My latest book to be published in the UK, Spider Trap, is the ninth in the series featuring Metropolitan Police detectives, DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. Two young women are found murdered in Cockpit Lane, in inner city south London, and the investigation uncovers more human remains nearby, dating back to the Brixton riots of the 1980s. This was an area where Brock had worked at an earlier stage in his career, and the case takes him back into the West Indian community and the gangsters that prey on it, in particular the crime family of Spider Roach, an old adversary.
Each of the Brock and Kolla novels is set in a different part of London, and that’s really how I begin to develop a story, by searching out a corner of the city that intrigues me, and where I can begin to build up a cast of characters and think about the kind of stories and crimes they might be caught up in. I think the setting is very important in crime fiction especially, for establishing atmosphere and developing a tight plot. In this case I became interested in the Brixton area because I went to school not far from there, and when I came to revisit it I was fascinated by the way it had changed from how I remembered it. I explored it myself, and also with the local police, which opened my eyes to a different perspective. Cockpit Lane and its characters was my attempt to distill what I saw.
When I think of the crime writers who influenced me, Simenon stands out as an early influence. His detective, Maigret, doesn’t solve the crime by unravelling ingenious clues, like the classic English writers, nor by kicking the door down with gun in hand, like the Americans. Rather, he spends a lot of time, often hanging around in bars, getting to understand the psychology of the characters he meets, and figuring out their back stories. I like back stories with depth, which can give an interesting historical perspective to the contemporary drama. In Spider Trap the back story involves the migration of Jamaicans to London, and the circumstances of the Brixton riots. One of the central characters is the young, ambitious, black MP for the district in which the murders take place, and we learn his own story of escape as a boy from the Dungle, a notorious slum in Kingston, Jamaica, to come to London and make good. As an MP he has to reconcile his new life in the Palace of Westminster with the reality of life in his constituency across the river.
I think a devious plot is one of the great pleasures of crime fiction, with all the surprises, twists and reversals that can bring to a story. As Chandler said, violence is a useful tool to move the plot along, and I certainly build to a violent confrontation in Spider Trap. But I think the threat and anticipation of violent action is as effective as the gory stuff in crafting a good story.
Crucially, we have to be presented with characters who engage us and make us really want to find out how they will respond and survive the trials they go through. That’s what crime fiction is, isn’t it? Interesting characters being faced with extreme circumstances. I deliberately chose a male and a female detective as my central protagonists to provide two different points of view of the unfolding events. They each have their personal relationships going on alongside the investigation, and these are important in revealing their personalities, particularly for readers who have been following their development. But all the time I have to remember that the pace of the main story is crucial. As with violence, sexual tension is there to heighten the narrative drive.
The next Brock and Kolla novel, Dark Mirror, will be set in a very different setting from Brixton, in the scholarly calm of the London Library, a venerable institution in London’s West End, where a young woman researching the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of nineteenth century poets and painters collapses and suffers an excruciating death by poison…
Spider Trap is published by Arcadia Books, ISBN 9781906413378