The shadowy side of crime fiction with author Paul Finch

I first became aware of Paul Finch’s writing leading up to the publication of his first book featuring Lucy Clayburn, Strangers last year. We soon connected on social media, where I’ve really enjoyed Paul’s updates, including his weekly Facebook status about rock music recommendations on what he deems “Metal Morning” – it’s always an education!

With the second book in the Lucy Clayburn series, Shadows, due out next month, I asked Paul to join me for a chat on the blog about this and his other popular crime fiction series featuring Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg.

Paul, welcome to the blog!

Paul Finch author photo black and white

What attracted you to writing in the crime/thriller genre? Was there a particular author that inspired you to do so, or were you drawn to it because of your background as a police officer?

I didn’t initially consider myself a crime or thriller writer. That probably sounds odd given that my first full professional sales were to “The Bill” back in the 1990s. [Note to readers from RA: this was a television show that aired in the UK between 1984-2010.]

But even when I was writing for “The Bill”, what I really wanted to write was horror – it was in that particular field where I’d been most inspired by those who’d gone before; classic authors like MR James, Arthur Machen, Sheridan Le Fanu, HP Lovecraft etc, with more recent masters of the macabre, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell et al, only adding to my fascination with dark fiction.

However, when I penned horror stories, though they were successful and lots of them got published – I won the British Fantasy Award in 2002 and 2007, and the International Horror Guild Award in 2007 – they often had contemporary urban settings and didn’t always explore supernatural themes.

My main interest in writing at that time was in creating suspense and fear, and maybe because there is much more of that to be had in real life than there is in ghostly fiction, I found myself drifting increasingly towards the thriller genre rather than horror. I also had the police background too, so much of my fiction already centred around characters who were either serving coppers or were ex-coppers.

When my agent finally suggested that if I was to produce a very gritty, very dark ‘real world’ thriller, with cop and hoodlum protagonists, he could sell it as full-blooded ‘Crime’ and that we may have a hit on our hands, it was no real trouble to make what I suppose you’d call the switch.

You write both crime thrillers and horror – how hard is it to find the balance between the two genres? Do you find the lines become blurred when writing one or the other?

I chaired a panel at Bristol CrimeFest recently, during which the author James Carol made the observation that lots of us write horror but that these days our publishers simply call it crime. I don’t think I totally agree with that, but I partly do.

While there is still plenty of ‘village green’ mystery in British crime fiction, when it wants to it can be a very dark genre indeed.

A lot of modern crime novels focus on serial killers, torturers, assassins, sex-traffickers and other kinds of immoral madmen. Our gangsters are among the coldest and cruellest ever, we bombard our readers with grisly murders, devilish cults and heinous schemes, plenty of which would once have found a comfortable home in the average horror novel.

In my case, the two have bonded together at an even more basic level. As I said previously, I like desolate backgrounds, gloomy and eerie locales, ruined buildings, ghetto flats, vandalised subways and the like. I also like villains who are utterly deranged and pursuing careers that put them beyond the pale; I’ve never been interested in the kinds of hopeless, banal losers who constitute the majority of real-life criminals … but am much more intrigued by the hardcore elite, by the totally reprehensible.

All of this serves to help me create a sense of deep menace, if not outright terror, which is always paramount in my writing. And so, though I strictly don’t go supernatural in my crime novels, I still found it a very smooth transition from one form to the other – if, in truth, there was any transition at all.

What was the strategy behind publishing the fourth DS Heckenburg novel Dead Man Walking in three parts as well as a full novel in eBook format, and how well was it received by readers in that format? Is it something you’d do again?

To be honest, that decision was taken above my pay-grade. I wasn’t privy to the strategy meeting where it was decided to take that path, and nor have I been privy to the sales stats that may indicate whether or not it succeeded. Personally, being something of a traditionalist about these things, I wasn’t a fan. I suppose the idea was to try and entice new readers, but while it may well have done that, I also seem to recall that there was some – not a lot, but some – negativity about it among the Amazon reviewers, and even a tiny bit of dissent can carry a considerable distance in this modern age of online gossip. I perhaps shouldn’t worry about stuff like that – it’s easy to overestimate its impact – but I do, so, as I say, it wasn’t something I was keen on.


Dead Man Walking by Paul Finch book cover

Ashes to Ashes by Paul Finch book cover

Ashes to Ashes is the most recent book in the Heckenburg series, published earlier this year, and I understand you’ve just started to write the next book. What surprises you most when writing about this character?

I suppose all our characters, especially those who come back for more, mature as we ourselves do. Inevitably, the more we write about them, the more strings we add to their bows, the more we get to know and understand them. I think, what’s surprised me most about the development of Heck’s story-arc is how insurmountable some of his self-made problems actually are. Initially, creating a cop character who was very much a loner and yet very driven – literally stopping at nothing in his determination to close complex and dangerous cases – seemed hugely sexy. 

I loved his sheer doggedness, his complete outsider status, and the fact that, owing to past tragedies, he’d given himself heart and soul to the cops and had no real life left outside the job. But only now, six books in, am I starting to realise just what that would actually mean for someone, how much it would mutilate their experience of human life, and how difficult and prickly a personality it could nurture.

The most obvious casualty of this is Heck’s relationship with his former girlfriend, who is now his boss, DSU Gemma Piper. At this stage of the series, it’s probably no secret that Heck and Gemma are still sweet on each other – but it’s all suppressed and battened down, the twosome existing in a permanently frustrated, lovelorn truce, the gulf between them widening every day because Heck’s habit of working the angles and Gemma’s insistence on playing a straight bat makes them professionally irreconcilable.

The other problem of course is that Heck would struggle to find love elsewhere – his obsessive pursuit of villains could only really be understood and tolerated by a woman who is also a career copper. This makes for an interesting dynamic, for sure, but you can’t help feeling that, if replicated in real life, it would be very damaging to the individuals involved.

You and I often chat on social media about our love of rock music – what do you listen to while writing? Is there a particular album that acts as your “comfort zone” when writing?

No particular album, but there is certainly a stratum of rock that does it for me, and often provides the background music when I’m proofing (which is the only part of the writing process when I allow myself some deliberate background noise). I prefer the harder, louder stuff, but I’m not a fan of thrash or black metal or anything like that.

I much prefer the earlier, some would say ‘original’ forms of metal, the bluesy heavy-rock of bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, AC/DC, Blue Oyster Cult etc, that I used to listen to in my teens. There may be a nostalgia thing going on there – I came of age in a golden era for hard rock, but it still does it for me. Some cheeky bugger once asked me why had I never ‘moved on’? My only answer could be why move on if you’re happy where you are? That said, rock isn’t the whole story.

I also have several writing playlists comprising atmospheric scores from thriller and horror movies, which can be very useful when I’m trying to get myself into the zone. Of course, it all depends on which part of the book I’m editing and what kind of mood I’m trying to invoke. So, I have an ‘action playlist’, a ‘suspense playlist’, a ‘baddies playlist’, a ‘hero playlist’, etc. Music has always been a useful and important tool for me when I’m writing.

Your new novel featuring Lucy Clayburn, Shadows, is out in October – what intrigues you about Lucy’s character that made you want to write about her again following last year’s success with Strangers?

I’ll be honest, Lucy originally hit the bookshelves because at the time there was an increasing demand for female heroes. I was happily writing Heck, when my publishers came and asked me to consider a parallel series featuring a female cop.

I was a bit surprised, but it wasn’t too much of a problem because Lucy Clayburn already existed, albeit in a crude, undeveloped form.

I’d first introduced her in a screenplay called Dirty Work, which was written way back in 1993. It was optioned for TV twice, with a popular TV actress expressing strong interest, but ultimately it never got made (fortuitously, I now suppose); it featured Lucy as a blue-collar female detective in the Greater Manchester Police, and plunged her into an underworld war that had sprung from a series of miscarriages of justice and was now littering the city with bullet-riddled corpses.

When I resurrected Lucy for the new book, I thought that concept had dated – miscarried justice was a hotter ticket in the early ‘90s than it is now, and that Lucy’s background needed some extra oomph; there are lots of hard case police women characters in fiction these days, and just depicting her as woman fighting her way through a man’s world wasn’t enough.

As such, I gave her new, more interesting family circumstances, and ditched the Dirty Work synopsis, coming up with something completely new for Strangers.

However, in terms of Lucy, herself, I only needed to dust her off a little. The same things that had appealed to me about her (and to two different television producers) back in 1993 still appealed to me now.  She’s only a low-ranking officer, a detective constable, but is very much in her comfort zone as a street-cop; she knows the job inside out, she’s cocky, she’s feisty, she’s ambitious and of course she rides a Ducati M900 motorbike, and with more than a hint of devil-may-care.

 One thing I used to say when trying to sell the character back in ’93 was that ‘she does the job the way a bloke would’. It wouldn’t be deemed appropriate to use those terms now, but what I meant still stands to a degree. Lucy doesn’t do touchy-feely; she comes from a tough background and has rough edges, so she’s blunt-spoken and isn’t afraid to rough it, but she is an excellent team-player – the polar opposite of Heck, in that regard (though she shares his razor-sharp instincts) – and through she made one terrible mistake during her early days, she has made up for that many times since, and is widely liked and trusted inside the job.

To be frank, when Avon asked me to give them a girl cop, it was no difficulty whatsoever; once I got to work on Lucy again, it all came flowing back. 

Finally, where can we buy your books and keep in touch with you?

All the usual online retailers, and most high street bookstores. I also appear in the supermarkets, usually for about three months after publication.

If people want to keep up to date on where I am, I have a presence on Facebook, my Twitter handle is @paulfinchauthor, and my very busy blog and webpage can be found here.

Paul, thanks for taking the time to join me on the blog today.

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