Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Hard Times in the Midlands

I first met British Midlands-based journalist, broadcaster, and crime writer Maureen Carter in 2001, during the Dead-on-Deansgate conference in Manchester. (You can look over photographs of that event here and here.)

Back then, Carter had just launched her Bev Morriss series with the novel Working Girls, the first in what would become a hard-hitting urban crime series set in the dark heart of the Midlands. Since then, I have followed her books about Birmingham detective Morriss, as she’s switched publishers from Flambard Press to Crème de la Crime (the latter of which we mentioned last year in The Rap Sheet, and which continues to prospect for untapped talent).

As Carter prepares for the June release of her latest gritty Morriss novel, Hard Time, we requested that she tell Rap Sheet readers a little about the writing of her fourth book and how she got into this game in the first place. Answers Carter:
I was asked recently to put together an article on authors who write detective series. Some of the biggest names in crime fiction generously helped with my inquiries, and given the calibre of the material, the piece has stretched into a lengthy feature. It’ll appear across two issues of The New Writer (TNW) magazine later this year.

It set me thinking not just about my own series, but how I began writing fiction. It started with the same magazine. As a journalist, I’d written thousands of news stories, but
TNW published my first short story. It was called, “Dead Men Don’t Smile.” But I did. As an aspiring author, I beamed. I blue-tacked a copy to the wall by my desk and left another casually draped across the nearest chair. Getting that piece into print was a turning point in my ambition to be a crime writer.

I’d already written a crime novel and watched it doing the usual rounds--agents, editors, slush piles--and getting nowhere. It didn’t matter how rave the rejection letters were, the bottom line was the same: close but no cigar.

The publication of “Dead Men” (and other short fiction successes) sustained me through the writing of two more (unpublished) novels and then the completion of a fourth,
Working Girls. The story featured a lippie young DS [detective sergeant] called Bev Morriss, and the book was taken up by a new and exciting independent publisher.

If TNW was a career break, Crème de la Crime was a world cruise. As I write this, advance copies of the fourth title in the series--
Hard Time--have just arrived in the post and one is at my elbow on the desk. I still can’t quite believe how far Bev and I have come since she first popped almost unbidden into my thoughts. Especially when I recall that her debut was as a bit part player in one of those unpublished novels. Back then, she glowered at the sidelines, tapped a Doc Marten, hurled the odd scowl, muttered the odd wicked aside. But Bev got to me. There was something about her bolshie stance, her in-your-face attitude. And when I sat down to write Girls--Bev was looking over my shoulder, prodding me in the back, making her presence felt. She forced herself centre-page. Now, she’s the star of the show and I can’t imagine the series without her.

And I’m not the only one ...

A couple of years ago, I went into a room where a couple of friends were having a heated discussion. It went something like this:

S: “She’d never do that.”
P: “Yes, she would.”
S: “No way.”
P: “You are so wrong.”
S: “Wanna bet?”

When I asked who they were talking about, they chorused a slightly sheepish: “Bev.”
It was one of those moments when, as a writer, I glowed: people were arguing over a lippie female cop who existed only in my head. They’d formed their own solid opinion, sound judgement. Bev was as real to them as to me, her creator. But that’s Bev--she gets under the skin. And that’s what the series (any series) is all about. Readers identify with my wayward sergeant’s foibles and foot-in-mouths as much as her integrity and principles. They know her hard-ass cop act is a façade. They know who she fancies--usually before she does. And they know that at the end of
Baby Love, the third title, Bev was hurting big time.

How was she going to handle the aftermath? Could she pick up the pieces of her career, let alone her shattered life? [Those] were the challenges facing Bev at the end of the novel. And the series’ writer faces related challenges. The next book usually has to address overlap issues while delivering an exciting new narrative. It has to hook first-time readers while satisfying those who’ve been on board since the word
go. Maintaining the right balance can be tricky: too much is a turn-off, not enough and a regular reader may feel cheated. The writer has to try to produce the latest in a series that can also be read as a standalone.

For me, these points were writ large in
Hard Time. Bev’s trauma in the last chapter of Baby Love couldn’t just be glossed over or dismissed. (Not that I wanted to.) But it was a fine line; weaving in the fallout from book three with the ongoing action in book four.

The only way to do it was through the characters. Though Bev gets the lion’s share of attention, the series has a strong support cast. Oz Khan, Bill Byford, Mike Powell, and Frankie Perlagio are all strong individuals not afraid to voice their opinions. Plus, I introduced a new series character, Mac Tyler, a cop who does stand-up comedy in his spare time. (Research for that was fun, I can tell you!) We see Bev through these eyes as well as hers. And that’s just as well, because she’s blind when it comes to talking about how she feels.

Which is ironic given that one critic [Sharon Wheeler at
Reviewing the Evidence] said of her: “Detective Sergeant Bev Morriss has got a gob [American translation: “mouth”] on her.” The same critic … also observed: “Many writers would sell their first-born to have the ability to create such a distinctive ‘voice’ in a main character.” (Forgive my indulgence here, but I’m a writer who doesn’t get reviews in the national press. When a woman who knows the genre inside out writes comments like that--they matter).

Anyway, moving on, if
Baby Love was a hard act for Bev to follow, does she get an easier ride in Hard Time? As if. She and her colleagues race against the clock to trace a kidnapped 5-year-old. And that’s not all: with an abandoned baby and a cop killer on the loose, there’s more than one deadline to contend with. As for Bev’s personal life, the end of the story sees her in another mess entirely of her own making. And one which almost took me by surprise. Having said that, I feel sort of responsible, so I’m currently trying to extricate her. The working title of book five is Bad Press.
If you’ve not heard of Carter’s crime fiction, check it out.

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