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Ann Cleeves: 'The real-life murderers I've met are mostly pathetic, inadequate little men'

Ann Cleeves writes the novels that have led to TV's Vera. With a new book due out, she tells Nick Clark about her previous work as a probation officer

When Ann Cleeves sat down to write the seventh in her popular series of crime novels featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, the only plot point she had in her mind before starting was that the two murder victims would be men.

Cleeves never draws up an outline for her novels but rather develops the plot as she goes along. "I don't have a clue when I start what's going to happen," she says. "It was 20 years before I made a living from writing, so it had to be fun. If I knew the story already, writing it wouldn't be much fun."

Yet, ahead of writing the latest Vera novel - The Moth Catcher - the author already knew the victims would be male. She wanted an antidote to the rise of crime and thriller novels a friend of hers had dubbed "sado-porn," which often focused on sexual sadism against women.

Following the success of novels, such as Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, which offered a smorgasbord of violence against women (though its new addition, The Girl in the Spider's Web, by David Lagercrantz, is much more torturous when it tries to make computer hacking and prime numbers sexy than when it comes to torturing female characters), she noticed a rise in the number of increasingly graphic novels sent to her by publishers hoping for favourable comments for the dust jacket.

Cleeves is critical of the books featuring brutal serial killers and psychopaths slicing young women up in increasingly grisly ways, and believes that many are misogynistic.

"If you look at statistics, most victims are young men. Women are usually killed by people they know, not strangers, and certainly not weird messianic monsters who want to carve bits of the Bible on their bodies, or steal their tongues," she says.

"If someone has a brilliant reading experience I wouldn't stop them doing it," she adds. "But I worry it is skewing the way that publishers are commissioning. That would be unfortunate. Raising the bar for shocks is also a concern."

While working for several years as a probation officer, Cleeves met real-life murderers.

"They are not like that. They were pathetic, inadequate little men mostly," she says. "One guy who I met killed a prostitute because she wouldn't stop laughing at him."

The Moth Catcher is a much more traditional English crime novel in which the protagonist has to uncover the secrets of a small rural community after a double murder.

She describes that tradition as one in which the books have a murder, a limited number of suspects and a resolution. "That takes care of itself and I love looking at relationships and friendships and secrets within families. I'm also a sucker for the surprise ending; it's a real treat for the reader."

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers were on her reading list from a young age and she points to The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham, published in 1952, as one of her favourite works from the "golden age" of the crime novel.

"What I remember is the descriptions of London; it's a very strange and atmospheric book," she says. Atmosphere plays a huge part in Cleeves's novels, whether it's the Northumbrian setting of the Vera books, or the foreboding landscape in her Shetland novels, another hugely successful series. Both have prompted a surprise tourism trade with her fans visiting spots immortalised in the novels.

"People make a mistake when they separate out setting from plot and character," says the author, who lives in Whitley Bay, outside Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

"People grow out of where they were born and live. It's where they pick up their values." Cleeves, who grew up in Herefordshire then north Devon, dropped out of an English degree at Sussex University and became an assistant cook in a bird observatory in Fair Isle, off Shetland. Other jobs would include outreach worker and auxiliary coastguard.

Her first book, A Bird in the Hand, was published in 1986 and she moved to Whitley Bay the following year with her ornithologist husband, Tim.

Despite writing a string of crime novels, her breakthrough as a writer would not come until 2006 when Raven Black, the first of her Shetland novels, won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger, which came with £20,000 that allowed her to take on writing full-time.

Vera, the shambolic yet sharp detective inspector, first appeared in the 1999 novel The Crow Trap. Cleeves wanted to create a strong woman protagonist in a genre that was dominated by men, and she wanted her lead to be relatable to readers.

Cleeves's second big break came with Vera, and was a complete chance. ITV was looking for a detective show to replace David Jason's Inspector Frost. The producer Elaine Collins picked up a second-hand copy of one of Cleeves's novels in a London Oxfam shop and fell in love with the character.

Bafta-winning actress, Brenda Blethyn, was cast in the role and it proved a hit with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and Series five aired this year. "Authors used to bemoan sales in charity shops because they didn't get any money," Cleeves jokes. "Now, they make sure there are plenty of copies in the Crouch End Oxfam."

The roots of The Moth Catcher, released next Thursday, can be traced back over a decade when Cleeves went to a party in Norfolk with a group of early retirees who partied, drank and had affairs. "They seemed lost and wayward," she says. "In my head I called them 'The Retired Hedonists Club'. It triggered an idea." The experience fed itself into the book.

Another spark for the book was in Powys where Cleeves lived shortly after marrying Tim, who worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Her husband was looking after birds of prey. "It was a lovely, mad time," the author says. "We were sitting under peregrines' nests making sure no one stole the eggs. There were cops dashing around mid-Wales chasing the thieves." They stayed in a house similar to the hall in the book, and one of the locals in the pub has made it in.

After working in probation she took books into prisons and did writers' workshops, and is passionate about ensuring that people from all walks of life have access to books, especially with the dramatic cuts to library services.

"Creativity starts with books. Are we saying if you're poor then we don't want you to be one of those creative people?" she asks, pointing out that the creative industries are worth £8.8m an hour to the UK economy, according to government figures.

It was through reading that she discovered the term "wanderlust" at the age of seven. "I had never travelled, growing up in a tiny village, and I realised that I had wanderlust.

"I wanted to travel and see other places and still do. Fortunately I have managed that," she says, adding that she loved finding out about other places through translated crime novels by authors including Henning Mankell and Fred Vargas. "If you can't travel, you can do it with your reading, which is a joy."

  • The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves, available September 10, £7.99,

Bringing darkness to life...

  • Ann Cleeves (61) is a multi-award winning British crime writer, who won the inaugural Duncan Lawrie Dagger in 2006, the richest crime-writing prize in the world, for her novel Raven Black
  • Cleeves studied English at Sussex University but dropped out. She then took up various jobs including cook, auxiliary coastguard, probation officer, library outreach worker and child care officer
  • The Vera Stanhope novels have been dramatised as the TV detective series Vera, and the Jimmy Perez novels as the series Shetland
  • In 2014 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Sunderland
  • In 2015, Ann was the Programming Chair for the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. The same year she was shortlisted for the Dagger in the Library UK Crime Writers' Association award for an author's body of work in British libraries

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