The backdrop to the latest gritty crime novel to win the hearts of the region is very real to two fledgling North-East’s authors 

JULIE BLACKIE and Nicky Doherty – who have written their first novel, The Prodigal, under the pen-name Nicky Black – met when both worked on regeneration schemes in riot-torn estates in the North-East more than 20 years ago. The pair, who saw first-hand the hard lives of the salt-of-the-earth northerners in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods, became friends after discovering they had a love of writing in common. But until this year, their writing careers took them on very different paths.

The Prodigal was launched earlier this summer with a reading at Northern Stage by North-East actor Michael Hodgson and got good reviews. The tale of star-crossed lovers was born from a throwaway comment from a police friend about the different motivations of police informers in Newcastle. Julie explains: “ In 1999 I met a senior police officer in Newcastle who offered to check over another script I'd written for accuracy on police procedure. As an aside I asked him about informers, who they are and what motivates them to do it.

“I was fascinated to hear him categorise informers into three types – small-time criminals who do it for money, people who do it for self-interest - usually to deflect police attention from their crimes or to get sentences reduced - and then the most dangerous kind of informing, women who do it for moral reasons.”

The Prodigal was initially destined to be a two-part TV serial commissioned by Granada, but Nicky, a long time fan of the story, asked if she could adapt the script into a novel. It focuses on Detective Sergeant Lee Jamieson, exiled from his beloved Newcastle for 16 years, but returning home in search of the teenage daughter he’s never met. His first assignment is in Valley Park, a forgotten sink estate and home to some of the worst social deprivation in the country – the estate where he grew up, and where Nicola Kelly, the wife of a renowned local villain, calls home.

"Neither of us wanted to write a bog-standard detective story," says Nicky. "The people of the North, the way they speak and live, struggle and survive are absolutely integral to the plot. The region isn’t simply a backdrop to a crime that needs solving with multiple choices on whodunnit. Relationships and characters are grounded in the reality of the North-East as it was then, and as it still is now in places."

Nicky had a full-time job and worked on the manuscript evenings, weekends and holidays, and it went back and forth between the pair as they built the bigger story around the script.

“It was about bringing the people to life using the insight we had from our own experiences of working in North-East communities. It captures the humour, the sadness, the real grit of families getting through life," says Nicky. "The publishing industry is very hard for new writers, so rather than wait for agents to sign us up, we decided to self-publish through Amazon. It’s the new publishing rock ‘n’ roll.” The pair, who would urge other writers to follow their gut instincts and keep writing, are already focusing on their next book.

The Prodigal is set in 1999. Fans, desperate to know what happens next, are already asking for a sequel but Nicky's plans are to step back in time and adapt another of Julie's scripts set in the rave era of 1989. It promises to be just as gritty as The Prodigal. “ It ain’t chicklit,” the pair admit.

When the pair met, Julie, who now owns a fashion company called Pink Boutique with her daughter Alice,was a community worker while Nicky managed small grants funding for community groups and organisations. She is now a director of a company in London which supports people into work and skills training, but her ambition is to be a full-time writer and move back to the North-East.

Their work with communities in the North-East in the 1990s was challenging. "The key things families struggled with back then were joy riding and car crime. It was so rife. There would be burned out cars regularly left on the streets in places like Scotswood, the noise at night of screeching cars was horrible, and people felt very vulnerable," says Nicky. "These estates were 'no-go' areas, and the police were seen as the enemy."

Even though people are still poor and there are still problems with crime and violence, Nicky says relationships with authorities are much better now. "The police, health services, education, etc., are much more responsive. Back then people would be burgled five or six times, the same homes targeted over and over again. I have to say, though, there was always humour and people made the best of their lives with what they had. There was a fighting spirit."

Nicky believes the regeneration schemes she and Julie were involved in did have an impact. "I saw Shields Road, in Byker, transformed when I worked on the regeneration programme there, and we did a lot of work on skills and jobs to make sure local people got the jobs that were created. This is the key to regeneration, not just making places look nicer. It's a shame those programmes are finished - now there seems to be an emphasis on just improving housing stock without investment in people. Like Nicola says in the Prodigal, it's useless improving the houses if you don't do anything about the people."