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'It's the story of a man who returns to Belfast and finds that home does not feel like home anymore... it was cathartic to write'

 

By Lee Henry

Belfast-born author John Steele wanted to explain his native city to his half-Japanese daughter Hana... so he wrote a crime thriller about the road he grew up on, introducing legendary Belfast hard man Jackie Shaw.

Crime fiction is big at the moment. Just take a look at the bestsellers' lists for proof. And while the Scandinavians have established a stranglehold on the market - Nordic Noir now recognised as a genre in its own right - in recent years Northern Ireland writers have made a case for their voices to be heard on the global stage.

This is not surprising, perhaps, given our dark and disturbing recent past. Ulster is an atmospheric setting in which to tell sordid tales. The nights draw in early here. Secrecy is in our DNA.

Ravenhill, the first in a series of gritty new crime novels, makes use of all those handy idiosyncrasies and its author has a name made for the genre.

John Steele was born in Belfast in 1972 and has spent half his life travelling the world, living in New York, Hungary, Japan and now England during an eventful 45 years.

He comes to crime fiction relatively late in life, but draws on his own sense of "isolation, of being an outsider" in the writing of his troubled protagonist, Belfast hard man Jackie Shaw.

"Ravenhill is a violent thriller," says Steele. "It's one story and one perspective among many of the Troubles and of Belfast. It's a story of a man who returns home after a long time away and finds that home doesn't feel like home anymore, and that confuses and saddens him. It was cathartic to write."

Steele did so, in part, to help explain Northern Ireland's incredibly complicated and convoluted history and geography to his half-Japanese daughter Hana, who was born in England and turns three in October.

"Her name means flower in Japanese," adds Steele. "Hana will probably grow up in the West Country in England, where we've now set down roots, but I wanted to write a story that would give her a flavour of what Northern Ireland was like when I was a young man living in Belfast. East Belfast was a world away from west Belfast. It's a very complex place."

Nevertheless, Steele recalls a "happy childhood" growing up in the Ravenhill area. "The Ravenhill Road didn't see too much trouble during the bad old days and my family were very stable and absolutely opposed to any form of sectarianism," he remembers.

"I have three sisters, Heather, Janet and Alison, and we were all raised as Presbyterian.

"We went to Ravenhill Presbyterian Church and I was in the Boys' Brigade there. My dad John was an engineer on the old printing machines, the big monsters, and he went to Israel, Germany and what was Czechoslovakia with work. I think that's partly where I got the travel bug from."

Steele was a "big reader" as a child. His mother Sadie read to him often and he cites Belfast-born author C S Lewis's Chronicles Of Narnia and E B White's Charlotte's Web as favourite children's books.

"Then, as a young teenager, I started to read a bit of English crime writer Jack Higgins and some Stephen King. I also read the Gerald Seymour novel Field Of Blood, about a supergrass in Belfast, and that made a big impression on me," he says.

Steele attended Grosvenor High School, where his teachers were all "very encouraging" of his early attempts at writing.

"My A-Level English Literature teacher, Mr Lorimar, was amazing. He really made the literature come alive. I dreamed of being a writer back then, but felt I didn't have anything to write about."

A degree in media studies followed at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. It was a natural subject for Steele, who had spent so many hours in his youth watching movies and writing about their protagonists. "The Bond films, Flash Gordon, Star Wars and the rest. As we didn't have a video recorder at the time, I make up stories about the characters in an attempt to keep something of the film alive," he recalls. In the mid-1990s the travel bug took its first bite. Steele jetted off to New York with images of his favourite Seventies crime flicks running through his head like a reel in a seedy cinema.

"The French Connection, Prime Cut, The Taking Of Pelham 123. That seamy, grimy New York had a real appeal to me and when I went there I wasn't disappointed."

New York at the time was a "dark place", lacking the gentrification that has, in recent years, sent property prices soaring and made craft coffee outlets of old meat packing units. Steele lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Bleecker Street in bohemian Greenwich Village, sharing with "another guy from Belfast named Hugh, a fella from Lurgan and a Scotsman".

For someone with little life experience, Steele made the most of his new adventures abroad. "We three all met by chance over there. I was in a bad way, broke and cleaning rooms in a youth hostel for a living. Then I got work hauling furniture, then a bit of driving on the moving trucks. It was a fantastic time. I was 22, single and loving it."

Over the next few years Steele recalls surviving a couple of "hairy moments" with the authorities. When his truck was stopped by police at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, for example, his accent got him out of a long and laborious search. "There were so many Irish, northern and southern, in New York then, legal and illegal. The cops gave me a weary smile and waved me through."

Then, toward the end of his stay in the States, Steele was "almost lifted" by a border patrol near El Paso in Texas. His visa had run out and he feared the worse, but the patrolman had family in Antrim and again showed him clemency.

Steele finally returned home to study for a post-grad in teaching before again upping sticks, this time to Japan, spending two years in Tokyo before settling in Sapporo, where he met his wife Tomoe.

"The culture shock in Japan was massive," Steele admits. "You're like a child when you first get there. You can't speak to people, or make any sense, and you can't read or write. A trip to the supermarket is an adventure. I bought a pack of butter once, took it back to my apartment, spread it on toast and gagged at the first bite - it was tofu.

"Everyone commented on how cold it must be in my home country when I told them where I was from. Then I realised they all thought I came from Iceland. I settled down a bit when I met Tomoe but, to be honest, it never felt like home."

After 13 years in Japan Steele began to feel stressed and homesick. Belfast called. Tomoe was willing and the pair relocated to the Ravenhill area, but jobs were scarce. "Employers generally don't care if you were CEO of Japan Airlines while away, they're only interested in what you've done on home soil."

Eventually Steele accepted a teaching post in England and has been resident there since 2010. Hana was born in 2014 and Steele got to work writing Ravenhill and its follow-up novels, Seven Skins (due for release next year) and Dry River, which is still a work in progress.

It was "tough" getting Ravenhill into print. Steele recalls several knockbacks by publishers at home and abroad, but is grateful to Silvertail Books for taking a chance on him. "A few larger publishers read and liked the book, but they didn't think a novel about Belfast would sell. Silvertail obviously did."

These days Steele spends his free time reading crime novelists Ted Lewis and Derek Raymond and very much enjoyed reimagining the streets of Belfast, past and present, while writing his first novel. "I do love those gritty thrillers, so I had a crack at writing one," he says.

"Jackie Shaw is a man with a great talent for violence, but is very conflicted about it. He hates himself for it, to a degree. Ravenhill is set in the Nineties and the present day to show the paramilitaries laid bare. Stripped of the political trappings they used to justify their thuggery, they are exposed as the drug dealing thugs and gangsters they truly are."

Seven Skins, Steele reveals, will be set in London "among the people traffickers of the West End, and will also touch on republican terrorism and security force collusion, among other things", while Dry River will take Shaw to Japan, Steele's old hunting ground. "The idea from the start was to give Jackie a back story that enables different locations for the books, and the yakuza will show up in the third. And who knows, if they do well enough, I might be able to afford a research trip back to present-day New York to write a fourth book about the Irish-American scene."

Steele is nothing if not ambitious and, from a personal point of view, there is only really one place he would finally like to put down roots for good. "In a dream world, Ravenhill would become a huge HBO series, or Hollywood film, enabling us to have a house in the Castlereagh Hills," he concludes.

"Mind you, an apartment in Sapporo and the cash to take an exotic holiday once in a while would also be nice."

  • Ravenhill: A Jackie Shaw Thriller by John Steele is published by Silvertail Books, £9.99

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