An Interview with Howard Linskey

Article published on July 22, 2013.

‘The Dead’ is your third book. Are you getting used to the author’s life yet?

My life has changed quite a bit since my first book was published. Back then a book was finished when I said it was and only then would it go off to a publisher but the next two books came with a publishing deal, which was terrific and deadline pressure, which was less terrific. I wrote ‘The Damage’ and ‘The Dead’ while still in a demanding day job, which meant a lot of writing in the evenings and at weekends and I almost always felt knackered as a result. Now I am writing full time and feel a lot better but I have had to adjust to a shorter working day because I look after my daughter as well. Erin is seven and I love having so much time with her but I can only really write while she is at school. I’m still ludicrously busy so I don’t really know how I managed to write three David Blake novels while losing ten to twelve hours a day to a job and commute. I must have been pretty driven I suppose.

On paper, you’re one of the most macho writers in the business. Are you surprised by how diverse your fan base is?

Off-Paper I am possibly the least macho writer in the business. A number of publishers passed on ‘The Drop’ because they said it might be too ‘gritty’ for female readers and Blake was too much of a bad boy but I’ve had a great response from male and female readers alike. Women usually tell me they really like David Blake or have a crush on him and some have even said they fell in love with him, which proves the old adage about lasses liking a bad boy, in fiction at any rate. The only time I ever get a bit embarrassed about my creation is when old school friends casually tell me their granny is reading my books but it seems that even grandmothers are unshockable these days. I think there is a lot of rubbish written about people constantly finding stuff offensive. It takes a great deal to shock most of the people I know.

We gather you’re taking a break from David Blake at the moment. Care to tell us what you’re working on?

Now that the trilogy is complete, my Geordie gangsters have earned some time off. I genuinely don’t know if I will write about them again. It is entirely dependent on whether I get a strong enough idea to reanimate some of those characters in a new book one day. I don’t want to write a crap book about them just for the sake of perpetuating a gravy train but equally I know I could have an idea tomorrow that suddenly gets me excited about their possibilities again. I honestly don’t know. I’m currently trying (and I do emphasise the word trying) to write a book with a whole new set of characters. This one involves two journalists and a detective who become separately embroiled in the hunt for a missing girl and another very old murder case. The book is still a crime novel and it is set in the north east but that is about the only similarity with the David Blake stories. I await the inevitable backlash.

We love the characters in the Blake series. Do you have a favourite?

Favourite might be the wrong word, as the sleazier the character is the more I enjoy writing about him. I obviously have a soft spot for Blake and his two lieutenants, Palmer and Kinane, but the minor characters are the most fun to write; like Billy Warren, the low-life drug dealer, Jinky Smith the down-at-heel former ladies-man in ‘The Dead’, ‘Maggot’ the brothel manager and, of course, ‘Golden Boots’ my anonymous premier league footballer, who I give a proper shellacking in all three books. A lot of people have asked me who he is based on and offer up their suggestions but the truth is he is an amalgam of the worst excesses of some of the absolute numpties who have played premier league football in the past decade. I witnessed the behaviour of people like Joey Barton, Lee Bowyer, Craig Bellamy, Kieron Dyer and the execrable Nile Ranger, plus half of the bloody England team and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Golden Boots was born out of the average fan’s frustration with a bunch of vacuous, self-loving, idiotic morons who are still, inexplicably, held up as heroes by the media, advertisers and some fans. Every time I think I have gone too far with my portrayal of Golden Boots, some premier league ‘star’ adds a layer of authenticity to him by doing something unspeakably stupid. I now think of Golden Boots as an entirely believable character.

Over the arc of the series so far, you’ve made a comment on the modernisation – and globalisation – of crime. Is that something you set out to do from the outset?

Yeah, I wanted to contrast David Blake’s world with his predecessor Bobby Mahoney’s. Bobby was an old school gangster, starting out in the seventies. Back then you hit wages vans for your start-up money and invested in clubs and pubs. You operated protection rackets, prostitution rings, peddled porn and carried out armed robberies. Drugs came later and eclipsed everything. Now Blake finds himself head of an ever expanding firm that has to keep on growing in order to sustain all the pay-off and protection money it needs to keep him out of jail or the grave yard. This invariably involves paying top lawyers or clever accountants to subvert justice, not by illegal means but legal ones and I found that pretty interesting. There’s a small section in ‘The Dead’ that came about because of my research into tax avoidance and money laundering. I discovered that two of the biggest convicted money launderers in history are HSBC and Standard Chartered, both massive, ‘respectable’ banks who have paid millions in fines to the US government for laundering money, for drug cartels and the Iranian government respectively. Of course nobody went to jail. You couldn’t make that up and I didn’t.

For the first time in ‘The Dead’ you let the morality of the outside world creep in. That’s not something that tends to happen in gangster fiction, were you actively trying to break with tradition?

Not deliberately. I don’t get too hung up on any writing ‘rules’, as I don’t really know them. I have sometimes described myself as being like the bloke in the pub who can play the piano but can’t read music. I don’t always know what I am doing but it feels right and if it breaks some long-held traditions along the way then I really don’t lose any sleep over it. Reviewers have said that I have broken rules before, as if I was being deliberately daring or flouting tradition but I am not conscious of doing it. I just want to write without analysing it too much. I was keen however to make the point that David Blake feels he is not such a villain when compared to some of the supposedly legitimate people he encounters in the outside world; like dodgy politicians, bent coppers, ambitious lawyers and sleazy footballers.

No-one comes out of your books smelling of roses, but cops are particularly dodgy customers. Have you had any feedback from police officers? And based on recent news events, has your portrayal of the police been vindicated on some level?

A true story for you; I was walking towards my launch signing for ‘The Dead’ at Waterstones in Newcastle and the whole city was packed with police officers in full riot gear, as the morons from the EDL were demonstrating in the city that day. Just outside the bookshop I was stopped by a Police officer who recognised me and told me he really liked the books. He’s a very nice bloke and it was great to have a chat with him and his colleague. The officers in the books do get a negative portrayal but he didn’t mind that because he knew it was fiction. I’ve heard of other police officers reading the books and enjoying them too, because they don’t take them as an attack on real police men and women. If you think about it, everybody in the three books gets a negative portrayal, even the heroes or anti-heroes, like Blake, Palmer and Kinane. Like I said; politicians, gangsters, footballers, journalists all take a hammering as I am keen to point out that no profession is exempt from having corrupt or just plain stupid individuals within it. I think that on the whole the police do an amazing job but there are undoubtedly some officers who are corrupt, foolish or overly ambitious and the events you mention proved that. I would imagine those guys are a huge embarrassment to legitimate police officers. I am writing this on the morning that the Sunday Times exposed David Hunt as an organised crime baron in London who is alleged to have bent detectives from the Met on his payroll. Their articles read like something from one of my books. In my stories, I like the fact that I can blur the lines so you actually sympathise with my nasty, drug dealing, murdering gangster because he operates in a world filled with corrupt people who, on the face of it, claim to be honest. At least Blake knows he is bent.

When last we heard, The Drop was being optioned for TV. Can you tell us anything about that? Have you had any thoughts on actors you’d like to see involved?

The TV option has just been renewed, which is great because it shows the production company, Runaway Fridge, has faith in the books. I have left them to it to be honest as they are the experts. I know they have meetings with senior TV execs scheduled but I try not to get too excited when I hear about them because there is no way of gauging the level of interest until after the event. Hopefully one day they will make it to the screen. A lot of people have asked me about famous actors to play the roles but I’d quite like Blake to be played by an unknown, preferably Geordie, actor so we could give somebody a break. The established actors in the north east are all a bit too old to play him now I reckon.

And finally, your old pal Mike Ashley has been busy heaping embarrassment on your beloved Newcastle United again. Can we expect to see him or Joe Kinnear satirised in any future Howard Linskey novels? And how do you rate Newcastle’s prospects this season?

I am afraid Joe Kinnear is way beyond satire. Every time he opens his mouth he manages to make himself look like a complete idiot without any help from me. He’s like the senile, boastful uncle who lies a lot that everybody tries to avoid at a family wedding in case he’s already had too much of the sauce. I wouldn’t put him in charge of an ice cream van, let alone one of the biggest clubs in the country, so we have very little hope for the coming season. My books do contain references to the Toon and I’ve had lots of messages from Newcastle fans who like that. I can’t see how you can write a book set in Newcastle without making reference to the club, which is the religion up there. Everybody in the city is football mad and that is why Ashley’s ownership of the club is such a tragedy. There is absolutely no hope for Newcastle United until Mike Ashley bleeds all of his money back out of us and finally sells the club for an inflated profit. Money is the only thing that man understands. He has absolutely no class. He’s renamed our ground, insulted our former heroes, agreed a deal to put a legal loan shark on our shirts, sold good players and won’t spend any proper money on new ones. Even his own MD recently resigned in disgust. If David Blake was a real person, I’d be on the phone to him now, begging him to send Joe Kinane round with his tool box to see Mike Ashley. He’d be politely asked to leave the north east forever before he ends up buried in the foundations of the newest tacky branch of his Sports Direct cash-and-carry. To paraphrase Monty Python, ‘Crucifixion is too good for him.’ Thanks for allowing me the opportunity for that rant. I feel better now.


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