Marni Graff: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to Miss Demeanors’ readers today, Margaret. Before we get to know you, tell us about your new exciting release.
Margaret Murphy: Thanks so much for inviting me, Marni – it’s always a pleasure chatting with you!
Dead Man Walking is my first Detective Sergeant Rick Turner novel. Rick is athletic — a runner and skilled aikido streetfighter. With a highly developed sense of responsibility and duty, he’s an introvert whose main focus is his work. It’s no accident that he went into the hierarchical, rule-bound profession of policing: he believes in following the rules — some would say slavishly — which pisses off his bosses and his peers in the London Met Police about the same. But having been subjected to lawlessness and extreme peril since childhood, the rules help Rick to make sense of the world — they are his moral anchor. The result is a cop with a hard-won insight into criminality, plus the instinct and intense curiosity it takes to make a detective who is relentless in his pursuit of justice.
The book will be released in September under my latest pseudonym, M. K. Murphy. I quite like writing under pen names — it appeals to my subversive nature — but there are practical reasons why I’ve done so over my twenty-seven years in publishing. Sustaining a career in writing takes resilience, grit, and an ability to adapt, and for me, that has meant a bit of shape-shifting and name-changing. I had already written nine novels as Margaret Murphy when I adopted my first pseudonym (A.D. Garrett) in 2013 for a trilogy of forensic thrillers. I later wrote a dark-themed duology as Ashley Dyer.
My new penname is what the publishers call an ‘open’ pseudonym – in fact, I’ve brought all of my names under the one roof at www.margaret-murphy.co.uk for this release, so readers can rootle round and see what else I’ve been up to!
DEAD MAN WALKING book blurb:His team is compromised. His girlfriend’s in danger. And the biggest case of his career hangs in the balance.
As dusk falls the night before the trial of notorious crime boss Thomas Unwin, the prosecution’s star witness is brutally murdered, his killer escaping in plain sight from a secure hotel.
Detective Rick Turner spent months building the case against Unwin, and he’s not willing to give up now. But Unwin has one final trick up his sleeve to turn the trial in his favour: he has Rick’s girlfriend, Jess, kidnapped in a plan to coerce Rick into throwing his own testimony.
Rick must find Jess or give false testimony which would cost him his career and let Unwin walk free. But with the net closing in Rick must soon face a terrifying truth: the killer is closer to him than he ever expected, and as the case turns personal there is no one he can trust, not even his closest colleagues . . .
MG: I loved this book and the way you obviously know Rick’s psyche. The twists were brilliant and it’s action-packed. I have no doubts you’ll garner many new readers.
You have such diverse experiences in your background: country park ranger, biology teacher, and you published your first novel when you ran a specialty dyslexia unit in a school on the Wirral Peninsula—what made you turn to a life of crime?
MM: I suspect that the subversive streak I mentioned earlier had a lot to do with it . . . My parents were both avid readers and I was exposed to a lot of crime and thriller fiction as a young teen – my father’s preferred reading was a mix of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and thrillers by the likes of Alistair McLean and Desmond Bagley. I particularly liked the Ed McBain books because they were strong on sharp dialogue and unencumbered by lots of description (though I suspect at that age, I just found the language easier!). Mum read Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Those books were clever, and I came to appreciate them in adulthood but back in the 1970s as a working class kid growing up in a narrow, crumbling terraced house in Liverpool (I think they’re ‘row houses’ in the US?), I did find the middle- and upper-class settings alienating. I’d go so far as to say that I think they convinced me at the time that writing an English crime novel was something people with my background simply didn’t do. Film was a key influence in breaking that barrier: I adored Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer stories — first learning about them through the Paul Newman films (‘Harper’ in the film adaptations). But it was The Big Sleep, based on Raymond Chandler’s novel and starring Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe, that prompted my very first foray into crime fiction. It involved a hard-drinking PI and it must have run to — oh, maybe five or ten pages? I was ten years old, it was written in pencil in my best print, and my class teacher awarded it a gold star; from that moment, my fate was sealed.
MG: And lucky for readers! Let’s talk books. You’ve written series featuring barrister Clara Pascal (Darkness Falls, Weaving Shadows); Detective Jeff Rickman (See Her Burn, See Her Die, Don’t Scream) then a host of stand-alones and forensic thrillers I’ll get to in a moment, before turning back to a new detective series featuring policewoman Cassie Rowan (Before He Kills Again). This year you brought out the second Cassie Rowan, The Scarecrow Killer. What drew you back to a police character?
MM: I consciously avoided police characters in the early years of my career —this was the late 1990s — it was just too difficult to do good research unless you had contacts or a background in policing, and for me, it’s incredibly important to get those things right. Today, with the stupendous resources available on the web and so many police and forensic specialists willing to share their knowledge and expertise with writers, it’s much easier — and fun to do! But when I began planning Darkness Falls in the autumn of 2000, I realized that I would need to understand how the complicated legal system in the UK worked. I shadowed a barrister for a time, getting to know her work schedule and practices, and some of it was shocking — the power play that went on in case allocation and the lack of time junior lawyers had to prepare made me wonder how justice could truly be served. But it was the psychology of the lawyers and police that I was really interested in, because Clara Pascal, a lawyer, is forced to confront her own attitudes to defending bad men.
The question at the heart of that novel is how do lawyers do it? How do they psychologically accommodate defending a person who they suspect is guilty? I don’t know if I fully resolved the conundrum, but a former barrister who read the proofs said that the moral soul-searching that Clara does over the course of the story reflected the reasons why he quit defence work in his career. Another contact I made at that time was DI Dave Griffin of Cheshire Police. He advised on procedural details and challenges in the novel, put me in touch with key people, and went on to advise on several more of my books. As I said before, access to government documents on anything — from how police departments are organized, to the rules of evidence — is easy peasy now; just a few clicks of a mouse away. But all the reading in the world can’t tell you the stories cops tell, they can’t bring to life the characters, the banter, the interactions and the workplace tensions of a police station, not to mention the smell of a mortuary or the clinical serenity of a forensics lab with its background hum of extractors and filtering systems, so the best research is done on the ground.
MG: You wrote a trilogy as A.D. Garrett, the Fennimore and Simms series (Everyone Lies, Believe No One, The Truth Will Out) which were highly detailed and complex forensically. How did you research those? Did your Bio degree come into play?
MM: Writing the first of the A.D. Garrett books I was advised by a forensic specialist who is now retired, and as I cast about for a new forensic adviser, I was delighted to be introduced by Ann Cleeves to policing and forensics expert, Helen Pepper. A former CSI and Crime Scene Manager, Helen is now a senior lecturer in Policing. She advised on both the Vera and Shetland series (both books and TV) for many years, and she agreed to steer me on both the Fennimore & Simms and the Carver & Lake series.
Yes, absolutely, it has helped to have a background in biology. It’s not about slavishly ticking boxes and get the procedure right, but knowing your stuff allows you to be creative, push the boundaries – and confound your readers’ expectations, too. When I began researching DNA evidence for a novel in 2003, I was fortunate to be invited to a forensic science lab (DI Griffin set that one up). While I was touring the suite, I asked a forensic scientist if the police might consider using familial DNA to trace suspects via their relatives on the DNA database. He licked his lips and looked decidedly uncomfortable, before muttering something about it being a difficult ethical question. But shortly after, the police arrested a man for the manslaughter of Michael Little, a lorry driver who had died after a brick was thrown from a bridge, and hit him in the chest, causing a heart attack. Although forensic scientists recovered DNA from the brick, the killer wasn’t in the DNA database, but they linked it to a relative of his who was in the system, and the killer was convicted and served six years for the crime.
Research often brings characters into my stories that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Certainly, it was crucial in developing the story and characters in Believe No One, the second of the A.D. Garrett books. While planning that novel, I spent time with law enforcement in Oklahoma and Missouri. The boy named ‘Red’ was formed from the red clay of Oklahoma, and from the stories detectives told me of the begotten and forgotten children, born into deprivation and marked for a life of crime before they had even reached their teens.
MG: When we first met, you mentioned you aways wanted to write a serial killer novel, which you accomplished in 2017 with the Carver and Lake series, writing as Ashley Dyer with Splinter in the Blood. That book has one of the most daunting and chillingly realistic opening scenes I’ve ever read! You added Book Two in 2019 is The Cutting Room. Why do you think readers are so fascinated with serial killers? Any plans to write more serial killer books?
MM: Thank you! I’m afraid I found that opening scene disturbingly easy to write. It came out of that impulse – compulsion almost – to twist things around, to take the science and see what I can do to get around it. The scenario you’re talking about has echoes of the Sherlock Holmes story The Speckled Band, when Holmes says, “When a doctor does go wrong, he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.”
My stories often come from a sudden vivid image, unplanned and totally unexpected: a body falling from a wheelie bin (See Her Burn); a boy in bright clothing running down an embankment straight towards a six-lane motorway (The Scarecrow Killer). For Splinter in the Blood the image was a woman standing in man’s sitting room. He’s been shot; she’s holding a gun. I asked myself what she was thinking and got this: ‘Looking down at him she feels anger and contempt, but also regret.’ The woman is Ruth Lake, an ex-CSI and talented forensics expert. I do relish an opportunity in my writing to turn a situation on its head, and this was too delicious a chance to pass up, so I let her loose on the scene to see how far she would go to undermine the evidence.
As for why we find serial killers so fascinating: they’re the modern-day bogeyman, aren’t they? The wolf in sheep’s clothing, the faceless evil that can strike at any moment and then disappear. The mystery at the heart of a novel is what makes us want to read on. A serial killer thriller is also a puzzle. Even if we know who the killer is (Hannibal Lecter, for instance), the mystery in this case is not who, but why a person kills and kills again.
Of course, fictional serial killers are much safer than the real ones — we can close the book and walk away. Like the gothic folk tales of old, they give us opportunities to examine their behaviors calmly and prepare ourselves to face down the monsters who might be lingering on the margins of our own lives. Would we be fooled? How would we act? What makes a psychopath? What must it be like to feel no compunction, no embarrassment, no pity, no emotion about anything at all but themselves and their wants and needs?
It’s worth serious consideration, because the truth is that most of us will encounter someone like that — not a killer, let’s hope — but certainly someone who lies and manipulates and steals and hurts without conscience. Such people are baffling to anyone with normal emotional affect, and just as some enthusiasts like to solve codes or cryptic crosswords, some like to ponder the conundrum of the affectless mind. I’ve been doing a lot of that over the past few years, as a key character in Dead Man Walking has strong psychopathic tendencies. He returns in the second book, which I’m working on now.
MG: You have such an interesting background as an adjunct to your writing, Margaret. My understanding of a Royal Literary Fund Fellow’s role in universities is to foster good writing practices without correcting or editing work, but focusing more on early drafts or style techniques. Have I got that right? What was your takeaway from the years you worked as an RLF Fellow across the NW of England. Was this as challenging as it sounds? And the writer in me wants to know: how did you get your own writing done?
MM: The RLF Writing Fellowship posts take up a maximum of two days per week, so fitting my own writing around that wasn’t too difficult. My work with dyslexic children really paid off in terms of helping university students with planning and structuring their written assignments, as dyslexics often find both a real challenge. Many of them had had negative and even destructive experiences of the learning environment, so sensitivity, gentle guidance and adapting to their personal learning style was vital in helping them to negotiate the educational system.
I love editorial work — it’s the stage of writing when you can shape and craft the piece till it tells so much more than the story, adding layers of meaning and resonance that enriches the narrative and enhances the reading experience. But for RLF Fellows editorial work on students’ writing is definitely out. So, to quell the editorial itch I took the decision only to read students’ work on the day with them present. Coming to a confused or clunky section, I’d ask them to clarify. Often the tortuous and convoluted prose students thought was the ‘right’ way to convey their serious thoughts on their important subject matter actually got in the way of the story they were trying to tell — and there was a story, even in the most academic assignments I read. When they began to talk about their work, they loosened up, became lively, enthused — passionate, even. From that point, most students only needed a gentle nudge towards adopting simpler, more direct language and phrasing, engaging their readers and so that they came willingly on an exciting journey of discovery.
MG: You’ve thrown yourself into writing crime as assiduously as everything you tackle. Tell us about the idea behind founding Murder Squad.
MM: In the late 1990s my fourth book was published and the reviews were great. ‘But,’ my then editor said, forlornly, ‘It’s such a pity it doesn’t translate into sales.
‘Isn’t that your job?’ I asked. ‘I write books that reviewers praise and readers love, and you build sales on that?’
‘Oh,’ she said, as though I’d completely missed the point, ‘It doesn’t work like that.’
I was baffled and angry and devastated. I knew that publishers made lots of money, so I assumed that they’d spend quite a bit on promoting their authors’ works. The reality — then and now — is that few authors are allocated any marketing spend at all, and most of the money available goes to the top ten percent on publishers’ lists. And with around 30,000 books published in print format alone by traditional UK publishers every year, there’s only so much that even the most creative and energetic publicity team can achieve.
I knew I wasn’t going to change that, so I got to thinking how I might build my profile, do my own marketing. But one small voice is easily drowned out by the collective roar of major publishers. In short, I approached some friends in the CWA, all midlist authors, all brilliant writers, all of whom had gone through similar experiences to mine. We built a website, produced brochures which some of our publishers helped to distribute, offered talks, workshops and readings, and contacted library events organisers direct. It may surprise your subscribers to learn that Ann Cleeves was one of those relatively unknown founding members of Murder Squad, as was Martin Edwards — both of whom have since achieved a certain level of fame . . .
MG: And along the way you chaired the UK Crime Writers Association (CWA). How did you juggle your writing around that weighty position?
MM: I chaired the CWA in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown in 2008, when we lost nearly all of our sponsorship for the Dagger awards, including the Gold, Historical and Short Story Daggers. Louise Penny generously agreed to fund the Creasey Dagger (now the New Blood) for one year, and we did retain support from Random House, but there were rumblings about costs and even the relevance of the Dagger awards. The CWA committee had been approached a few years earlier by a TV producer interested in teaming up with the association for joint book and TV awards for crime, and I and Barry Forshaw returned to them, negotiating a deal on behalf of the committee which became the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards. It was not the easiest thing working with TV producers who had their own agendas and sometimes goals which were not in alignment with the CWA’s, but many crime writers — members and non-members, big names and unknowns — gained national notice from the televised awards and the seven-week run up to the announcements.
I was unpublished for a while around that time – still writing but finding it hard to place my work. I’d been caring for an elderly relative for several years, making 100 mile round trips three to four times a week to see her and make sure that she was eating and being cared for properly, while also working as an RLF Fellow . . . And now that I put that down in writing, I do wonder how I did fit it all in! But I know I don’t need to tell you, and I’m sure many of your readers will understand me when I say we do what we have to, and that just so happened to be what I had to do at that time. My chairmanship of CWA, although extremely tense and sleep-depriving and exhausting at times, was stimulating and challenging, and I’m proud of what we at the CWA achieved in those two years.
MG: You’ve won many writing awards, including a Short Story Dagger, the HRF Keating Award, and the CWA Red Herring Award, and been shortlisted for many others, with starred reviews and bidding wars for your books. Did these awards influence your decision to co-found Perfect Crime UK, Liverpool’s first ever crime festival?
MM: If I’m honest, I’d rather hide in my office at my desk than go to a festival — too many people! But organizing a festival is a very different animal — I’m always more comfortable when I have something to do. I was approached by Ian Skillicorn, who runs Smithdown Litfest. Smithdown Road in Liverpool runs from Toxteth, infamous for the riots of the 1980s, to leafy Penny Lane of Beatles fame. I was born and raised about halfway along ‘Smithdown’ as it’s called locally, technically on the edge of Toxteth. I’d been a patron of the Smithdown Litfest for several years, so, when Ian asked if I’d help to organize a crime festival, I was delighted. I don’t think the awards played into it at all, but like Ian, I do feel that Liverpool is better known for its musicians and its football than for its rich literary history. That’s something he is working hard to change, and the response we had, both online during COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, and in person in 2019 demonstrated that readers were eager for a crime festival in the city. We had a fabulous reader turnout, with strong support from Liverpool JMU, as well as all the authors who gave up their time and entertained the reading public brilliantly on the day.
MG: Last question: what advice would you give to a crime writer starting their first novel?
- Do your research — it will turn up exciting ideas you might never have imagined otherwise.
- Keep going to the end! I can’t tell you how many of my former students — talented writers — gave up when they got stuck, instead of ploughing through the tough sections. Anyone who is literate can put words down on a page. The skill of writing is in editing and crafting those words. William Golding edited Lord of the Flies until he could ‘hardly bear to look at it’, and until you can say that, you haven’t finished.
- When you think it’s ready to send out to agents and publishers, stop! Set it aside, come back to it a few weeks later and edit, edit, edit!
MG: Margaret, many sincere thanks for joining us today. We’ll be looking for Dead Man Walking
MM: It’s been such fun, Marni — you ask such interesting questions! And thank you so much for the chance to give Dead Man Walking a mention — I’m so excited about it, and I hope your readers will check it out online.
Pre-order links for Dead Man Walking – the first Detective Rick Turner novel
UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dead-Man-Walking-gripping-thriller-ebook/dp/B0C4WXJHK9 (The short link for the UK is: amzn.to/3MP2Vdm
US: https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Man-Walking-gripping-thriller-ebook/dp/B0C4WXJHK The US short link is https://tinyurl.com/3hczyvxk )