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Shooting the Breeze with PAUL CHARLES

Written by Mike Stotter


What is your relationship with the Donegal coastline described in the books?

My wife Catherine is from Donegal and I’ve many friends there. Geographically speaking it’s very isolated and has not been overdeveloped or spoiled, and it has a stunning landscape with breath-taking coastline and a big sky.  It’s naturally very soulful too, and if you can avoid the showers you can find some of the best beach-walks in the world. A few years before I started work on the Starrett stories I started to spend a lot of time there and everything I needed location-wise for this series was right there slap bang on my door step.

Why did you set the novel in a “retirement home” for priests?

I really wanted to write this Starrett story in the Agatha Christie tradition. Instead of having the victim and all the suspects on a train or a ship, I thought a Donegal retirement home for priests would serve perfectly as my “locked room”.

Is St Ernan’s is a real place – and what made you set the story there?

Yes St Ernan’s is very much a real place. I’m always discovering that real locations are infinitely more interesting than fictional ones. I was intrigued by St Ernan’s from the first moment I encountered it and bit by bit discovered the history of the Island – many of the stories about the house are true and have been included in an attempt to try and make fiction read as real.

When I was researching the book I tried several times to fix up a visit to the house and the island. The owner was very polite; the times weren’t convenient, maybe check in again in a few months. Eventually he agreed I could come over and Catherine dropped me off by the front door and she and her father Gerry and our two nephews went off for a drive around Donegal Town. I was always conscious I was encroaching on the owner’s time and tried really hard to do the swiftest possible tour of the house, while keeping my wish for an investigative walk around the island to myself. Don’t get me wrong, the owner was at all times very hospitable, but I believe by the time Catherine returned to pick me up, his sigh of relief was definitely audible.  As he walked me out to the car and we were saying our goodbyes, he thought he recognised someone in the car.

“Is that Gerry McGinley?” he asked.

 “It is indeed,” I replied.

“How do you know Gerry?” he asked, quickly walking over to the car.

 “He’s my father-in-law,” I replied.

“Sure you should have told me that,” he said, as he opened the car door and started shaking Gerry’s hand furiously.

My father-in-law was a much-loved legend in Donegal; very sadly he has since passed. But once the owner knew him everything changed. As he chatted away to Gerry he invited me to have an explorative dander around the island and “go and look around the house again if you want to”. When I returned they were still chatting away nineteen to the dozen.

From their chat I got a sense of the old Donegal, of how people dealt with each other, and of how, when someone knows you’re connected to people they know  and respect, they are prepared to offer you the same genuine hospitality friends of theirs would get in return,  were the situation ever reversed.

Did you feel nervous about broaching the subject of abuse in the Catholic Church?

No not at all.  Just like for every less-than-perfect priest, there are literally 1,000s of priests who are decent God-fearing people. For instance, in St Ernan’s Blues Fr. Robert O’Leary, at least appears to show the other side of the coin.

How do you approach a character like Starrett upon whom a whole series of books is based?

When I was working on I’ve Heard the Banshee Sing, a DI Christy Kennedy mystery, Kennedy finds himself making a quick  trip into Donegal where he meets up and works with a local Gardai inspector. When I started to consider this Gardai Inspector – even thought it was a small part – I tried to make him come alive and consider his story… and out he came. I like the character a lot. In a weird way it’s like he was there already and I met him and got to know him the way you meet and get to know someone who becomes a good friend.

Later I was invited to do a short story for Meeting Across The Water – a collection of crime stories based on the Bruce Springsteen lyric – and the idea I had was more suitable for Starrett than it was for Kennedy. A bit more of Starrett’s character came through and I was on my way.

There is something rather nostalgic in your books, a yearning for a simpler time. Does that reflect your own feelings about the world?

I think it does, yes, but at the same time I try really hard to balance it out so that it doesn’t read like a “good old days” manifesto because the good old days are good and gone and some of them weren’t really all that good.

Do you plot your stories before you start, or do they unfold and surprise you as you go along?

I do a lot of work and research beforehand, as was the case with St Ernan’s Blues, with the island and the house and even Donegal Town itself. I also spend quite a bit of time putting my cast of characters together. I don’t like people just to appear on the page – I need to make them real to me to be able to complete the process. However, I love to start each book the way a detective starts off a real investigation and to go on the journey with Starrett. So I go the book each day to try to discover (like the detective, and hopefully the reader) what happened and to solve the puzzle of the crime. With the DI Christy Kennedy mysteries I always do a lot of work and research on the unique method of murder. So I’llstart with a perfect murder and then work backwards from there to try to figure out it happened.

Do you read widely within  the crime genre, and if so, who inspires you most?

Oh yes – I positively devour crime books, both true crime and fiction. I love Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, where he writes a true crime story as a novel, a process I try to reverse. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is another major achievement.  John Connolly’s books I love, and then Michael Connelly as well. Colin Dexter’s books are such a joy to read and re-read.

The moralising of the church, and the strict code by which its members are supposed to live provides an interesting opportunity to scrutinise people's decisions and their motivations in the book. Was this your original intention?

It was certainly something I wanted to examine. I’ve always felt that there are bad people and there are good people and if you’re a priest it doesn’t necessary make you a good person and if you’re a crook  it doesn’t necessary make you a bad person. People are people and we all deal with our foibles the best we can.

There's some great attention to details in the police procedural aspects of the book. Have you spent time with police officers in the course of researching your books?

I haven’t. I’ve always found it best to observe while being unobserved.

Do you have any further plans for Inspector Starrett?

Well there are a couple of Starrett short stories I can’t wait to do. When I started work on the first Starrett book – The Dust of Death – I had some of the main ideas, mainly Starrett’s back story, for the first three (Family Life and now, St Ernan’s Blues). I have an idea for the next one, which is pretty much suggested at the end of St Ernan’s Blues but I’m currently working on the second McCusker, A Day In The Life of Louis Bloom and then I’m looking forward to getting started into writing the 11th Christy Kennedy Mystery.

St Ernan's Blues

An Inspector Starrett Mystery

Paul Charles

Dufour Editions

June 16th 2016

Priced £18.99

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Paul Charles

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