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So hungover he signed up for the wrong degree course in law... now NI author Steve Cavanagh's legal thrillers are bestsellers

The dad-of-two tells Laurence White about how he got his love of crime novels from his mother, juggling writing with his day job and why his literary creation Eddie Flynn could soon be on TV in the US

Engaging read: author Steve Cavanagh with a copy of his first novel, The Defence
Engaging read: author Steve Cavanagh with a copy of his first novel, The Defence
John Connolly
Best selling crime novelist Lee Child

Comparing lawyers to conmen is not something one expects a member of the legal profession to do, but Steve Cavanagh sees similarities. Steve, a solicitor who lives in Lisburn, is also a big selling author whose fourth book featuring Eddie Flynn, his conman turned trial lawyer, is being launched tonight.

So why did he give his character that background? "Some of the skills that a great trial lawyer will have are also those of a con artist," Steve argues. "Both have to think on their feet, the conman in duping his mark and the lawyer during cross-examination. Both are adept at distraction, misdirection and persuasion."

Steve, whose real name is Steve Mearns, uses Cavanagh, his late mother's maiden name, for his writing, both as a tribute to her and to keep his two professions separate.

It was his mum, Bridie, who fostered his love of the crime/thriller genre. She used to pass crime novels on to him when he was a young man, but it was only after her sudden death on St Patrick's Day 2011 that he decided to turn his hand to writing.

"My first book was The Defence, a legal thriller. I wanted to write a book that my mum would have liked since this all came from her," he recalls.

It wasn't just being a lawyer himself that made Steve choose a legal theme for his book. One of the authors he greatly admired growing up was John Mortimer, whose Rumpole of the Bailey series made a big impact on Steve.

"The courtroom scenes in those books were devastating," he says. "Mortimer had been a brilliant lawyer involved in many high profile cases, but my approach to the court work of my character is more concentrated on the thriller element than the comedic which comes across in Rumpole."

Novels were not Steve's first foray into writing as, in his early twenties, he had written a few screenplays, but then decided to concentrate on his legal career.

That was a career he fell into by accident. Born and raised in Belfast, after gaining his A-Levels at Belfast Royal Academy he moved to Dublin to begin third level education with the intention of taking a business and marketing course at Portobello College.

Like many young men leaving home for the first time the local bars proved a big temptation and it was with a raging hangover that Steve turned up to enrol at the college. Swept along by the crowd he mistakenly signed up for the legal course - his qualifications made him eligible for that as well - and he only discovered his mistake a few days later when he searched in vain for his name among those listed on the business course.

It was like the plot of one of the novels he loved, but he insists this was one story he couldn't have made up.

"I was not in a fit state to make any sensible decision that day. I just grabbed the first piece of paper that was shoved at me and was then ushered off to another room to sign up."

He is now glad he made that mistake. "It is funny how some accidents seem to pay off. I couldn't have done business. I would have been awful at that. Law is more about people than anything else and I think I probably did better falling into that line of work," he says.

Finding balance: author Steve Cavanagh with his wife Tracy Mearns at their home
Finding balance: author Steve Cavanagh with his wife Tracy Mearns at their home

He sees the law as helping fix real problems for real people.

"That may not work in every case but generally people come to see a lawyer when they are in a bind. I like to think that in most cases we can help them," he says.

After post-graduate studies in law in Cardiff he returned to Belfast where he began working as an investigator for a large law firm before qualifying as a solicitor and gaining experience as a litigator representing some of the largest insurance firms in the world.

His prowess in the legal profession did not go unnoticed. In 2002 he represented the NI Law Society in the Louis M Brown Client Counselling Competition in Durban, South Africa, competing against the finest young lawyers from 17 countries. He was a semi-finalist.

In 2009 he moved to another firm, concentrating more on civil rights law. It was here he won record damages for a client, who had come from overseas to work in a factory in Northern Ireland and who had suffered racial abuse.

He holds a certificate in Advanced Advocacy jointly awarded by the Law Society of Northern Ireland and the National Institute of Trial Advocacy in Boulder, Colorado.

So how does the writing stack up against the legal profession as a way to make a living? Steve is understandably coy but there is no doubt that his novels have been successful to date. Indeed, four of the biggest publishing houses in the UK engaged in a bidding war for his first book - a development which he admits was beyond his wildest dreams when he first put pen to paper.

The Defence was published in the UK, Japan, Portugal, Italy, Germany and France in 2015, and in the US and the Netherlands the following year. Steve was named as one of Amazon's Rising Stars for 2015 and was awarded the Arts Council of Northern Ireland ACES award, which is given to the best emerging talent. The Defence was also nominated for a number of awards including the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Thriller of the year 2015.

Now aged 41, and married to Tracy (45) with a six-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, he admits that it is taxing to come home from work and begin writing another novel.

"I am still able to do both, but there may be a time when I can't and will have to make a decision on which to choose, although I would like to have the time to write full-time," he adds.

Given his own legal experience and the success of other UK-based legal dramas, why did he choose to set his books in the US, specifically New York?

"It is a city everyone knows about. I don't have to spend time setting the scene as I would in other cities. As well, lawyers in America work in a different way from the UK, where we have solicitors and barristers. That means my central character can be involved in all aspects of the case and that makes for a better narrative".

It also means that he has to keep abreast of legal developments in the US. He cites the recent trend of police arresting young African-Americans for possession of drug paraphernalia - in this case a drinking straw.

"The police argue that it could be used to snort narcotics like cocaine and therefore that gives them the right to arrest these young men. Obviously this is a very unfair targeting of one section of the community, but that is how it works," he says.

Steve's books now sit on the same shelves as some of his biggest literary heroes including Michael Connelly, Lee Child (left) and John Connolly (below left). And they are attracting attention in the US, where discussions are under way with television companies about bringing Eddie Flynn to the small screen.

Steve has come a long way since he worked as a bouncer and in a call centre to make some money during his student days.

"These were jobs which I could do at night and therefore allow me to study during the day. The call centre dealt with American customers and the time difference meant I didn't have to start work until the evening," he says.

He is still working an evening shift with his writing, but for better rewards.

Steve's latest novel Thirteen, which is published by Orion in trade paperback, £13.99, and eBook, £6.99, will be launched at No Alibis bookshop, Botanic Avenue, Belfast, tonight

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