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CRIMINALLY GOOD: Interview with Paul Finch, author and screenwriter

    Paul headshotSo, who are you & what have you written?

    My name is Paul Finch, and I’m a former cop and journalist, who – rather fortuitously, as it turned out – was made redundant once too often in 1998, and thus decided to try his hand at freelance writing. It wasn’t quite as high-risk a decision as it might seem. For several years by then, I’d had a parallel career writing television scripts for THE BILL. You can follow me on twitter as @paulfinchauthor.

    Going full-time gave me the opportunity to expand this repertoire, so that when I parted company with THE BILL in around 2003, I was writing full-time in various other capacities. For example, I was also working extensively in children’s animation, and had developed a reputation in the horror field, having by this time penned hundreds of short stories and novellas, most of which found publication in professional magazines and anthologies in both UK and the US.

    This led to my first real writing success, when a collection of my stories – AFTER SHOCKS – won the British Fantasy Award (for Best Collection) in 2002. I won the award again (for Best Novella) with my story, KID, in 2007, and that same year, my short story, THE OLD NORTH ROAD, won the International Horror Guild Award (for Best Short Story).

    Since then, numerous of my horror stories have been published in both hardback and softback collections, and have representation in various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies. It was on the strength of these that I was eventually commissioned by Rebellion Books to write two horror/fantasy novels, STRONGHOLD and DARK NORTH.

    Stalkers for pressMy reputation in dark fantasy (and as a TV script-writer) opened three other important doors for me. The first of these was in the movies. I’ve now written scripts for a number of horror films, two of which – SPIRIT TRAP (to which I contributed ‘additional material’) and THE DEVIL’S ROCK – went on to full production and cinema release, and another two of which – WAR WOLF and THE FREEZE – are currently under option and in development. The second door was DR WHO, to which mythos I have contributed one novel and one novella (both for BBC Books), one short story and four full-cast audio dramas (all for Big Finish). The third was the TERROR TALES series of regional horror anthologies, which I now edit annually for Gray Friar Press.

    However, my most satisfying publications to date, have been my Heck crime novels, five of which have been published since 2013 (by Avon Books at HarperCollins), and all of which have since sold widely overseas. They follow the investigations of Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg, who is attached to Scotland Yard’s elite Serial Crimes Unit, and in style are hard-edged thrillers occupying the very darkest end of the spectrum.

    The Heck novels have been something of an unmitigated success for me. To date, they’ve sold well over half a million copies, while the second in the series, SACRIFICE, was at the time the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins’ history.

    I’m still writing Heck as we speak, though for some time Avon have also been interested in a parallel series of crime thrillers featuring a female protagonist, so STRANGERS – the first novel in the Detective Lucy Clayburn range – is due for publication in summer this year. The next Heck novel, THE BURNING MAN, will follow in 2017.

    sacri coverWhy do you write crime fiction?

    For a time after I left the police, I tried to avoid writing anything even close to crime or mystery. I think this was simply that, having been there for real, I wanted to move in a completely different direction.

    However, an opportunity to write for THE BILL – not long after I’d left the job, no less – was too good to turn down, as it gave me an early push into a completely new and potentially quite lucrative career. I was a very inexperienced writer at the time, of course, but having been a real cop, one part of THE BILL that came easy to me was packing my scripts with authenticity. I didn’t need to consult police protocol experts or go for ride-alongs or anything like that in order to build an accurate picture of police life. I think this was at least part of the reason I got an early shot at the show.

    But at the same time, ultimately, I still wanted to venture away from police procedural if I could. Hence, I ranged into horror, fantasy, sci-fi and action. My first episode of THE BILL, in fact, which was called PROTECT AND SURVIVE, was described by fans afterwards as an out-and-out thriller rather than a crime drama (it went down so well at the time that I think it’s still circling on YouTube).

    And when I finally moved back into crime writing in the late 2000s, in the form of my Heck novels, I was determined to keep ploughing this same high-energy furrow. A plethora of quality US crime-fighting shows had hit our TV screens by this time. THE WIRE, THE SHIELD, BOOMTOWN and the like, all introduced heinous villains, gritty action and very mean cops. My interest in crime fiction was massively revitalised by this, and so when in around 2010 I approached my agent with a desire to pen as tough-talking a crime novel as I could – which would turn out to be the first in the Heck series, STALKERS – he was delighted and reckoned it would be a much hotter product than any of my horror/fantasy novels.

    Thus far, he’s been proved right.

    What informs your crime writing? 

    There is a three-pronged impetus behind my crime writing: it should be as dark as possible; as scary as possible; and as exciting as possible. If you get the feeling that these are all horns on the same twisted goat, you’re probably right. I can’t explain it, but this is what I personally love to read – stuff that puts me on the edge of my seat, runs a chill up my spine and makes me think ‘God forbid that should ever happen to anyone I know’. It’s that same frisson of cosy fear that I’m trying to impart to my own readers.

    This was certainly the driving force behind my first Heck novel – STALKERS – so much so that when I first hatched the concept, both my wife, Cathy, and I thought it might only work as a full-blown horror novel, and even then there’d be some concern about whether it was acceptable (though thank Heaven I stuck with it as a crime thriller instead).

    Of course, it’s never as straightforward as that. As you say, other factors must then come into play. What informs the work? What keeps it vital and edgy?

    huntedWell … real life cases are always relevant to me. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been influenced by real police investigations, both those I’ve read about and those I’ve participated in. Truth is always stranger and often more horrendous than fiction.

    But that only works to a point. I’ve already said that I want my books to be exciting, to keep the readers turning the pages, and I know from my own experience that there isn’t a great deal of that to be found in real-life criminal investigation. Most murder enquiries are sordid affairs thick with human tragedy, and most offenders are pathetic, banal losers.

    Criminal investigation can also be tedious. It’s often about being methodical, being patient and being prepared to put in hours and hours, if not days and weeks, of legwork. It’s about ploughing through reams of CCTV footage and interviewing hundreds of people extensively and painstakingly, even though they may only have peripheral involvement with the case (if any at all).

    It’s also about paper – mountains and mountains of paper. Real murder cases are secretarial nightmares. None of that makes for good drama or fiction. So while I may be affected by historic investigations, I certainly don’t reproduce them slavishly.

    It’s interesting that you mention the psychological angle. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always liked my villains to be larger than life. I grew up with a great TV cop show, THE SWEENEY, which centred around two everyman heroes, a pair of hard-working, hard-drinking detectives who were confronted by a whole range of colourful but psychopathic criminals. In the mid-1970s, it was engrossing viewing.

    Then there were the DIRTY HARRY movies, featuring another honest cop who gradually changed personality due to his battle against outlandish evil. Following that, there were the newer US cops shows I mentioned before, which combined to give us an absolute gallery of lunatics.

    As a background to all this, you’ve also got the JAMES BOND films, the BATMAN comics, and astonishing semi-fantastical British TV like THE AVENGERS, in which there was literally no limit to the villains’ insanity and depravity.

    All of these were my cultural reference points at one time or another, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve gone the same way in my fiction. But I do try to underwrite these characters with appropriate psychology. One of my best friends since childhood is now a professor of forensic psychology, and is regularly on hand to advise on the various forms of mania that create such havoc in our world, and how they can develop – I’m afraid I hammer him on the subject.

    So, yes, though there are some strong fantasy elements in my crime fiction, there are also (I hope) plenty of hooks to keep them in some way attached to the grimy reality of everyday urban life.

    DR new poster - 5What’s your usual writing routine?

    I’d like to say that I’m a nine-till-five disciplinarian, who always enters his study after breakfast and doesn’t emerge until teatime with a damn good day’s work under his belt. But it doesn’t pan out like that. And in fact, the way I go about writing isn’t always conducive to any regular routine.

    To start with, I try to spend as much of my work-time as possible outdoors, walking my dogs through the surrounding countryside – they must now be the two fittest spaniels in Lancashire. Initially this is done for the purpose of story-lining. I find that walking helps me think more clearly, and I don’t like to actually start a book until I’ve got the storyline absolutely square.

    This doesn’t mean I’m inflexible from that point on. If better ideas come along later, I’ll incorporate them even if it means changing everything else. But as long as I’ve got a good skeletal structure to hang my words on, I’m comfortable. I usually manage to create this beast on my hand-recorder while I’m out bestriding the land, and then I type it up later.

    My first draft begins life on the hand-recorder too, and this is the part where my dogs get really long walks – as I dictate chapter after chapter while roaming the landscape. This is never the final version, of course. I can’t compose finished prose when I’m dictating – it’s usually just a stream of thoughts and ideas, broken passages, disjointed sentences etc, all assembled in roughly the right order. But if it tells the tale, that part of the job is done. After that, I again type it all up, this time knocking it into some kind of passable shape.

    For the second draft, out comes the trusty hand-recorder again. This time I read everything I’ve written onto tape and play it back through earphones, again while I’m walking the pooches. I usually have a notebook with me this time, so I can scribble down any additional thoughts for rewrites, adjustments, tweaks etc.

    My third and final draft, before it goes to my editor, is usually the least intensive one. I tend to be pretty happy by this stage, so it’s often a case of slumping in front of the computer and making a last read-through with a mug of tea in hand and appropriate background music playing (I have an extensive play-list of atmospheric themes, which now reaches about nine hours in length).

    If this approach sounds scatty and chaotic, that’s the way it goes. Inevitably, it doesn’t fit into the nine-till-five framework. I often work evenings and weekends, but one perk resulting from this is that I’m always owed a bit of time-off (not that I take it very often). This only works for me because I’m fortunate to have a job that I enjoy so much. Even when away on holiday I keep a pad close to hand in case an idea pops up that needs jotting down. I think one of my creepiest horror novellas – APE OF GOD – was inspired by a vivid dream I had in a villa in Majorca. I spent the whole of the next morning sketching out the idea by the swimming pool, and never considered it a half-day misspent.

    Anyway, using these processes, it usually takes me between three and four months to create a novel, though of course, once it’s delivered to HarperCollins there’ll be a whole new editing system to go through, and that may be a little more painful. Not that I’m complaining. All authors have that final cross to bear.

    The Killing Club - final coverWhich crime book do you wish YOU’D written, and why?

    There’s only ever one answer to this. It’s JACK’S RETURN HOME, written by Ted Lewis in 1970.

    Most crime aficionados will be familiar with it, though others will know it better as GET CARTER, Mike Hodges’s movie version of 1971, which starred Michael Caine as the titular anti-hero. The reason I like it so much is because it’s so personal to me.

    I read it when I was very young, and was hugely taken by its realistic portrayal of the North of England I knew so well. It’s set in the bleak industrial landscape of Scunthorpe in the 1960s. I’m a Lancashire lad by origin, but the town of my birth and upbringing, Wigan, was almost identical, except that where Scunthorpe had steel-mills we had coalmines.

    The time-zone is just right too. I was on the cusp of my teens when this novel is set, that period of life when your environment exerts so much influence on you. Life in the industrial north was tough and unforgiving in those days, but that’s what I love about JACK’S RETURN HOME. Talk about gritty. That bleak urban underbelly in which gangland enforcer Jack Carter must pit himself against foes even more violent than he is, rang so true.

    I’m not being sentimental or romantic about this – there was nothing romantic about that time and place. But I was captivated by the novel’s uber-realism. Check out this extract from the opening paragraph:

    It hadn’t stopped raining since Euston. Inside the train it was close, the kind of close that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you’re doing is sitting there looking out of the blurring windows. Watching the dirty backs of houses scudding along under the half-light clouds. Just sitting and looking, and not even fidgeting.

    Seriously, how moody an intro is that?

    JACK’S RETURN HOME also occupies a unique place in the annals of crime fiction, in that it opened the era of British noir. The dark alleys, the pool halls, the massage parlours, the dingy bars, the harrowing back-story of underage prostitution were very familiar tropes to fans of Hammett, Spillane and Chandler, but British fiction hadn’t really explored that hardboiled territory until now. So you can’t help but applaud it for that.

    What else appeals to me about it?

    Well, there is no way that Jack Carter is not recognisable to some degree in my own dogged loner, Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg. Both are displaced northerners, of course, and though Jack is a mobster and Heck a detective, they both walk a tightrope through a dangerous and decaying world wherein in a proportion of the police are corrupt and a majority of the criminals are like wild animals.

    Both have similar aims too: Jack seeks revenge for his innocent brother, and in the process takes down the syndicate responsible, whereas Heck seeks revenge/justice for numerous innocents, and in the process takes down any killers and gangsters who cross his path.

    And it isn’t as if they use different methods. Heck always tries to conclude things by resorting to law, but Jack Carter has his own law too – the law of the underworld, which back in those distant days actually did possess some ethics.

    Yet for both these men, chivalry often proves futile, the only alternatives being nasty trickery and/or heart-stopping brutality.

    Wow, fantastic detail there, thanks Paul! 

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