He may have been reluctant to write about serial killers, but Newcastle-born Martyn Waites is being feted as the new Ian Rankin. He tells Lindsay Jennings why he hates Agatha Christie stories.
IT was a friend of author Martyn Waites who demonstrated perfectly why he shouldn't make his serial killers cliched. "She was working as an actor doing a show which went into Broadmoor," he recalls. "And she didn't realise until afterwards that she'd been sitting chatting to the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, for an hour or so.
"As soon as she was told, she couldn't quite believe it and she said 'but he was so nice'. She had expected some kind of leering monster but, really, serial killers are people too."
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Martyn bursts out laughing at this point, realising how he sounds.
"I used to work in prisons and some inside would have tattoos and scars," he continues. "But there were others who looked so ordinary and you would never have guessed what they were in for."
Martyn was born and raised in Newcastle and originally wanted to become an actor. He left the North-East when he was 20 and went to drama school in Birmingham. Afterwards, he found work in theatre across the country and, inspired by hard-boiled American crime authors such as Raymond Chandler, thought he'd turn to writing.
"Always, whenever I got a script, I would always look at it from a writer's perspective, so I thought, being a writer, I'd try writing some plays. But they were awful," admits Martyn, 43.
"I ended up writing a novel. It took three to four months to write and five years to get published."
Mary's Prayer was published in 1997, a hard-hitting gangland thriller set in his native North-East.
"I felt there was nothing being published in Britain in the early 1990s that really, honestly, reflected my life," he says.
"In America, crime fiction was going through a real boom. Here, there was always a tradition of Agatha Christie stuff, which I absolutely detest - a murder has been committed to show how some t**t of a detective is clever and then everything goes back to normal and it's lovely. I hated that."
Martyn says he was drawn to crime because it has an "immediacy with the reader".
"You pick up a crime novel expecting a good story and also it's a tool with which to dissect society," he says.
But after penning two further crime novels, he wanted to try something different. He wrote Born Under Punches which was based around the miners' strike and its legacy. The following year, he brought out The White Room, set in Newcastle in the 1960s and based around the early life of child killer Mary Bell.
The book was destined to be controversial, and Martyn admits he was "spoiling for a fight". But it didn't get as much attention as he would have liked. Still, he feels it may be a sleeper.
"I said to the publishers 'get on to the Daily Mail and get them annoyed, I'll take them on, I'll do it'," he says, laughing. "But at least I felt vindicated when the Guardian picked it as one of their books of the year. I still don't think it's entirely finished, I've got an idea for a sequel to The White Room and I may actually do it as a Joe Donovan novel."
Joe Donovan is the former investigative journalist in his latest crime series, who has become a recluse since the disappearance of his six-year-old son. Martyn returned to crime after a chat with his agent and his editor.
"They'd got together and decided where they saw me going - although they didn't ask me," he says. "Both of them said 'why don't you do a new crime series set in the North-East?' and they gave me this list of what they wanted. Could they have this character who was not a policeman but who was a detective? Then they said 'can we have a serial killer in it?' and I said 'no'. So they said 'can you put someone in who kills a lot of people and you can say it's a serial killer?' and then they said 'don't forget, this is your novel'."
Martyn smiles at the memory but cites one of his literary heroes, The Grifters' author, Jim Thompson, who would turn up at his publishers to find he had to write a story around a cover they had already designed.
"I really admired the way he would do it because he didn't stint on things he wanted to write about while he was doing it," he says.
Now, at least, he can see that his agent and publisher were right in terms of Martyn's commercial success. The first in the Joe Donovan series, The Mercy Seat, was praised for being "breathless, contemporary, and credible" and gained two award nominations as well as garnering comparisons with best-selling novelist Ian Rankin.
He has just published his second in the series, Bone Machine, which touches on the murky world of people trafficking and local gangsters as well as having the ubiquitous serial killer. His dialogue is punchy, his plot dark. Martyn comes across as friendly, like you could enjoy a pint with him. People must wonder where the violence stems from?
"I remember an old editor of mine telephoned my agent and said 'oh, Martyn was in today, he's so friendly and nice and chatty. I don't know where it comes from'," he says.
'But I've done two writing residencies in prisons where I've worked with everybody from drug offenders to rapists and murderers. Really, everybody has a story and working in prisons teaches you about the mundanity of evil."
But for all his friendliness, Martyn also comes across as someone who has strong views, and who likes to provoke, get people thinking. He recalls reading one magazine where the reviewer had been "incoherent with rage".
"He had hated the book but I thought that was great, because if he didn't love it, I would rather he hated it. That to me was as good as a good review because at least I'd hit a nerve," he says.
Martyn has recently moved to a new house in Hertfordshire with his wife and two children, aged 11 and eight, where he now boasts a brand new office and space to house his collection of 1970s horror films.
"It's also brilliant displacement activity to avoid writing - kitting your office out," he says.
He tends to write a draft of his novel first, then visit people, such as police officers and drugs barristers, who can provide the expertise, the flesh he needs for his victims' skeletons. He's recently been offered a fellowship at the University of Essex, which he loves because he's helping budding writers and it gets him out of the house. Plus, there's the potential for meeting new characters.
He's an avid Newcastle United fan and gets back to see his family and friends as often as he can, and has his "spies" who let him know if anything's changed in the area.
Projects for the future include more crime novels and he's co-written a film script, Cold Harbour, a thriller set in Scarborough about drug trafficking and the fishing industry. He also has one project he would love to do.
"As an actor, I'd love to have been Dr Who - I still would," he says. "But I'd settle for writing for Torchwood (the Dr Who spin-off). It would definitely be an antidote to the stuff that I write now."
* Bone Machine by Martyn Waites is out now (Simon & Schuster UK, £6.99).