Nick Oldham follows the old dictum of writing what you know. He spent thirty years in various positions in the Lancashire Constabulary before retiring in 2005 to write full time. He has written eighteen well regarded police procedurals in the DCI Henry Christie series, novels set mostly in Blackpool, England. “A flawed and very human hero, inside-the-cop-shop politics, heart-pounding suspense, and gritty realism are trademarks of Oldham’s excellent Henry Christie series” noted Booklist of these works. “Gritty and precise” is how the London Times described the series, while Kirkus Reviews dubbed these works “splendid British procedural[s] with complex plotting.”
Oldham’s series begins with the 1996 title, A Time for Justice, and continues through Fighting for the Dead, which will be out at the end of the year. Also published in the U.S. in 2012, Instinct offers “unexpected twists, a multifaceted plot, multiple subplots, and even a bit of romance,” according to Booklist.
Most of my crime novels are set in the famous seaside resort of Blackpool, on the Lancashire coast in the northwest of England. I don’t actually live there – maybe 12 miles away now – but I came to know the place when I was a police officer in Lancashire, which I was for thirty years. Although I was never posted there, I spent quite a lot of time there for various reasons, such as to police political conferences and regularly, during my time on the Support Unit, to police the resort for public order/crime problems – of which there are many.
Even before I started writing – although the idea of being a writer was with me probably since I was a teenager – I thought that using Blackpool would be a good setting for thrillers and my time as a cop only served to confirm this.
I still visit the resort regularly.
What things about Blackpool make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Blackpool is a great setting for crime thrillers. It is a people magnet, drawing well over ten million tourists in each year (and that figure used to be 18 million) and has a very transient population, with a surge in the summer months – obviously – and a lull in winter. There is a 200 metre-wide seafront strip called the Golden Mile, running north to south in which most of this population finds itself and in which most of the action in Blackpool happens. It is a place teeming with amusement arcades, cafes, and tourist attractions, iffy clubs and pubs and includes three piers – and of course Blackpool Tower, Britain’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, though not as romantic. The resort is very adept at separating visitors from their hard earned cash, although as the economy suffers, so does Blackpool and as a result becomes seedier and seedier in many places.
Inland, there are also some pockets of deprivation and some of the council estates are amongst the poorest in the country, often sitting adjacent to a middle class wealth – and there is a lot of that in Blackpool too. I love the contrast which can be used to create friction in fiction (sorry).
Because of this drifting population, much of the crime committed within the resort – such as murder and serious assaults – are very difficult to solve for the police as they are often committed by people who are only in town for a short time. It is also a lure for people on the run, from vulnerable youngsters to criminals who are hiding out and want to do so in an anonymous setting. The younger ones are ripe for being abused by older people, sadly.
It does have its moments as a murder capital and the offence is one that happens regularly on the streets and in the boarding houses. I recall working there one year in the mid-1980’s when there were 14 murders there in the first six months, though this is a record I don’t think it has achieved since.
Did you consciously set out to use Blackpool as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Yes, I consciously set out to use Blackpool as a background character in my books from the first and in so doing, it became a living, breathing thing, puffing away against the fictional characters in the books. Sometimes it’s like a demon, sometime like a reassuring friend, but always something – or someone – to be a bit wary of, because it can change faster than the tide, suck you in and spit you out.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
I think the action in my books unfolds naturally against the location, and although I’m not a slave to geography I also quite like to be accurate in some respects – such as for car chases and foot pursuits because I like to think that if a reader was interested enough, they could actually get out a street map and follow the action, which again adds to authenticity.
How does your protagonist, DCI Henry Christie, interact with his surroundings?
Although not born and bred in Blackpool, Christie is a Lancashire lad and has worked on the streets of the resort for the bulk of his service. He knows it intimately, he knows its denizens intimately and he gets a real buzz from working there. He feels as though he was put on this earth to investigate murder, and fight for the dead, and Blackpool provides him with many opportunities for this.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Local reaction to the books is very positive and I do very well in the libraries on the coast and my ‘chats’ are usually well attended. In fact I once did a triple header with two other writers at Blackpool’s main library (they shall remain nameless but were far better known than me) but at the end of the talk there was a queue of about a dozen people for my books to be signed and not a one for the other writers – am I OK to report this gloat?
I’ve recently had a three-quarter page article published in the Blackpool Gazette, the main evening newspaper on the Fylde coast and am hoping for some coverage in the book pages of the two big glossy magazines that cover Lancashire.
They’ve yet to be published in Cantonese!
Whilst I have never regretted the fact that I use real locations for my books, which I think give them a gritty authenticity, I have to admit that I am not a slave to geography and will gladly move buildings to suit the story. I don’t mind relocating a petrol station, say, to enable a car chase to become more exciting. I don’t think I’ve made any particular goofs unknowingly but there are probably continuity errors in the books themselves, now at number 18 in the series. Again, I’m not a great slave to detail and if I think it’s right, I’ll write it, even if something doesn’t match up from a previous book.
The hardest thing to do is keep up to date with all the changes in police procedure and law, but I try.
Of the Christie 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?
This passage is from my second novel, Nightmare City, which sums up what I’ve been saying about the resort. It’s at the start of a chapter early in the book when Henry is on his way to deal with the murder of a prostitute found on the beach and is mulling over what the resort means to him as a detective.
“There is one thing about Blackpool, Henry Christie thought whilst driving south down the sea-front. It is never a dull place.
“Completely unique. The world’s busiest, brashest, trashiest resort, attracting floods of tourists every year. It is a finely tuned machine, expertly geared to separating them from their hard-earned dough.
“Even in the low season when all the residents – police included – can take midweek breathers, the weekends draw in thousands of day-trippers, eager to enjoy themselves and throw their money away.
“The public face of Blackpool is that of a happy-go-lucky place where everything is perfect: funfairs, candyfloss, the Tower, the Illuminations and children’s laughter.
“Henry Christie rarely saw this side of Blackpool.
“He dealt with the flipside which most people never experience but which, as a cop, he could not avoid. There was the massive and continually expanding drug culture and the criminal manifestations behind it – burglary, theft, violent robberies and overdoses; each weekend the influx of visitors who attended the nightclubs left a legacy of serious assaults by itinerant, untraceable offenders; there was the growing problem of child sex and pornography; and the explosion of a huge gay culture had brought its own problems to Blackpool, related more to the prejudice of others, resulting in many gays being the subject of beatings or even rape by heterosexual males.
“Then, of course, there was murder.
Murder was a frequent visitor to Blackpool.”
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?
The great influences for me are Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins and Wilbur Smith – with a lot of Ian Fleming in there, too. I still re-read their books regularly. I do like American writers and have just discovered CJ Box, and enjoy his use of the wide, wild spaces in America – which become characters in their own right – and love his protagonist Joe Pickett, kind of laconic, even a bit slow-witted on the surface, but underneath he’s as sharp as a knife used to skin bears.
I have also just rediscovered Carl Hiassen, one of the funniest writers going.
All the above evoke a spirit of place, whether it be war torn Africa or whacky Florida and show, to me, just how important location is to the overall feeling of a book.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I enjoy living in Lancashire, a wonderful county with a varied and exciting history and geography and to be honest I don’t feel the pull to live anywhere else. That said, I enjoy the sun on my back – not a daily occurrence in the north of England – and like spending time abroad. I am particularly fond of the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria in particular, and would like to spend extended periods of time there – a month now and again, maybe – rather than live there full time. The Canaries are so varied, each one totally different than its neighbor, but Gran Canaria has it all – wonderful beaches and a magnificent hinterland, full of breath-taking scenery. So I’d go there, if anywhere. Love the paella, too.
What’s next for you?
Having just submitted my 18th Henry Christie novel – Fighting for the Dead – I’m having a few days off, then am going to begin the 19th, which is the last book I’m contracted to deliver. Beyond that, I would like to carry on writing the novels and I’m keen to take Henry on, maybe beyond the police (he can retire any time now) and also explore his earlier years in the job when he was a uniformed constable on the crime car in East Lancashire. Lots of ideas, not enough time – usual story!
Nick, thanks for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Nick Oldham, visit his homepage. http://nickoldham.net/