Grace den Herder leaves an unhappy childhood and a promising career as a lawyer behind and decides to take on the toughest of challenges: joining the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which is still involved in the fight against terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland, where her performance and dedication leads to a spectacular rise through the ranks of Special Branch. Her work brings professional success but difficulty in forming relationships outside the world of counter-terrorist operations. She runs an informant whose information leads to an operation that goes badly wrong, with a death in police custody and the subsequent murder of the informant, who is uncovered and killed by his organisation. In the aftermath, den Herder makes a decision to give evidence against a colleague and is abandoned by her force and her married lover as a result. She leaves Northern Ireland and rebuilds her career as a detective in the newly formed Major Crime Team in Lothian and Borders. The team finds initial success investigating a brutal home invasion gang who have killed during a robbery. At the same time, brutal attacks on street prostitutes escalate into a series of murders and one of the main suspects is a high profile Edinburgh lawyer. He is eventually arrested and convicted, although den Herder is uneasy about the result. When another prostitute is murdered most believe it to be a copycat crime, but Den Herder decides to reinvestigate. The revelations and subsequent chaos that result tear the Major Crime Team apart. Noble Cause is the first in the trilogy about Grace den Herder. The second story, The Shortest Days of the Year and will be published in the spring. The third story, ‘Red Sky in the Morning’, will be published later in 2014.
How did you get started writing
It’s something I’d always wanted to try, but I think it would have been impossible during the years I was actually involved in serious crime investigations. When you’re in the middle of these enquiries or on a specialized squad it tends to consume you and any time off is eaten up by other priorities. Having said that when I did have any time I loved to paint, draw and have written quite a bit of poetry over the years. I played about with a few short stories and usually stuck them in the back of a cupboard where they lie in the dark to this day. Since I’ve started writing seriously I realise now that it would have been impossible during my police career. Writing’s an even bigger commitment than I thought it would be. It’s not just the time spent actually doing the writing, but also the amount of time thinking about it and running ideas through my head. It’s strange how much of your life it takes over. The great revelation for me is that I love doing it and particularly creating the characters. The intention when I started was to write the one book we all promise ourselves, but the whole experience of sitting there day after day creating a new world was just too engrossing to stop at the end of the first book. The more I did it the more ideas I had for a second and third part of the story. It’s a similar feeling when I finish a painting or drawing, I don’t beat myself up about whether it’s good or bad and just enjoy the thrill of creating something that other people might enjoy. The hardest bit is looking at the finished article and trying to believe it was my work.
What drew you to write a crime novel
As you can imagine, when you’re a working detective you see so much that’s not visible to most people. After years of dealing with these things I’m still amazed at what people are capable of. On one occasion I had to arrest a police colleague I’d known most of my service and believed to be a pillar of the community. For years he’d been attacking women and yet in every other aspect of his life he seemed the perfect citizen and family man. On the other hand you see people performing the most uplifting acts of kindness and humanity. I always thought it was worth the effort to try and convey what it’s really like in the middle of these dramas. I try to make my stories authentic and give them the feel of what investigating is like for the men and women who tear themselves up doing it. Another angle I try to take is making the criminals more layered and human. I often feel they’re a bit neglected in fiction and I try to make them as interesting as the ‘good guys’. I particularly like to tell the story of the people at the bottom of the criminal ladder and just what a grinding existence that can be. This really comes out in the second book where the little guys play a big part in the overall story.
Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing
Reading was where my education really came from. I left school on my fifteenth birthday to go to sea and although I’d made a decent enough job of the three R’s that was about it. At sea the only recreation was smoking and reading so I began to devour books of all kinds. It gave me a real interest in the world beyond the fishing community and that led to my decision to leave the sea. I remember being blown away when I first read things like Catch 22 and The Master and Margarita. I could see what imagination could do if it was allowed to run and this completely changed my life. Now, when I paint or draw, I try to stay true to that, block out what’s immediately around me and exercise my imagination. The Laidlaw books were the first to really grab my attention in relation to Scottish crime writing and they’ve rarely been bettered for me. Ian Rankin is someone else I admire because he really works at creating a realistic atmosphere and the stresses of the job as well as the plotlines. I have to confess though that I’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan all my life and still love the stories on paper or film. The Holmes stories are unique and I was so sceptical about the idea of watching them on TV, but I’ve been won over and it shows the power of the characters and stories. When I’m writing, though, I try not to think too much about what anyone else would do, as far as possible I tell the story in my own way and how I imagine the characters would react to the situations I describe. I think it’s what I’ve witnessed myself that really influences me and to go back to the minor characters, watching some them trapped between us and the men who use them could be a sobering experience when you see how many of them end up.
When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest
I thought I had a bit of luck when I was just finishing Noble Cause. I was in Northern Ireland at the time, had an approach from an Irish publisher and there seemed to be real interest in their story. However it didn’t work out and I tried a couple of publishers here and got nowhere. I’d heard all the horror stories about the difficulties of getting work off the ground so with the help of a friend I decided to go down the Amazon route. The other factor was that I had only set out to write a story with no real idea what I was going to do at the end of it. In the ideal world it would be great to be picked up by a publisher, but it worked for me because I just wanted to write and success wasn’t the driver.
What was the inspiration behind writing Noble Cause
I’ve always been intrigued by the dynamics between people when it all goes wrong. I worked on the Robert Black murders for years when we were getting nowhere and watching people under that amount of stress taught me things I’ve never forgotten. The subject of a detective in terminal decline was something that had been at the back of my mind for years before I wrote the first word and that’s something I address in the book. The concept of noble cause corruption is a fascinating one. Every detective questions what they do and how they do it at some stage of their career. Noble Cause is an exploration of these problems and carries on all the way through the other books. I’ve also tried to explore how people survive and go on in this world. Grace, like everyone else in Northern Ireland is affected by the Troubles. Her professional and personal life are in ruins when she leaves, but she gets through it only to face some of the same old demons. It’s about the struggle some people have just to survive and not only the main characters. This is developed to a greater extent in the second book.
There are many interesting characters in your Novel, do you have a particular favourite one
Everyone who comes back to me likes the central character Grace herself and I think part of that is that she’s never fully exposed to the reader. I also try and keep something back and let the reader fill in the gaps themselves. She’s simple and complicated at the same time, so she’s like all of us. There’s nothing super human about Grace and sometimes she’s as confused about life as every other human being. Another of the characters, Mick Harkins seems to hit the mark with a lot of people. He’s a flawed man and I keep saying that every detective in every force will recognise a lot of Mick’s qualities and faults. I’m going back to my earlier answer again but of all of them there’s a real emotional response to a relatively minor character, a prostitute called Pauline Johansson who plays a significant role in the first story. That was something that really pleased me and what I was hoping for in that the reader would take an interest in someone who we might regard as unimportant. There’s been criticism over the years that attacks on prostitutes don’t attract the sort of outrage that you find for other crime, especially in the popular media. I’ve seen that from another angle so hopefully the stories bring that out.
Why did you choose to set your novel in Edinburgh
That’s an interesting question and it might seem obvious because I started my career in Lothian and Borders. However I spent half my time away from the force in London where I worked for several years then Holland when I was in Europol. I travelled all over the world and when I retired I worked in Northern Ireland on the Billy Wright Inquiry. So I had worked on a very broad canvass myself and when I started to write I didn’t want Grace to be restricted to one city or force. Crime and investigation isn’t like that anyway nowadays and crosses all borders. Grace starts in the RUC and then moves to Edinburgh. The investigations she conducts involve several cities and in the second and third books Glasgow and Newcastle feature as well. However Belfast and her time during the Troubles in Northern Ireland are always in the background for Grace and she struggles to leave that behind.
Was it hard to write about two different police forces in Noble Cause and why did you decide to do this
It wasn’t difficult at all. Because I’ve worked in so many forces I had no problem seeing the story that way. In fact I loved bringing in different places although Edinburgh is her base and Edinburgh criminals feature all the way through. It also allowed me to create different types of villains because the various cities produce their own particular brands. It was great to be able to use the experience I’ve had in different parts of the country.
What kind of research have you have to undertake for your Novel
Because of my background and experience I don’t have to do much, but because Newcastle came into the third book I had to walk the ground there. I hadn’t been there for a few years and I wanted to make sure the Tyneside area was still the way I remembered it.
Are the characters in your books based on any real life.
The short answer is no, but everyone who knows me seems to think they recognise someone or other although they’re all different. It’s given me a few laughs as some of the theories are off the Richter scale. However people interpret the stories their own way and I’m happy to let their imaginations go wherever they want. Of course I have been affected by what I’ve seen in people over the years. It would be ridiculous to try and claim that no character possesses any of the traits I’ve seen in criminals, victims and the men and women I’ve worked with.
Since you have started writing have any well known authors given you any advice
Not yet but I’ll be happy if it happens.
Do you see any of your characters personality in yourself and vice versa
There must be, but I think you do it unconsciously. Sometimes I look back on work I’ve done weeks before and realise that there is a link of some kind, although I didn’t know it at the time. The main thing is that I hope I’m not guilty of some of the stuff my criminal characters get up to, but there’s a dark side in all of us so who knows?
If you can, would you give us a sneaky peak into any future novels you have planned
In the second story Grace makes her peace with her experience of the Troubles. She moves up a rank in the new Scottish force. At the same time a Belfast boy is discharged from the army after abusing a prisoner in Helmand Province and he returns to his loyalist roots in Belfast. After being forced to leave the city he moves to the outskirts of Edinburgh and tries to take over the drugs trade from a Leith family. The story is a complex one involving competing forces from Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Security Services. The third book brings in Newcastle and surrounds the trafficking of women into the country and a missing undercover officer. Of course I had to consider what I do with Grace as her personal life develops all the way through the three books. That little problem caused me more headaches than anything else and I had a lot of requests on that one. I’m in the middle of the final couple of chapters and still not made up my mind!
Noble Cause has already been given favourable reviews and your writing has been compared to some of the well known crime writers, how does that make you feel.
I can’t disguise the pleasure I get when people want to spend time talking about the characters and what they found in the stories. I never set out to get that, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy every minute of it. I’m often described as a man of few words but I do enjoy talking about the books.
As a well known crime writer do you have words of advice you can share
It would be nice to claim I’m a well known writer, but there’s a bit of work to do and a slice of luck required. Anyway I’m a great believer in have a go. What’s to lose? You’ll see things in yourself you never knew were there. Imagine that!
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