The Author Behind Dead Ground
During my interview with MW Craven his doorbell rang, and he went to answer it. I was really hoping it was going to be a load of his admirers wearing masks of the different actors who played James Bond.
All Craven’s fans will know why. I know it is a trivial thought, but I enjoyed the opening chapter of Dead Ground,
which is on the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Fiction 2022 longlist, it’s great.
I can’t admit to being one of Craven’s readers who are able to solve the crime before Detective Sergeant Washington Poe does. I had not quite finished it by the time of our interview. According to Craven: “There has been a delight in reading books that are essentially a big puzzle and trying to get there before the protagonist does. I always try leaving enough clues so if you are clever enough Andrew, you can solve it before Poe. About 15% got there before Poe in The Puppet Show
hardly anyone solved it in Black Summer.
Crime has always been his preferred genre and it’s not hard to see why he writes a good tale.
M W Craven
In 2003 / 2004 Craven was ill and when he came out of hospital, he wanted to write about his experience being on a cancer ward for six months, but he could not really make it work. A few years later he decided to pick up writing again, something he had done when he was younger, and he gave his detective the same illness.
In fact, he brings a lot of experiences and influences from his life into The Poe series of books, particularly his love of living in Cumbria and his work as a probation officer.
“Cumbria for a crime writer has pretty much everything you need. Big cities, the towns, the picture-perfect villages, significant areas of deprivation, huge bits of industry, a coastline, mountains, bogs, marshes, and lakes, obviously!”
Indeed, and just as I’m wondering if there’s anymore, Craven says it has got major motorways that transverse the county so he can talk about county lines.
What doesn’t it have?
“Well, the only thing it doesn’t have is organised crime but I'm a writer so I can just make it up and so there is an organised crime gang in Cumbria.”
“It was a no brainer to set crime books in Cumbria and there is no major TV series that features the county.”
He also knows the places like Shap Wells, mentioned in all the books; it was the nearest place to where Poe lived. “It used to be a prisoner of war camp and has a fascinating history and where we held our probation staff conferences,” he tells me.
That is the other experience that Craven brings to his books. “I started as a probation officer and worked my way up to an assistant chief officer and because we did joint operations with the police I had a lot of friends in the force, I was able to get quite a bit of insight.
In Dead Ground
Tilly and Poe yet again make an effective team and chatting to Craven I learn several of his characters are amalgamations of people he knew some based, I suspect, on the friends and colleagues from the police and social work.
There is also a plethora of situations that Craven can call upon.
“As a social worker we worked closely with children's services and adult services but mainly children’s services and there were several defendants we worked with who had children, so there is a lot of that stuff there, particularly about children and not just children at risk. I was able to directly lift situations from my working life. I did not really have to invent the scenarios, but I had to invent the reasons they were taken away from home for example, because it would not have been fair to lift things direct, but all the reasons are plausible and some horrific."
Craven was pleased when a social worker contacted him after publication of The Puppet Show
, to congratulate him on portraying social work so accurately, he had got it bang on, “it's just the never-ending days that you have. There are no good days as a social worker, it's just bad stuff all the time, which is why social workers burnout.”
Everything is rooted in reality although he does like to throw an extraordinary villain into the mix.
Fans will notice Poe has flipped roles with Flynn who is now his boss and I wondered where the idea for this came from and once again, he has personal experience.
“I thought it was a fun thing to do because it happened to me when I was working in probation. I was acting as assistant chief and I had a manager working for me who got a managerial divisional role which we were both interviewed for, although I got it a bit later,” he quickly adds. “So, for a while I was working with someone who had worked for me for the best part of 10 years, and it was quite a weird experience for both of us.”
“It was an interesting dynamic to put in the books and people seem to enjoy it. I try to make most of my women characters quite strong and in fact, for The Botanist
out this year, my editor says I need to stop putting strong women in every single role. It’s OK to use men every now and again!”
But it is important for Craven to have Poe potentially able to kickback against someone, to get into arguments and disagree and then be outranked. It’s then that Poe has a choice either to decide to toe the line or do what he wants to do anyway.
“A lot of crime writing is about conflict and overcoming it.”
Craven always starts a Poe book on 1st December each year and to aid him he keeps a lever arch file full of notes which is his blueprint. He works his way through it, ordering everything, scrapping anything that doesn't work anymore and looking for lines of dialogue. The meticulous note taking, and planning is a legacy from his social work days. His process starts with the book before. “I'm already thinking ahead about what's going to be in the next book, making notes and because I do that, it allows me to look forward and plant seeds in what I am writing at the time.
There’s always a reason for a killing and he knows who has done it unlike some other writers in the genre and then he lets Poe and Tilly get on solving the crime.
He has already told me The Botanist
is out soon and he is going to start a new series set in America. But there are a couple more Poe and Tilly stories still to come.
That’s good news but for now I need to get to the denouement of Dead Ground
to see if I am clever enough to solve it before Poe.
The longlist was selected by an academy of crime writing authors, agents, editors, reviewers, members of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Programming Committee, along with media partners the Express. The award is run by Harrogate International Festivals sponsored by T&R Theakston Ltd, in partnership with Waterstones and the Express, and is open to full length crime novels published in paperback 1 May 2021 to 30 April 2022 by UK and Irish authors.
The public are now invited to vote for a shortlist of six titles at www.harrogatetheakstoncrimeaward.com
. Voting closes on 26th May, with the shortlist announced and winner voting opening on 14th June. The winner will be revealed on the opening night of Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Thursday 21st July, receiving £3,000 and a handmade, engraved beer barrel provided by T&R Theakston Ltd.