Martin Edwards is a partner in a law firm as well as an award-winning novelist. You’re Booked puts him in the dock with our Q&A.
Are you a partner in a firm of solicitors who just happens to write novels – or a novelist primarily who just needs a well paid day job?A novelist first and foremost!
It’s interesting how you juggle the two. Did you always want to write or did this urge come later in life?
I always wanted to be a novelist – and specifically a crime novelist – but of course I needed to pay the mortgage as well, and I was lucky enough to find that I enjoyed being a lawyer, and enjoyed writing about the law. My first four books were on legal topics, simply because it was easier to get published with non-fiction than fiction.
The assumption perhaps would be you do criminal law, but you do employment law. How does your job feed into your fiction? Or did you feel the need to write fiction to fulfil parts that your job can’t?
Criminal law is academically interesting, but I would never want to do it in practice. Rapists, paedophiles and muggers most certainly have to be defended in a civilised society – but not by me. Employment law is fascinating both intellectually and practically. It is a fast moving field, and has plenty of social and political significance – strikes, discrimination, working conditions; these things are relevant to most people in some way. Above all, employment law involves understanding and trying to solve issues arising in human relationships. This is where the link with the concerns of the novelist comes in, rather than in the technical legal subject matter. Though employment lawyers did feature to some extent in my stand-alone novel of psychological suspense, Take My Breath Away. It’s my least well-known book, which probably tells you something!
Do you project an alter-ego into your fiction?
Some people have suggested that Harry Devlin, the Liverpool lawyer who appeared in my first seven novels and later inWaterloo Sunset, is a fictionalised version of me. All I can say is, thank God he isn’t! But I do enjoy writing about Harry and his misadventures. Waterloo Sunset in particular was a joy to write.
The law (whether employment law or criminal) is supposedly about justice – do you think becoming a solicitor (and a crime writer) comes from a need to address injustice – or is that an idealised notion?
Justice is important to me, and to Harry, and being involved with opportunities to see justice done is one of the appeals of being a lawyer. But you have to be realistic about what is achievable. You have to act in your client’s best interests, whether you approve of your client personally or not. I wrote a novel about Dr Crippen, Dancing With The Hangman, which tackles the question of justice head-on, and I found it a wonderful experience to research and write that particular story. It was very different from my other work, but I always believed in the story, and the reviews were tremendously gratifying.
You quoted Rankin on your site saying the crime novel can be the perfect tool for the dissection of society, is that your motivation for writing (especially as a lawyer?)
There are plenty of possibilities with a novel for the dissection of society, but perhaps even more if you write a series. My Liverpool series showed a fascinating city in transition over a period of years. My series set in the Lake District deals, perhaps more broadly, with the tensions between urban society and rural tradition, and the pressures on the countryside and rural ways of life in England. This is especially the case in the fourth and latest book in the series, The Serpent Pool. I’ve been interested in the positive way overseas readers have responded to the ‘Englishness’ of the books. I enjoy this aspect of writing, but I also enjoy the delineation and exploration of character, and creating a complex and unusual mystery. Above all, I like telling enjoyable stories – I genuinely find it exciting to write the last few chapters, when all becomes clear. At least, I enjoy the stories, and I hope other people do as well.
Which is weirder – real life or fiction?
Real life, definitely!
Did being published live up to your expectations? I guess many wannabe writers probably think once you’re published that’s it – the rest of your life you’re sat on a veranda with a typewriter?
Absolutely it lived up to my expectations. I really love being a published novelist, and the chance to meet readers and other writers is a dream come true. But of course, it’s almost as hard these days to remain published as it is to become published in the first place. There are many fine writers, both here and in the US, who are currently without a publishing contract and I think that is very regrettable. The difficulty is that when there are so many books, it’s not easy to attract attention if you don’t have a massive publicity budget. I’ve been lucky to receive kind reviews throughout my career, and that does help, but I also have a website, and a blog, which help to raise my profile. And rightly or wrongly, these things do matter.
You’ve written articles on your website on how to write crime fiction – do you think you can teach people how to write?
No, but I’m often asked for writing tips and I thought it would be easier to be able to direct people to material on my website! I aim to expand these thoughts on the writing process – that’s all they are – from time to time.
Did you ever use writing guides or have taken creative writing classes?
I’ve read nearly every ‘how to write crime fiction’ book ever written, and there are now two or three which refer to me and my writing! Obviously the value of teach-yourself books is limited, but this doesn’t mean they are a complete waste of time. I find it fascinating to learn how other writers work, even if their methods differ from mine. I’ve never been to a creative writing class, though that’s not because I am scornful of them. Before I was published, I was a member of a writers’ group, and I am still in touch with them. .
For a writer unfamiliar with legal procedures, is it really necessary to be aware of them – even police procedurals or courtroom dramas are after all just stories?
I think it’s desirable to avoid making mistakes. So if you are going to write about a legal topic, it’s sensible to research it (and I researched Dancing With The Hangman, for instance, with enormous care.). But you can write a good novel which skirts round stuff you don’t want to research – for instance, police or courtroom procedure, if you find that boring. You can be selective, and focus on subjects you do know enough about to write confidently and without error. But when mistakes are made, it grates, and can lose you readers. I once watched a TV series about an employment lawyer which was hopelessly inaccurate. Though I have to admit that many employment lawyers watched it, simply to amuse themselves at the expense of the actors and script writer.
Is there a danger that a writer can get too embroiled in the mechanics of criminal justice? I guess solicitors are quite obsessed with details and facts – how can this help or hinder writing fiction?
Because my first non-fiction work was about the law, it needed to be accurate as well as being readable – quite a difficult trick to pull off. Fiction needs to be accurate in a very different way – it’s about plausibility of story and character. The craft of writing fiction requires differing skills. I enjoy both disciplines, but I prefer fiction, which offers so much more scope for imagination and escapism. A lawyer who wrote fiction in a lawyerly and technical way would, I suspect, not appeal to too many readers. One of my favourite early reviews came from Marcel Berlins in The Guardian, who said I was one of the few lawyers who wrote terrific crime novels, and in real-life language, or words to that effect. I was very grateful for that.
Justice can be achieved in the pages of a crime novel, but does that reflect real life?
Justice seems to me to happen almost randomly in real life, and not as often as I’d like in an ideal world. But then, we don’t live in an ideal world. Traditionally, in the conventional detective story, justice was almost always done in some form or another. Now the approach of writers is sometimes more sophisticated, or at least involves resolving stories in a more random way than was acceptable in the past. So perhaps real life and fiction are converging a little. But only a little. Ultimately, a writer can control what happens in his or her book (or, arguably, at least the editor can!) In real life, you can’t control what happens, however hard you try – and that seems to me to be both one of the charms and frustrations of real life.
The law is an ass. Discuss!
Law can be, and should be, a force for good in any society. You can’t do without law. But it is a huge mistake to believe that legislation can solve every problem, and crazy to legislate obsessively without allowing laws time to become accepted and generally observed. It is a mistake which the last government made many times – how can it make sense to create many thousands of new criminal offences in the space of thirteen years? Had the last government concentrated on fewer and better laws (and some of its legislation was good) then it would have left a stronger and more honourable legacy, instead of a load of legislation that is a real mess and has no chance of standing the test of time.
Find out more about Martin, his writing tips and latest releases at his website, click here.