British author Neil White is a criminal lawyer by day and a crime novelist by night. His books featuring reporter Jack Garrett and girlfriend DC Laura McGanity are set mostly in the Lancashire town of Blackley. White draws on his expertise and experience in the courtroom to provide reality-based fiction that has drawn acclaim from reviewers. The Blackpool Gazette hailed his first novel in the series, Fallen Idols, “a stunning debut.” Second in the series, Lost Souls, has, according to eurocrime.co.uk, “plenty of excitement, character development and tension…this book will make you squirm.” Closer Magazine called that same work “a fast-paced crime novel that will keep you guessing until the very end.”
White has published two further installments in the crime series. The Lancashire Evening Post felt that his third, Last Rites, “teems with menace, and the action builds to a terrific climax.” And White’s latest series addition, Dead Silent, is a “superb, tense, action-filled tale with lots of human interest and totally unputdownable,” according to Bookseller magazine.
Neil, it is great to have you on Scene of the Crime. Your work deserves a lot more attention on this side of the pond. Could we start out with a description of your connection to Lancashire?
My books are set in the old cotton towns of Lancashire, small mill-towns along the Leeds-Liverpool canal. I grew up in Yorkshire but moved to Lancashire to study law, and I met and married a Lancashire girl, and have lived here ever since.
Setting books in Lancashire wasn’t my original intention. I had tried writing stories set in America, just because I like American crime fiction, and the research of places far away seemed more interesting at the time. When I realised that, as an Englishman, writing books set in America was not going to get me a publishing deal, I decided to write stories set in England.
As the part of Lancashire I live in is very much of the industrial revolution, I didn’t see the character of the place at first. I saw broken down mills, terraced streets, grimy old town centre buildings, and as a Yorkshireman, I’m not sure I was willing to concede that there was anything in Lancashire worth writing about.
When I started to look properly, however, I saw that there was a lot more to the old Lancashire towns than I had appreciated. There were cobbles and grand old civic buildings, and the terraced streets brought to mind the history of the towns. There was a charm and beauty about these old towns that had previously escaped me, and looking at them through a writer’s eye has helped me appreciate more of what is around me.
What things about Lancashire make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
I’m not sure that the old Lancashire mill towns are particularly unique, in that they have many of the scars that mark a lot of former industrial areas. As physical settings, I thought they were good because there is a mix of everything. There is a certain desolation about them at times, because the main industry, textiles, was lost so recently, but also there is a certain grandeur about them, and they are often marked by the civic buildings, which are very much grand gestures made at a time when the going was good. Added to this is the fact the towns are often in the middle of pretty countryside, as they were built because of the canal, and the canal was built to travel through the Lancashire hills and make its way to Yorkshire. As the canal snakes through the valleys, the towns are built up and down the valley sides, so that they seem to cling to the hillsides, and the moorland summits never seem far from the once-smokey town centres.
I didn’t intend to make the location a “character” as such, in that I didn’t decide to present Lancashire to the world. My thinking was just that if I am going to set a story in a certain location, I have to describe it, otherwise it isn’t a setting. If I was going to make it a setting in name only, then I would be cheating.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
I try to describe the setting in the early part of the book, and then as the story develops I use certain aspects of the location. For example, in my most recent book, Dead Silent, there was a scene in a deserted wharf building, which are old cotton loading stations that line the canal. It could have just as easily been a deserted factory building or warehouse, but because the setting is an old cotton town, an old wharf building was the logical choice.
What comes first is the story. I didn’t think, “I need a scene in an old wharf”, but once I wanted a scene in a large old building, the setting determined the type of building.
How do Jack Garret and Laura McGanity interact with their surroundings? Are they natives, blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about it, boosters? And conversely, how does the setting affect them?
Crime reporter, Jack Garrett, is the local, and his partner, Laura McGanity, is the outsider. Her move north came when Jack was still living and working in London, but he moved home after the death of his father. My thinking with Jack was that he was coming home to the town that he really wanted to leave, and so he still feels a bit distant from it. Laura is a London girl, and so the North still feels too different, a bit cold and remote, but she wants to fit in because she wants to make it work with Jack.
She still has an eye on London though, because it is what she knows, but she enjoys the slower pace, the countryside.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
In terms of local reaction, it has been favourable, as far as I can tell. It seems that people like to read books set in their home area, even if the descriptions are not particularly flattering, and I am surprised at how many people will buy a book just because it is set in their home town.
Further afield, my second book, Lost Souls, has been published in German, but I have not had any feedback from Germany in relation to the locations. I have had emails from people in Canada and Australia, but they have been mainly ex-pats who have enjoyed them because they remind them of home.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I’ve been able to avoid the location goofs because I use two fictional towns called Turners Fold and Blackley, Turners Fold being Jack Garrett’s home-town, which is the little brother to Blackley, where most of the action takes place. Blackley is a mix of Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, which allows me to pick landmarks that suit the plot. For example, although Blackley is based mainly on Blackburn, an important landmark in my second book, Lost Souls, was a large viaduct that runs through Blackley, which is based on a highly visible feature of Accrington.
The main goof that comes to mind shows the rule that cheats never prosper.
A lot of the wharf buildings have wooden canopies that hang over the canal, that would have kept the cotton bales and textiles dry when they were being unloaded and loaded. These tend to be painted in a very light blue, reminiscent of the clapboard buildings you find in Cape Cod. A Nantucket blue, if you like. I described it as “robin’s-egg blue” in the passage I have selected below, until a reader contacted me and told me that the eggs of European robins are brown, and it is only the American robins that have eggs that are light blue. I had to confess then to pinching the phrase from one of my favourite books, Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella (it was turned into a Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams). As I said, cheats never prosper.
Of the Lancashire novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
So far, the four books have all shown the different aspects of the location. My first book, Fallen Idols, was based mainly in the smaller town of Turner Fold, which has more faded country glory than run-down industry. My second book, Lost Souls, was based in Blackley, and was very much about the former industrial area. My third book, Last Rites, took the reader to the wilder open country around Pendle Hill as well as the urban setting of Blackley, whereas my fourth book, Dead Silent, tried to show some of the grandeur of Blackley, as well as the grittier aspects.
In thinking of a passage to illustrate the setting, I have chosen one from the third chapter of my second book, Lost Souls:
“Sam could see the canal that flowed past the end of the street. The towpath was overgrown with long pennine grasses, and ripples in the water twinkled like starbursts as they caught the early-morning sun. The old wharf-buildings were still there, three-storey stone blocks with large wooden canopies painted robin’s-egg blue that hung over the water, but they were converted into offices now. The sounds of the new day filled the car, the whistles of the morning birds as they swooped from roof to roof, the rustle of leaves and litter as they blew along the towpath. It was heritage Lancashire, lost industry repackaged as character.
“But it was the only bright spot. The factories and mill buildings further along the canal were empty, stripped of their pipes and cables by thieves who traded them in for scrap, left to rot with broken windows and paint-splattered walls. Those that were bulldozed away were replaced by housing estates and retail parks.
“Blackley was in a valley. A viaduct carried the railway between the hills, high millstone arches that cast shadows and echoed with the sound of the trains that rumbled towards the coast. Redbrick terraced streets ran up the hills around the town centre, steep and tight, the lines broken only by the domes and minarets of the local mosques, the luscious grees and coppers bright dots of colour in a drab Victorian grid.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
W.P. Kinsella was the main one, although he doesn’t write in the crime genre. He specialises in whimsical baseball tales set in the American mid-West, and I really liked how he brought to life these small clapboard towns, and I wanted to do a similar thing, but in a northern England setting.
What’s next for your protagonist?
Many more thrills and spills in the hills and terraces of Blackley.
Neil, thanks for taking time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Neil White, see his homepage.