Come on, TV bosses. Turn new Essex crime story into a TV drama!
- Credit: Archant
The question: if executives turned your book into a TV series, who would you like to see playing your main character? Tom Hiddleston?
Author James Henry’s new leading character is the modest, not-trendy but very capable Detective Inspector Nick Lowry, lynchpin of Colchester CID. Married to an adulterous and somewhat wild nurse, he’s heading towards his 40th birthday, has managed to ease himself out of the police boxing team (in favour of bird-watching) and is battling to quit smoking.
The author, who says he’d be delighted if the policeman made the leap to the small screen, mulls the question about who might play the part, should a TV channel fancy adapting his stories.
“I suppose Lowry’s meant to be quite reserved and cool; sort of the equivalent of a Don Draper type. (Draper, who also had a troubled life, was a top 1960s advertising director on Madison Avenue in the TV series Mad Men.) I can’t think who that would be in an English show… I don’t watch telly, so I couldn’t tell you a telly person.
“What’s Jude Law look like now? Possibly... I always remember him in The Talented Mr Ripley. Tom Hiddleston? Possibly…” He’s the man of the moment. “But he’s probably not big enough, is he? That’s why he won’t get Bond.” James Bond, that is – once Daniel Craig decides he’s had enough.
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But all this is speculative. Lowry is for now a character in the 500 or so pages of Blackwater, the first in an anticipated Essex-based crime series that almost oozes river mud.
The story is set in the cold and misty first week of 1983, with 50kg of powerful powdered drugs heading for Britain’s oldest recorded town. There’s trouble on sleepy Mersea Island, death in the shadow of Colchester Castle, and murder on the Greenstead estate.
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Helping Lowry deal with it all are fast-tracked university graduate Det Con Daniel Kenton (floppy hair, out-of-place orange convertible sports car) and well-connected rawish recruit WPc Jane Gabriel, whose youthfulness and beauty turn heads at the Queen Street nick.
For good measure, there’s violence in the high street and tension between the police and the army chiefs on the other side of Southway. And there’s Sparks, Lowry’s boss – a boxing-mad chief superintendent caught on the cusp of the older ways (where it’s sort of all right to bash a prisoner) and the arrival of new regulations and modern practices (not to mention computers). For James, it was something of a familiar beat. For as those hardened Queen Street detectives might say, he’s got form – having written a handful of DI Jack Frost prequels. (Frost is one of those literary detectives who, after being sanitised, found his way to TV – immortalised, of course, by David Jason.)
James was born in Essex in 1968. He lived near Canvey Island until the age of about seven. Then his parents worked in the Middle East for a couple of years. Secondary school was spent in Billericay.
“I didn’t prosper at school. I got loads of O-levels but flunked my A-levels completely,” he says, sitting in the garden of his house which is near both Colchester and the fictional Great Tey home of DI Lowry.
Not that he wasn’t bookish. “I read all my own stuff. They were teaching me one thing and I was going to Dillons in Basildon and looking out for the Penguin Classics.
“I just went through the spines. I read a lot of French stuff, like Camus, Sartre. I went through a lot of early 20th Century stuff, like Malcolm Lowry (hence the DI’s surname), Aldous Huxley. Thomas Mann was a big favourite. And I went through a big phase of Russians, like Turgenev, Dostoyevsky.
“I discovered all this just as I was in the process of failing my English A-level!”
School got him a job as an accounts assistant for the National Union of Teachers, and he went to night school. At 18 he was a credit controller with cinema advertising giant Pearl & Dean, and a little later found himself running an accounts department from a demountable hut in Whitechapel – working opposite The Blind Beggar pub, woven into the history of the Krays. He used to have a minder when going to get the money just off Mile End Road to pay people their weekly wages. Talk about the University of Life.
At 20 he landed a finance department job in Essex at what was then Tiptree Book Service, a big distribution arm that was part of publisher Random House.
Confession time: the main reason for coming to Tiptree was because the business knocked off at 1pm on Fridays. “I’d started windsurfing by then and could get down to Mersea (Island). That’s the reason I did it!”
Sod’s law meant it wasn’t long before management changes took him down to London to work. James “eventually” qualified as an accountant and in 2002 switched “by chance” to the editorial side of the publishing industry.
He moved on to Constable & Robinson and in 2009 founded its Corsair imprint. His job title these days is “publisher”, with an office on Victoria Embankment. Mind you, it sounds as if he’d prefer to walk barefoot over hot coals than shout about it. For James would rather like to keep these two sides of his life separate – publisher and author. Like many writers, he reckons he’s an introvert uneasy about being public property – which is why you won’t find his holiday snaps plastered all over Facebook.
And his name is a pseudonym, too.
James, who has a partner and daughter, doesn’t even like writing his book-jacket biographies “in case I come across as smarmy.
“I suppose I see it” – authorship – “as a job. I’m methodical about the writing and I keep it at a distance.
“I’m quite retiring. I never did publicity for Frost. I just don’t like doing it, or talking about the day-job. The publishing world is so tiny. The writing I don’t mind talking about because I’m a step removed from it. I can talk to you here, because you’ve come round the house and you’ve got a trusting face. Book stuff is difficult, because you write something you think is interesting and you just don’t know… and someone else has to have a look at it.”
Sounds like he prefers to be on a beach, a warm wind blowing, than shooting the breeze about the book world. “I do!”
James insists he had no burning desire to be a writer.
The DI Frost prequels began when friend Henry Sutton (who teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia) wanted to write crime stories. James knew the agent of the estate of Frost creator RD Wingfield, who died in 2007, and the publisher. They agreed with the idea of a book about the detective’s early days. “We ended up doing it together.” First Frost came out in 2010. The second one he did on his own. It took seven months. Then came a third. All being well, a fourth prequel – Frost at Midnight – will next year join First Frost, Fatal Frost and Morning Frost on the bookshelves. Writing them has, he says, been a real privilege.
James wanted to write about somewhere he knew – Colchester, Mersea, Fingringhoe, Tiptree – and liked the period, because he grew up in the 1980s.
“I was 12 when it started and 22 when it finished, and for me it was the decade that was my defining period. At that time you’re more attuned to what kind of shoes people are wearing than what’s going on in the South Atlantic. That’s the time you don’t have all the big worries.”
For me, the novel does feel rooted in the area, and certainly authentic.
He says he’s simply drawn on things he’s heard since moving to the district. “Nothing more sophisticated than that. The stuff about boxing, a mate told me about that on the beach, when we were windsurfing.
“There was a famous police chief in the ’30s who ran this European-standard boxing team. And my mate on the beach used to play saxophone. The military stuff I knew because one of my mates was a bandsman (in the army) and got made redundant. He played alto sax. (As does a key character.)
“I go windsurfing off West Mersea, so I know what the marshes are like, and it was famous for smuggling.” James also knew of the historical friction that had sometimes flared between the civilian population and those they called the squaddies.
He did speak to a guy who worked in Colchester CID, and, generally, people on the fringe of things. Having harvested the essence of truth, he was set.
“If you get bogged down in detail, you’ll never write anything. I had a sense of it from people who were there in that time frame, but that was it.”
It is an interesting era, the early 1980s – the winds of change are blowing and the old guard can feel themselves being buffeted.
“When I moved here from Billericay, it did seem a long way away. It was ‘older’. The most obvious thing I noticed was the cars were a lot older in 1990. Billericay was more affluent. Colchester was its own place. It was at a remove, really.”
Because policing at that time was very much a male-dominated environment, he wanted the women to be stronger in other ways. Lowry’s wife and her friend are pretty firm about what they want, for instance. James was keen to explore that policeman/nurse relationship, feeling it hadn’t really been done before. “Their shifts meant they were like ships passing in the night.” He grins. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to her!” he says of Jacqui. Mrs Lowry. “She’s a bit lively!”
What kind of buzz does writing give him? He chuckles at the question. “I like it when I come up with a good twist. That is the thrill of doing it. Writing something so someone can’t see what’s coming, so it’s a surprise.
“But most of the time it’s the anxiety of thinking ‘How am I actually going to do this without making it too complicated?’” For writing crime is difficult, he says. Plots can be intricate, and you have to work to keep readers engaged. But he does enjoy it. Blackwater took a lot longer than the Frosts, as he had to get characters and tone right. The writing was done over two or three years, on the train and sometimes at weekends. James tends to read book submissions on one leg of his commutes and write his fiction on the other.
Writing on the trip to Liverpool Street is what prompted him to buy a laptop. “I’ve got an appalling attention span. The train’s ideal, because you can’t go anywhere!”
He hopes there will be at least two more titles in the series, and is just starting out on the second book. Occupying his thoughts at the moment is the question of how much time should have passed since the events of 1983.
I’d like to read more – and see TV picking it up, and doing for very-real Colchester what A Touch of Frost did for the fictional town of Denton. Colchester’s history gives the place substance, and the environs offer visually-great landscapes.
The author wouldn’t disagree. “It’s very atmospheric. The relationship between the police and the army hasn’t been done. I think there’s enough going on for a telly series. But then every writer thinks his stuff is good for TV.
“I’ve heard tell that the military police have got hold of a copy, so I don’t know what they’ll think!”
I tell you another thing: DI Lowry would doubtless be amused to learn that the freezing and leaky old police station in Queen Street has just been transformed into a new creative and digital business centre.
“Good riddance,” you can imagine him saying, while also patting the grimy brickwork one last time.
Blackwater is published by riverrun (Quercus) at £12.99.