David Belbin. Now and Then. A Forensic Examination.
The revolution in e-books means that authors are able to make previously out-of-print books easily available, at an affordable price. These earlier works may provide an interesting comparison to an author’s current novels, as well as introducing new readers to their work. David Belbin has recently made some of his ‘The Beat’ series, written in the 1990s, available as e-books. I wondered what influence they had on his current ‘Bone and Cane’ series and what it was like for an author to write a contemporary crime novel in the 1990s (The Beat) and write a crime novel now, but set in the 1990s (Bone and Cane).
‘The Beat’ novels, a series written twenty years ago, are about young police officers going through their probation period, whereas your more recent ‘Bone and Cane’ series features a politician and convicted criminal and has a very different feel in term of writing style.
They may have a different feel because ‘The Beat’ novels, unlike ‘Bone and Cane’ were written for teenagers, and you do need to get straight to the point when you’re writing for that audience. My first three young adult books were very much aimed at the younger end of the young adult market, 12 to 14 years of age. When I started doing ‘The Beat’, I got the freedom to write something more personal. It was my series going out under my own name , so I could write a little bit older than I previously had done. Part of that was because the protagonists had to be older (you couldn’t join the police until you were 19). So it wouldn’t have been realistic to write the characters in the same way that I wrote the earlier books, where the characters tend to be between the age of 15 and 17, which is the more common age for the protagonists in young adult fiction.
I wrote the series over six years and as it progressed, the police officers got older. The series lasted two years of chronological time (the probationary period of the police officers involved). Some of the point of view characters were older adults, which you don’t tend to get in young adult fiction. This type of fiction tends to be called new adult fiction these days, and that’s as good a phrase is any to describe it.
Having said this ‘The Beat’ always had more of an adult audience than most of my one-off books. That’s hardly surprising, because they have very adult themes. It was modelled on, though not slavishly so, Ed McBain’s ‘87th Precinct’ series. That’s why they have a rubric at the front of every book, which is a tribute to the rubric that appears at the beginning of every ‘87th Precinct’ novel. ‘The city in these pages is not real’ etc.
Would you describe the ‘87th Precinct’ novels for anyone who’s not read them?
They are the first ever real police procedural novels. They started out in the mid 1950s. Evan Hunter, better known as McBain (both names are pseudonyms), would write three a year in his earlier years, then two a year, and as he got older one a year. There were over 50 of them in total. They’re set in a fictional city, Isola, but it’s really New York. They’re quite gritty crime stories, usually mysteries, but the personal lives of the policeman are sparse. Although there is a little about the most sympathetic protagonist in this series Steve Carella, who has a blind and beautiful wife called Teddy, who occasionally finds herself in danger.
The writing is remarkably consistent throughout the series. There are very few examples of series that go on for such a length of time, without the writer going off or getting bored. Although there was a period where the novels became more violent and not quite as good, towards the end they return to top form. So I think they’re shining example of what can be done with a good police series.
When I published Missing Person I sent Ed McBain a copy of it. I had a very nice note back from him saying ‘Enjoy your success’. He also told me that he didn’t have a copyright on the police procedural and that his mother’s maiden name was Coppola, which was the name of my heroine. So that was a nice coincidence.
You chose an Italian family for ‘The Beat’ series. Is that because there are quite a few Italian families in Nottingham?
No it was entirely because, in the book Avenging Angel, where some of the characters first appear, the person who is killed (Clare’s younger brother) had to be called Angelo for the title to work, and therefore the family had to be Italian. The rest is just happenstance. In a way that turned out to be a tribute to Ed McBain, because his real name is Salvatore, and he’s from an Italian background. But again it was just coincidental. Oddly enough Avenging Angel was dedicated to John Harvey. What I didn’t realise at the time, was that his first crime novel, which was published under a pseudonym (Thom Ryder) was also called Avenging Angel.
So you wanted to not only write police procedural, but also build in more of a character study and watch the characters grow as they got more experience?
Yes, I wanted to be able to write a complete story arc. I didn’t know how it would end, and I knew I would have to decide whether Claire would remain in the police force or not, because she had quite strong doubts about joining in the first place.
In the early days of the series, I was just happy to have a regular writing commission that enabled me to give up being a schoolteacher and become a full-time writer. I had an awful lot of fun being able to write more or less what I wanted. I love writing in the crime genre and I was well versed in police procedurals. It also allowed me to talk about issues of late adolescence, a subject which has always interested me, as well as issues to do with justice, which is one of the major themes of crime and, indeed, much fiction.
The ‘The Beat’ series is based in Nottingham. Did you find that using a real place created any constrictions as far as writing is concerned. For example, you have to think carefully about timings when people move from one place to another.
I think constrictions are actually very useful for a writer. It annoys me when a writer sets the story in real place and they get things wrong. There is a danger that, when you write a novel in a place that you know well, you can take quite a lot for granted and therefore don’t convey that well. Often writers will write about places much better when they’re away from them, for example Alan Sillitoe wrote about Nottingham while he was in Majorca.
People have told me, after they’ve read the ‘The Beat’ novels, that they get a very strong sense of Nottingham city. I do try to convey that in all of the books. I see writing about what I know as an advantage. What I do regret is that I didn’t keep more thorough diary as the city was changing in the late 1990s to 2000, because I knew I would write something like ‘Bone and Cane’, and it would have been very useful to have those notes for my research, rather than having to go back and check things.
Does that mean that you had to physically go and check places for ‘Bone and Cane’?
Occasionally I check stuff from photographs and old newspapers, but luckily my memory is fairly good. And of course some aspects of the city are fictionalised, because I’m not writing a documentary.
Policing has changed over the last 20 years, for example mobile phones weren’t used to the same extent they are now, and the Internet wasn’t as well developed.
I’ve actually been researching mobile phones for the next novel I’m putting out, Love Lessons, which is set in 1995. Had it been set four years later, in 1999 (when mobile phones exploded and became much more common), the plot wouldn’t have worked, because everybody would have had mobile phones. It’s been a while since I read the later ‘Beat’ novels, but certainly in the earlier ones nobody has mobile phones.
How you think that affects the way the characters work as far as policing is concerned?
By the time you get to 1999, mobile phone records do become salient to the plots, and although they do offer certain possibilities, it also means it’s easier to keep track of someone using them. This was also the time of the Internet explosion. The arrival of the Internet made a lot of difference. As far as ‘Bone and Cane’ is concerned, I think it’s interesting writing about the 1990s from this distance of 15 years on, because you can have some historical perspective upon it. It would be an interesting research project for someone to look at the novels that were written in the 1990s to see how these technological advances have featured in contemporary novels.
So you’ve had experience writing a contemporary crime series (The Beat) set in the 1990s and another series (Bone and Cane) looking back on the 1990s. What was that like for you as a writer?
Contemporary is easier, for obvious reasons, but the big difference is that ‘Bone and Cane’ is set in a very specific time period while ‘The Beat’ is set in two fictional years that are clearly the 1990’s but not a specific year in the 1990’s. For instance, there’s a description of a Hole gig from 1995 (though I never name the band) and, in the final novel, the tram lines are being laid, which hadn’t happened when I wrote but implies it’s 2001. I do quite like the specificity of using real time, though it can be more work. I also do it in The Pretender because it had to include the deaths of Graham Greene and Roald Dahl, Love Lessons, for no particular reason, and Festival: The Glastonbury Novel, which is very specifically set at the 2000 festival. The risk, of course, is that setting your novels in a particular time period will make them date badly. But in each of those cases, I think the advantages of specificity outweigh that problem.
What do you think that twenty years of writing novels has done for you as a writer?
‘The Beat’ series helped me develop writing multi-character novels and work out how many points of view a novel could handle, and how to handle a narrative that covers a long period, which is germane to Bone and Cane. I also learnt a great deal about suspense and plotting complicated mysteries. Plotting is one of those skills all literary writers tend to sniff at, but it’s just as important as style and as important a part of an author’s work as the way in which they write prose or dialogue. I certainly wouldn’t be writing what I’m writing now without the experience of writing those twelve Beat novels. Each ‘Bone and Cane’ is twice as complicated as the last and I wouldn’t have the nerve to do that were it not for the experience I had in writing those relatively complex crime novels in the 90s.
‘The Beat’ novels start off following a relatively straightforward crime template, with a main plot and subplot, which usually but not always collide. However, they are anything but formulaic. One of the interesting things for me reading books that I wrote 18 years ago, is that I can’t remember exactly what happened in them, so I’ve occasionally surprised myself.
Each book, except the last one, was commissioned in pairs. I quickly became aware that I could only plot one book ahead and that the second in each pair would be written on the hoof. So it tends to be that the odd-numbered books are more conventional mysteries like Missing Person, Smokescreen and Dead White Male. The even numbered books, on the other hand, were all about issues that got under my collar at the time, such as rape and sexual assault in Asking For It, and about the National Lottery and casinos in Losers.
I started writing Black and Blue just after the racist attack upon the Mushroom Bookshop (a radical bookshop in Nottingham), in 1995. I wrote it in the immediate aftermath of that event and the novel builds up to a conclusion where there’s a demonstration that really did take place. But I wrote the fictional scene of the demonstration which concludes in a quite violent assault on one of the racists, before it had actually happened. I actually went on demonstration wondering what would happen and there were one or two things that did happen afterwards, particularly one of the racists getting severely beaten up (something I discuss in the afterword of the book). Events echoed the novel albeit too closely. I made a mental note not to sail quite so close to the wind in future. But nevertheless, writing those novels did give me feel for writing about contemporary events and how to do that. This is something I was able to bring to ‘Bone and Cane’.
I always knew that I was going to write something like the ‘Bone and Cane’ series. I was influenced by Trevor Griffiths’ ‘Bill Brand’, a drama series set on the last days of the Harold Wilson era, that I watched when I was about 18. In 1997, when it was apparent that Labour were about to come into power, I spent a couple of days in the House of Commons just before and after the election. I even got myself an unpaid researcher’s job with my local MP. Unfortunately I then have my pass turned down, because they found out I was a professional writer and were worried that I might leak stories to Private Eye. So I was researching it then, and I knew that’s what I was planning to do. It took me another 12 years to actually get the thing out there.
Are there afterwords in all the ‘Beat’ series you have released?
Yes it’s a way of giving added value to the books and it’s useful for me to reflect upon the books. It seems to me that the new audience who are reading them are mostly adults, who have come across my crime novels already. They seem to be pleasantly surprised when they find out they were originally published as young adult novels and they claim not to have noticed any difference.
When you make the move to ‘Bone and Cane’ it is truly an adult novel because of the content and language used in it.
Yes it starts off with a much more explicit sexual assault than I would have ever done any young adult novel. That’s partly to separate these novels from the previous series.
How easy is it to write that sort of scene?
I think you have to take the attitude that a little goes quite a long way. There’s a scene in the new ‘Bone and Cane’ book, which is the most horrible one I have yet written. But it’s been very obliquely done. The reader knows exactly what’s going on, but the description is very spare. These scenes are difficult to write, but you have to write them and keep rewriting until you get it right. One’s intention is never to titillate but it can be to shock.
Compared to the ‘The Beat’ novels, ‘Bone and Cane’ would appear to be much more complex. One of the main protagonists is a politician and the other a convicted criminal. So not only is politics involved there is also a complex dynamic in the relationship between the two characters.
A politician, Roger Wellington, does rear his head in ‘The Beat’. He lives in the Park (a private housing estate in Nottingham), and there’s a scene in Losers in which he makes a pass at Charlene Harris the solicitor, who is the ex-girlfriend of Ben Shipman, one of my main protagonists.
The involvement of politics in a novel gives you more possibilities. One of the good things about MPs is that they’ve got recourse to all kinds of knowledge and power. I’ve set myself this task or limitation of not having any police point of view characters in the ‘Bone and Cane’ series. So they’re crime novels, but nothing like a police procedural novel. I felt I’d done that in the 1990s.
A lot has changed since the 1990s, because there’s been an absolute explosion of police novels. For me, Politics has always been an abiding fascination and I still have contacts within the House of Commons, as well as contacts who were there in the 1990s.
It does require a certain amount of research and does give you a lot of fictional possibilities. Politicians can be just as crooked as police officers. The original title of the first ‘Bone and Cane’ novel was Previous Convictions. There’s a bit of wordplay in that in that, because it’s Nick Cane’s journey from being a convicted criminal to becoming, maybe, a useful member of society or someone will go back into crime. There is always a tension with that, because, when you’ve got a prison sentence behind you it’s always a lot easier to offend again than to get a job. Sarah, meanwhile, has to see how her political convictions measure up to the reality of Labour being in power. The situation creates a conflict in the relationship between Nick and Sarah, who’s trying to pursue a political career. If she resumed their relationship, that would be fairly suicidal for her promotion prospects. Remember, though, that Nick was only caught growing marijuana, an activity that may well become legal in our lifetimes. That aspect of the story came to me when I visited someone’s new flat in The Park in 1992. They rolled up their carpet and showed us, in the hall, the steps down to the caves and the traces of cannabis that were still down there. It was one of those gifts that writers sometimes get.