Leigh Russell talks to Julian Maynard-Smith about her series featuring DI Geraldine Steel, crime-writing techniques, and her views on the future of the publishing industry.
Of all the places to meet a crime writer, Baker Street must be one of the most apt. The Pizza Express we’ve chosen is full of chattering diners and the clatter of cutlery, so Leigh and I seek refuge in a quiet corner downstairs where Leigh begins by telling me about the workshop she’s just given at the Society of Authors.
One of her key themes was the importance of keeping readers turning the page, and that the techniques for doing so include not just the obvious cliff-hanger and person-in-jeopardy plot devices used by many bestsellers such as The Da Vinci Code. “Sometimes it’s the tension in the prose. Or it might be a character the reader loves to hate, someoneyou want to see get their comeuppance, especially if it’s someone like your own boss.”
Of all the genres of fiction aimed at gluing the reader to the page, “Crime writing is the most blatant form. If a reader puts the book down and doesn’t pick it up again there’s something missing. Take The Day of the Jackal. We know the ending, but it’s still gripping. It’s some sort of magic, that suspension of disbelief.”
That said, today’s crime readers are demanding and savvy, and willingly suspend belief only if a novel rings with authenticity. One false note and a writer risks losing the reader. “I do a lot of research,” says Leigh. “I’ve never worked for the Met but I know which police station serves homemade banana bread. That kind of detail rings true and makes the narrative sound convincing.” And Leigh is a firm believer in the writer’s adage about writing what you know about, telling of an author who used to work in an office and wrote a scene in which passwords have been left stuck on computers with Post-it notes and observing, “You wouldn’t make that up.”
Fortunately, crime novelists do make up the murderous parts of their plots – it would be unfortunate if they had to resort to the writing equivalent of method acting. And sometimes imagination is the only resource upon which a writer can draw. “In a fantasy world, for example, there are things you can’t research, such as the sound a dragon makes.” I’d never thought of that before, but immediately Leigh’s suggestion has conjured up theleathery flap of a dragon’s wings and the whoosh of breath from its giant nostrils. Truly it is “some sortof magic,” the power of a few carefully chosen words to evoke an imaginary universe. Even in the realm of the purely imaginative, though, the writing has to ring true. “I don’t know what it’s like to kill somebody, I’ve never shanked anybody, but I can imagine. The actions and the suffering needs to be authentic enough to be believed.”
While recognising the importance of research, Leigh is still a pragmatist. “You can cut corners if you write about what you know, but you can’t know about everything. Sometimes you need help. I have a layman’s knowledge of DNA. I could have researched a query for six months and still come up with the wrong answer, but I asked an expert and he gave me the right answer in about ten seconds.”
When I comment that the current state of forensics or anything else technological can timestamp a novel, even prematurely age it, Leigh observes, “When Geraldine moves to London my editor and publisher suggested that I mention the London riots because you could not be working for the Met and fail to be involved in it. But I didn’t want to mention it because it fixes the story in 2012. I’m fudging it a bit.” And that’s because Leigh can’t afford to let Geraldine age too quickly. “If I were planning a series now I’d have started my protagonist younger than I did in my first novel Cut Short. When I started, Geraldine is in her mid-to-late thirties, so she will have to be like Poirot and not age too much in time. Five books in and she’s about a year older.”
Leigh’s pragmatism often takes very subtle forms. Commenting on the dynamic between Geraldine and DS Ian Peterson, Geraldine’s colleague for the first three novels in the series, Leigh says, “Crime novels tend to have a protagonist and sidekick, for exposition – usually two men, or a man and a woman. It’s not just because of the frisson, but because you can say ‘he’ and ‘she’ whereas with two women I need to use their names a lot more” – as Leigh found out when writing Death Bed, when Geraldine moves from the Kent Constabulary to the Met and acquires a female sergeant, DS Sam (that’s Samantha) Haley.
Another subtle trick of Leigh’s is making villains seem just that bit less righteous through their language. “My police officers don’t swear much but my villains do.” And Leigh finds villains liberating not only in what they can say but also in what they can do. “When I’m writing my police officers there are things a police officer wouldn’t conceivably do, but a villain gives me more freedom. Before I wrote Cut Short, I wouldn’t have thought it would be too difficult writing from the point of view of a police officer; I’m a school teacher so we’re not planets apart, but I’ve never considered killing someone in my life. But I found it was more difficult writing the police officer because she had to be plausible; with a killer I had a licence to do anything I wanted. Also, my detective has to go from one book to the next.”
Another limitation is that detectives in a modern crime novel, to remain plausible, can no longer rely purely on the intuitive genius of a Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes. “Police work is now a scientific exercise. Someone can breathe and you can pick up their DNA in the room. CCTV is everywhere. I quite like the idea of writing a PI novel, but you can’t do that today. Sherlock Holmes,” adds Leigh, warming to her theme and evoking a much older Baker Street than the one where we’re sitting, “was so hugely popular because he was as much a precursor of Superman as of Rebus. There was a climate of fear in Victorian times, while an ineffectual police force rode around on bicycles blowing whistles if a crime took place, so the public liked the idea of someone who always caught the villain. But you read Holmes now and it’s almost like caricature. In The Adventure of the Speckled Band, the villain Dr Roylott is described as, ‘a huge man, who possessed a large face seared with a thousand wrinkles and marked with every evil passion’. A crime writer couldn’t get away with giving the reader such an obvious villain today.”
And contemporary crime fiction – where does Leigh it going? “At one time, it was veering towards horror, with authors trying to outdo each other with increasingly gruesome murders. Sometimes authors can try too hard with impossible-to-predict twists, which can ruin the book. I think there’s an obsession with being original, but it’s all been done before: detectives who are alcoholics, flawed characters, bent coppers who are really the villains. With Geraldine and Ian, I’m trying to make them relatively normal. What’s wrong with having a good story, well written, peopled with believable characters? Shakespeare didn’t have this problem of constant pressure to be original with his plots. I write psychological fiction with what I hope are strong plots. When I started writing mypublisher asked me to include some police procedure, but now my publisher says that people want psychological novels, which is what I write anyway, although I still include some procedure, for authenticity.”
Another trend that’s particularly close to Leigh’s heart is the format of books themselves, and the role that technology has played in the increasing dominance of e-books. “My books are like a microcosm of what’s happened in the industry. When I started in 2009, readers had to wait nine months for the e-book of Cut Short. The same thing happened with Road Closed in 2010. By 2011, the print and e-book versions of Dead End came out on the same day. With Death Bed and Stop Dead the e-books came out six months ahead of the physical books.”
Leigh mentions the staggering statistic that the ratio of e-books to all print versions (paperbacks and hardbacks combined) is 114/100 – and that’s excluding free downloads. “It took four years for e-books to outsell physical books in the States and it’s happened here in two years. Waterstones are selling Kindles from this month. If it’s a bad winter, everyone will be shopping online, and already many people are choosing books in bookshops and then ordering them online. If you want a particular book, instead of travelling to a physical bookshop which might not have the title in stock, in two minutes you can be reading it at home, on the train, wherever you are. But the experience of book buying is very different in a bookshop where with one scan you can see hundreds of books. Kindle directs you to their front page where you see what they choose to put there. It’s much more like a supermarket, with a narrow choice. Other books are not even in your line of vision.”
Leigh’s own books, however, have been thriving in both paperback and e-book formats, their achievements including hitting the CWA Daggers shortlist, the top 50 bestsellers lists on Amazon and WH Smith’s Travel chart – and, perhaps most impressive of all, Geraldine Steel becoming Amazon’s No. 1 female detective. All of this is in three short years, Cut Short having been published in 2009 to great acclaim and the fifth, Stop Dead, published in e-book format in December 2012. In this latest instalment, Geraldine has to uncover the identity of a serial killer whose signature has a sexual undercurrent: the victims, all male, die from hammer blows to the head and genitals.
Like all great series leads, Geraldine has a complex personal life that provides a narrative arc that carries over from book to book. In Stop Dead she finally visits her estranged adopted father, but is still no closer to finding her birth mother, the one piece of detection that Geraldine has failed to wrap up. She is also trying to acclimatise to her move from the Kent Constabulary to the Met – building a solid relationshipwith her new female sergeant Sam Haley, but missing her former sergeant, DS Ian Peterson. And fans of Ian Peterson will be glad to know that Leigh and her publisher are currently exploring the possibility of Peterson featuring in his own spin-off series. Meanwhile, Leigh tells me, “I’m now over halfway through novel six of the Geraldine series. I’m trying to make it more of a whodunit, but they tend to become whydunnits.’
As if writing two series weren’t enough, Leigh is also an English teacher, active blogger and regular participant in crime-writing events – and in August 2013 she’s running a creative writing course on the Greek island, Skyros, famous as the home of Mount Olympus. Fortunately for her fans, Leigh is such a productive writer she’s unlikely to need inspiration from the gods for a speedy delivery of the next Geraldine Steel – or first Ian Peterson.
‘Stop Dead’ is available on Kindle from 14 December 2012 and in paperback in May 2013. For more information about Leigh, see www.leighrussell.co.uk.