Is it possible to write hard-hitting crime for young adults without pulling punches? The young adult audience has grown up with an increasingly sophisticated range of references, and is spared no blushes by TV, but I found that the teen book market did not always cater for this newly developed readership. I set out to try and write a crime novel for teens without compromising in either language or subject matter.
My career as a writer started in Children’s TV. I wrote for years on Saturday morning kids’ TV, an area that always had a big crossover audience: the kids themselves, but also their bleary-eyed parents and hungover students.
From Tiswas onwards, there was always a sense of ‘naughtiness’ about Saturday morning shows, slipping in adult content here and there that would pass over smaller heads, but that would bring an edginess to the shows and keep older viewers watching the screen. The shows worked on several levels.
Subsequently I wrote dramas, animations and sitcoms for ITV and BBC such as The Cramp Twins and Basil Brush. There was always a mature voice behind Basil; he got away with murder with his underlying salaciousness and double-entendre quips, in the way only a talking fox based on Terry-Thomas can. But Basil always appealed equally to children and adults who were seeing him second time around. It became clear to me that the lines between kids and adult entertainment were becoming increasingly blurred.
I wrote most of my children’s dramas in partnership with Mark Billingham – familiar to readers of these pages – and when TV drama budgets began to shrink, we put our energies into writing a young adult trilogy; Triskellion, under the name Will Peterson. ( a Scrabble letter amalgam of both our names.)
We were determined to write an unpatronising series of supernatural thrillers for the Young Adult audience, one that would appeal to a similar audience to Dr. Who, who was enjoying renewed popularity for a family audience. We wanted real thrills, scary atmosphere and graphic action scenes. The trilogy squarely hit the target audience of 11plus readers but we had great responses from parents of our own generation who found the books satisfactory in their mature pitch and plotting. We never wrote ‘down’ to children.
When it came to writing a young adult novel of my own, I looked at the glut of fantasy books on the shelves: magicians, wizards, vampires and zombies. I thought it would be foolhardy to add my own efforts to an already crowded market.
After fantasy, where next? My instinct told me that a dramatic reality was the antidote. Where better than Crime?
I looked at how savvy the generation of post Harry Potter readers were. Having post Harry Potter kids of my own who by their early teens were watching TV shows such as ‘Skins’, ‘Inbetweeners’ and ‘Waterloo Road’, I realised that there was little in the YA literature market that addressed the reader at this level of maturity.
I also thought back to what I wanted to read as a teenager (once I’d gone beyond Alan Garner and Lord of the Rings). There was not a YA market as such then, so I would turn to some of the things my parents were reading. I devoured Harold Robbins and the sexiness he pioneered, turning to the pages that opened when I held the spine. I loved the 60’s coolness of Len Deighton’s thrillers and his hero Harry Palmer, I also enjoyed the glamour and pill-popping of Jaqueline Suzanne’s Valley of the Dolls.
I worked on the basis that some of these themes would still be of interest to a contemporary teenage reader. I came up with Long Reach.
I wanted my hero to be rough around the edges, not a flashy, Bond type hero, but someone from the suburbs with whom the reader could easily identify. Like Harry Palmer, he would always be under pressure from his bosses, good with girls, a sharp dresser – and he can cook.
I made him seventeen going on eighteen, where some things were becoming legal to him and others not. I gave him an uncertain moral compass, so that the decisions he makes are not always the right ones.
I wanted to throw him in at the deep end of a very adult world to see how he survives. In contrast to the fantasy world, I wanted to set him in a gritty reality. South London, where I had lived for a long time, was gritty enough.
I called him Eddie Savage. Like Harry Palmer, it is not his real name.
I decided to write in the first person, so the reader would always have Eddie’s perpective on the world he enters. However, I didn’t want to portray him as just a ‘lad’. I made him quite complex; he is tough but sensitive, emotional, in need of love. His mood is always present and we hear his thoughts and feel his pain. I think this combination makes him equally popular with male and female readers. One said: ‘You will either want him to be your best mate or date him’. Of course, this was an attempt to channel my teenage self.
I set out to write Long Reach at an adult level, but with a teen protagonist. I kept the style simple and choppy, keeping chapters short. I felt this would work for teen readers, but none of our attention spans are as long as they were, assaulted, as we are, by fast moving media. Again, this was not a case of dumbing down, but to keep the rhythm and pace bouncing along for all readers, ending chapters wherever possible with a hook to keep the pages turning.
By placing Eddie, under cover, in the heart of a South London crime family, I put as many dangerous obstacles as I could in his way. He is recruited by an old family friend and he becomes accepted as a suitable boyfriend for the major villain’s daughter. He is caught between a rock and a hard place; although he is a dynamic character, like many young people he feels he is being manipulated by an adult world. The idea of a seventeen year old going undercover is a slight stretch of the imagination, so I put him into a very real environment with recognisable locations.
To create a separate level, I split the narrative, giving the reader an insight I to the workings of the crime family from the point of view of their bumbling, psychopathic hitman, Donnie Mulvaney. This provides a very adult and brutal point of view, but Donnie becomes Eddie’s nemesis. To put this in YA terms, Donnie is the slow killer zombie always a few steps behind Eddie.
I wanted to inject some glamour to attract both our hero and the reader. The crime world that Eddie becomes involved in is very high end; yachts and racing, fine houses, celebrities, art and champagne. To counterpoint the boxing matches and shootings, there is West End shopping and dinners in Michelin starred restaurants.
With the addition of a gorgeous girl and glamorous, predatory older women, Eddie finds himself seduced by the ‘life of crime’ in which he is submerged.
I decided not to compromise in my first draft, in terms of language, drug references or scenes of graphic violence. I am glad that my editor and publisher (respected children’s publisher, Walker Books) agreed. F-words were left in, as were razor slashings and the odd disembowelling. Only one or two more colourful phrases did not make the cut. I won’t even repeat the rejected ones here. There is sex, but it is disceetly left behind closed doors, a choice I would have made if I were writing solely for adults.
By now, I hoped I had a book that would appeal to my core audience but would have plenty to keep older readers with me. When the first blog reviews came in, I was pleased to see that I was appealing to both male and female target readers who had graduated from the fantasy genre, and that I had anticipated their need for something more reality based. Then I started reading more reviews from people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s…
I was delighted when The Guardian reviewed Long Reach both in their Young Adult in their Adult Crime section:
This high-octane thriller is aimed at young adults, but it’s written with a sophistication that puts it far above most entry-level stuff and makes it just as enthralling to adults. With strong characterisation, an intricate plot and enough tension to get the most jaded reader sweating, this is a compelling read.
I felt that I had hit the mark. So I started on the next one…
BODY BLOW, the second Eddie Savage thriller is published by Walker Books, April 5th 2012. In his next assignment, Eddie is sent undercover to southern Spain, pretending to be restaurant worker Pedro Garcia. But drugs, gangs and danger are surrounding him, and he realises that even leaving the country doesn’t get you away from the Kelly family.