David Mark worked as a journalist before becoming a novelist. He spent many years as crime reporter with The Yorkshire Post. His writing is influenced by the court cases he covered. Dark Winter was his first novel. And he has a new one out, Original Skin, published by Quercus. In it, Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy makes his second appearance. David met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about his new release and the importance of Hull in his fictions.
Tell us about Original Skin.
In essence, it’s a police procedural and a serial killer story but I hope there’s more to it than that. It’s the second outing for Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy; the shy colossus of Dark Winter. He’s a member of Humberside Police’s Serious and Organised unit, though his part in the downfall of a corrupt but popular officer means that he very much a marked man. In Original Skin, McAvoy comes into possession of an old mobile phone that contains the phone number of a young man who killed himself months before. As he delves deeper into the life of the dead man, McAvoy finds connections between the suicide victim and key decision-makers on the Police Authority and city council. Was it suicide? And is there a link to the sudden escalation in violent crime linked to the drugs trade within the Hull city boundary? McAvoy and the unit’s boss, Trish Pharaoh, are unsure. McAvoy also begins to see a common thread in several seemingly unconnected crimes – all of which seem to point to one dangerous and deadly foe. Somebody is targetting pleasure-seekers. They are searching out the ‘swingers’ willing to leave their doors unlatched and themselves exposed and who are blind to the risks as they seek to satisfy their own needs and the pleasures of strangers. McAvoy must risk his career to save the lives of hedonists whose lifestyle he cannot understand, in a case that could shatter the tranquil life he has built at home.
Do you think that the best detectives have strong criminal shadows?
I think it would be naive to suggest that good detectives need to have criminal impulses. I would hate to imagine that all quality murder detectives were secretly high functioning sociopaths who are secretly battling inner demons. Crime fiction is littered with these types of caricatures, and I love reading about them, but what i try and create in the McAvoy books is a feeling of authenticity. The crimes may be remarkable but I like to imagine that it wouldn’t seem incomprehensible to read about them in the newspapers in the real world. To that end, I try and make McAvoy a believable human being. He’s imbued with the characteristics I admire and which I would hope to find in a real life murder detective. He’s committed, dogged, tenacious and, because he’s like the rest of us, absolutely riddled with self-doubt. He loves his family, doesn’t know if he’s actually any good at what he does, gets himself intro trouble by accident, but tries to ensure that anybody who suffers, gets some measure of justice. He’s basically a good egg who gets dragged into worlds and situations he doesn’t understand. But by the same token, he does, like we all do, understand the compulsion to kill. He just hasn’t given in to it and believes that those who do have somehow let the species down a little. It would be lovely to kill the people who wrong us. But the planet would be empty in a week.
How important is Hull as a location for your fiction?
It’s crucial. It’s really the central character. I admire the novelists who can create a Jack Reacher or a Dirk Pitt or even a Hercule Poirot character who can have tremendous adventures regardless of location but those aren’t the books I feel I could write, which is probably why I’m quite a few quid behind their creators! I have to understand a place before I’m qualified to
turn it into fiction. Hull is the place where I was a journalist for what felt like a very long time, and I understand how the people interact and talk to each other and how certain people on certain streets feel an instant distrust for people on other streets because of some trawling dispute going back 60 years or because they support Kingston Rovers instead of Hull FC. I
could probably acquaint myself with that kind of knowledge about other cities but it just wouldn’t feel comfortable for me. I like the idea of the old Westerns where you have a sheriff keeping a small town safe from trouble. That’s how I see Rebus and Grace, Alan Banks, Frank Elder and Benedict Devlin. Their role is to keep their part of the world safe. For McAvoy, it’s Hull. My only fear is running out of geographically or architecturally interesting settings by later in the series. I guess it’s just a city that speaks to my imagination. Every scene or scenario I can come up with, I can picture happening somewhere in the city. Every new character I create, I put through the filter of whether or not I can picture them having a drink in one of the pubs in the Old Town, and if I can, then that makes them believable and worth writing about. I did read somewhere that the photographer Ansell Adams only knew how to find equivalent scenes for the images in his mind when he was in the landscapes of his youth. When he tried to photograph abroad he felt his images were insipid and contrived. That’s how I feel when I write about somewhere that isn’t Hull. I know this city. I know how it feels. I know it well enough to pick handfuls of it up and throw it at a page and see what sticks. I don’t feel that way about anywhere else.
Are there any particular authors you admire and if so why?
I admire anybody who can call themselves an author in the traditional sense, in that they are given a sum of money by a publisher in order to see their name on a book in a bookshop or library. That is no small achievement! The amount of obstacles one must overcome and the sheer serendipity required to make it happen, sometimes makes it feel nothing short of a miracle to walk into WH Smith’s and see a book you have written staring back at you. People tempted to self-publish on Amazon should only do so after they have utterly exhausted every avenue of living their dream the old-fashioned way – there really is no sensation quite like it. But of those who do make it to the party, there are some whose skills and insights and sheer brilliant leave me both inspired and depressed – and full of self-loathing at not being as good as they are! in the literary world, people like Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker and Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood leave me thoroughly green with envy at their mastery of language and depiction of the human condition. When it comes to tales of swashbuckling chivalry I am a Bernard Cornwell devotee. For satire and fantasy, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are the first names I search for. But when it comes to crime, the list is endless. Ian Rankin, for the consistent quality and reliability of the work. Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter, for their ability to use language beautifully while telling a damn good yarn. I like the plot structures of Mark Billingham, Mari Hannah and Val McDermid and the atmosphere created by Stav Sherez, Peter May and Steve Mosby. I admire the imagination and scope of Lauren Beukes. Neil Cross is damnably good at everything! Looking at that lot, it’s amazing I dare call myself a writer, really. I’m humbled just to have the same job title as these people.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice on the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
It’s a very poetic way of saying that writers (and most artistic types) can be proper grumpy and cynical bastards, but because we have a way with words, we dress it up a little. He’s right though. You have to have something to say before you write a book and that does tend to come from some dissatisfaction with the world or one’s place in it. I think of the place where my creativity comes from as being a tar pit or an inkwell – all full of bile and rage and awareness of how horrible the world can be. But I only tend to channel that when I’m writing or thinking about writing. You can’t live your life that way. My kids don’t want to go on long journeys where I spend the whole time discussing man’s inhumanity or despairing over my inability to solve life’s riddles. They’d rather I made them laugh and then stopped for doughnuts. I think that without the support of my family the inkwell would be my guiding force and I’d treat myself very badly and write the gloomiest and most brutal books imaginable, but i have people who shoot some spears of light through the cloud and somehow i find a way to live in a state of relative balance, though they will probably laugh at me and disagree heartily upon reading that.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
Evolution is a human compulsion. Everything moves forward. It’s the same with stories. They’ve moved from the campfire to the cave wall, then to to papyrus and parchment. I don’t know anybody who still reads on scrolls but I’m sure when the first book came out people were moaning that scrolls were always good enough for them. I have no problem with people finding new ways to ingest stories. What I do take issue with is the fact that some of the charm seems to be leaving the book world. In the same way that nobody can say in good conscience that they get the same thrill downloading an mp3 from iTunes as they do browsing the vinyl in a record shop, I do hate the idea of people not going into bookshops any more. Nobody can argue with the fact that ebooks are helping more people to think of reading as a major part of their life. I love my Kindle. I love being able to hear about a book one minute and be reading it the next. My gripe is with the lack of quality control in eboks. I’m a great believe that every book on Amazon should have either a ‘sp’ or ‘pp’ sticker beside it. self-published or properly published. I say that because it took me bloody years to get properly published and I had to work and work and work to get here and now people can say they are a top ten bestseller because they’ve stuck out some thriller at 20p and a load of people have snapped it up. Does it mean it’s any good? Has anybody got past the second page? I just get narked at authors being devalued and casual readers being encouraged to buy something because it’s cheap, rather than a properly put together and competently edited professional work.
How have you found Quercus as a publisher?
When Dark Winter was up for grabs I found myself in the surreal and wonderful position of having to choose between several competing publishers who all seemed very keen on making the McAvoy series a big success. Quercus wasn’t the biggest name but they did offer something that nobody else did, and that was editor Jon Riley. Jon seemed to understand instinctively what I
was trying to achieve and has become a true friend and significant person in my life. For that reason alone I’m delighted to have chosen Quercus. Of course there are times when I’m petulant and precious and kicking up a fuss at home because they haven’t spent a million pound advertising the latest McAvoy book on billboards in Leicester Square but that’s just because I’m a novelist and we can all be a bit of a twat sometimes. But, yeah, Quercus and me seem to work pretty well together. The sales team are really enthusiastic and I love all of the artwork that the art department has put together. Visually, the hardbacks are superb and the look of the paperback for Dark Winter was instrumental in its success. Quercus, I’m really rather fond of you. Not so much the accounts department, but me and numbers people don’t get on ….
What are you working on at the moment?
I sometimes feel like I have insufficient arms for all the things I have on the go at once. If I was Dr Octopus I’d be able to type all the different things I have in my head. As it is, I have to go for discipline instead. I’ve just put the finishing touches to a historical novel set in hull during the cholera epidemic that killed thousands of people in 1849. It introduces a new character by the name of Meshach Stone; a fallen hero and lone survivor of the massacre on the road from Kabul. he is now serving as bodyguard and guide to a young Canadian Archaeologist on a quest to discover religious relics. That search leads them to a country house in Yorkshire, where the brutal murder of a young girl leads the drunken, laudanum-addled Meshach into an investigation which threatens his sanity, his life and his soul. It could be the best thing I’ve ever written or it could be a pile of tosh. I’ll let you know when my editor has seen it. Aside from that I’ve got the edits to do on the fourth McAvoy book, Taking Pity, and a compendium of children’s stories for ‘children who are happy to be bonkers’. I’m not sure if anything will ever come of that but my nine-year-old daughter insists I do it, and she’s the boss. Then there’s a full-length children’s novel which has been in my head for years and features a family battling evil creatures underground in Andalucia. It’s a good job I’m a full-time writer these days. Work really used to get in the way!
What else is on the cards for you this year?
It’s always difficult to predict the future but a lot of things are in the “could happen and could be amazing” bracket. A major TV company has bought Dark Winter so with luck that will take off, and on the book front it’ non-stop. The third McAvoy book is out in the Spring and I’m hopeful that the historical novel isn’t left languishing for too long as I’d like to see it out sooner rather than later. I’ve sold books into several different territories so they all come out at different stages. In a couple of months I’m in Amsterdam chatting to Dutch journalists about the first McAvoy book but by the end of the year we’ll be talking up the fourth one in the UK. Throw in Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia and Turkey and it’s hard to keep your brain in the right book. The Americans are keeping pace with the British releases and I hope my publishers there maintain their faith in the series. I’m also on the organising committee for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate, which means I spend a lot of time with my heroes, which is surreal and wonderful. Really, my year is just writing and talking about it, and being a dad the rest of the time.
Give us a snapshot of the life of a writer. What are you doing right now?
I’m in my office, which is currently littered with wrestling figures because my daughter has been in and sitting in front of the electric fire, which I insist on having in my room because the big old parsonage where we live is bloody freezing and I’m the only one here during the day. My son is downstairs practising a Ray Charles song for a gig tonight at our local. I think my partner is doing something complex with a chicken. In a minute I will retreat to my battered armchair and read through some editorial questions on Taking Pity, then I will have a small rant about pedantic bastards before realising they are right, and addressing their questions. The evening will involve whisky and I will probably begin watching an uplifting documentary on Sky Arts, then get bored and switch over to an old episode of QI. My life is so frightfully middle class these days I feel an urge to go out and smash a bus shelter just to re-connect with my roots.
Thank you David for an eloquent and observant interview.
You can get a copy of ‘Original Skin’ from these sources:
Quercus, the publisher
Amazon UK in Kindle, Paperback, Hardcover, and Audiobook formats
Amazon US in Kindle, Paperback, Hardcover, and Audiobook formats
Barnes & Noble in Nook/ePub and Hardcover formats