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On the case of the ex-bouncer from Lisburn who became a lawyer thanks to a mighty hangover and is now top crime writer

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Legal eagle: Steve Cavanagh with his book The Defence

Legal eagle: Steve Cavanagh with his book The Defence

Kevin Scott / Presseye

Big help: Steve says wife Tracy’s backed him all the way

Big help: Steve says wife Tracy’s backed him all the way

Kevin Scott / Presseye

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Legal eagle: Steve Cavanagh with his book The Defence

He looks more like a bouncer than a celebrated solicitor and writer of sophisticated thrillers - but Steve Cavanagh is about to hit the big time. Hollywood is knocking on the Lisburn lawyer's door and he and his family can hardly believe it.

His debut crime thriller, The Defence, hasn't even been officially launched here yet, but it has already attracted the attention of several directors in La La land.

Furthermore, Amazon and fellow crime writers are raving about Cavanagh's fictional legal eagle, Eddie Flynn, a cross between The Firm's Mitch McDeere (played on screen by Tom Cruise) and The Verdict's Frank Galvin (immortalised by Paul Newman), according to one. But the charismatic character's creator - who indeed used to be a bouncer - remains bemused.

"As surreal as it sounds every time I say it, I've got a movie agent in Los Angeles who looks after the film rights and there has already been a lot of interest from Hollywood directors," says the incredulous 38-year-old. "I think Ryan Gosling would be a great Eddie Flynn, but so would a lot of actors - just as long as it's not Danny DeVito, I'd be happy. I am a big admirer of the director Chris McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects and directed the recent Jack Reacher. He'd be good. But right now that's a dream for the future."

Cavanagh is Steve's mother's maiden name; he practices law under his real name, Mearns, and wanted to separate his two identities. Choosing a surname beginning with C has put him on the same bookshelves as three of his biggest influences - the best-selling Michael Connelly, Lee Child and John Connolly - as well as Martina Cole, Robert Crais, Clive Cussler, Agatha Christie and Harlan Coben.

More importantly, it pays tribute to the woman who fostered his love of crime writing.

"As a young man I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and one day my mum gave me a copy of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris," he recalls. "That changed everything and I read Red Dragon straight after, and fell in love with crime and thriller novels. I also always had an interest in the law, so I read John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey series and, of course, John Grisham."

Aptly, Cavanagh's agent describes his style as a cross between Grisham and Lee Childs. His fast growing success - he has been chosen as one of Amazon's Rising Stars of 2015 - has put him up there immediately with feted local and Irish crime writers such as Declan Burke, John Connolly, Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway, Adrian McKinty and Gerard Brennan.

But sadly his mother didn't live to see her only child's literary success. Bridie Mearns died quite suddenly, after a short illness, at the Marie Curie Hospice on St Patrick's Day, 2011.

"I was devastated. I had a new baby at the time and things were pretty low for a while," admits the father-of-two. "In September that year, I decided that life was too short to put things off and I decided I would have one more shot at making it as a writer. My mother was the only person who ever encouraged me to write so I thought I would try and write a book for her. It took around a year to get the book into shape, and it was cathartic in a way.

"Around 10 o'clock at night I'd fire up the laptop and escape into another world, where I didn't have to think about my own problems. After a year of work, I had a novel in pretty good shape and I started to look for a literary agent."

After 30-40 rejections, a small agency in the UK said the book showed promise but would never sell, and would never be published. Steve was advised to scrap it and write something else- so he never could have anticipated what was waiting around the corner. "As you can imagine I took that one pretty hard. Then on the Wednesday of the same week, two huge agencies in London that I'd submitted to, on a whim, called me up and offered representation. So I chose AM Heath in London, who represent Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall), the George Orwell Estate, and a host of other huge names in the industry.

"We worked on the book together and my agent, Euan Thorneycroft, sent the book out to publishers that September."

The Defence had only been on submission for a week when Steve got an email from his agent to tell him that four of the largest publishing houses in the UK wanted the book - and there would be an auction for the publishing rights.

"I was completely stunned. Then more auctions followed in Germany and the translation rights began selling worldwide. As it turned out I had my choice of publishers in the UK and I went with Orion, who publish some of my heroes like Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben and Ian Rankin. I couldn't pass up an opportunity to work with the publishing team behind those authors, it was beyond my wildest dreams. But I keep having to remind myself where this all started; the book is dedicated to my mum and dad, because it wouldn't exist without them."

His widowed father, Sam Mearns, a retired plumber, and wife Tracy, a full-time mother to their eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, are equally amazed at the turn of events in Steve's career.

"They are hugely supportive - at first they couldn't quite believe it, and I'm almost the same. Most of the time I'm just as surprised as they are that I've suddenly become a writer. I don't really have a dark side to my imagination - most of the violence in my books is left to the reader's imagination, or it happens off the page. I'm much more interested in suspense than gore.

"As my novels are set in New York, I tend to look to the States in terms of potential stories and ideas. I keep up-to-date with the legal profession in Manhattan and news stories in and around that area, but I don't tend to write about real events - my work is entirely fictional."

He has, however, a wealth of literary experience to draw from as a civil rights lawyer, including several high profile cases. In 2010 he represented a factory worker who suffered racial abuse in the workplace, and won the largest award of damages for race discrimination in Northern Ireland legal history. He also holds a certificate in Advanced Advocacy and lectures on various legal subjects - but insists he "just likes to tell jokes".

Tellingly, he fell into law by fluke after his A-level grades from Belfast Royal Academy gained him an acceptance, by Portobello College in Dublin, for courses in both Business Studies and Law. The choice was up to him - but then a drinking session intervened ...

"I wanted to move away from Belfast for a while, to see what it would be like living in a different city - a city without Belfast's unique problems," he recalls.

"All I had to do was register for one or the other subject in Dublin. I'd kept this to myself for many years, but at the time I actually decided to do Business Studies.

"It was the first time I'd lived away from home so I hit the bars in Dublin, grabbed my matriculation papers the next morning, with a thoroughly installed hangover - and registered for what I believed to be Business Studies.

"Only I'd gotten the papers mixed up and in my delicate state I'd really registered for Law.

"wMy grant and fees were paid by the time I realised the mistake. So, I found myself becoming a lawyer, essentially, because I'd joined the wrong queue at some stage."

The degree was in both British and Irish Law. To further qualify, he took a postgraduate diploma in legal practice at Cardiff University - which put him right off the profession.

"I just didn't feel cut out for it; instead I worked as a bouncer, and in a call centre, and eventually came back to Belfast in 2000. I had no other skills, so I applied for the position of paralegal in a large city centre firm and got it.

"That was my path into the legal profession and I went on to qualify as a solicitor in that firm, and represented insurance companies and defended personal injury cases."

After eight years, he tired of civil litigation and moved to a family-oriented firm, John Ross & Son, where he could specialise in personal injury, employment law and judicial review, and "represent real people with real problems", including the immigrant worker who won the record damages.

"He had suffered horrendous treatment in his workplace because he was from another country," his lawyer states bluntly.

"He'd been victimised because he'd complained about discrimination and he was eventually sacked.

"We were able to show that his treatment and his dismissal was racially motivated and that management were aware of it. That was a great result to get for that gentleman because he wanted to show his employer that you couldn't treat people that way and get away with it.

"Most people become lawyers because they want to help people - I'm no different."

But the hankering to write had been with him since his early twenties, when he drafted a few screenplays but didn't manage to get anything sold. He'd given up for about 15 years before he came up with The Defence.

"I've heard the writers Stuart Neville and Brian McGilloway say that they began writing during a stressful period of change in their lives and I had a similar experience," he concludes.

"Since getting the publishing deal, it's been an amazing journey, and the icing on the cake has been the ACES award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

"It's great to have work in my genre recognised and I'm immensely grateful for their support."

  • The Defence will have its official launch at No Alibis Bookstore on Botanic Avenue, Belfast, on Thursday, March 12, at 6.30pm. Steve Cavanagh will also attend a book-signing event in Easons, Donegall Square, Belfast on Thursday, March 19

Steve’s favourite book and TV shows

  • Thriller novels: John Connolly's Charlie Parker Series, Michael Connelly's Mickey Haller novels, Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy Series, Brian McGilloway's Little Girl Lost and The Twelve by Stuart Neville
  • Book from childhood: The Hobbit
  • Crime film: The Usual Suspects
  • Screen lawyer: Leo McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey
  • Crime TV series: Cracker and Rumpole of the Bailey
  • Smooth criminal: The notorious American bank robber Willie Sutton. He escaped from prison three times, and as legend has it, he was once asked why he robbed banks. To which he allegedly replied, "because that's where the money is"

Tense tale of race against time

The Defence is a classic Hollywood noir waiting to happen.

"Eddie Flynn used to be a con artist," runs the pithy blurb. "Then he became a lawyer. Turned out the two weren't that different."

You can almost hear Humphrey Bogart delivering the hard-boiled voice-over. The novel opens over a year since this fast Eddie vowed never to set foot in a courtroom again. But now he doesn't have a choice. Olek Volchek, the infamous head of the Russian mafia in New York, has strapped a bomb to Eddie's back and kidnapped his 10-year-old daughter, Amy.

Eddie only has 48 hours to defend Volchek in an impossible murder trial - and win - if he wants to save his daughter. Under the scrutiny of the media and the FBI, Eddie must use his razor-sharp wit and every con-artist trick in the book to defend his "client" and ensure Amy's safety. With the timer on his back ticking away, can Eddie convince the jury of the impossible? "Lose this case and he loses everything," booms the cover note.

  • For book details, visit www.stevecavanaghbooks.com and his entertaining stevecavanaghwriter.blogspot.com

Belfast Telegraph


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