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How my wife's sense of justice inspired the female detective in my new crime novel

The plot of Armagh writer Stuart Neville's latest book revolves around a policewoman, making it a softer read, as Una Brankin finds out

Published 04/08/2015

Novel approach: Stuart Neville has departed from Troubles-related storylines, like in The Twelve, for his most recent book, Those We Left Behind
Novel approach: Stuart Neville has departed from Troubles-related storylines, like in The Twelve, for his most recent book, Those We Left Behind
Novel approach: Stuart Neville has departed from Troubles-related storylines, like in The Twelve, for his most recent book, Those We Left Behind
Family time: Stuart with his wife, Jo, and children, Issy (left) and Ezra
Changing opinions: Stuart believes TV shows like The Fall, starring Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson, are breaking down barriers
Stuart Neville's most recent book, Those We Left Behind

Stuart Neville is a fast-talking, unassuming man in a hurry. With a seventh novel and a screenplay under way, the Armagh crime writer hasn't much time to relax in his favourite book-lined room, which doubles as a play area for his children Issy (4) and Ezra (2).

He's more likely to be found in his local library with a pair of earphones on, pounding out up to 4,000 words a day. A large chunk of Those We Left Behind, his sixth novel, was written mostly there; the rest at his Edwardian home, and he describes librarians (and independent bookstores) as "among my greatest champions".

At the top of that list are Neville's librarian wife, Jo, and his mother - who has the quaintly old-fashioned name of Emerald - and who worked in the stock rooms of the Armagh Library service for many years.

"Growing up, I'd give her a list of books I wanted to read," says the dark-eyed author. "My father wasn't a reader and we hadn't a lot of money to buy books, but we had a steady supply from the library."

Meanwhile, Jo, "a book fanatic", has provided the inspiration for Neville's latest protagonist, DCI Serena Flanagan, a breast cancer survivor and, according to fellow crime writer Megan Abbot, "the bruised and compassionate heroine for whom we've all been waiting".

Flanagan was a supporting character in Neville's last book, The Final Silence, and she's very different to the loner cops and hit-men he has created in the past.

"She has my wife's sense of justice, of what's right and wrong," Neville explains. "Beyond that, she and all my characters come from a mix of different people I know, male and female. I'm often asked who I would imagine playing the main protagonists on screen but I never say - I don't want to impose an image on the reader; that's beyond my remit. You use your imagination when you read books. Otherwise, watch a DVD."

His view chimes with Stephen King's: "Books and movies are like apples and oranges - they both are fruit, but taste completely different," according to the iconic American author. King famously loathed Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his novel The Shining, which he claimed, with typical candour, was the only adaptation of his work he could "remember hating".

A long-time admirer of King, Neville is taking no chances with the screen version of his third novel Ratlines, about the sheltering of Nazis in the Republic after World War Two. As the screenwriter and executive producer, his imprint will be firmly set on the television series, currently in development.

Neville met King in April, at a book awards ceremony in New York. Both guitarists, they struck up a conversation about music.

"He wasn't very comfortable with the adulation - I was in a room full of people trying to talk to him," Neville recalls. "He wasn't at ease with that, but he was very gracious.

"We talked about Belfast punks. He'd just seen the film 71 - he said he would have needed subtitles for some bits of that. I recommended Good Vibrations. We talked about the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers."

Like many accomplished writers of recent times, Neville credits King's masterful and insightful guide for fledgling authors, On Writing, as being instrumental for his career.

"He was one of my favourite writers when I was growing up. I haven't read his more recent ones but On Writing helped to change my life.

"It guided me in my first steps in this career. It's great for any genre of writing, not just crime and mystery."

Ratlines isn't Neville's first time on a film set. Kicking off a series of odd jobs - including working in a bakery - he worked as an extra in the BBC drama series Underbelly, which was filmed in Armagh Gaol, back in 1992.

"It was the most boring, grinding two days of my life, all for one shot of my forehead in a single scene. I was also the hand-double for Ardal O'Hanlon (Father Ted) in a scene where he had to play the guitar. I used to teach guitar - I still play, but don't have much time these days - and I tried to get into doing music for film. That didn't happen."

The Twelve was optioned for the big screen in Hollywood for five years, but eventually dropped. Neville had originally entitled the fast-paced thriller The Ghosts of Belfast - the title used by its American publishers.

"It was called The Twelve for the UK and Irish markets because having Belfast on the cover makes the book a hard sell - nowhere more so than in Belfast itself. Things are changing, though, with TV shows like The Fall breaking down those barriers."

Was he disappointed when The Twelve didn't make it into celluloid?

"Every writer would like that, but I'm realistic about it. It was optioned for five years before it was let go. You drive yourself crazy if you hang on to that hope, but it's great, if it happens. I've a short film, The Good Word, doing the film festivals at the minute. It's 20 minutes long. There's talk of a video."

His latest novel, Those We Left Behind, has all the ingredients of a procedural cop drama series. Although there's plenty of violence, it is not as direct and graphic as in his previous books.

At the centre of the action is the aforementioned detective Serena Flanagan, who takes days to earn the trust of a troubled 12-year-old, who confesses to murdering his foster father.

But doubts hang over the confession and when he's released seven years later, the unnatural hold his horrible older brother has over him comes to light.

The interaction between the distraught youth and the sympathetic female cop takes an unexpected turn when he slips his hand under her skirt while she's comforting him and trying to get to the truth of the murder.

"I was stuck for six months at that point," Neville admits. "It was more of a speed bump than writer's block. I had one of those for a year, once.

"I needed to derail the story. I was looking at an act of violence, a shooting, a stabbing, but thought it needed to be something else. So, an inappropriate touch came into it. Flanagan is confused about what she feels and is unsure of herself and her motivation. Ciaran (the suspect) is confused, too."

For the reader, the twisted relationship between the two brothers, and the killing they're involved in, brings to mind the awful case of the Liverpool toddler Jamie Bulger, who was abducted and murdered by two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, in February 1993.

Neville says: "It was actually a different case I read about two years ago, that I had in mind. It was in the north of England - two brothers took two young guys into a quarry and tortured them severely for hours, until they got away.

"The Jamie Bulger case, yes - in so far as that one boy had a very strong hold over the other and influenced him."

It's dark territory, imagined and written while rock music plays in its author's ears. Not to the nose-bleed level of the heavy metal Stephen King formerly wrote to, however.

"I've music in my earphones just to blot out the rest of the world, not to listen to," Neville explains. "I like writing in the library. It's like going out to work, away from the house. If I can write 1,500 words a day at home, I'm pleased, but I can do bursts of 10,000 a week in the library. I haven't been to a writers' retreat yet, but I'd like to go some time."

Given his track record for hard-boiled gruesomeness, will his mother Emerald be allowed to read Those We Left Behind?

"I didn't want her to read the early ones - she wouldn't have liked the language. I let her read the last one. She said she liked it."

With his new heroine, Serena Flanagan, Neville has moved on from the Troubles in his fiction, although he wouldn't rule it out "if it presents itself" in her trajectory.

In the meantime, the thrill factor is taking a back seat in his fiction and a softer touch is creeping in, via the empathetic Serena.

So, with half a dozen best-sellers under his belt and a TV series in the work, can he afford to put his feet up?

"No," comes the blunt answer. "I'm very fortunate to make a living at writing - not many do, but there's a difference in it making you a living and making you rich.

"I'm happy to keep on doing what I'm doing anyway. Retirement isn't on the agenda."

  • Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville, Vintage Books, £12.99, www.stuartneville.com

Ten of the best reads

Ten of Neville's (ever-changing) favourite books

  • American Tabloid, James Ellroy - One of Ellroy's most ambitious, yet most accessible books
  • Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe - A masterpiece of plotting and character building
  • Red Dragon, Thomas Harris - For my money, the best serial killer novel ever written
  • Jack's Return Home (aka Get Carter), Ted Lewis - A brilliant revenge story from a very underrated writer
  • Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris - The last great book Harris wrote
  • Marathon Man, William Goldman - A brilliant example of a 70s thriller. Tight, tight, tight, with great twists
  • Fletch, Gregory Macdonald - Forget the film adaptation. This is great
  • The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Millar - At its heart, this is just a wonderful, if fantastical, crime novel
  • Conversations with Wilder, Cameron Crowe - A beautiful book. Insightful and revealing
  • The Beauty of the Burst, Yasuhiko Iwanade - Over 200 pages of Gibson Les Paul guitars made between 1958 and 1960. Yes, I'm a geek

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