Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

general update

Posted by on April 27th, 2014

It’s been a while since I’ve done a proper update here about what I’m up to, and I figured now was as good a time as ever.

The first and most important thing is that I’ve got a new book coming out in June. I just finished working through the proof pages, so it’s all set, and I’m still not remotely sure how I feel about it. This is business as usual for me, though. When you’ve been working on something for so long, going over and over every single passage and plot point, the story inevitably becomes overfamiliar and it’s hard to imagine it with a fresh pair of eyes. So I’m looking forward to the reactions. Initial feedback has been good so far, but you can judge for yourselves when The Nightmare Place (more info here) is published this June. Hooray!

I’ve also been working hard behind the scenes of this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. It’s been a real pleasure to be chair of the programming committee – and it hasn’t felt like work at all, because the expertise and knowledge of the rest of the committee and the team at Harrogate International Festivals has made the whole thing such a breeze. I’m very proud of the programme we’ve put together, which you can see in full here. A couple of the events are already sold out, and others are coming close, and I think this is shaping up to be one of the best years yet. Which is saying something. Hopefully I’ll see more than a few of you there. I’m moderating two panels on the Friday, but – obviously – I’ll be there all weekend. Please do come along and say hello.

I’ve got a few other events on the calendar (and really need to update my Events page). These are:

Thursday 15 May – Sunday 18 May: CrimeFest. I’m not doing any panels this year, but I’m attending and will generally be about from Thursday to Sunday. 

Saturday 7 June, 1-2.30pm:  “A Time for Crime”. Panel at Leeds Central Library as part of The Big Bookend. I’ll be there with Frances Brody and Chris Nickson. More info available here

Friday 20 June, 3.00 pm: Gedling Book Festival. Arnot Hill Park, Arnold, Nottingham NG5 6LU (in conjunction with New Writers UK). Vague details  available here. Basically, I’ll be talking about ideas and where they come from, and there’ll be a signing. I’ll post more direct information when I know it. 

And what does the future hold? Well, who knows? I’m still working out what the next book’s going to be, as I’ve got two plotted out relatively well (which is unusual for me), and one of them partially written. The latter is a sequel of sorts to The 50/50 Killer, while the former is a standalone in a similar vein to Black Flowers. I’ll continue blocking out the plots for a few more days, and then start writing properly in May. In an ideal world, I’d like to surprise myself by finishing a first draft of both by the end of the year … but I’m laughing at myself even now.

In the meantime, I’ve also written a brief appreciation of Lesley Glaister’s excellent Honour Thy Father, which you can read here.

pulling teeth

Posted by on December 6th, 2013

I discovered this article today, written by everyone’s favourite Creepy Old Rich White Man Living in Thailand, in which I am name-checked. Here are a few choice quotes:

“Writing should be fun. If it isn’t fun, you really shouldn’t be doing it. A horror writer by the name of Steve Mosby recently complained on Twitter that he found writing like pulling teeth.  My reaction to that – if it’s that painful, you shouldn’t be doing it. Mosby spends a lot of time tweeting about how hard he finds it to write his books, and how much effort he has to put into rewriting them.”


“I have enjoyed writing every single Spider Shepherd book – not one of them has been the equivalent of pulling teeth.”

Well, bully for you, sunshine. Let’s leave aside the obvious retort – that just because writing them wasn’t the equivalent of pulling teeth doesn’t mean reading them won’t be – and move onto the meat of the issue. Did I say that I found writing to be like pulling teeth? Yes and no. I actually remember this, as I noticed Mr Leather making one of his standard passive-aggressive references to it shortly afterwards, and what I actually said was that writing on that particular day had been like pulling teeth. An exaggeration, of course, but not a massive one.

And that happens quite a lot for me. I imagine it’s the same for many writers (certainly, anecdotally, I believe that to be true). After all, writing is not just typing, not if you care about it. You’re trying to convey the idea of what you have in your head through words, and that’s not always the easiest thing to do. That applies not just at the level of sentences and scenes, but across the entire story, which at book length is likely to be structurally complicated, thematically intricate and difficult to hold in your head as a whole and coherent narrative. There are going to be good days and bad days. I have far more of the latter, especially in the end stages where the slightest tug on one narrative strand can dislodge another from the knot.

All writers have different approaches – and congratulations to Mr Leather for enjoying his work so much, as nobody would wish him ill – but mine is a more complicated affair. As I’ve said before, I usually write with a vague outline, and at the end of my first draft I realise what the book should have been about all along. So I rewrite, and I refine. The book goes through various iterations as I add, delete and shift scenes about. Characters vanish and reappear. Things get dropped and things get added. Other writers are more straightforward, but that’s the way I work: my books tend to begin as exceptionally blurry photographs, and then every draft sharpens the image a little more. For me, this tends to exacerbate the good day/bad day problem I mentioned above, but the bad days don’t make me any more unhappy than the good ones. That’s because I know they’re both equally important to the process. I work hard at my writing because I care about it.

So, do I spend “a lot of time tweeting about how hard [I find] it to write [my] books, and how much effort [I have] to put into rewriting them”? Well, not really (although I wouldn’t be ashamed if I did). My tweets are generally about my mundane life and opinions, mixed in with retweets to left-leaning articles and dick jokes. I don’t tweet about writing much, but it’s a social media channel, and I am honest when I’m using it. If I’m having a good day, I say so. If I’m having a bad one, likewise. Because I’m a writer, writing will crop up. I don’t tweet because I’m trying to build up a false image of myself, or sell things to people. Although obviously – in social media as in writing books – other authors will have very different approaches.

“I think the fact that I enjoy writing so much is reflected in the quality of my work – I do very little rewriting and my publisher generally has little to do in the way of editing.”

And this is interesting, simply because it seems so obviously, palpably false. It’s not even the faux machismo (“I don’t need any editing! I’m a machine!”) but the general thesis. I would actually say the opposite is true in my experience: that the enjoyment I take from a writing day is utterly unconnected to how good the work that day really is. How egotistical and solipsistic to think otherwise. I’ve done good work on subjectively bad days and vice versa. Why should my enjoyment in writing a passage necessarily translate to someone else’s pleasure in reading it? How naive and self-centred to imagine that might be true. And I welcome editorial input and suggestion, as it has – with no exceptions – improved all my books, and caused me to raise my game. But then, as we’ve probably realised by now, other authors have very different approaches. So it goes.

9 songs

Posted by on June 5th, 2013

Just a quick update, while I battle through deadline Hell on the next book.

A while ago, I wrote a short story called 9 Songs. I’ve decided to post it online here, with a brief introduction explaining the circumstances that caused it to be written. You can read it here. I hope you like it.

A couple of upcoming events

Posted by on October 10th, 2012

I’m still hard at work finishing off Book 8, but I have a couple of events in the next few weeks that I thought I might flag up.

The first is at Guildford Book Festival. I’m actually doing two things there, but the Readers’ Day on Saturday 20 October is now sold out. But there’s also The E Debate, on Friday 19 October at 7pm, where I’ll be talking all things ebook-related with Ben Galley and Charlie Redmayne. I think it’ll be a really interesting discussion, so if you can make it, I hope to see you there. This is the first ebook debate I’ll have been in since Leathergate, so it will be interesting to see how it all compares.

Second, I’m a guest speaker at the Curtis Brown Creative Crime Writing Weekend (in collaboration with Orion’s Murder Room). This is basically a two day writing workshop for people interested in creating crime fiction, and details of how to apply to attend are available in the link. The amazing Meg Gardiner is teaching the course, and I’m a guest speaker on Saturday 10 November. There’s an interview with me about it here.

I’m also totally doing this on 31 October in Germany. I had to cancel a couple of years ago, and I’m sooo looking forward to attending this time.

Off the record 2 – now available

Posted by on September 26th, 2012

I was enormously pleased to be a part of the first Off The Record (details here, but basically it was an anthology of short stories based around song titles, where all the profits went to charities connected to children’s literacy). I’m just as pleased to have a story in Off The Record 2, which has launched today.

You can find more details here.

Basically, the second anthology is also for charity, but the difference this time is that the story titles are taken from movies instead of songs. There are a lot of great writers involved, and it’s dead cheap, so you should definitely pick up a copy. My own story is called “9 Songs”. It’s not remotely crime, but is based on an idea I’ve tried to make work a few times as a short and always had trouble with. The anthology gave me the incentive to work on it properly and get it into a shape I’m happy with (as happy as I ever am, at least).

Huge thanks – and congratulations – to Luca Veste and Paul Brazill for pulling this collection together. I think it’s amazing that two writers could put so much personal effort into collecting original stories for such a good cause, all at no benefit to themselves. They are gentlemen and scholars, and I raise a glass to them. Please do consider supporting their efforts. You get some great stories (and mine); you get them cheap; and you get to contribute to something worthwhile.

Statement on author behaviour

Posted by on September 3rd, 2012

I’m pleased to be one of the authors putting their name to the statement below.

These days more and more books are bought, sold, and recommended on-line, and the health of this exciting new ecosystem depends entirely on free and honest conversation among readers. But some writers are misusing these new channels in ways that are fraudulent and damaging to publishing at large. British author Stephen Leather recently admitted that he used fake identities online to promote his work. The American bestseller John Locke has revealed he has paid for reviews of his books. The British author RJ Ellory has now confessed to posting flattering reviews of his own work and to using assumed names to attack other authors perceived to be his rivals.

These are just three cases of abuse we know about. Few in publishing believe they are unique. It is likely that other authors are pursuing these underhand tactics as well.

We the undersigned unreservedly condemn this behaviour, and commit never to use such tactics.

But the only lasting solution is for readers to take possession of the process. The internet belongs to us all. Your honest and heartfelt reviews, good or bad, enthusiastic or disapproving, can drown out the phoney voices, and the underhanded tactics will be marginalized to the point of irrelevance. No single author, however devious, can compete with the whole community. Will you use your voice to help us clean up this mess?”

Linwood Barclay, Tom Bale, Mark Billingham, Declan Burke, Ramsey Campbell, Tania Carver, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, N.J. Cooper, David Corbett, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Stella Duffy, Jeremy Duns, Mark Edwards, Chris Ewan, Helen FitzGerald, Meg Gardiner, Adèle Geras, Gordon Harries, Joanne Harris, Mo Hayder, David Hewson, Charlie Higson, Peter James, Graham Joyce, Laura Lippman, Stuart MacBride, Val McDermid, Roger McGough, Denise Mina, Steve Mosby, Stuart Neville, Jo Nesbo, Ayo Onatade, SJ Parris, Tony Parsons, Sarah Pinborough, Ian Rankin, Shoo Rayner, John Rickards, Stav Sherez, Karin Slaughter, Andrew Taylor, Luca Veste, Louise Voss, Martyn Waites, Neil White, Laura Wilson.


what to do?

Posted by on August 26th, 2012

It’s not an unreasonable question.

The past few weeks have seen a lot of posts, here and elsewhere, around the behaviour of Stephen Leather, all of which have touched at least peripherally on the subject of the ethics of marketing techniques, especially given the constantly changing digital environment. These techniques (some, but not all, of which can be attributed to Leather; all of which can be attributed to various authors across the board) include:

1. Using sock puppet accounts to talk up one’s own book;
2. Giving positive reviews to one’s own book under a sock puppet account;
3. Giving negative reviews to a “competing” author’s book under a sock puppet account;
4. Spreading lies about “competing” authors online;
5. Bullying and harrassing other authors;
6. Shilling – ie talking up the book of a friend without disclosing a personal interest;
7. Astroturfing – ie the overall cumulative effect of the above. Artificial buzz.
8. Attacking reviewers for negative but honest reviews, and/or encouraging their readers to do so.

To which, we can also add this: paying (substantial amounts of money) for reviews. The successful ebook writer John Locke is named in that article. To quote:

“Mr. Locke is unwilling to say that paying for reviews made a big difference. “Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful,” he said.”

Well, that may be true. But ordering 300 reviews will have set him back $6000. At the 0.99 he charges, for which he would receive around 0.30, those reviews would need to have generated him 20,000 book sales just to break even. That is not an insignificant number. You assume it was worth it, but prospective self-publishers may wish to consider their disposable income first – and also have a good, long look at themselves in the mirror.

And I’m sure there are countless other activities as well.

Why  does any of this matter? Well, a lot of this behaviour is technically illegal (a vendor pretending to be a consumer, etc), but all of it is dodgy and what I, at least, would consider to be unethical behaviour for an author to be involved in or encouraging. The online review system (along with other online feedback systems) is imperfect, but it exists, and people use it. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be worth authors gaming it in these underhand ways, often at great expense. So these are acts of deception that betray both the reader and other writers. They are acts of selfishness. They are attempts to grab as much of the “open ground” of self-publishing for themselves as possible, by whatever means possible.

It’s possible you don’t care. Well, if so, move on. But if you feel strongly about these issues, what can you do? Here are some quick, initial thoughts. They’re mostly obvious. Please feel free to add other ideas in the comments.

1. Readers

The oddest thing about the Leather business is that, really, I’ve just been reacting to stuff and posting on topics that have arisen. I never had any endgame in mind; I wasn’t trying to achieve anything. When Leather accuses me of being jealous (sic) of his sales, or wanting to harm them, that’s absolutely not the case. I couldn’t give two fucks if he sells a million books in the next day, or none ever again. It has no impact on me. More to the point, a lot of writers over the years have been vile individuals; the books stand alone, their merits independent (for the most part) from the character of the writers.

That said, numerous people have contacted me, either publicly or privately, to say they won’t be buying Leather’s books again. That’s fine. Voting with your feet is a time-honoured tradition. One obvious way you can react to an author behaving in ways you disapprove of is to not support them anymore. That aside, you could also let them know what you think, or engage them in conversation around issues that concern you. And do you know what? The forums and channels these writers are hijacking to promote themselves, however imperfect they are, they belong to you. They are meant for you. Your voice matters more than theirs, so you should use it. And at the absolute least, you can be aware enough of these authors to treat future “buzz” around their books with whatever scepticism you conclude it deserves.

2. Organisations

There have been a few suggestions that organisations such as the CWA could introduce a charter of some kind – listing behaviour they expect their members to refrain from, and so on. I have some sympathy with this as a symbolic gesture, but I don’t think it would make much difference for a number of reasons. I doubt someone like Stephen Leather or John Locke cares very much about being a member. I also doubt – with the greatest respect for the organisations in question – that the reading public would pay much attention either. It wouldn’t be awful for it to happen anyway though.

3. Publishers

It’s far more likely that wayward authors would take notice of publishers condemning these activities, but there are numerous problems with this as well. For one thing, obviously a proportion of this activity is by authors who are self-published, so it wouldn’t matter. For another, I expect most publishers would condemn this sort of behaviour anyway. Because, in my experience, most people who work in publishing are nice and decent and working in publishing in the first place because they love books.

The issue here is that publishing is a business, but the people who work in it are individuals. Those individuals have their opinions, but it’s often difficult politically to voice them. I think it’s a truism that most editors will have writers they like and want to publish but, for various reasons, it can’t happen, while also having authors they dislike intensely but are stuck with. But at the end of the day, it’s a business – it has to be, and it should be. That’s not to say they should turn a blind eye.

4. Writers

It’s much the same as readers, I think, with some additional caveats. Obviously, regardless of your profile, you can use whatever social media platforms you have to express your opinion. You can refuse to blurb or share a platform with people who engage in this kind of behaviour. You can put forward your point of view; you can let readers know what’s going on. If you think someone’s attacking you, say so.

So. That’s just some initial thoughts and ideas. Feel free to chip in below the line with others…

Off the Record

Posted by on November 27th, 2011

This is a collection of short stories just released on Kindle, edited by Luca Veste, with all proceeds going to two charities: in the UK, the National Literacy Trust (; and, in the US, the Children’s Literacy Initiative (

There are 38 stories by 37 fantastic writers and me, each based on the title of a song. I chose God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters by Moby.

This is the full contents:

1.Neil White – Stairway To Heaven
2.Col Bury – Respect
3.Steve Mosby – God Moving Over The Face Of Waters
4.Les Edgerton – Small Change
5.Heath Lowrance – I Wanna Be Your Dog
6.AJ Hayes – Light My Fire
7.Sean Patrick Reardon – Redemption Song
8.Ian Ayris – Down In The Tube Station At Midnight
9.Nick Triplow – A New England
10.Charlie Wade – Sheila Take A Bow
11.Iain Rowan – Purple Haze
12.Thomas Pluck – Free Bird
13.Matthew C. Funk – Venus In Furs
14.R Thomas Brown – Dock Of The Bay
15.Chris Rhatigan – Shadowboxer
16.Patti Abbott – Roll Me Away
17.Chad Rhorbacher – I Wanna Be Sedated
18.Court Merrigan – Back In Black
19.Paul D. Brazill – Life On Mars?
20.Nick Boldock – Superstition
21.Vic Watson – Bye Bye Baby
22.Benoit Lelievre – Blood On The Dancefloor
23.Ron Earl Phillips – American Pie
24.Chris La Tray – Detroit Rock City
25.Nigel Bird – Super Trouper
26.Pete Sortwell – So Low, So High
27.Julie Morrigan – Behind Blue Eyes
28.David Barber – Paranoid
29.McDroll – Nights In White Satin
30.Cath Bore – Be My Baby
31.Eric Beetner – California Dreamin’
32.Steve Weddle – A Day In The Life
33.Darren Sant – Karma Police
34.Simon Logan – Smells Like Teen Spirit
35.Luca Veste – Comfortably Numb
36.Nick Quantrill – Death Or Glory
37.Helen FitzGerald – Two Little Boys
38.Ray Banks – God Only Knows

With forewords from UK writer Matt Hilton, and US writer Anthony Neil Smith.

You can buy it here –

– and you should. Not only are there some brilliant writers and stories included in this collection, but it’s for a great cause, and the more people that buy it, the higher up the charts it goes … and so it rolls on and on.

One of the authors, Court Merrigan, has also provided a soundtrack on YouTube with all the songs included:

Massive thanks to Luca for creating this and for including me. I don’t do short stories very often, and I’m really pleased I could be part of it.


Posted by on November 11th, 2009

I wasn’t going to do this, but hey – I’m bored, you’re probably bored (why else would you be here?), we’re all bored. And it was a sad day, in terms of another blog post by another writer, which we’ll get to in a minute. So I’m going to do it after all. Hang onto your hats.

I started thinking about the Curzon Group again yesterday. To be clear, I thought about them a bit when they formed, and then I’ve thought about them sporadically in the time since. Most of the time when my idle mind turned to them, the thoughts it had were generally derisory but had no real malice. And that’s still the case. I don’t dislike these people, because I don’t know them. And I don’t dislike their books, because I haven’t read them. Individually, all things being equal, I wish them well.

Collectively, however, I do have a slight problem.

Before we start, I don’t have any problem at all with writers banding together. There are loads of groups, collectives and ‘squads’ out there, and I can see how it makes total sense. Most of us don’t get very much, if anything, in the way of a publicity budget – paradoxically, the bulk of that money tends to go to the sure-fire writers who’ll make the bestseller list regardless. It’s one of the odd facts about the publishing industry you learn very quickly. Similarly, you can buy new titles from well-known authors for around £8.99 in hardback, whereas – to sample an unknown like me – you’d need to shell out upwards of £18.99. Faced with that choice, I know how you’d spend your money, and – frankly – I don’t blame you. The explanation is simple: that well-known author will sell many copies anyway, so his or her book can be priced more cheaply (and therefore becomes more appealing to an impulse purchaser). As Kurt Vonnegut would say: so it goes. But in such a climate, it makes total sense for authors to promote themselves as heavily as they can, and if you group together you can do that more efficiently: an event with five mid-list authors is going to be far more appealing to organisers than five separate events with one author each. And so on. These days, even best-selling authors often do events together. I get it. It’s sensible. It’s fine.

And it also fits in with something you’ll often hear said at crime writing festivals. “Crime writers are like a gang”. I can’t remember who coined it. Mark Billingham? Ian Rankin? Whoever, it’s an appealing image. However much the noir crowd might dislike the generic, formulaic serial killer books, or the fainter-hearted might dislike the violent stuff, or people who actually write their own books might have a pop at the James Patterson brand, or the way everyone hates the much-maligned-but-rarely-actually-ever-seen cat mysteries – we’re all ultimately in it together. There’s a communal atmosphere at crime fiction festivals. We all get on. We even tolerate the people who don’t drink.

So why is the Curzon Group different? Why does it annoy me? Simply because, as it was originally formulated, it flies in the face of all that. Actually, I’ll go further. It pisses in the face of all that. Their website is here. Their blog is here. On the face of it, you’ll notice no obvious piss, but some history is required. The Group was started by the top three writers listed on their website, based on the mission statement you can still find on the site. It says this:

From Wilkie Collins to John Buchan, Eric Ambler to Hammond Innes, Ian Fleming to Alistair MacLean, and from Len Deighton to Frederick Forsyth, the British thriller is one of the richest traditions in world literature.

But in the last decade the British thriller has fallen into a sad decline. The market has been colonised by production line American thriller writers.

… likes of James Patterson, Dan Brown and John Grisham have taken over the market.

The Curzon Group is dedicated to reviving the traditions of Buchan, Fleming, MacLean and Forsyth, bringing the British thriller bursting back to life in the twenty-first century. Formed by Matt Lynn, the author of the military thriller ‘Death Force’: Martin Baker, the author of the financial thriller ‘Meltdown’: Alan Clements, the author of the political thriller ‘Rogue Nation, The Curzon Group is dedicated to Five Principles:

1.    That the first duty of any book is to entertain.
2.    That a book should reflect the world around it.
3.    That thrilling, popular fiction doesn’t follow formulas.
4.    That every story should be an adventure for both the writer and the reader.
5.    That stylish, witty, and insightful writing can be combined with edge-of-the seat excitement.

At its best, British thriller writing combined pace, humour, drama and insight to create stories that were of their moment yet timeless: that could capture a snapshot of history, yet could keep reader awake for half the night. Through competitions, promotions, publicity, talks, and, most of all, through our own writing, The Curzon Group is dedicated to restoring its finest traditions.

Do you see my problem? Well, maybe not. It’s not that they were promoting themselves – with the initial patronage of perjurer and all-round fucking scumbag Jeffrey Archer – but that they were doing so at the expense of other writers. They were going to ‘save’ the British thriller – as though it was ever in decline – from the invasion of allegedly crap US-style writers, which you, the great British public, were either stupid or brain-washed enough to buy. From the beginning, it was very transparently a marketing strategy that had nothing to do with quality – or even those five ‘principles’, which any writer worth his or her salt would endorse, but which, looking at some of the titles and descriptions, you might wonder whether the Curzon Group itself actually does. Because they don’t look that fucking different or exceptional to me.

Anyway. You’ll notice the website now lists eight members of the Curzon Group. And two more have joined: Zoe Sharp and Elizabeth Corley. I quietly weep. Yet the whole enterprise becomes ever more transparently ridiculous. Who else will join? Is there a limit? What would happen if Simon Kernick or Lee Child requested to join? They’re both best-selling British thriller writers, after all. Would they be welcomed in the Curzon Group’s quest to save British thriller-writing from … well, ultimately their own writing? It’s tedious to point this out again, but – just for clarity – I have nothing against the individual writers here – just the mission statement they’ve drawn themselves together under. Saving British thriller writing: by replacing what’s popular, and which apparently is shit, with – well, themselves.

Today, the crime writer Declan Burke wrote a moving piece on his blog, Crime Always Pays. Declan is the author of two great crime novels. But – rather than ever solely promoting himself – he’s used his blog to promote the best of Irish crime writing (and beyond: he also included an interview with me). Scroll through his site, and you’ll find the same thing, time after time: the promotion of other writers; discussion, disagreement; but never a real hint of overt negativity when someone else succeeds  – because it’s not about that, is it? Or it shouldn’t be anyway. Quite the opposite. And yet, as you’ll see when you read that piece, he literally can’t afford to write anymore, not even in his spare time.

So I guess my current thought is this: when people like Declan, along with other great writers like, say, Ray Banks and Allan Guthrie, are storming the bestseller charts, maybe then I’ll start worrying about the plight of certain self-promoting writers bleating about the state of the industry. Whose fucking books can be found on the shelves in Asda.



… and relax.

Setting and realism

Posted by on June 22nd, 2009


I found a nice review this morning. It’s a review of Cry for Help, and it appears in Publishers Weekly here. When I mentioned this on twitter, someone pointed out it was also a starred review, and I – naively, but semi-honestly – asked if that was a good thing. I don’t think I’ve ever been reviewed in Publishers Weekly before.

Anyway, this isn’t just flag up the fact that someone liked my book (although, having not found Still Bleeding in a single Leeds bookshop this afternoon, that alone would be good enough for me), it was the first sentence of the review that caught my eye, and also the curious eyes of a few curious friends of mine.

In Mosby’s powerful thriller, set in what might be Nottingham, England, the police are baffled by an unknown killer who’s been tying up young women and leaving them to die of starvation and thirst.

Nottingham? My first thought was, well, no. It just isn’t. I have a passing knowledge of Nottingham city centre, but only from occasional trips down to Rock City with a couple of mates, usually – as it happens – to see The Wildhearts, before crashing on another Nottingham-based friend’s living room floor. But I wouldn’t dream of setting a book there. Then again, my second thought was … well, I think I actually did go to Nottingham while writing Cry for Help – to see Nine Inch Nails this time, if you’re interested – and so maybe something seeped in there without me realising. And my third thought was that I keep banging on in interviews about deliberately not setting my books anywhere in particular, so that “might” is all it takes. It might be set in Nottingham. In fact, if that’s what you think as you’re reading it, then it is. Although I suppose could is more what I’m after.

But why Nottingham? Not to single out this particular reviewer – whom, it’s entirely realistic to say, I actually love – but the emphasis on realism in crime fiction has always interested me. Fiction in general, I guess, but crime fiction in particular is an absolute bugger for it. I’ve forgotten too much about Cry for Help to be sure, but all I can think is that it’s the mention of Staunton Hospital that did it, as there’s a place called Staunton near Nottingham. At least, I think there is. In truth, the hospital is loosely based on one in Steeton and Silsden near me; I called it Steeton in my working draft, then just knocked the middle out and round. The irony is I did this to stop the story being anchored to something that happened to me in a particular place. And all I can think is someone took the invented name (free, in my mind, from associations) and threw down an anchor somewhere else, to bring the story to rest. 

I guess that’s part of the whole reading process: that every reader anchors it for themselves. But I do think it’s interesting that people look for real places in which stories are set. They want to bring a story down to earth: not just so it exists in their heads but so it exists somewhere real, as though these made up people doing their made up things must be doing them in a place that isn’t made up. And in crime fiction, there’s a special emphasis on that. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because of the whole crime versus literary fiction debate, where the front-runners seem to earn their medals on the basis of depth of social commentary. And there are certainly a hell of a lot of crime writers who focus on individual cities or areas, to the point they’re indelibly associated with them – and can even be seen as writing about those places as much as the imaginary characters wandering about in them.

(There’s also a special emphasis on police and forensic procedure too. You often hear writers say “You’ve got to get the procedure right – readers are so savvy these days”. And, of course, they’re not. It’s just that tons of crime novels use procedure, and what’s presented there gets absorbed into the overall narrative of crime fiction as a whole. But it isn’t like many readers have done courses in forensics. Reminds me of what Jeffrey Deaver said once: in one of his books he had a SOCO put elastic bands around her shoes to distinguish her prints from the others in a dusty room; totally made-up; sounds realistic; made its way into CSI. And even if readers were savvy, isn’t this insistence on realism leaning dangerously close to the alleged crossword puzzle of Golden Age crime fiction?). 

I haven’t really worked out how I feel about all this yet, or even what I think. One of the most difficult bits of Still Bleeding, and I’m using ‘difficult’ in context here, was pinning it down to the UK. I just couldn’t do it any other way without inventing a country name – and given my record I’d only have made one up that already existed. I don’t like pinning it down. But I do occasionally get it in the neck (again, in context). I had emails about The 50/50 Killer saying “there are no woods like that in the UK!!”. Well, I know. It’s not really happening in the UK. It’s just a story: existing solely in the words on the pages  between two covers, and then in the images in your head those words create. It’s a story about fairytale notions of love. Hence the fairytale forest. Sometimes, my thinking is even more obscure. In The Third Person, there’s a place called Asiago. It’s a corporate-sponsored recreation of an old fishing village, designed to inspire affection and nostalgia, but it’s ended up going the same way as the genuinely old fishing villages did. It was sort of about how, if you had the chance to relive supposedly happier times, you’d only make the same mistakes again. Asiago is actually a place in Italy. It’s called that in the book because an old girlfriend had a road-sign for Asiago, stolen by her father, on her wall at University, and the association was there for me while I was writing the scene because of what happened between the two of us afterwards. Meaningless for anyone else, in this case. The book’s not set in Italy. 

As I mentioned in the Black Static interview, the realism thing genuinely puzzles me because my brain doesn’t work that way when it comes to stories. They’re fiction. All fiction is fantasy by definition. Either it actually happened, or it didn’t, and naming a real place isn’t going to change that. There is no definitive scale there, or not one that I can see, anyway. So Cry for Help isn’t set anywhere in particular. It’s set in a place that doesn’t really exist, which means wherever you want it to be set while you’re reading it. And it’s about a murderer who ties your friends up and leaves them to die from lack of caring – and then blames you for not being there for them the way you always said you would be. It’s kind of a metaphor, I guess. But whatever – serial killers like that don’t really exist either. Even in Nottingham.