Martina Cole: On the game, in the life, in the know

Crime writer Martina Cole is an East End pocket Venus whose bestselling novels are eagerly devoured by her fans. Mark Timlin is one of them
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The majority of British crime writers are women. Writing about women for women, because the majority of book buyers are women too. But if you're looking for glamour among these lady authors, for tight satin dresses with a loaded Derringer tucked into their garter belts, I wouldn't bother. Sadly, it's more Tesco's heavy denier bamboo support tights than sheer black silk stockings with seams. More Dame Agatha than the kind of dame who haunts the pages of pulp fiction. But there are exceptions. And the most stunning exception is also probably the most successful author, too. Martina Cole is a pocket Venus with a heart as big as a wheel who tells the filthiest jokes I've ever heard, and can drink most men I know under the table without breaking sweat. She's a born and bred east Londoner, and if you ever check out the best-selling fiction lists you'll know her name well.

Right now Martina is on a promotion junket for her new novel, with a schedule as packed as any pop idol. Signings, talks, dinners with the big book wholesalers and retailers, and anything else her publishers and PRs think will shift more copies. But I managed to pin her down for a few hours and met her for lunch recently at a restaurant in Covent Garden where she has her own table with a brass name plaque to prove it. I must say she was a sight for sore eyes. Her hair was the colour of ripe wheat and styled to fall back into place when she ran her fingers through it. Her black trouser suit was perfectly cut, as severe as a church warden's covering her from neck to ankle, but when she leaned forward to accept a light for a cigarette it showed just a hint of cleavage and lacy black underwear beneath. But what struck me most - and every other man in the restaurant as she walked in - were her size three, lime green, pointy-toed Jimmy Choo St Louis Blues. I swear I've never seen a pair like them. They were as sharp as her tongue occasionally is, and as eye-catchingly attractive as the woman herself.

Martina Cole publishes a novel a year, religiously. And religiously she tops the charts, much to the chagrin of less popular writers. But she's also prepared to help out other writers. I've seen her at readings and appeared on stage with her myself at crime writing events, and she is always the first to talk up other authors. Of course this makes some dagger-wielding authors very angry. "It's all right for her," I've heard them say from behind their hands, because not one would dare to say it to her face, "If I sold as many books as her I'd do the same." Somehow I doubt it.

So what has she got that the others haven't? Simple. Martina has tuned into a particular reader's mindset - quite often people who aren't regular book buyers, but who recognise the real thing when it comes along. She writes about a criminal world of sink estates on one hand, and fantastic ill-gotten wealth on the other. A harsh, uncaring world where most scratch out a precarious living from one giro to the next by any means - lawful or unlawful. Where petty crime and prostitution is often the only career option. A world where there's no food on the table except cornflakes and chips, but the TV is the latest 42-inch state-of-the-art plasma screened model with surround sound, satellite and DVD, where the children have head lice and £200 trainers, and to whom school is more of an abstraction than a reality. A world which can explode into terrible violence with a careless word or just a look taken the wrong way. Where the only escape is the mythical big score from drugs or robbery, a lottery win or death. Which is often a lonely one, unmissed and unmourned until the body stinks so much that the neighbours complain. About as alien and far away from St Mary Mead as it's possible to get.

Interestingly enough, Martina's books are the most borrowed in the British prison system and the most hoisted from bookshops in east London and Essex. Work that one out for yourself. If you've never read one of her novels or seen one of the big-budget TV adaptations I'll explain why. Martina Cole pulls no punches, writes as she sees it, refuses to patronise or condescend to either her characters or fans, and unlike a lot of her contemporaries has actually seen the inside of a council house, and knows what it's like to live in one. And meanwhile sells more books than almost any other crime writer in the country. Check out this fact: the hardback first printing run for her new novel The Know is 300,000. I love the way it's only the first printing.

As I write, I've just finished reading the novel. And once again, as in most of her work, the women are strong and resourceful, the men feckless, unfaithful, and handy with their fists, and some of the language quite unprintable in a family newspaper.

The Know centres on Joanie, an ageing prostitute who is promoted to run a dodgy massage parlour by her on/off lover Paulie. Joanie has three children by different men, all of whom she loves dearly and protects like a lioness. But some children are beyond protection, particularly her youngest, the beautiful Kira, a child destined never to grow up. She's 11 with the mind of a five-year-old and her love of Barbie dolls leads her to become involved with Little Tommy, a man from the same estate of flats with a huge body but the intellect of a juvenile, who collects the dolls, and becomes Kira's best friend. Together they dress and undress the toys, make little tableaux featuring them, and wash and iron their miniature outfits. It's almost too sad to contemplate, and, from the first page the reader knows that tragedy will and must strike, and with a terrible inevitability it does, and secrets that should have remained hidden are exposed to the light of day. And the title of the book? It refers to being on the game. In the life. In the know.

But even though dreadful things happen in Martina's books, there's a sense of community even among the worst of the worst, where love really can conquer all, and eventually redemption occurs and some kind of normality returns to Joanie and her family.

This was once Martina's own world, but by dint of sheer hard work and talent she managed to escape. She once said to me: "People used to think I was poor before I published my first novel. But in fact I was doing very well with my previous career [she ran a nursing agency]. And if my books had failed I still would." But they didn't fail. They sold beyond her wildest dreams, even though they are rarely reviewed, especially in the broadsheets. But who needs reviews when your books fly out of the shops as fast as they can be delivered? The truth is that the Walters, Rendells and Jameses are not even close to the success of a tiny blonde from the East End who could crush them under the heel of her Jimmy Choos.

So what does the future hold, I asked her. "No problem," she replied. "I've got the plot for next year's novel, and after that who knows?" More TV maybe? "Don't know," she said, as if she didn't really care. Now how many novelists would be that casual? Well, whatever it is she turns her hand to, I'm sure that Martina will be up to the challenge.

We parted on the best of terms after the lunch stretched out all afternoon and continued late into the evening down at Gerry's club in Soho where Martina is always a valued customer, and she even got her driver to drop me off at my flat on her way home. Now how many superstars would do that?

'The Know' by Martina Cole is published by Headline at £14.99. To buy a copy for £12.99 (+ £2.25 p&p per order), contact Independent Books Direct (0870 800 1122)