
Nic: I was wondering was music a love of yours?
Adrian: Oh yeah. Well it was basically a love of everybody. I mean you were expected as a child to learn an instrument, when every single person on the street, you were expected to do your turn at a party or in the pub. So, if you couldn’t sing – which I couldn’t really – you were expected to learn an instrument. So, everybody learned something, whether a fiddle or a guitar or trumpet or violin, just whatever. Everyone was expected to learn musical instruments, and everyone’s expected to play something.
And then there was just this rich musical tradition, just so, so deep. Which I rebelled against completely because I hate, I grew to hate all that music, you know, that Irish folk music, because it was on all the time. For about 25 years I hated country music just because that’s… I blush to say it now, but I, there was a period where I wouldn’t listen to Dolly Parton. And now of course I worship Dolly Parton. But just because you heard that all the time, you heard, you know as the saying goes, ‘There was two types of music, there was country and western’. And everybody just played a lot of country music, a lot of Irish traditional music.
And then my sister became a music teacher. She was teaching classical music, so she was always playing all this incredible classic music all the time in the house. And so, it was very strong interesting musical milieu.
And then I got the luckiest break of any kid ever, because my big brother was a hipster and he was into all this stuff that other people weren’t into, like Deep Purple and Bob Marley, and had all the Beatles and the Stones, all those albums. But also like obscure albums you know, like Lynyrd Skynyrd – which nobody was listening to – and all these weird albums from the Kinks that nobody really knew about. And he was collecting all this stuff that was never in the charts, it was all this album. And then he moved to London when he was 18 and he left his record collection for me and my little brother. So, we were, we had this, like what is this!
Adrian: And we put up this Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, and go ‘WOW!’ I’ve not heard anything like this on Top of the Pops. You know, it was blowing our minds.
So also that was just a great era for music as well. I remember when the first Sex Pistols’ song come on in like 76 or 77 or something, we just thought, ‘And what’s this? You’re allowed to do this?’
Nic: It was a pivotal moment in my life.
Adrian: Yeah, it was just incredible.
Nic: And when I think of Irish music, I think of the Undertones, the Stiff Little Fingers.
Adrian: Oh yeah, well my very first concert in my entire life – it just seems like such a weird combination – I went to this leisure centre in Belfast and I saw the Undertones and Motörhead on the same bill.
Nic: How bizarre!
Adrian: How did these two groups get on? Well, they just did. I don’t know how, this was 1978. Undertones and Motörhead, so it was fantastic!
Nic: So, from science fiction as you were growing older, in your teens, late teens, were you still into science fiction or were you starting to read wider?
Adrian: Yeah. Early on when I went to high school I decided that novels were not for me, because we had a very strict Irish traditional education so we never studied anything from the 20th century. So, we did a lot of Thomas Hardy and Dickens and Anthony Trollope and Thackeray. And I just thought that was the most boring stuff in the world.
And then your teacher would catch you reading, you know I, Robot or something, and then your teacher would be saying, ‘Oh! Why are you reading that trash?’ And you go, ‘Really?’ and ‘Yes, it’s absolute rubbish! You should be reading’ you know, this obscure Trollope…
Nic: Tristram Shandy or something like that, yeah.
Adrian: Yeah, exactly. Or Tristram Shandy would’ve been too exciting because the sex and the black page and the elliptical dialogue and everything, you know. Tristram Shandy would’ve been considered vulgar.
So, we did a lot of that. And I just sort of thought, ‘I hate this stuff!’ So that must mean I hate just novels. I hate fiction. And soon as I can drop English, I am going to drop it. And when you got to, I remember, we did three Thomas Hardy novels in a row. I remember, we would be constantly told this is great literature, this is what great literature is. And there’s an amazing one, I think it’s Return of the Native, and it begins with a 15 page description of a heath.
Adrian: And first four pages are the heath in the summer, and it goes to the heath in the autumn. And you go, ‘OK Thomas, what comes next? We’re going to get five pages, yup, five pages on the heath in the winter. And then you go, ‘OK, I can see what’s coming.’ Yup. Another four – and that’s how it starts!‘
Nic: What goes through the mind of a teacher who thinks, trying to get kids interested in reading and they give them that, it’s just beyond comprehension.
Adrian: I mean, it’s just, there’s no character, there’s dialogue, nothing’s happening, there’s just this heath!
Nic: But I love your descriptions of heaths in your books.
Adrian: I know.
Nic: And that’s where it comes from…
Adrian: I guess the guy worked his magic on me. Hardy got stuck in my brain somewhere, you know. One of the things I actually, I’m a little bit I guess, the punk mentality coupled with some weird Thomas Hardy mentality has got stuck in my head. Sometimes I like to begin a novel with a page of description.
And I actually think of this perversely in my head and I think, I don’t want somebody to just pick this up casually in a bookshop. A lot of crime novels begin with action. They begin with this spicy dialogue and then you get disappointed because the rest of the book isn’t like that. I don’t want to begin with too exciting. I like to begin at quite boring, and then if they’re with me through the boring stuff on page one and page two, then I can reward them. Whereas this casual person who just picks it up, I don’t know if they’d be disappointed when I suddenly have a one-and-a-half-page description of Duffy lighting a cigarette.
Nic: That would be a hard thing to get past an editor, I would imagine.
Adrian: Well I wrote this book a few years ago – what was that one called? It was called Gun Street Girl – and I had this idea for the opening page. I wanted it to begin with, there’s this description that Venerable Bede has in his Ecclesiastical History of England, where he describes life. He said ‘life is like a bird, at night flying through a great hall, and it flies from darkness into the great hall and there’s all this feasting and light, and then it flies back out into the darkness again’. And it’s this flight from darkness into the great hall and out again into the darkness. And I love that description, and I thought I’d really like to begin a crime novel where it just begins with nothingness, because you’ve got those blank pages at the beginning. And then you have like static – just a page of static – and then gradually go into the novel, and then the novel ends, and then you have static and you have nothingness. And I thought this would be a really nice way to start a novel.
So, I began this novel Gun Street Girl with just – I did the big letter S – and then I just had a page full of s’s. Again, that was in the back of my mind, well this’ll get rid of the casual reader.
Nic: That’s right!
Adrian: No one’s going to pick this up by accident in the airport. They’ll be thinking to themselves, ‘Well this guy’s obviously nuts. I’m not going to read this book’. Or somebody might go, ‘Wow, what’s all this about?’ So, get rid of nine tenths of your audience and you’re left with one tenth, is your pitch.
Nic: That’s it.
Adrian: I had this page of s’s at the beginning of this book.
Nic: You’re left with one tenth of your audience and a bit of integrity.
Adrian: Yeah, exactly. And I said to my editor and she read it and she said, ‘You know, I like this book but tough first page’.
Nic: Got to go.
Adrian: ‘It has to go!’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not, I’m not going to compromise’ and so we back and forth, back and forth.
And she said, ‘But I don’t even understand what you’re talking about. What is this Venerable Bede, bird, what are you going on about mate? You’re so full of yourself! Just get off your high horse’ and you know. So, I said, ‘All right, I’ll cut it down a paragraph’. So I agreed to a paragraph.
And then it goes to the copy editor and the copy editor sends me this note, it’s just, ‘What happened? Did your fingers got stuck on the S key, what is this?’ You know, you’re just embarrassed by that, and you go, ‘All right, I’ll cut it down to two sentences’. And then you read the final thing and it’s like five s’s at the beginning.
Nic: That’s it.
Adrian: And that’s it, and that’s the compromise. And then it ends with the five s’s at the end.
Nic: In my experience, you’ve really got to pick your fights with publishers and editors because you win very few of them, so you’ve got to only fight the ones that you really believe are worth dying over.
Adrian: Yeah you do, you have to. Look I had – in my most recent novel Police at the Station – I have this thing where I don’t have a, there’s this fictional character and instead of giving you the guy’s name, I have asterisks over the name.
Nic: I was just going to ask you about that. Because I wasn’t sure why you did that.
Adrian: And I wanted the idea to be in the reader’s mind that it was a real person but that it had been censored by the publisher.
Adrian: Whereas if I put a fictional name in, it wouldn’t have drawn attention to it. Nobody would’ve paid attention.
Adrian: So, I have this real person in, and I have these asterisks. So, it looks as if it’s been censored by the publisher. Now I went to do the audiobook version of the book, they said, ‘How the hell are we going to do that?’ And I said, ‘What I’d like you to do is, I’d like you to begin to say something and then be bleeped’.
Adrian: And then it looks like you’re saying it. And he said, ‘What will I say?’ ‘You can say anything, it doesn’t matter, because it’s being bleeped over’.
And so that’s how we do the audiobook. And it looks as if some sort of weird hand of censorship has reached down from the sky and has censored the novel.
Nic: You’ll probably be pleased to know I spent two minutes trying to work out who it was [laughs].
Adrian: Oh, you can work it out.
Nic: No, I gave up, I’ve got no patience.
Adrian: It’s… I got an instant message on Twitter from Ian Rankin.
Nic: Oh right.
Adrian: And he said to me, ‘This is this’. And I go, ‘Yeah, absolutely’. He worked it out like, but his wife is from Belfast, so he worked it out in about two minutes.
Nic: So how did you go from being someone who was totally turned off books and novels, to becoming a great crime writer and deciding to start to write books? I know you studied law, but it’s still a long way from actually writing. So, tell me little bit about, well about both those things.
Adrian: Well yeah like so I dropped English at 15 basically after my O Levels. And I decided that was it, I’m never reading another book again. I sort of forgot the pleasure I’d had in reading these science fiction novels.
Nic: Sure, yeah.
Adrian: Because I really enjoyed those. So, I went and I did my A Levels – the last two years of school in Britain and Ireland – and I did mostly sciences and mathematics and then I, for some reason, I wanted to go to law school.
I thought that, I got sucked in by all those law dramas on TV. Where it looks great, it looks fantastic, you’re standing up in court, there’s this innocent person, you get them off. Or you’re prosecuting and there’s this guilty person and you send them away...
Nic: I remember watching, seeing Paul Newman’s…
Adrian: Oh The Verdict!
Nic: The Verdict! And I go, ‘Wow! That’s just it’.
Adrian: That’s the profession!
Nic: You drink most of the time but then you roll up in court and you get someone off.
Adrian: Yeah you wear a nice suit, you know. People sort of respect you, and you don’t have to do much work, you just sort of show up in court and you do this amazing bit of oratory and…
Nic: You’ve only got to give one speech at the end and it’s all yours.
Adrian: Yeah! Or My Cousin Vinny does the same thing. He just uses street smarts, he knows almost nothing about the law at all, and he gets the guy off. So I thought the law was like that. And then I went to law school and, ‘Oh my god, this is the most boring thing I’ve ever done in my entire life’. It’s so tedious! And I thought, ‘My god, I long for the days when I could read a Thomas Hardy novel, because this is such utter crap!’ You know, you’re reading these 18th century legal cases and you’re reading Blackstone’s Commentaries on these legal cases and you just go, ‘Oh, this is absolutely torture!’
And as respite from these really dry tedious law cases – most of them were from the 19th century – I started reading fiction again. And it was such a joy! I would read anything in that period, and it was so easy compared to the law. I mean I would pick up Return of the Native again and I’d fly through it in a weekend.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Adrian: I’d be reading The Brothers Karamazov, which is this thick.
Nic: Yeah, it’s not easy to get into.
Adrian: I remember reading that in about a week and a half, because it was so much fun after reading some awful… I mean there was the occasional legal case that was quite funny. There was the one where, I think it was Bowers v. Hardwick where they ate the cabin boy and then tried to get off from the murder conviction. That was quite a good one.
Nic: John Mortimer wrote a couple of great collections of bizarre court cases. They’re really good, really good.
Adrian: Yeah, the ones that were half interesting stuck in my mind forever.
Nic: Well yeah, and as a crime writer you want those sorts of things to stick in your mind.
Adrian: Yeah. But the vast majority of them were not interesting at all.
Nic: No, that’s right.
Adrian: And also the judgments were written in such tedious, I mean they’d have to be, because they’ve got to be concise, they’ve got to be clear.
So that’s when I really started reading again. And just basically ended up reading everything. Basically, in the three years I was doing this law degree, I read all the classics, all the 20th century classics, I went back and read a lot of science fiction and then started reading crime fiction. I particularly got into Chandler and Hammett, and this guy called – I don’t know if you know Jim Thompson’s work? I just love Jim Thompson. I just, I thought he was incredible!
Nic: What was it about him that?
Adrian: I just love the, I love the milieu. I mean Chandler is quite, it’s quite exotic and sophisticated worlds, Chandler… Marlowe’s going up to Beverly Hills a lot, and he’s investigating these murders with these rich folks, they’re making movies, and there’s movie stars. That’s the world.
But Jim Thompson. All his novels are set in small town Oklahoma with these grifters who have a plan for robbing the post office of 15 dollars, and you’re just reading these books and you’re going, you know it’s not going work.
Nic: Sure, absolutely.
Adrian: They’ve got this fool-proof plan for robbing the post office. And they’re all so short – they’re about 130 pages long – you can read them in about two hours.
And you just, your heart sinks and you just go, ‘Oh, please don’t do it! Please don’t try and do it!’ You know, and this guy, they want to do the robbery for such good reasons, you know, they need the money for the mother’s operation, or to help their kid who’s paralysed, get them a new wheelchair, something.
Nic: That’s right.
Adrian: They’re just right on the edge, or even to feed their family and everything, and they do this robbery and it always goes wrong. And the thing I liked about Thompson, it would always go wrong not just through bad luck but also through a little bit of incompetence or a little bit of arrogance you know. It was an action that they were in control of but let slip. I mean it’s easy to do, I mean Romeo and Juliet is just bad timing. You know, that’s not as interesting as King Lear, when it’s Lear who makes all these decisions.
Nic: Decision making isn’t it, it’s exactly right…
Adrian: Yeah your decision making has caused all this trouble.
Nic: That’s right, and that’s a great point for people who’s interested in writing: making things happen because of decisions, bad decisions or wrong decisions or just the ramifications of decisions, rather than things just happening.
Nic: Or things happening by luck or coincidence.
Adrian: Bad luck and coincidence, I mean, they have their place.
Nic: They do indeed.
Adrian: And you know, bad luck and bad things do happen to good people going about their days. But it’s more interesting if people are brought down by their own decision making and their own hubris, like Breaking Bad. I thought it was really wonderful how it all went wrong – I don’t know, did you see it?
Nic: Yeah, yeah absolutely!
Adrian: So, I love the fact that it all went wrong from the fact that – what’s his name?
Nic: Walter White.
Adrian: Walter White. So, Walter White, he leaves on the toilet, in the little stand next to the toilet this book of poems…
Nic: By Walt Whitman.
Adrian: Yeah by Walt Whitman that his accomplice has given him. Now nothing else… he would’ve had an easy life, there would’ve been no trouble but for the fact that a bit of hubris.
Nic: That’s right.
Adrian: He thought, ‘I can taunt the policeman right in front of his face with this book of poems. And I can get away with it’.
And I love that because that was drawing up this latent element in his character which was always there.
Nic: Absolutely, totally.
Adrian: And then he over-reached and he’s brought down by his own hubris, rather than bad luck or making a silly mistake or things like that. So I love that. And I love a detective novel when the detective uses his intelligence to solve the crime.
Adrian: In 2005, I was back in Belfast and I had a few books out and had a few successes – critically anyway, not big bestsellers but been up for a few awards and things like that – and the BBC had asked me to come in and pitch a show to them.
Adrian: So, I’d gone in to the BBC in Belfast and they said to me, ‘Come in on Friday and pitch a show’. So I thought about it for a few days. They sat down, these three people from the BBC and they said, ‘What do you think will make a good TV show?’
This is like 2005, and the troubles have just ended maybe not too long ago. And I said, ‘What about a cop show set in Belfast in the ‘70s?’
And they said, ‘I think the ‘70s are due for a comeback. The music, the styles, the fashion. I think this would be an amazing milieu for a cop show and especially for an old-school cop show like Starsky & Hutch and The Sweeney. You know, just those flares alone, that would be fantastic. So, a 70s-style cop show set in Belfast, two buddies, two partners, and you’ve got the added excitement of Belfast, which is the city on the brink of civil war.
So I said, ‘And if you ever have any trouble with the actors they’d just get blown up’.
So I pitched this show and I thought in my mind that it’d gone really well. Because I thought, ‘Well this is fantastic, who wouldn’t want to make this TV?’
Adrian: And the three people at the BBC were just looking at me like I’ve grown an extra head or something. And this guy in the middle he just leans forward and says, ‘Young man, I have to tell you something brutally honestly’.
And I go, ‘Yeah?’Because I was expecting good news.
And he says, ‘It’s one of the worst ideas we’ve ever heard’.
And I go, ‘The worst ideas? Are you sure?’
And he goes, ‘Yes.’ And I say, ‘Why?’
And he says, ‘Well, put yourself in our shoes. Can you imagine us taking this to our bosses in London? A cop show set in Troubles era Belfast. Nobody in England wants to watch a show set in Northern Ireland about the Troubles’.
He says, ‘We can never sell this in the Republic of Ireland, because they’re all so embarrassed that all this was happening just above them for 30 years. And he says, ‘Nobody in Northern Ireland ever wants to hear anything about the Troubles ever again, because it just ended.’
And he says, ‘And as for trying to sell this in America, what a joke! The Americans still think it’s the 1950s and The Quiet Man is going on over here’.
Adrian: So, I was just taken aback by this, I couldn’t believe what he was saying. And he said, ‘Furthermore, can give you some advice about your writing career?’ And he said, ‘Never set anything in Belfast. And never set anything in The Troubles. Do yourself a favour, go to your books or look at the crime section and count how many books in that crime section are set in Belfast’.
And so I left and I thought, he can’t be right about this. And I went to the bookstore – Waterstones bookstore – and I looked and he was absolutely right. One hundred and fifty books set in Sweden.
Nic: Gee, that’s…
Adrian: Thirty-five alone in Copenhagen.
Nic: Absolutely! [laughs]
Adrian: You know, 19 Reykjavik. Another 150 in New York. None.
Nic: And a dozen in the Australian outback!
Adrian: Yeah. If you’re going to do an Aussie book it has to be at the Red Centre, you can’t confuse international people by having a nuanced crime novel set in St Kilda.
But yeah, none set in Belfast. And I thought, he’s absolutely right, the punters don’t want it. Nobody wants anything set in Belfast.
So, years later I’m sitting at the blank computer screen and trying to think of an idea for a book. And I know whatever it’s going to be it’s not going to be Belfast. It’s going to be anywhere else, and I’d set books in New York, I’d set books in London, I’d set books in Denver, anywhere else but never Belfast.
I’m thinking about this and I write the first paragraph of what becomes the first Duffy book The Cold Cold Ground, and clearly it’s somebody watching a riot from Knockagh Mountain just on the edges of Belfast. And they’re having this paradoxical view of the riot, they’re thinking how beautiful it is, because they’re just seeing it from above and they’re saying it’s like a ballet, you know, these two streams – the rioters going towards the policemen, the policemen pushing them back – and they’re observing this riot and they’re thinking how extraordinarily beautiful it is to watch this riot.
And I go, god I love, it was lovely, it was one of the best things that I’d ever written, this paragraph, and I said, ‘I’d really love to use this’. But obviously I can’t because it’s set in Northern Ireland and nobody wants to read these books. So, I looked at the paragraph and just with sadness closed it up on my notebook and forgot about it for six months.
About six months later I still haven’t thought of a novel idea and I’m just getting a bit desperate now because deadline’s approaching and I can’t think of anything. And I go back to this notebook and I seize this paragraph set in Belfast in the 80s during The Troubles and all the things I’m not supposed to write about. And I’m looking at it and I’m loving it, and I go, ‘God, it’s a real shame’. Then I thought to myself, what the hell! They can’t tell me what to do, these voices in my head from five or six years ago. Write the book. And I write the book for me and no one will buy it but who cares if nobody buys it. Nobody’s really buying my books anyway.
Adrian: And I’m going to knock my audience down from 450 to 220, who cares?
And so, I wrote this book The Cold Cold Ground, the first of the Duffy novels, and I just had the greatest time with it. I didn’t have – this is a long answer to your question – I didn’t have it plotted out. I just loved going from chapter to chapter and the story was telling me. I wrote it in long hand, just filled up this notebook with this story which I just loved. The music and the food and the crack, and I put all my neighbours in under all their real names. And then I re-wrote it on the computer and then I sort of had to think about plot and character and act structure, and who was the villain, who was the... And then the re-write became a novel.
I sent it to my publishers and they were very sceptical about it and I thought, ‘Oh god! You know, we have to publish this’.
And then they brought it out, and then the funniest thing happened was that it got the best reviews in my career, the highest sales of my career, and I got shortlisted for the Dagger Award and the Edgar Award and I thought, ‘What’s happened here?’ I didn’t understand it.
And then years later I was thinking about this, then I finally understood it. What happened was that I was actually, for the first time in probably my life, was being authentic. And this was coming through. I was actually telling a story which meant something to me in my heart. This world that I’d seen through the eyes of a child, a frightened child. I would’ve been 13 years old, there’s all these scary terrifying men on the street with guns, and the guy three doors down from us in real life was this guy who went to prison for murdering three people. Different times, so he was in fact a serial killer.
I thought, what’s actually happening, instead of writing these crime novels where I’m thinking of what would be a cute story, what’s a good beginning middle and an end, this is actually a distillation of an entire world. It was almost like science fiction in a way, because this bizarre universe – that doesn’t exist anymore, thank god! – I captured and you’re really just in the world of this planet where there was soldiers in the streets and there was men with… you go out to get in the milk in the morning and there’d be men with guns in your front garden as the foot patrol went past or whatever, and you just go ‘Wow! This is so bizarre’. And so I think that must’ve come through to the readers.
Nic: That’s a great point, a great lesson to anybody writing, is to be authentic, to write what you have a passion about and what you know is real. Because you see it all the time, it does come through, and it’s very hard to fake that.
Adrian: Write what’s in your heart and if it’s in your heart. And if it’s in your heart…
Last night I was trying to teach these kids in the short story and I’d forgotten it. Because I always said to the kids… the kids were so resistant. ‘Oh god, why do we have to do this short story? I’ve got nothing to say. I’ve got absolutely nothing to say. My life is so boring, I’m just this boring 16 year old living in Denver, Colorado, nothing ever happens to me’.
And I say, ‘For god’s sake, please when you’re writing your short story keep it as personal as possible. Don’t write a story about the D-Day landings, please don’t write anything about aliens. Just make it as personal as possible and I promise you it will be good’.
And everyone who did that, they made it personal, it was always brilliant.
Adrian: It was always incredible. I remember this girl and she said, she came to me almost crying, she said, ‘I’m going to call in sick. I’m not going to come to your class next week. I’ve got nothing to say’.
And I said, ‘Oh god, just sit at the desk try and think of something. If you sit at the desk for an hour and you turn in a blank piece of paper but you promise you that you tried, I’ll accept it and I’ll give you a C’.
So she turned in this thing and it wasn’t a blank piece of paper, it was four pages long and I said, ‘You see? You thought of something’.
And she said, ‘Oh it’s crap’.
So, I started reading this thing that she’d written and it was a story, it was sort of a non-story about how her house had been burgled. It was true. Her house had been burgled and the thieves had gone into her room and they hadn’t taken anything, but they’d gone into the bottom drawer of her desk and they found her adoption certificate, where her parents had adopted her. And it was just about her feelings of finding this adoption certificate rifled through by these strangers, and how this made her feel sad and violated.
And I remember reading this story, just go, ‘This is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read in my entire life!’ And I was crying! And I gave it to my wife and said, ‘You’ve got to read this! This is so emotional and incredible!’ And she read it, and she was crying.
And then, and I said, ‘If you don’t mind I’m going to read this to the class’. And I read it to the class, and they were all, everybody was weeping because it was so emotionally charged. The thing that held her to this family was this adoption certificate. Her parents had saved her from this world, and then these criminals had come in and they picked this up as if it was nothing and tossed it on the floor. But for her it was more, it was more valuable than all the jewellery, all the money, that was safe. And I remember reading this and just going, this is what story writing is all about.
Adrian: This is everything. And I tried to explain that to the class. In this story she finds a piece of paper on the floor, and it is so much more dramatic than someone getting hit by a bus.
Nic: Sure. Or a bomb going off here and there.
Adrian: Or you know, a war story where the sergeant gets killed. This is beauty and power and everything. And it’s because it’s from the heart it’s authentic, and even if it wasn’t true it wouldn’t matter because the emotions that it evokes are so powerful. And I’d forgotten that lesson which, tell it myself.
And then I realised yeah, that’s why those Duffy books work so well because it’s conveying this world, this terrible world and these genuine emotions that people are going through.
Nic: And once you realise that authenticity worked, you were onto a good thing.
Adrian: Yeah exactly, so I kept writing them. And I think the first book in the series… I think it was a little bit overdone. If I was criticising it now I’d say there’s too much darkness. There’s, I mean it’s a very dark, wet, rainy book, and it’s an angry book in a lot of places. And I think, my feeling was that this is going to be the only one. And you’re always thinking that. If this is going to be the only novel I write, then I’m going to put EVERYTHING in it. It’s going to be all in this book. So, everything’s in that book.
But then when I realised it’d been received well, and I was going to maybe write two or three more, and I took foot off the petrol a little bit. And I thought to myself, ‘Well let me enjoy this world. Let me go to interesting places, and I don’t have to squeeze everything into this one, and the next one I can do this’. So, I was a little bit more controlled with the art of writing the story.
So, the story is a little bit better in the second book. And in the third book, I’m really comfortable now in the world, so I think the story elements are balanced well, the narrative elements. And another thing I got more comfortable doing was introducing humour, because I’d been told by editors all my life, ‘Your jokes don’t translate, Adrian, nobody’s laughing. You may think this is hilarious, but no one else is laughing at your jokes’.
And so, I was really scared of putting in humour. And this was particularly daunting talking about Belfast and that era, because there was such a vein of black dark humour everywhere. Terrible things would be happening all the time and then the next thing would happen to be a pause and somebody’d make a joke. But a terrible thing would’ve just happened.
And you just go, ‘Oh my god! I can use that!’ While you’re laughing. And then someone else would try and outdo that sick joke. So, this black really dark humour was happening all the time. And I’d watched, in the 1980s they started making all these Troubles films, they made all these films with Mickey Rourke and Harrison Ford and, Tommy Lee Jones I remember was in one of them, and The Crying Game was another one.
Nic: Of course.
Adrian: And in about 10 of these Troubles films. They were all terrible, every single of them was terrible. They were all terrible for different reasons but one of the things I thought they completely failed, was they completely failed to capture the vernacular of people in Northern Ireland. Because people in Northern Ireland are very dry, they’re very dark, and they’ve got a very deadpan humour. Especially to an outsider, you might not realise that they’re being funny when in fact they’re doing this very dry very sarcastic very ironic humour. And that was never translated in any of these films. The people are just basically one-note psychopaths or one-note comedic drunk falling down Irishman.
So, I thought let’s have nuance, let’s have humour, let’s have… and as the series has gone on I have allowed myself to be a little bit funnier. And actually people do get the jokes.
Nic: Yeah and it comes across in the latest one, very much so.
Why do you think the crime genre continues to be popular? I mean its popularity has never really waned, it doesn’t go out of favour, it just gets more and more fans.
Adrian: Well I remember seeing something, I think it was P.D. James said, you know, she said it was very comforting to have this world that everybody knew and then the world disordered and then a detective comes in and he sets the world to rights again at the end of the story. So, people like tipping their toes into the water of chaos but knowing that it’ll all be all right in the end.
I remember listening to that and I didn’t think it was very adequate explanation because in the Jim Thompson novels I’d read, it’s basically, it started off ordered and then it got chaotic, and then it ended in nine different places and all of them were bad. I thought, those aren’t the crime fiction novels that I liked, you know, this made well-made novel. Or the idea that, the Agatha Christie type novel, The Golden Age, where you’ve got this puzzle and people like the intellectual pursuits of
Nic: Sure, trying to work it out.
Adrian: And I’ve written some puzzle novels, and some I haven’t done puzzle novels. So, it’s not that either.
I think it’s just because it’s such a broad genre you can capture all aspects of the world. I love the fact that a detective can just go up to people and they have to answer his questions.
Adrian: Like almost everybody always to answer the detective’s questions. So, you can go up to a High Court judge and he has to answer your questions. You can go to the gardener and he has to answer your questions. You can ask other policemen questions and they have to answer it.
So, you’ve got this burning arrow that can fly through all ranks of society, investigating all these different layers, which you can’t really do in any other milieu.
And I think the final thing that I really like about detective fiction is that it’s one of the few places where you actually saw blue-collar characters. Again, I grew up in the era 1980s when the English fiction of that time was very posh. You had, basically it was a North London set. There was Kingsley Amis, there was Julian Barnes, there was Iris Murdoch – well she lived at Oxford, I used to see her at the supermarket. I used to say to people at the supermarket, I used to go, ‘It’s Iris Murdoch!’ And they’d go, ‘Who?’ ‘Iris! It’s Iris Murdoch! You know, buying the chicken!’ And nobody was terribly impressed which you know, always made me think I was being surrounded by barbarians. Anyway, it was very posh, that London elite. You know, I’d read a Julian Barnes novel from the 80s and think, as Morrissey once said, ‘This says nothing to me about my life’.
Nic: That says it very well.
Adrian: Yeah, he says it very well but it’s – apart from this milieu, I just don’t care about these upper middle-class people living in Highgate. You know, having affairs with one another. By the time you read the 13th novel where that’s the milieu and that’s the story and you just go, ‘Oh, really? Again?’
Nic: Which I don’t care for because I grew up in the next suburb to Highgate.
Adrian: What was the next?
Nic: Muswell Hill.
Adrian: Muswell Hill, oh that’s a different world completely!
Nic: [Laughter] Thanks very much Adrian, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you and getting to know what’s behind your very successful books and I urge everyone to read them. So, thank you.
Adrian: Well thanks very much for having me.