Leigh Russell is one of the finest crime fiction writers in the business, so with another release imminent, we discuss inspirations, characters and Hertfordshire
I imagine you loved reading as a child – what kind of books did you adore?
The common theme of all the books I loved as a child is adventure. Whether the stories are plausible like Treasure Island, The Secret Garden, Ballet Shoes and Swiss Family Robinson, or fantasies like the Narnia books, The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland, they all transport the reader to different worlds. I fell in love with stories as soon as I could read, and that feeling has never gone away.
Was it a long-winding road to becoming a published author?
You could say it was a long road to writing my first book, as I didn’t write my debut crime novel until I reached my mid-50s. Before that, it had never even occurred to me that I might be capable of writing a book. Once I had completed the first draft of my debut novel, Cut Short, I was extremely fortunate to find a home for it straight away with a wonderful publisher, [Harpenden-based] No Exit Press.
What was the inspiration to sit down and write Cut Short?
When a story occurred to me, I decided to try and write it down. That turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. Having started, I couldn’t stop writing. F. Scott FitzGerald said: ‘You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say’, and I had a story to tell. Now, with 25 books published, I’m very glad my first story popped into my head 12 years ago.
How did you find the writing process in the early days?
To begin with, I wrote every word in long hand in pencil and typed up what I had written at the end of the day. For some reason, I wasn’t able to write directly on the keyboard. Gradually this changed and I found myself typing without the intermediate step of hand writing. This makes the process a lot faster, as I touch type.
Crime in fiction is conflict, allowing different characters to face challenges and develop. It’s basically about good and evil – goodies and baddies – with plenty of scope for drama and tension. Other than humorous novels, I think most literature revolves around crime in some way, and crime stories in fiction are far more wide ranging than the crime ‘genre’ implies. For example, all of Shakespeare’s tragedies revolve around crimes, exploring themes of fratricide, suicide, regicide, infanticide, and just about every other form of homicide.
It’s dark stuff covered in the books, so how do you get yourself into that mindset?
BarryForshaw, writing in Crime Time, described my work as taking the reader into ‘the darkest recesses of the human psyche’. To be honest, I’ve no idea how I get there, and I’m not sure I want to know! As a writer you have to enter into the minds of your characters, and the creative ability to empathise with other people lies at the heart of any work of fiction.
How much research goes into your books?
Before lockdown, I travelled to the locations where my books are set. For my Geraldine Steel series, this research took me all around the UK, from Whitstable to York. In addition, I spent time in The Seychelles, Paris and Rome, exploring the locations where my Lucy Hall trilogy is set. Locations are not the only subject of my research. I spend a lot of time researching advances in forensic science, which is a fascinating study. It amazes me how sophisticated forensic techniques have become. We have come a long way since Sherlock Holmes first brought out his magnifying glass in 1887. Some of my research is carried out online, but much of it involves advice from experts in the field who have been incredibly helpful. Once my ideas are in place, more research follows. Whether it be chatting to the supervisor of a street market, or visiting a shelter for homeless people, going to a morgue or being shown behind the scenes at a race course, I like to speak to people working in the field where my characters live, to get a feel of their experience, in an attempt to create believable characters.
Who is Geraldine Steel?
Geraldine Steel is the detective investigating murders in my crime series. When I began writing the series, Geraldine was a fairly shadowy figure in my mind. My main focus was the character and motivation of the killer. Gradually, I have come to know Geraldine through writing the series. A champion of justice, she has dedicated her adult life to tracking down elusive murderers. Intelligent and empathetic, she is driven by her passion to see killers brought to justice. As an adult, she discovers that she was adopted at birth, and struggles to develop a relationship with her recently discovered identical twin. She is fiercely protective of her independence, and faces another personal challenge when her boyfriend comes to live with her.
Cut Short was shortlisted for a CWA Dagger Award. How did that feel?
Cut Short wasmy first novel, shortlisted for the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award. At the time, I had no idea how significant that was. Only when other publishers and agents recognised me at literary festivals and came over to congratulate me did I realise what an important achievement it was to be recognised by the Crime Writers Association in this way.
Was it easy to move on to write book number two?
Writing book number two, Road Closed, was fortunately not difficult for me as I had signed a three-book deal with my publisher. As soon as Cut Short was published, I had to get on and write the next book in the series. So, in that sense it was very easy. I had been given a deadline and just had to get on with it. Without that deadline, I don’t know whether the next book would have been written so promptly, although I suspect it would as by now, I had caught the bug and couldn’t stop writing!
I grew up reading the books of Mark Billingham and Karin Slaughter, who have gone down the route of spin offs. Was that always your plan?
No. I didn’t actually have a plan when I started writing. I simply wrote a story, with no idea that it would turn out to be the first in a long running series. Geraldine Steel’s sergeant, Ian Peterson, rapidly gained a fan base of his own. When Geraldine relocated, leaving Ian behind, I responded to readers’ requests and wrote a trilogy for Ian in his own right. Later in the series, Geraldine and Ian work together again.
What can you tell me about Deep Cover?
After a number of books where Geraldine and Ian are working together as a team, Deep Cover, sees them separated and working independently, with both their stories incorporated into one novel. All I can tell you is that they both encounter dangerous situations, for entirely different reasons, but you will have to read the book to find out whether they both survive!
I read the Geraldine Steel series was being made for TV. Is that still happening?
Theoption on the series has recently lapsed (as often happens in the world of TV!), but we are in discussion with another production company so hopefully we will have some exciting news soon.
Finally, Leigh, in our profiles we like to ask our interviewees about 3-4 places they love in the county. You live just outside, but do you have any favourite spots when you venture into Herts? Can be outdoor spots, restaurants, places of interest etc etc…
When we first married, my husband and I lived in St Albans which we loved. The first place I would like to mention is the area around the water mill near Verulamium Park in St Albans. When our children were younger, we used to meet up with friends in the grounds of Knebworth House for an annual picnic and the children all had a wonderful time at the adventure playground there. The aquadrome in Rickmansworth is another beautiful area where we like to go for walks around the lake and along the canal. Finally, I have to mention the picturesque town of Harpenden, which is personally very special to me as that is where my publisher is based, and it’s where my writing career began.
Leigh Russell’s latest novel, Deep Cover (No Exit Press) is out on 24 August, and is available from all good bookshops or via noexit.co.uk/deep-cover. Follow Leigh Russell on Twitter (@LeighRussell) and sign up to her newsletter for exclusive offers, news and more via leighrussell.co.uk/news