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Belfast writer set his thrillers in New York before ever setting foot in the city ... but now has fallen in love with the Big Apple

As his latest book is published, Steve Cavanagh - real name Stephen Mearns - says the internet helped him get his locations right, but he still gets challenged over details of the firearms featured in his novels. Ivan Little reports


Steve Cavanagh

Steve Cavanagh

Steve Cavanagh with his wife Tracy

Steve Cavanagh with his wife Tracy


Steve Cavanagh

Best-selling Belfast-born crime writer Steve Cavanagh, whose new novel has been lauded as having more twists than a Curly Wurly, insists he has no plans to use the Troubles as the backdrop for any of his books, even though he lived through the conflict on his doorstep.

He says: "There are a lot of writers whose books are about the Troubles. And they do it better than me. I couldn't compete with them. So I go off and do my own thing."

But Steve (42), who adopted his late mother's maiden name for his Cavanagh pseudonym in tribute to her, does add that he never says never.

His fifth novel, the psychological thriller Twisted, is the story of a reclusive writer who has sold millions of books across the world under the pseudonym J.T. LeBeau. No one knows his real identity.

But one woman, whose husband has millions in the bank and a letter for the enigmatic author, thinks she has found him. Which is the cue for the murder and mayhem to really kick in, or as the author says: "We're off to the races."

Ian Rankin, one of the world's top crime writers, said the plot of Twisted "takes the breath away", and it was Armagh author Stuart Neville who drew the comparison with a Curly Wurly chocolate treat.

Twisted is a stand-alone thriller, the first of Steve's books that isn't part of a series of legal thrillers whose central character is Eddie Flynn, a former conman turned trial lawyer in New York.

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The book, like its predecessors, is set in America, a country that has long fascinated Steve, who was born and bred in Belfast's Holyland.

For a man who has captured the soul and essence of the States so perfectly, it's odd to discover that he had never set foot there until after his first three books were published.

Yet most readers would never have guessed that his knowledge of New York was gleaned from reading books and consulting Google maps for locations.

He says: "I really don't have to spend a long time describing New York, because most people already have a mental picture of the city and what it feels like.

"It might be different if I was writing about, say, Austin, Texas. I would have to describe the city and what it's like and who lives there.

"If I am writing in detail about a place I always try to investigate a bit and make sure that I'm right."

He says no nit-pickers have ever taken him to task about his settings, but they're not slow to point out when he has made a mistake about something else.

He adds: "It's mostly gun enthusiasts who would send an email saying this or that ammunition wouldn't work in this or that calibre of weapon."

Which is a somewhat ironic critique for a man from here.

Yet he counts himself lucky he didn't lose any close friends or relatives in the Troubles, though there was no escaping the violence as he grew up.

He says: "I was only a wee lad, but I was knocking about the Ormeau Road on the day of the killings at Graham's bookies. But I never went near.

"It later turned out that one of the victims was a neighbour."

Steve, who leads a double life as a solicitor under his real name Stephen Mearns, is now a seasoned transatlantic traveller thanks to his crime thrillers.

"After the third book I went to New York to meet my American publishers for the first time. And I've been back and forward ever since. I've done book tours and I have grown to love New York even more than I thought I would. It's one of the world's great cities."

However, he gives no hint that he would want to settle there permanently.

He lives with his wife Tracy and his children, aged eight and 12, in Lisburn and combines his writing at night with his day job as a lawyer in Newtownards.

He became a solicitor almost by accident.

He'd intended to sign up for a marketing and business course in Dublin, but as he recovered from a boozy night on the town he ended up enlisting on a law course by mistake.

It's proved to have been a happy blunder, he says.

He came back to Belfast in 2000 and has been a lawyer ever since, specialising now in human rights but using his expertise in a wide range of legal fields, from judicial reviews to criminal work. Steve says that discrimination is one area of law that particularly interests him, adding: "If someone is being treated differently by government bodies or employers because of their disabilities or their sexuality, a lot of them will end up at my door.

"You always try to do your best for everyone, but if you're fighting the good fight, so much the better. And it's still going on."

He has been involved in a number of high-profile cases, including representing a factory worker who suffered racial discrimination in the workplace - and won the highest damages for a case of its kind in Northern Ireland.

He says: "The success rate back then in 2010 in discrimination cases was less than one per cent, but we managed to win.

"We had a client who just wanted to tell his story and he got justice. It was great to be a part of it, professionally and personally. The job to me is all about trying to help people."

Steve has never used any of his real-life legal cases in his fictionalised stories, but his knowledge of the nuts and bolts of trials and cross-examinations has helped him in his Eddie Flynn books.

He says the mysterious writer in Twisted bears no similarities to himself, adding: "I don't have millions stashed away, believe me."

But he won't deny that he is happy with the fruits of his literary labour.

His fourth book, Thirteen, had at the last count sold 175,000 copies in the UK in all formats.

But there's an international market too.

His books are published in no fewer than 26 countries.

Among the languages the books have been translated into are Arabic, Taiwanese, Russian, Italian and Estonian. He says: "The publishers send me the foreign editions of all the books. Sometimes I get five or six copies, but I don't need that many - I don't know any Estonians.

"It's a really weird sensation to see the books in all those languages, because obviously I don't know if they're good translations. You just hope for the best."

He says that balancing his writing career and his legal work isn't as difficult as it might seem, even for a family man like himself. It's all about discipline, he insists, adding: "After my day working as a lawyer I come home and see the family and when everyone has gone to bed I sit down at the laptop and write every night.

"I know there are some authors who hate writing. But I enjoy it. And I'm getting paid to do it.

"Obviously there are days when I am tearing my hair out because I can't get something to work. I just keep going at night for as long as I can before my head hits the laptop.

"It's in my contract that I have to write a book every year."

He is currently working on another Eddie Flynn book and he knows that in a couple of months the phone will start ringing with his publishers asking him for his latest manuscript.

Weekends, he says, are family time, though he takes himself off for the occasional break at Paul Maddern's River Mill writers' retreat in Downpatrick.

He adds: "It's brilliant there, because you just get the space to focus. I can do two weeks' work there in a weekend. It does leap you forward, no matter where you are in a book."

At the moment he is happy to wear both of his hats as a writer and as a lawyer.

But will he ever go full-tilt at the writing?

He replies: "I like to think that I can keep the two balls rolling for as long as I can. John Mortimer was a very successful barrister who managed to write the Rumpole Of The Bailey books at the same time." Tracy is a massive help with his writing. He explains: "It's a team effort. She is brilliant at coming up with ideas and she is the first person to read the books after I have finished. Tracy is absolutely honest with me."

Steve says he's always wanted to be a writer, but for years his attempts to come up with screenplays came to nothing.

However, after the death in 2011 of his mum Bridie, who was an avid reader and who encouraged her son to write, he resolved to have another go at penning a novel.

The result was The Defence, which was rejected by a raft of publishers, but after he was taken up by an agent in London, everything changed.

Steve dedicated the debut book to his late mother - who worked for a while in the Belfast Telegraph's telesales department - and his plumber father Sam, who's a movie buff.

As well as his literary agent, he has a film agent in Los Angeles and it would appear to be just a matter of time before the books are made into movies.

But Steve is no hurry. He says: "There's been a lot of interest, but we have turned down quite a few offers.

"We're talking to people at the minute, but we haven't found the right ones yet to do it in the right way."

Twisted by Steve Cavanagh is published by Orion Books, £14.99

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