We’ve been enjoying a few days of decent weather up here in Northumberland – hope you have, too! April was a very busy month in terms of writing and events and May is shaping up to be very similar. I was a panellist at Newcastle Noir Festival at the weekend and was in my element chatting about how our landscape inspires the stories we tell. I was joined by fellow authors Mari Hannah and Matt Wesolowski and there were over sixty authors over the course of the festival – a great time was had by all! I’ll be doing a talk as part of the South Shields Write! Festival at ‘The Word’ on 19th May, looking forward to seeing some of you there.
I scarcely know where Monday and Tuesday went, so here we are on Wednesday with our next Author Introduction! This week, I’m joined by the lovely Robert Crouch.
Ever since he read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series as a child, Robert has loved mysteries and wanted to write them. Miss Marple and Inspector Morse, with their complex stories and plots, only increased that desire. But it was Sue Grafton’s wonderful series about private investigator, Kinsey Millhone, which inspired him to try a fresh approach to the traditional murder mystery – no one had written about an environmental health officer solving murders.
It took a few years for the idea and character to develop and a few more to write a credible crime novel that would entertain and intrigue the whole family. But when No Accident was first published, the response from readers showed there was room in the market for something different. The environmental health background seems popular with readers because it provides glimpses into a relatively unknown world, adding an extra dimension to the mysteries.
Like Robert, his character Kent Fisher is also a passionate environmentalist and animal lover with a keen sense of fair play and justice. Since hanging up his white coat and probe thermometer, Robert has become a full-time writer, keen to put more time and effort into his novels. When he’s not writing, you’ll find him running or taking photographs on the South Downs, where his stories are set. It’s so beautiful and peaceful there, perfect for roaming with his wife and West Highland White Terrier, Harvey.
Sounds idyllic! Let’s find out more…
Tell us a little about yourself – don’t be shy!
I’m an environmental health officer turned writer, drawing on my experiences to offer a fresh approach to the traditional murder mystery. With hindsight, it’s easy to understand how my love of puzzles, a strong sense of justice and fair play, and a love of offbeat characters, epitomised by the likes of Miss Marple, Inspector Morse and Kinsey Millhone, led me to write crime.
I now write full time from my home on the Sussex Coast adjoining the South Downs, where the stories are based. While my first novel was originally published by a small independent publisher in the US, I bought back my rights so I could become an independent author and take control of my future.
How about your latest book – what can readers look forward to when they pick it up?
Hopefully my best novel yet, according to early feedback. No Remorse is the third book in the Kent Fisher mystery series. Readers tell me they like the complex plots with all their twists, the vivid characters and the wit and humour in the writing, so I’ve tried to give them plenty more.
In No Remorse, an 87-year-old man in a retirement home dies, leaving Kent Fisher a set of numbers. They could be the answer to a dark secret or items on a takeaway menu. But as Kent investigates and other people die, it becomes clear that he’s not the only one who wants to get to the truth. His life depends on it.
Like the previous books, it’s a traditional murder mystery/whodunit at its heart. The themes and subject matter are a little darker than the previous books and the reader gets to learn a lot more about Kent Fisher, who up till now has remained something of a mystery himself. There’s also room for a little romance to spice things up.
Who is your hero in real life and in fiction?
I have only one hero – the late, great Victoria Wood, who inspired me with her observational humour, her brilliant writing and the quality of her work. Always modest, she seemed almost perplexed by her success and the respect in which she was held. She made everyone laugh – surely the greatest gift you can have. I was lucky enough to see her on her final stand up tour and she was amazing. I don’t mind admitting I shed more than a few tears when she died.
My fictional hero has to be the private detective that inspired me to create my own – Kinsey Millhone, the feisty, fiercely independent and irreverent detective from Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Murder Series. The books, the way they’re written, and the characters brought something new and different to the Private Eye novel. And when Sue Grafton died earlier this year, I felt like I’d lost a friend and mentor.
Who are your three favourite writers – and why?
That’s almost impossible to answer as I enjoy discovering new authors. My answer in a few years could be different from now. I thought about how to answer your question, looking at my bookshelves to see if anyone dominated. I found Tom Sharpe, who’s humorous novels were peerless, and Simon Kernick, surely one of the best thriller writers today.
But I haven’t read either for years and feel no urge to with all the new talent out there.
The one author who fills the most shelf space is Sue Grafton, who completed 25 novels about Kinsey Millhone before her death. I’ve read every one since I first discovered her work in the mid-1980s, including the last a few weeks ago. I love the characters, the quality of the writing and the original plots, underpinned by a wonderful backstory that weaves a warm thread through the series, set in a coastal resort in California.
Peter James could become my current favourite author with his Roy Grace series. Apart from being a local author, setting his stories just up the road from where I live, he’s a terrific story teller and plotter, setting a high benchmark with his realism and accurate portrayal of modern policing and crime detection. His novels are a masterclass in crime writing and police procedure as far as I’m concerned, and an inspiration.
My third choice has to be Dick Francis, who made me want to write crime. He inspired me with his slick writing, clever use of hooks and first person narrative. You felt part of the action from the first paragraph and that closeness is something I’ve tried to emulate in my own writing.
When you’re not writing, what is your favourite way to spend your time?
This is going to sound sad and not very rock and roll, but I enjoy meeting and talking to other writers about writing. While I love meeting readers and discussing books with them, only another writer understands what it’s like to be a writer. It’s great to share your love of words with like-minded people.
Social media helps too, but you can’t beat meeting in a lovely café with a pot of tea and cakes to talk about books and writing.
I also love running, which keeps body and mind healthy, walking with my wife and Harvey, our West Highland white terrier, and reading.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Giving up smoking in 2006. It changed my life and led to so many other achievements. The self-confidence and belief I gained spurred me to become fit, to run half marathons, to believe in myself. At the time, I had to quit writing because it was so intrinsically linked to smoking. When I started writing again after 18 months, it was with renewed vigour and belief, which allowed me to discover my writing voice and have No Accident, the first Kent Fisher novel, accepted for publication.
What was your favourite book as a child?
While I loved Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, the first book to truly capture my imagination and emotions was The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. Narnia was a magical place that came alive in my mind, helping me understand good and evil and how you can defeat a superior enemy with strength, conviction and togetherness. I can still recall how I cried over Aslan.
Have you read any books recently that have really captured your imagination?
Not Dead Enough by Peter James has one of the most original and clever plots I’ve come across. As a writer, I just had the feeling that Peter James loved writing the story because there was something electric about the writing, the characters and their relationships and the sublime twists he piled on, one after another.
If the Prime Minister knocked at your front door and asked to borrow a book, which one would you recommend they read?
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. There is so much wonderful advice and wisdom in this book, originally published in the 1930s, I believe. It might show the Prime Minister, and politicians generally, how to treat and respect other people and how working together can make us stronger and less divisive.
Finally, if you could be any character from a movie, which would it be?
It would have to be someone who battles against the odds for what they believe to be right. Someone who’s not afraid to different or to stand on their own for what they believe.
It can only be Atticus Finch, the gentle, dignified but passionate lawyer who showed the world how to fight ignorance and prejudice in To Kill a Mocking Bird.
…Thank you, Robert! I love your choice of Atticus Finch; there are very few films that can move me but Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Harper Lee’s classic character is always one of them. Thank you for sharing some insights into what brought you to writing and what inspires the character of Kent Fisher – wishing you every success with the new release.