Former Policeman Clive Allan talks me through his work and how he draws on his experience in the force to enhance his atmospheric novels.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and mystery writing?
To answer your first question, I suppose I would really need to go back to my childhood, and the books I read when I was very young. The very British Enid Blyton mysteries, featuring the Famous Five and others, initially come to mind. Then, when I was a little older, the American Hardy Boys series was a favourite of mine. The simple, colloquial writing style employed by the authors of these childhood books made them eminently readable, allowing me to concentrate fully on the plot and characters. Henceforth, my love of mysteries and thrillers was born. In later years I studied English literature at college, and was introduced to Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the like. As impressive as the classics are, I regularly found that interpreting these often complex works and the coded language of their creators, a mystery in their own right!
As an adult, and having chosen a career in the police service, I not surprisingly immersed myself in the works of a wide range of crime fiction and thriller authors, some the megastars of their genre, and some not so well known. Those who impressed me the most, created characters that were gritty and believable, often through clever use of dialogue and imaginative disclosure of their personal lives and life experiences.
I have also been drawn to stories with a regional or local theme, especially those relating to areas I know well. The Brighton based Roy Grace books by Peter James are a notable example. When I started writing, I wanted to take this concept a step further, transporting the reader to a place when they turned the first page, that by the time they had read the last, they never wanted to leave. It was a challenge that I found irresistible and still do.
So, when I retired, after thirty years of policing, I started work on my first novel, The Drumbeater. It was a project that I had long wanted to embark upon and now at last had the time to commit to. It was to be a work that embraced all the elements I have described above, and with a sizeable chunk of historical context, the other great interest that has remained with me since my youth.
How do you draw on your past as a policeman in your writing?
I was lucky enough to experience a wide range of policing activities during my long career with Sussex Police. I worked as a uniformed patrol officer, a detective and a firearms officer, to name but a few. Then, as I worked my way up through the ranks, I experienced these activities from different perspectives, for example, managing significant incidents including those involving firearms, rather than being part of the front-line response. All in all, I developed an oversight of the world of policing that few authors who have not been in my position can ever aspire to. So, when it came to creating the characters of police officers in my books, I’d like to think I fully utilised my experience to ensure they were plausible, engaging and hopefully interesting. The cops featured in my books are creations that relate to one or more real people, incorporating character traits I have come across over many years: straight talking, courageous, cynical and often possessing a wickedly dry sense of humour. Most importantly they need to be human, flaws and all, but not dysfunctional. There are too many of them in the world of crime fiction already!
When it comes to describing police operations, I have tried to depict these and the processes behind them in as realistic a way possible. Having said this, a certain degree of licence is needed to progress the story apace and keep the reader hooked.
Taking all this into account, making my protagonist, Detective Inspector Neil Strachan, a Scottish policeman, presented its own challenges. The policing and legal systems in Scotland differ somewhat to those in England. As such, they have their own distinctive procedural elements and links to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. So, my work was cut out from the start, requiring some considerable research! Thankfully, those Scottish police officers, serving and retired who have read the books, have provided me with very favourable feedback, so much relief all round!
Please tell me about your books. Why do you believe they have become so popular?
My first Novel, The Drumbeater, centres on the sleepy Scottish fishing village of Glendaig. Very little has ever happened there, until one day in 2009, two hillwalkers discover skeletal remains buried on a remote beach. The evidence points to murder, to a crime dating back seventy years to World War Two. From here on in, the story diverges. The narrative follows Detective Inspector Strachan, graduate historian, and now career cop, as he slowly unravels the mystery surrounding the buried bones. Alongside this, the reader is introduced to the residents of Glendaig seventy years earlier, and a tale of subterfuge, escape and astounding loyalty. The two strands of the story finally coalesce, to provide what I hope is a memorable climax.
The Well of the Dead was released last year as a sequel to The Drumbeater. Set in April 2010, the novels centre around the brutal murders of distillery owner, Duncan Fraser, and his wife Laura, which shock the small rural community of Glenruthven in Strathnairn, to the east of Loch Ness. Neil Strachan once more finds himself delving into the past. This time, he and his new partner, Sergeant Holly Anderson, go head to head with a ruthless and violent criminal, apparently obsessed with his Jacobite ancestry.
Again, the story furcates between 1746 and 2010, as Strachan investigates an ancient clan feud and a mystery dating back to the Battle of Culloden. As if this isn’t enough, he also finds himself forced to confront personal problems of his own. His long-term partner, Catriona Duncan, is acting strangely, causing him to suspect that she is having an affair. The young detective’s determination to bring the Frasers’ killer to justice, and to uncover the truth behind his erring partner’s behaviour, test him both personally and professionally. He finally reaches the point where his judgement becomes blurred and his reputation is on the line. I’ll leave it there!
As I have alluded to before, I think the books appeal not only to fans of crime fiction, but to the thriller genre in general. Readers with an interest in Scotland and its turbulent but romantic history, or in the case of The Drumbeater, more recent military history relating to World War Two, will hopefully enjoy these books. But I’ll leave the final word to two of my reviewers who I suppose sum it up from a reader’s perspective.
“There’s so much here for devotees of police procedurals right through to lovers of beautiful Scottish landscapes and, with a sea mist drifting from many of its pages, this book (The Drumbeater) will also find an enthusiastic welcome from those interested in naval history.” Marcus Case
“Reminded me of holidays spent in the Highlands and made me feel like packing a bag to return there straight away, or at least once I’d read the book right through to the end.” Caryl Williams
Tell me more about Inspector Neil Strachan. What do you believe attracts readers to your character?
When I set about creating the character of Neil Strachan, I asked myself what sort of cop I wanted him to be. Not surprisingly, plausibility was very much on my mind. One thing was for sure. I didn’t want him to be one of those dysfunctional characters that often feature in detective stories. You know the stereotype, heavy drinker, probably alcoholic, living alone in some seedy flat due to a failed marriage. I could go on. That is not my experience of a modern detective, whatever their rank, in today’s police service. Yes, real cops have their problems and reflect society as a whole, but seldom to the extent portrayed in popular fiction. In fact, I defy anyone to go into a bookshop and find me more than a handful of examples of a police related protagonist who leads a near normal life!
Thankfully there are colourful characters still to be found in CID offices, but senior detectives must also be highly professional these days. They need to be part psychologist, part scientist and part lawyer. Oh, and an old-fashioned copper too, when required! They also need to manage large teams of people, deal effectively with the media and a host of other agencies. That’s a little difficult when your life is all but falling apart! So, Neil Strachan was going to be different, an academic, young in service, and career driven, a modern police manager who relates well to his staff but is certainly no pushover. He is also a red-blooded male, passionate in his beliefs, but not without flaws, and harbouring a touch of youthful immaturity at times.
I suppose he is the amalgam of several ex colleagues, including me, when I was a young detective, struggling to make a name for myself. Overall, I’m pleased with the finished product; Strachan is a nice guy from a generally stable background, masculine in every way, but by no means perfect. It seems to have worked, particularly for one lady reviewer who admitted that she’d developed a crush on him by the time she had finished reading The Drumbeater!
Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?
The Highlands of Scotland is a magical place, where history and folklore percolate every inch of its desolate and moody landscape. So, who couldn’t be inspired by this gem of a location? The theme of the Neil Strachan mysteries has been to inject aspects of Scotland’s turbulent past into a modern-day crime thriller. So, as far as historical inspiration is concerned, the options are almost endless. Having owned a home in the Highlands for eleven years, I have travelled extensively around the region, and have read widely about its history. There are of course, aspects of this subject that interest me more than others, for example, military history. I was partly inspired to write The Drumbeater, having read about a high security prisoner of war camp in remotest Sutherland, a camp that held the most notorious of all captured German servicemen, including U-boat crews. Historically, no one ever managed to escape whilst incarcerated in Scotland… but what if someone had been successful? I had also read about Operation Drumbeat, a not so well known element of the U-boat war in the Atlantic during 1941-2. So, I asked myself, how could this secret German initiative be woven into the story? The Drumbeater is the result.
Moving on to my second book, the iconic Culloden Battlefield was a short drive from our Highland home, a place my wife and I visited on many occasions. My fascination with the story of the battle and the Jacobite rebellion that led up to it, was quickly piqued. Once again, I read widely about this short conflict and its final, brief, clash of arms. From those stories, some almost lost in the fog of time, The Well of the Dead was born. The well, incidentally, is an actual location in the heart of the battlefield, and the events that took place there in 1746 play a pivotal role in the book’s plot.
Touching briefly on the issue of writer’s block, I have to say I have never personally recognised this as a problem. I do occasionally gaze out across the fields from my study window, seeking the best choice of words to reflect what I want to convey to my readers, but I never struggle with the development of my plot and characters. This is perhaps because I fastidiously pre-plan the progression of the story in skeletal form, chapter by chapter. So, by the time I come to engage in the fun bit… the creative writing… all the historical, technical and plot related elements are already in place. I also raise a detailed background profile of all my major characters, so detailed in fact, I get to know them intimately. Though, much of what I create in these in-depth profiles never finds its way into the finished book!
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
This is a difficult one. There are of course many authors I would aspire to emulate and learn from, but perhaps, if I were pushed, I would seek to collaborate with Scottish author, Peter May. Having read many of his books, particularly those relating to the Isle of Lewis, I believe we would probably see eye to eye when it came to devising a plot! He too, writes thrillers that seek to immerse the reader in the very landscape in which his story is based. He evocatively brings the hebridean scenery to life, with considerable attention to small details and creates characters that are believable and beautifully portrayed. Like my books, specific themes, run through his storylines, some relating to the present day, such as the crisis relating to the global bee population in Coffin Road, and some to the past. An example of the latter would be the mass emigration of Scots following the Highland clearances in Entry Island.
I also enjoy May’s writing style and would refer to my comments in your first question to qualify this view. Here is an author who allows the reader to concentrate on the story and enjoy his descriptive narrative, without the constant need to reach for a dictionary!
I wish I had read his books before embarking upon mine. There is a lot they could’ve taught me, and if I had the chance to work with him, he still could.
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
A year has now passed since the publication of The Well of the Dead, during which time I’ve been busy extending and renovating our Georgian cottage. However, I’m now getting the urge to put Neil Strachan through his paces once again and have been laying the foundations of a new mystery that may well feature the remote and mystical island of St Kilda. Watch this space!
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to in the future?
He may not be a crime writer, but I have recently developed a liking for books by author Leslie Thomas who wonderfully evokes the trials of everyday life in wartime Britain. I’m currently reading and thoroughly enjoying The Dearest and the Best, a novel based in the New Forest, an area close to our home He’s by no means a new writer when it comes to reputation, but his books are certainly a new addition to my kindle!
When it comes to crime fiction and thrillers, Mark Billingham’s two new DI Thorne novels, Love Like Blood and The Killing Habit are certainly on my “to read” list, as is Panic Room by Robert Goddard, another of my favourite authors.
Of course, it goes without saying, I will be looking forward to Peter May’s next offering, when it comes. I’ve just read his latest book, I’ll Keep You Safe and can honestly say this has been his best Hebridean thriller so far (in my view).
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thank you so much, Hannah, for inviting me to talk to you about my writing experience to date and my books. It has been my pleasure to contribute to your brilliant site, and to join the host of very talented authors who have been previously featured.
Thanks ever so much for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been awesome. You can read more about his work HERE.