You can also read a review of Dead Man’s Grave from me, here:
This novel began with a chap called John Fisher telling you a story. What was it about that story, do you think, which struck you so strongly?
It just grabbed hold of me almost instinctively. The wild and remote tumbledown graveyard, literally miles from anywhere in Caithness and then a grave that simply says, “This Grave Never To Be Opened.” What a way to grab a readers’ attention. I write contemporary thrillers, but the place just reeked of history, so I wanted to find a way of writing my kind of book, but with it’s feet in the 1830s. It was fun.
I love how the novel begins in one way and then shifts on its axis very quickly to be something a reader might not expect. How important is that for you as a writer to not allow your readers to be ahead of the plot?
I’m never quite sure how these things work. I just set out to write a book that I’d like to read. I hadn’t really considered how the book morphs from a procedural into a full on thriller. I let the characters decide how the story goes, and I just like to see how the narrative progresses. Maybe I should plan a little more, but I’m not sure my books would be any better if I did.
You are based on the Black Isle now. Did setting great chunks of the novel in and around areas familiar to those of us who live and work here – Rosemarkie, Berriedale Braes, Latheron – add an extra frisson for you?
Very much so. Scotland is home now, and I love it deeply. I want to tell stories set in areas I know well. I think readers get a kick of a story being told in their back yards.
The novel obviously exists pre-Covid. I know a lot of writers are grappling with this dilemma but will Covid play a part in your future work, do you think?
I’ve taken a decision to ignore COVID. I just don’t want to talk about distancing, masks and tests, I want to give readers escapism. Once we are well past it, maybe I’ll give it a mention, but for now, the novels are set in what ever time people think they are, whether it’s before or after. My books are a COVID free zone.
Max Craigie has a similar(ish) background to both you and Tom Novak in terms of a military beginning before service with the Met, as well as Scotland being in the mix. Are those autobiographical echoes touchstones you begin with in the writing or is a way of ensuring that you make the novels appear as true to life as possible?
Well, the link is really vague. We are all ex-servicemen turned cops, but that’s kind of it. Much of it is because I don’t have to research backstory too much. There is such a vibrant crime writing scene in Scotland that I really wanted to be part of, so I chose to write about the country I live in. Plus, the scenery is so staggering that it can be deployed almost as an extra character when giving the book a sense of place. I think it allows me to add a real sense of atmosphere that is pretty unique to Scotland.
A further echo I notice from your previous work is the role of police corruption. Obviously, the success of Line of Duty has raised the profile of this issue again in the recent past but you’ve been there for a long time. How important an issue is it in terms of Police Scotland and what can be done to improve the situation?
Serious, organised crime needs corruption to function. Not just in terms of law-enforcement, but with the legal profession, banking, solicitors, money laundering. They operate hand-in-hand. It is thankfully very rare, but a tiny proportion of corrupt officials can cause disproportionate damage to policing and the legal system. I don’t actually watch LOD, not really my cup-of-tea, but the theme of corruption is fascinating. I’m interested in the route to corruption. What makes previously good people become corrupt? What is the backstory? Taking a single tenner from a criminal at the start of your career can define the rest of it.
Dead Man’s Grave is your fourth novel. Are you finding it easier to write as you get further in or is each a challenge in a different way?
Well, I’ve written two others in this series already, so it seems not. The follow up to Dead Man’s Grave is undergoing edits right now, and the third is with my agent. I love writing both series, but you do need a little time to let the creativity come back and leave you fresh to write some more. I’ve written essentially 3 books in 12 months, so a little break before I start again to let the ideas breathe will be a good thing.
I’m making the assumption that this is going to be a series of books as it has all the hallmarks of being set up that way. How far ahead have you planned if this is the case and how long would you like the series to run for?
As long as people want to read them, I’ll keep writing them, always assuming that I keep getting the ideas. I’ve assembled a little cast of characters, you’ll meet them when Craigie 2 comes out next year, so I can see me writing more.
What is a typical writing day for you?
It varies enormously. I write for probably 4 hours a day if I’m in the groove, but it can be more or less. I’m lucky that I don’t have a day job, so I can devote my time to writing. There’s always other stuff to do, particularly on the run up to publication regarding publicity etc.
What are your long term goals with the writing?
Just to keep writing, as long as folk want to read what I produce, I’ll keep doing it.
Was Dead Man’s Grave’s long listing for the William McIvanney Prize a complete surprise or had you had an inkling beforehand? How has the nomination affected you and what will you do to celebrate if you win?
I had no idea whatsoever. I knew that I’d been entered for it, but didn’t expect to get longlisted. It’s been really flattering and to be mentioned in the same breath as Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart MacBride and Denise Mina is just so cool.
What colour is Monday?
When I was commuting 3 hours a day, 6 years ago it was blue. Now it’s all multi coloured, same as every other day.
Having followed you on social media, I love the videos of Peggy dancing for the bin men. Was she pleased to be featured as Nutmeg in this novel or has the attention gone to her head?
Peggy was actually in 2 of the Novak books. Nutmeg is a real dog, that belongs to my great friends. I’ll probably take her along to book signings. She’s a really sweetie.
What is the question you wished interviewers and readers would ask but never do?
Do you fancy a pint?’
Many thanks to Neil for taking the time to answer some questions about his latest novel. You can find more about Neil and his work at https://neillancastercrime.co.uk/