Maureen Carter is the author of the critically acclaimed DS Bev Morriss crime series, seven books strong, and the police procedural featuring reporter Caroline King and DI Sarah Quinn. Former BBC news presenter Carter began her DS Bev Morriss series with the 2004 Working Girls, a title about which Reviewing the Evidence declared, “Carter can do dialogue… the writing has bounce and energy, as befits a journalist.” This was followed with Dead Old, Baby Love, and Hard Time, which Eurocrime praised for its “no-nonsense pared down style which combined with an action filled plot leaves the reader gasping for breath and turning the pages.” Then came Bad Press, Blood Money, and Deathline.
Carter’s DI Quinn series kicked off with the 2011 Question of Despair, of which Library Journal said, ” Crisply written with an electric pace – this story won’t soon leave you.” Mother Love followed, then with then this year’s Dying Bad.
Maureen, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to Scene of the Crime. Let’s start things off with a discussion of your connection to particular crime scene, Birmingham. How did you come to live there or become interested in it?
I first came to Birmingham to work as a young reporter on one of the country’s first commercial radio stations: BRMB. Previously, I’d worked on newspapers in the Midlands and Surrey, and moved to the second city during the long hot summer of 1976. In those days I drove a soft top MG Midget and remember driving with the hood down for weeks. The radio station was just along the road from a brewery and the HP sauce factory. Believe me, it was a heady mix when the wind was in the right – or wrong – direction. After eighteen months or so, I joined the BBC at Pebble Mill and spent the better part of twenty years in TV news as – variously – a reporter, presenter and producer. Being an on-the-road journalist is possibly the best way to explore and really get to know places. Nearly forty years on – apart from stints in London – I’m still here and consider Birmingham my adopted home.
What things about Birmingham make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Birmingham is the UK’s second city. Outside London, it has the biggest population, the biggest police service, the biggest local authority. Walk down virtually any street, you’ll hear dozens of languages and encounter people from all over the world who’ve made Birmingham their home. Vast, complex, full of extremes, on one hand the city’s vibrant, buzzing, beautiful on the other, there are mean streets, back streets, tower blocks and sprawling estates. From the Bullring and Brindley Place to inner city rat runs and net-curtained suburbia, the city provides me with almost countless backdrops and characters for my stories. Add to all this, Birmingham has more acres of parkland than any European city and – it really is true – more miles of canals than Venice!
Working and living in Birmingham, it made no sense either to create a fictional place or set my novels in a different city. I’d worked the streets as it were, interviewed hundreds of its citizens from all walks of life and knew Birmingham like the back of my proverbial hand. There was an element of bloody-mindedness, too. Before I was published – and since – several people told me Birmingham was an awful place to set fiction; the city was unpopular, people didn’t like it or the accent; using Birmingham would ‘turn-off’ readers. I chose the city in spite of the so-called advice. Only people who don’t know Birmingham or haven’t visited it for years could possibly hold that opinion. As well as that, there was very little crime writing coming out of the city – so I set out to put Birmingham on the crime fiction map. I’m still working on it!
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
Every location within the city provides a tableau against which the reader visualizes the action. It can be a scruffy bed-sit or plush hotel; a canal bank or a playground; railway cutting or hospital ward; pub or police station. How much attention I pay to it depends on the scene. Often I have a specific house/street/building in mind. I see the action unfolding like a film sequence: start with a wide shot, then zoom in for the close-up: a twisted body perhaps; a victim cowering in a corner; a vital piece of evidence. If I’m using a real location or building – maybe a crime scene I covered as a reporter – I’ll always lace it with imagination. In Dead Old for instance, a woman’s body’s found in a park near Bev’s home and she’s called to investigate. I was called out as a reporter when a body was found in a park just a couple of streets from where I lived. The victim had been picking flowers and daffodils were scattered around the body; the image stayed in my mind for years and formed the seed for the novel – no pun intended.
DS Bev Morriss is a born and bred Brummie. She was born there, went to school there, went fishing with her dad down the Worcester and Birmingham canal. She loves the place, loves the people; defends it to the hilt. In the early books she lived in a Balsall Heath maisonette and has now progressed to a redbrick terrace in Moseley. She knows the best pubs, restaurants and wine bars. She revels in keeping the bad guys off the streets she loves. Ironically, I don’t hear Bev as having a Birmingham accent. Like any great communicator, she’s a vocal chameleon who’ll try to match her voice and delivery to whoever she’s with. In my new series, also set in Birmingham, featuring DI Sarah Quinn and journalist Caroline King – only Caroline is a native on the city, though she got out at the earliest opportunity. DI Quinn is a blow-in from London. As to whether she loves the city – her jury’s still out.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
The Birmingham readers I meet are really enthusiastic about the books being setting in the city. At readings and author events, they tell me how they love the fact they know most of the locations, the pubs, the wine bars. Some feel genuinely aggrieved, that the city isn’t portrayed more in books and on TV. I felt I’d really achieved something though when I was invited to talk to a book club in Surrey – several members said their image of Birmingham had changed after reading my work.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I’ll sometimes uproot a building to another part of the city and call it a different name so it becomes a fact and fiction hybrid. It usually only happens if I’m painting something in a poor light or being critical. One former colleague told me I’d erroneously placed a Moseley pub in Kings Heath. The pub’s my ‘local’ so it certainly wasn’t a mistake. I told him it was journalistic license.
Of the Birmingham 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?
Going back to canals…I’m fond of a passage in A Question of Despair where DI Sarah Quinn is en route to a crime scene.
“The narrow towpath rutted with cycle tracks ran parallel to Blake Street and Small Heath park. Sarah ducked under the police tape, heading for two uniformed officers guarding the bridge fifty metres or so in the distance. The near stagnant water on her right was dark, dank, foul-smelling; occasional oil patches glinted lilac and pink. No brightly lit bistros or classy restaurants lined the canal here. Straggly nettle verges were littered with rusting cans, empty chip wrappers, used condoms.
“A tear glistening on the young constable’s cheek warned what lay ahead but nothing could have prepared Sarah. Could have prepared anyone. Touching his shoulder gently, she sidled past slowly, delaying the moment. Praying there’d been a mistake. Knowing there hadn’t.
“It was darker under the bridge. Auxiliary lighting not wuite set up. She ran her torch over the grimy brickwork, the swags of cobweb curtain; here and there dusty grey weeds sprouted among faded graffito, in the far corner a desiccated dog turd. The moment couldn’t be put off. Biting her lip, she lowered the beam, gasped as light flickered across the baby’s body. She gave an involuntary scream of anguish. Shock. Pity. Pain. And searing fury.”
Who are my favourite writers? How long have you got? Seriously, I’m a voracious reader and never without a book. Some authors don’t read fiction when they’re writing but I think if an author has a ‘distinctive’ voice, he or she isn’t going to be affected by someone else’s style. Right…I’m going to be disciplined here and name just three writers whose work I admire. I love Jim Kelly’s evocation of The Fens in his series featuring the journalist, Philip Dryden. I always look out for Elly Griffiths’ novels. Her series is set on the Norfolk coast and features forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway. Elly’s prose opens up a new landscape for me. Finally, Sarah Rayne has an enviable ability to imbue locations with a sense of menace and intrigue. Her standalone psychological novels should come with a health warning: not to be read at night when you’re alone. Seriously, the books are remarkably accomplished.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Either, close to the Camel Trail in Cornwall so that I could cycle there every day with the sea breeze in my hair and wonderful views of the estuary, or . . . a brownstone in New York. I’ve only visited the city twice – I’d very much like to explore and learn more. If you MAKE me choose – I’d go with the Camel Trail. Today!
DI Sarah Quinn next appears in a book called Dying Bad which is due out in November 2012. The story focuses on the complex issue of on-street grooming. I started writing it before recent well-documented court cases highlighted an appalling crime that’s increasing and should concern everyone.
Maureen, thanks so much for your input to Scene of the Crime, and good luck with the new series.
For more information on the works of Maureen Carter, visit her homepage.