David Hodges is a former superintendent with Thames Valley Police who turned to crime writing. He has had five novels published so far, and his latest novel “Requiem” is due out with Robert Hale in October. He often uses the Somerset Levels for his fictions and he takes a hard line on criminality.
David met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about how policing has influenced his crime writing and the E Book revolution.
How do the Somerset Levels influence your writing?
The contrasting scenery of the Somerset Levels cannot but fail to inspire a writer. On the one hand, you have wild waterlogged countryside, steeped in history and legend, with the mist rolling in during the winter months and Glastonbury Tor standing out against the summer sunsets like a phallic symbol, and on the other, the industry and developing urban environment of Bridgwater, with its factories, garages and big housing estates. It’s an ideal spot for murder most foul and I was able to wax lyrical in my last novel, ‘Requiem’, to be published by Robert Hale in October, by introducing twitchers into the mix, with a decomposing body trapped under a hide in one of the Levels’s wildlife reserves. Ugh! Not a place to eat your sandwiches!
As an ex police superintendent, do you think most people commit crimes unintentionally, and how are hardened criminals separate psychologically from the rest of those who break the law?
We tend to make all sorts of excuses for criminal behaviour – I didn’t mean it, I was easily led, I am mentally challenged, I was framed by the police, I was abused when I was a child. etc. etc. etc. Apart from a very small section of society who are genuinely mentally ill or who have made a mistake through inadequacy or social deprivation – and I mean a small section – most people commit crime because they want to. There are all sorts of motives – gain, revenge, jealousy, lack of sexual control, to show off and so forth. While we continue to make excuses for criminal behaviour and continue to label all crime as the result of social deprivation, it will continue to rise. We should face facts and get on with the job of punishing those who commit offences, not rewarding them by fully paid trips to Africa and Asia as part of some misguided social improvement policy. I think too much psychology is applied to hardened criminals, who walk away from punishment laughing after liberal minded do-gooders invent more and more ways of letting them off the hook. The hardened criminal doesn’t become hard because he has been put away in prison; he becomes hard because he is already impervious to pleas to be good and knows he can get away with what he has done. Sadly, we are very naive if we think we can reduce crime by appealing to criminals’ better natures; they don’t have them! A case in point is restorative justice, which I regard as a total waste of time and money.
Who are your literary influences?
Originally, I grew up heavily influenced by Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes; I loved the old gothic style thrillers. I started writing similar stories from the age of 11, but got nowhere. Then a writer friend of mine advised me to ‘write what you know’, so I graduated to modern police crime thrillers and as a result, never looked back. I suppose in later adult years, I have particularly admired Peter James,Lee Child and Frederick Forsyth in the modern thriller idiom, but you will still find the ‘gothic’ influence in my own thrillers, which creeps through like the mist on the Somerset Levels. I like a good well structured novel, with no loose ends, which has as factual a background as possible, but I think too much ‘procedure’ can get in the way and the old tales of Fu Manchu, with their screams in the night and black-gloved hands turning door knobs will always endure in thriller fiction. Too much blood and gore can spoil a thriller, though you do need enough, and I am against the gratuitous use of foul language, which would put me off any book. The authors I have mentioned above – Peter James, Lee Child and Frederick Forsyth – seem to balance everything so well and I do admire their style.
How has your experience as a police superintendent influenced the way you write about crime?
Funnily enough, one of the reasons I took up crime thriller writing instead of sticking to gothic genre and rejection slips was not only because a writer friend told me to ‘write what you know’, but also because I was fed up with the way the police were being inaccurately portrayed on TV and in crime fiction literature. It doesn’t take that much effort to research your subject and the glaring mistakes made by a lot of writers still irks me. Of course there has to be a measure of poetic licence – as I said before, too much procedure can kill a novel – but the background should largely be based on fact. I suppose my thirty years experience in the police – not just the period I served as a superintendent – influenced the way I write. It enabled me to see things in a much more balanced way. Crime fiction tends to portray the police as either heroes, idiots or just plain corrupt, but none of this is true. Police officers are first and foremost human beings who come from the society they police, so there are good and bad cops, efficient and negligent cops, and courageous and cowardly cops. I try to reflect this in my stories. It would be tempting to do a PR/propaganda job with my characters, but this would not be real, so I introduce a mix of characters. In ‘Requiem’, for example, I contrast a courageous if impetuous woman sergeant at odds with a nasty corrupt colleague as a sub-plot – it happens, so why not portray it? I’m not ‘in business’ to praise or slate the police, just to show it the way it is.
Tell us about your latest novel.
‘Requiem’, due out with Robert Hale in October, is the sequel to my previous novel, ‘Firetrap’and is set, as before, on the Somerset Levels, with my policewoman heroine, Kate Hamblin, now promoted from detective constable to uniformed sergeant. It is two years since psychotic undertaker, Larry ‘Twister’ Wadman disappeared after blasting two police detectives to death with an incendiary device attached to their surveillance van and embarking on a murderous rampage across the Levels. When a prostitute’s body is found dumped in a coffin in Twister’s now derelict funeral parlour in Highbridge, dressed in one of Kate’s own uniforms, the young police sergeant realizes this is Twister’s way of telling her he has come back for her! But it soon becomes apparent that the psychopath has no intention of finishing the job quickly. Instead, he is determined to play a twisted game of cat and mouse with his prospective victim, a game he has meticulously planned down to the last detail, and as a massive police manhunt is mounted across the mist-shrouded marshes, Kate and her colleagues soon begin to appreciate with an increasing sense of alarm and frustration that it is Twister who holds all the aces!
The novel is very much locally based, with a lot of reference to local streets and places and part of it is set on a wildlife reserve which actually exists on the Levels (though I have given it another name). I have tried to make the story Somerset-atmospheric, as I believe that readers like to read thrillers set in their home areas. (Colin Dexter with Oxford, Peter James with Brighton and Ian Rankin with Edinburgh are classic examples of this). For a writer, setting a story in the area in which they live is also very inspirational and brings the whole thing alive in their own minds.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
This is a bit of a difficult one! Instinctively, I am very anti e-books and for two reasons. Firstly, for me, there is nothing exciting, romantic or whatever you like to call it, about an e-book. It is just a screen and nothing else. In short, it has no soul. There is nothing to equal a proper book, with a beautiful cover and binding, and that distinctive smell that comes from newly turned pages. Then, as the book ages, like the reader, it acquires a respect and a dignity of its own. Its cover becomes worn, its pages pigmented, then yellowed, but it remains a repository of treasured memories to be proudly displayed on a bookshelf for all to see. The book is a living, breathing thing and for an author it represents achievement and fulfilment. The e-book, well, as I’ve said, it is just a screen! The second thing is that the cheapness of production and distribution means that virtually anyone can publish an e-book, whereas the cost of self-publishing a conventional book is so prohibitive that few amateurs bite the bullet. To my mind, this safeguards standards. A conventional novel has to be accepted by a publisher, it has to be vetted, proof-read etc etc before it goes anywhere, and it has to be properly put together – printed, bound and enclosed within an appropriate professionally produced cover. Not so the e-book and I fear that because the market here is wide-open, standards will slip and the professional writer will ultimately become history. I can only pray that e-books are just another blip. So why was your question so difficult? Well, it’s because, like many authors, after holding back for so long, I have had to move with the times. Two of my books – a novel, ‘Slice'(Robert Hale) and my autobiography, ‘Reflections In Blue’ (Pharaoh Press) – have now been put on Kindle by my publisher with my very reluctant consent, following their conventional publication, and another of my novels, ‘Firetrap’ (Robert Hale) is due to join them shortly. On top of all this, I did a very bad thing and bought my wife a Kindle, because she wanted one so much. Oh dear! Am I a hypocrite? I’ll leave my readers to decide on that.
If you could give advice to yourself as a younger man what would you say?
I suppose I would say ‘Go for it!’ To do anything in life you have to have faith in yourself and your own ability. That isn’t to say you should be arrogant – and you should always be prepared to listen and learn at every age – but being confident is essential. Looking back on my own life, I feel proud of what I have achieved with nothing. I went to secondary modern school, ended up top in English and bottom in Maths. I’ll always remember in one test getting six out of a hundred for maths, which I hated, but was reassured when the teacher said, ‘I’ll give you three for trying.’ I was delighted. ‘Does that make it 9 then?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘Six!’ It took me three goes to get into the police after two menial jobs in central London (all because of the maths test), but I kept at it and in the end made superintendent. Life has been a hard slog, but no one gives you anything, you have to fight for it. However, achievement is a lot sweeter when it isn’t easily gained. It has been the same with my writing. I started at the age of 11, believe it or not, got nowhere right up to the time I joined the police at 20. Then I had to leave it alone for thirty years because at that time it was not acceptable to write novels AND be a policeman. Then, when I retired, my first novel writing efforts got nowhere until my debut crime novel, ‘Flashpoint’, was picked up by a small publisher; it made a centre page spread in The Times newspaper and received a lot of nice praise from other newspapers and an accolade from Inspector Morse’s Colin Dexter, which set me on the road. My third novel was accepted by Robert Hale and I have never looked back since. But there is one bit of advice I received from a very successful writer friend that I have always borne in mind, ‘you are only as good as your next novel’ and that applies in life generally; you are only as good as your next achievement. And that is one thing I would emphasize to a younger man starting out. In short, set your sights on what you want, strive for it, but always remember that you cannot afford to be complacent once you have got where you want to be.
What are you working on at the moment?
My current project is another crime thriller, ‘Blast’, which is set both in central London and the south-west of England, in Cornwall. It involves the bombing of a nightclub in the Smoke and a fatal shooting which later takes place a few miles away. Initially, the two incidents are treated as separate investigations, but then it becomes apparent that they are linked. Just to complicate matters, a further murder then takes place in Cornwall which is found to be connected to both the other cases. The story revolves around the inter-action between three different police incident rooms which are drawn together to solve a complicated and unusual set of crimes. As per usual, there is an unusual twist at the end. The book is not heavy on procedure and I have taken a few liberties to keep the narrative moving fast, but it is heavy on characterization and the rivalries that exist within the police operational environment during a major investigation. Hopefully, I will finish it – two-thirds there now – and hopefully someone will publish it. But there again, that is the nature of the game, isn’t it? To quote a cynical phrase often used in police circles, ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die!’
Do you think today’s society is too lenient on crime?
After thirty years in the police, working at gutter level, you tend to get very cynical about life in general and people in particular. I am not a reformist and though I believe in people being rehabilitated back into the community – except for crimes of murder which in my view are beyond the bounds of rehabilitation and require nothing less than permanent incarceration – I feel that rehabilitation should never take the place of punishment or there is no legal deterrent and criminals will manipulate the system. This is particularly true of restorative justice, where the criminal apologizes to his victim, shows genuine remorse and gets off the hook. Great! So all a villain has to do is to look sad, say sorry, then carry on where he left off. I think it is the height of naivety for so-called experts to believe that being nice to criminals gets results; it doesn’t. It made me laugh one day when a survey was carried out into the death penalty and it was concluded after interviewing violent criminals ‘inside’, that they would have killed anyway, so there was no point in capital punishment. Of course murderers will say that. Come on! They don’t want to get topped, do they? Really, life is very simple. You go about your daily business, hurt no one and live happily ever after, or you transgress, do someone a mischief and end up being punished. End of story. We have turned crime reduction into a science and the only ones benefiting are the criminals, the lawyers and, of course, the silly people who still live in a land of chocolate and ice-cream! So, as a summary to your question, yes, society is much too lenient on crime and the only ones suffering at the moment are the victims, who can’t even defend themselves without the risk of prosecution!
As a published author, what would you like to achieve next in your writing?
There is always something else you would like to do in life, whatever your achievements are, and though, for me, being published is the realization of a lifetime’s ambition, there are two things left that I would like to do. The first is the dream of most writers and that is to write a best-seller or at least to gain a Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Award, but what would really give me a buzz would be to have a book made into a film, either on the big screen or for television. I have often toyed with the idea of trying to write a film script based on one of my novels, as television is crying out for drama, but actually writing one is a particular skill in itself, which does not come automatically to you just because you are a novelist. As a writer, I gain considerable satisfaction from completing a book, but that satisfaction does not simply stem from the royalties I receive (which, believe me, would not finance anyone’s lifestyle) – it comes from the pleasure I gain from putting prose on paper – providing believable characterization, good dialogue and convincing descriptions of background and locations. And that satisfaction is increased ten-fold when someone comes up to me and says they enjoyed reading the story – not out of any sense of conceit, but because I feel my writing has actually given someone pleasure, which makes the long nights bent over my computer all the more worthwhile. Being able to access and entertain millions of people, instead of just a few hundred loyal followers, through the medium of film would be the icing on the cake as far as I am concerned, so I live in hope!
Thanks David for an engaging and informative interview.
David Hodges’ debut novel Flashpoint won critical media acclaim and can be had at Amazon UK or US. Flashpoint was followed by Burnout, also available at Amazon UK and US. Buy links for David’s last three novels Slice, Firetrap, and the sequel Requiem, follow: