Philip Neale is a thriller writer who writes under the name of Neal James. His first novel was A Ticket To Tewkesbury. His new one, out, Full Marks, is structured around seven case files which are being used to undermine a Metropolitan Police Officer and destroy his professional and personal life. Philip met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about his latest release and crime fiction.
Tell us about your latest novel.
Probably the best starting point for a brief description of the book lies in the back cover ‘blurb’ which I wrote for the publisher, Pneuma Springs:
Dennis Marks thought he had seen it all. That was before Solomon Goldblum crossed his path – after that, things were never the same again. The trauma which the old Jew had inflicted upon him had brought about a near psychological collapse. That the DCI had been able to conceal the fragility of his mental state from the shrink whom the Met had forced him to see had been down to his sheer determination.
Now, all of that effort was about to be challenged by one of the most daunting figures at New Scotland Yard – Superintendent Eric Staines. The Independent Police Complaints Commission were about to take Marks’ life apart, professionally and personally, and Staines, as one of its fiercest inquisitors, was not a man inclined to show mercy.
A month was all that the DCI had to prove his innocence of a range of charges dating back to his days as a detective sergeant. A career spent putting away the dregs of London’s criminal world was to hang in the balance, and he was, he believed, for the first time…alone.
‘Full Marks’ tracks the fortunes of one of the Metropolitan Police’s finest officers as he tries to clear his name. A raft of accusations, laid before the IPPC, threatens to undermine everything that he has achieved in over thirty years in the force. Powerful forces, ranged on either side of the investigation, are set to determine the course of DCI Dennis Marks’ professional and personal life.
The book is structured around seven case files which are being used to undermine him and destroy his professional and personal life. The story involves multiple plot lines and characters from several of the ‘short stories’ which make up the case files. I had written these between 2009 and 2011, and using a back story of some 35,000 words was able to expand the potentially 2-dimensional players into 3-dimensional characters, each with their own idiosyncrasies – traits which make the reading so much more interesting.
The book paints a full picture of my main detective, DCI Marks, from his days as a Detective Sergeant right up to the present – a time period of over 25 years. This sets the scene for more of the same in the future, with other works currently on the drawing board.
The novel contains numerous twists and turns, several false leads, and a number of surprising, and not altogether rational, lines of police investigation, as DCI Marks comes up against a range of individuals each with their own agenda.
It is published in almost 100,000 words and over 50 chapters. The style of the book is deliberately designed, with its short punchy chapters, to compel the reader into turn the pages – reviews on Amazon indicate that this has been a successful strategy.
As with much of my writing, I leave a loose thread at the end which will take the reader on to the next book in the series – in this case ‘Three Little Maids’, which I am in the process of writing.
Does being an accountant influence your attention to detail or other matters in your fictions?
It certainly imposes a discipline in terms of the structure of what I write.
Each author will select the most suitable method of controlling a plot, and it has to be something with which they are comfortable. For me, as an accountant, it is the Spreadsheet.
Spreadsheets are one of the mainstay tools of my profession, and are perfectly adaptable for the purposes of writing literary fiction. I can set out the structure of each novel in standard form and then bend and adapt it to match the needs of each book.
Along with a plot layout in MS Word, I can then keep a tight control over characters, story lines, and logic. By this means, I can ensure that there are no loose ends… unless I make a conscious decision to leave them lying around for purposes of my own.
The accountancy profession also provides me with a wealth of data for my writing. This was something that I used throughout my 2011 novel ‘Threads of Deceit’ – a crime story set against the backdrop of the textile industry, and a story based on financial mismanagement, embezzlement and fraud. My 18 years in that industry also gave me more than a superficial insight into the trade, and this is another device which I use to give plots a firm grounding in a sense of ‘fact’.
Is there a particular event or experience that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
My father-in-law died in 2001, and I suppose that could be seen as the event which started the ball rolling.
As a family, we tend to celebrate a life rather than mourn a death, and during the years following his passing there were occasions when we would reminisce and recall events which made us laugh. My mother-in-Law’s reaction to all of this was ‘You could write a book about that’, and the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that I could. All that remained was a title.
Again, she came up trumps with another of her stock sayings, ‘talk about laugh’, and that is what the manuscript was entitled. As a personal record of family life it is unlikely to be published, but the 75,000 words did set me on the trail of the writing which culminated this year in the release of my fifth book.
Who are your literary influences?
It depends on which genre I’m writing at the time.
The four novels to date have all been crime-related, and my main influences have been James Patterson and his Alex Cross novels, and Jeffery Deaver with his particular style of short story writing. They both lead the reader deeper into the story by using short, punchy chapters, which compel ‘just one more page’. This is something which I have tried to emulate.
I am intending to branch out into other styles, and 2015 should see the release of my first attempt at science fiction. ‘The Rings of Darelius’ is a four-part saga, and is heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry.
2016 will see the completion of the first draft of ‘Dreamer’, a paranormal mystery set in the kind of style which you would expect from James Herbert, who is one of my favourite horror writers.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
From an author’s marketing point of view, I am all for it. In any industry, you just cannot afford to merely ‘stand still’, and this kind of development has to be good for all concerned. My books are available on the Kindle, the Kobo, Tesco eReader, in the App Store, at WHSmith eStore, at ‘txtr, and in Google Books.
My wife recently purchased a Kindle, and she can carry 1,400 books around with her – no mean feat. I am very much an ‘old fashioned’ reader and do prefer the feel of a real book in my hands, so I am straddling both camps from differing points of view.
It is a matter of ‘horses for courses’.
Do you think much crime fiction sanitises crime?
I think that it is inevitable, and the styles of some writers whom I’ve read do just that. Gratuitous violence as a means of sustaining a weak plot is very prevalent in modern literary fiction, and I have ‘shelved’ many a novel by some well-recognised authors simply because they go ‘over the top’ with the levels of detailed description.
If a story is good enough to stand upon its own merits, then there is no need for the graphic criminal activity which adorns too much modern writing. When I read a book, and I do that as much for research as I do for the love of a good story, I want my own imagination to be one of the players in the plot.
Spoon-feeding me too much is a complete turn-off.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
As a writer, it is very important to maintain a level of distancing yourself from the plot line of a story. That way you are able to look dispassionately at the thing which you are trying to put across to the reader.
Balance this against the need to involve yourself in the themes which are at the heart of the story, and you have the knack of writing something which readers will want to buy.
Greene’s ‘splinter of ice’, I think, is his way of putting this point across – a coldness which allows the fate of the story and its characters to play their parts, whilst not completely freezing the writer’s attachment to the story which he or she is creating.
What advice would you give to yourself as a young man?
Never deny yourself the privilege of dreaming.
We all have dreams of doing something beyond what would be regarded as ‘normal’, but few of us have either the ability or the will to try to make those dreams happen. It is reasonable to suppose that the vast majority of us will never star in a Hollywood blockbuster, will never make the game-winning score in a final tie, or could never hope to be a public figure.
For me, straying into accountancy after finishing college with no qualification was the chance event which secured my future. Writing, on the other hand, was an art form which came to me very late in life. That said, I have seized the opportunity with both hands and am now ‘living the dream’.
So, when fate offers you the opportunity, and you can minimize the risk, never look the gift horse in the mouth.
What are you working on at the moment?
There are a number of projects currently in the pipeline, some finished and others at the writing or planning stage:
‘Day of the Phoenix’ is a political thriller, and is the sequel to my debut novel ‘A Ticket to Tewkesbury’. Set against the backdrop of a worsening domestic situation between 2002 and 2007, it poses the question of how far the British electorate might go towards the election of a fascist government.
This manuscript is at the final editing stage.
‘The Rings of Darelius’, my first venture into the world of science fiction, charts the fate of an advanced civilisation finding itself at the verge of extinction, and its search for the only cure which can save it. In four parts it is a saga in the Asimov mould, and combines the fate of three other species in its plot line.
This is at the first editing stage.
‘Short Stories Volume Two’ is an anthology of 45 pieces varying in length from 750 to 3,500 words. Similar to my first anthology, the styles are a mix of romance, crime, horror, fantasy and humour.
This is at the final editing stage.
‘Three Little Maids’ is the book which I am currently writing, and is the sequel to this year’s novel, ‘Full Marks’. It takes my detective, DCI Dennis Marks from his clash with the IPCC and into a murder investigation at a local high-profile grammar school.
What do you make of the present government’s fiscal policies?
Using the pseudonym Neal James gives me the privilege of stepping outside of all of the political posturing which goes on at Westminster, and my next novel, ‘The Day of the Phoenix’, which is due out in 2014, enables me to neatly side-step the question in an oblique way.
The book, and its apolitical stance, are set in the turbulent period 2002-2007 and follow on from ‘A Ticket to Tewkesbury’ as its natural sequel.
It poses the chilling question to a British electorate tired of the two-party system, of how far they would be prepared to go down the road of an extreme right wing government, in an attempt to solve all of the financial problems which have beset the country since the 1960s.
I give no sway to arguments posed in either direction, and take a perverse pleasure in looking at the entire situation from a distance. The politics are neatly wrapped up in a thriller which will leave the reader uncertain, until the very end, of the direction in which our fate is going.
Thank you Philip for an informative and perceptive interview.
__Visit Philip Neale’s website where you’ll find synopses and all buy links for his other books. Amazon quick-links as follows:
__‘Threads of Deceit’ at Amazon UK and US. Synopsis and all buy links here.
__‘Two Little Dicky Birds’ at Amazon UK and US. Synopsis and all buy links here.
__‘Short Stories Volume One’ at Amazon UK and US. Synopsis and all buy links here.
__‘Ticket to Tewkesbury’ at Amazon UK and US. Synopsis and all buy links here.