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JIM KELLY Interviewed

Written by Amy Myers

Jim Kelly Talks To Amy Myers About The Golden Age of Crime and its influences




Death Watchthe second in Jim Kelly’s police procedural series featuring DI Peter Shaw and DS  George Valentine, is now published (Penguin, Paperback Original, £7.99, February 2010). Head for the nearest bookshop or press the buy button without delay. The author’s first series, featuring journalist Philip Dryden and set in the Fens, won the CWA Dagger in the Library award in 2006, and the film rights for Death Wore White are under option. It’s not hard to see why. Full of action, full of atmosphere, and with memorable characters, Jim Kelly’s novels make compulsive reading. InDeath Watch Bryan Judd is found murdered in a hospital incinerator, eighteen years to the day after his twin sister Norma Jean disappeared. A connection? Shaw and Valentine, still pursuing the unfinished business that lay between them in Death Wore Whitefind themselves grappling with an increasingly nightmarish situation.



Q. I found it fascinating that you’re a lover of the Golden Age of crime writing and the novels of Dorothy Sayers and Edmund Crispin, but the Shaw–Valentine novels are police procedurals set in a very real and believable world. You write on your website that the Dryden novels and the first Shaw novel incorporate a sense of the Golden Age era. Do you think this is as true in Death Watch? And if so, is this a conscious consideration of yours when planning the novel, or the way it comes out as the writing progresses?


The shadow cast by the Golden Age is a long one. In some ways my books are a reaction against the classic puzzle whodunit formula, in that I try to make the plotting realistic, and I try to deliver a denouement that is believable – less possible, more probable. So you are right about Death Watch. But what I love about the classics of the genre is the sense of claustrophobia that you get – the suspects all brought together in one setting, such as the country house. So what I did inDeath Watch was to try and create a modern-day version of the country house. I ended up with a mystery set in a working class street. It’s summer, so front doors stand open, and there’s plenty of street life. There’s the church on the corner, the laundrette, the pub, and the nearby docks. I wanted it to feel a bit like a Cluedo board – with the characters moving from house to house, not room to room, sharing their lives in a tight-knit community. That’s the Golden Age aspect of the book – plus a couple of puzzles! 



Q. Death Watch is a long way in style from Sayers’ The Nine Tailors which you say on your website was very much a life-changing book for you. Did you mean that it set you on the path to writing crime or that it shaped the way you wrote? (And will Shaw and Valentine be bell-ringing one of these days?)


Well, The Nine Tailors did change my life – and while that sounds like a cliché, it isn’t. I ring bells for a hobby, I live in the Fens where the book was set, and I write crime thrillers – three aspects of my life which all go back to reading this wonderful book when I was ten. You are absolutely right that no one reading Death Watch today would think it was inspired by The Nine Tailors. But there are subtle echoes, I think  – for example, both books reek of the same Gothic atmosphere, and both are rooted in very particular  landscapes: The Nine Tailors in the Black Fen, Death Watch in the decaying urban townscape of Lynn, and along the lonely Norfolk coast.



Q. Atmosphere is very important in your novels:  the Dryden novels are set in the Fens and you take us to the northNorfolk coast for Shaw and Valentine. The beach scenes in Death Watch particularly impressed me in the way you treat them as Shaw’s ‘escape’ from the ghastliness of his work, particularly in this case. Does the beach carry more meaning for you than the Norfolk inland?


Beaches are very special places for me. I think it is because I was very happy as a child on holiday. It was the only time in the year when we were all together properly as a family because Dad was a detective at Scotland Yard and worked just about non-stop. One of the things we lose when we get older is an ability to live in the moment, which is second nature to children, if not first nature. But I still find I can forget the world on a  beach, not in the trite sense of ‘escaping’, but in that I don’t think about time, I’m just there, and I make the most of it.. Luckily my daughter is still of an age to enjoy the North Norfolk sands – and we both have wetsuits ! I can recall as a teenager, when I had a string of jobs on beaches, spending a whole afternoon-off sitting on a rock waiting for the tide to turn the rock into an island. Bliss.



Q. Shaw and Valentine’s investigation takes them beyond the original case of Bryan Judd’s death and his twin’s earlier disappearance, although this mystery hangs over the novel throughout. Would you ever now want to write a straight whodunit, having tasted the relative freedom that a thriller provides?


The intoxicating drug which you taste with the thriller is, I think, the ability to inject pace into the narrative. I love this. But the way in which my books develop is very organic – which as you know is a posh way of saying I don’t know what’s going to happen either. So some of the plots lend themselves to a thriller development and others don’t. I have a very flimsy grip on my place in any particular genre, so I probably cross the line between the whodunit and the thriller and back to a mystery several times in each book. I think one of the bad things about the Golden Age is predictability. Playing multi-genre games with the reader is one way of keeping the reader guessing. 



Q. You quote on your website (www.jim-kelly.co.uk) from John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man that the solution of a crime novel is not a matter of being probable, it just has to be possible. In the case of Death Watch being possible was quite enough for me – otherwise I’d never go to Norfolk again! But seriously, do you think Carr’s maxim stands for a crime as chillingly awful as that in Death Watch?


I think the great writers of the Golden Age took this position – that the solution to their puzzles just had to be possible – in the spirit of the parlour game.  It is not a sustainable view in a world where readers demand a more authentic feel. While I hope some aspects of the books are fantastic, in the sense of the landscape, and the Gothic atmosphere, I don’t believe readers today are going to take the solutions involving biddable snakes, or twins, or smoke and mirrors.  I think you can still set puzzles, but you need to have the kind of solution which makes the reader think: ‘Of course – that’s so simple!’ Needless to say finding such solutions as you well know is very difficult – but it’s worth the journey. Oddly, I think the best example of such a solution is in The Hollow Man – not the main plot, but the sub-plot, involving the man shot in the street. I won’t give anything away – but the simplicity of that solution is gem-like. And the solution to The Nine Tailorscan be completely summarised in one sentence. And – while I’m on the subject – the last episode I saw of Jonathan Creekinvolved a seemingly impossible puzzle about a room in an attic of an old house. The solution was very simple.



Q. Your father was a police detective and your grandfather a policeman at the time of the Sydney Street Siege. Did you grow up on a diet of crime stories or was it rather the opposite; a deliberate silence that made you all the more keen to find out about police work? Shaw’s father, also a police detective, tells his son he can do anything he likes in life but not follow him into the police – was that the atmosphere, if not the actual advice, of your own experience?


I was told at an early age I could do anything I liked with my life except become a police officer. Dad felt he worked far too hard, far too long, for the rewards that he got. Having said that I think he loved every minute of it, just about. But he did feel that the life he saw – effectively London’s low-life, was one which could drag you down. He tried very hard to protect us – I’m one of three boys – from that kind of life. I never wanted to be a policeman because by the time I was old enough to consider careers it wasn’t seen as very ‘cool’ and I’d taken on a fashionable Left-wing dislike of the police in general. But I did become a journalist – and I had a lot to talk to Dad about, because I was inhabiting, to some extent, a similar world.



Q. You write in your web biography that you always wanted to write – was crime your first choice or did you come to it gradually? It’s been said, and I echo it, that your writing style is not only full of pace and drama but  poetic – did you ever get drawn to writing poetry, or was it the story angle that attracted you most?


I have always liked poetic language – but I don’t think I’m a poet. I love the freedom of the poetic image, but I don’t think that I’m ever trying to get to some hidden greater truth by using it. My first written page – on a Brother typewriter – was a science fiction novel called The Gospel According to Judas. I never got past the second page. I was a working journalist from 1978 until 2003, and so I was using words, and telling stories, every day. Crime fiction was a natural home for me, because it is plot-led, like journalism. But it is a wonderful irony that the restrictions of the genre mean that you can play freely at its margins – by that I mean I can indulge, for example, my love of describing landscape. If I wrote a novel about landscape it would be a disaster – this way the crime plot sort of carries all the other luggage I like to take with me when writing. You can see this happening with many crime writers, who achieve this with much more panache than I  – for example, Ian Rankin’s ability to describe Scottish society, while telling a gripping story at the same time.



Q. Are you one of those lucky writers whose prose comes out on screen or paper almost in final form, or do you polish and polish and polish to achieve such magnificent effects?


I probably rewrite the whole thing three times – having rewritten two or three times on the go. But I have always noticed that the pieces I write quickly, that just seem to exist independently in my head before I touch the keyboard, are often the best passages. I try hard sometimes not to rewrite beyond a certain point because there is a dreadful moment, always, when you just know things are getting worse, not better. I also have a trick which you may well have tried yourself. While I have a ‘target’ for the number of words I write in a day, usually 500 words, if I cut some previously written text then I treat the words lost as added. So if I cut 1,000 words – that is two days work done! This encourages editing, which is the best way to improve my writing. 



Q. You write in an ‘ivory tower’, or in your case ivory shed, on an allotment. Does this  always work as an inducement to concentrated writing or do you find yourself tempted to rush out and dig potatoes every so often?


I am never tempted to dig. Most days when I can get out on to the land I will make myself do twenty minutes digging before I start writing, and then twenty minutes at the end. Digging – despite being hard work – is actually an ideal pursuit first thing because it is difficult to do it wrong. So it can be chalked up as a ‘win’ before the writing day begins. It puts me on an upward psychological path.  Physical exercise is a very good warm-up session for me because it also squeezes out stress, and leaves me feeling settled, rather than fidgety. This winter has been a bit frosty in the hut, despite having a huge double-paraffin heater, but I can say that I’m already proud of my emerging garlic. 



Q. Death Watch is full of detailed knowledge of hospitals, medical and police procedures. You acknowledge specialist help in your books, and presumably also ‘walk the ground’ yourself. Is research an aspect that you enjoy in writing, or is it the plotting and actual writing that give you the most satisfaction?


Research is terrific fun isn’t it? Largely, I suspect, because it is so much easier than actually writing. Colin Dexter always says that if he is tempted to do research he resists, makes it up instead, and then checks when he has finished the book. My plots tend to have a technical nugget in them, and that needs to be right, and I’m not half as clever as Colin. I am haunted by a book review I read many years ago by Clive James in which he pulled apart some hapless writer – pointing out that every reader can tell the difference between research and knowledge. Ouch ! If I’m going to take the reader into some specialist area I try to read a lot on it, get inside the subject, so that when it comes along in the book it feels natural, and unforced. But I use my own time for this research –as it were – rather than writing time. If you use writing time it is all too frenetic, and artificial, and it sort of thuds on to the page. The reader will spot that, and just think ‘Cut and paste!’. 



Q. The plot of Death Watch is labyrinthine, and yet it all comes together with a Minotaur of a denouement. Do you ‘know’ the ending before you begin the novel or do you find it on your way there once Shaw and Valentine get moving?


Before I write I have a planned version of the book on my blackboard in my office at home. But the ending is never the one that eventually gets written. I think it’s important to know where I’m going but you don’t have to stick with the destination. It sounds very inefficient but the process, for me, is one of constant revision of plot. I think other writers can hold a complete plot in their heads and make it work. I have to say that is totally beyond me.



Q. You skilfully blend the initial case, Bryan Judd’s murder, with the unfinished business to do with Valentine and Shaw’s father, which adds another impressive dimension to the story. It seems to be resolved in Death Watch but do you have plans for future novels in this series, in which their relationship may take another turn?


The back story which dominates their relationship is finally, and completely, resolved in the third of the series, which is due out next year. Running an over-arching story through three books is a challenge – which is a nice way of saying I ended up in screaming fits trying to get a suitable resolution. So I don’t think I’ll do that again – not over a series. But I think the relationship between Shaw and Valentine is one that has to keep evolving. I think the cliché that the characters in whodunits have to be sort of fixed – in aspic – is wrong. I think modern readers of crime fiction can easily embrace the complexities of changing relationships.  So I think things will alter between them, and there will be more tensions.  But I don’t think they are ever going to like each other.  



Q. And finally, when does the next Shaw and Valentine novel appear? There’ll be a lot of readers out there wanting to know, including myself. Thank you very much for answering my questions – that allotment shed is growing a terrific crop of novels.


Thanks for the questions, they’ve really made me think.  Death Toll, which is finished, will be out next February. And there’s another being grown by the shed as we speak. Same bed, but this one’s got a very nasty spikey flower.


published by Penguin £7.99 pbk.
February 25th 2010

Death Watch by Jim Kelly
         Click to Buy




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