If you flinch when the punches and bullets fly in a Martyn Waites crime novel, the actor-turned-author could not be happier. Not that he believes in gratuitous violence. Far from it. He wants readers to see that violence has consequences beyond the provision of a murder for the hero to solve in 300 pages. "If you get hit it hurts and you shouldn't shy away from that," he explains. "That is what a novel should show." His latest, White Riot, the third to feature the laconic Geordie private 'tec Joe Donovan, has plenty of pain, inflicted by the knives wielded by racist thugs and punches thrown by body guards working for an Islamic fundamentalist preacher. Waites insistence on detailing the pain is rooted in a strong belief that authors of even pot-boiler thrillers should contextualise crime and not portray it as an aberration created apart from society.
It is why he regards many graphically violent novels as immoral. "A lot of them are a modern version of the old puzzle novel where a murder is done to provide a corpse to show how clever a detective is. There is no real connection to the victim having any kind of inner life or there being a sense of loss at their death." He pauses and adds: "It is the CSI-ification of society. We've become very good at looking at the forensic detail but not very good at looking at the humanity.
"That is what many of the books that go into incredibly graphic detail are about, and there is often a very reactionary conclusion drawn: there is a monster loose and that monster must be eliminated. It is never about understanding. It is about something that has been created separate from us..." – here Waites draws quote marks in the air – "...'The Decent People', whose foe must be hunted down and killed. I feel it is a pernicious and deliberate misunderstanding and quite immoral." The emotion in his voice contrasts with his image: a tall fortysomething in a battered black leather jacket and blue jeans. He looks like the bloke buying a pint for his mates or standing at the back of a gig.
Waites's work as writer in residence at Huntercombe Young Offenders Institution fuelled this anger. He also spent time working with adult offenders at HMP Chelmsford. "When you have worked with kids like that and seen at first hand what kind of stuff goes on, you can't look away and write something that you don't believe in and is not true." We're talking on the plush sofa in the back room of the Union, an exclusive private members club in Soho. The clinking of glasses and hushed background chat of London's mediaocracy sounds dissonant against talk of brutally abused lives. "You can't have the luxury of a Daily Mail mentality when you have met those kids and talked to them and seen what their lives are like," he adds. "If you get a Rottweiler and keep beating it, then one day it is going to go wild. It is not rocket science."
In White Riot, Kevin and Jason are two lost boys, picked off the street by the BNP-style National Unity Party, which provides a sense of belonging neither had previously experienced. It also provides them with homes and jobs. In exchange, they give their muscle and rage, which is channelled into racist attacks and fist-waving at Oi bands. It is easy to see how the two thugs are created. "Someone said that one of my trademarks is making monsters nice," he says. "But I don't think that is true, it is just wanting to make you understand what makes people do monstrous things."
The catalyst for the novel was an interview he read with a white BNP ex-member who had embraced radical Islam. Waites was not convinced the change was that radical. "The whole interview was saying 'look at me and the journey I've made'. But when you looked at what he was saying it was exactly the same. The only difference was that he had to wear long robes in one and a skinhead in the other, the beliefs were exactly the same: about homosexuality, about keeping women in their place, about 'one true race'."
What the ex-BNP member searched for – like Jason and Kevin – was a sense of belonging. Ironically the characters who have that are Joe Donovan and his rag-tag band of "information brokers" (as Noughties private detectives like to call themselves) at the Albion Agency. They are, Waites acknowledges, a "functioning dysfunctional family", though he adds quickly that he hopes that doesn't sound pretentious. It is a repeated plea, which says much about his Geordie working-class roots.
Though it is 20 years since he lived in Newcastle, all of his fiction, both the Joe Donovan thrillers and his standalone literary crime novels, including The White Room about Mary Bell, is firmly rooted in the city. He says he sets his books there because "in all successful crime novels a big character is the city itself" and he knew Newcastle better than anywhere else – apart from London, which is "not relevant to most people".
But I can't help thinking that the city has a deeper resonance than mere location. There is something about a seaport that claims its children and never lets them go. Waites agrees. "I always think of myself as a Geordie first," he says. "I have never tried to lose my accent. Growing up, I never thought of myself as English, because when you were watching TV, especially kids' TV in the Seventies, it was so London-centric. It was all Noel Edmonds and comfy jumpers. It seemed like, because the M1 stopped at Leeds, the country stopped at Leeds."
Newcastle is right for the kind of books Waites writes because, though a city, it feels like a market town. It is easy to navigate the communities that rub alongside each other, and besides, there is always "somebody who knows somebody". With White Riot he was offered ex-members of the Angry Brigade; with The White Room Mary Bell and associates of T Dan Smith. Waites explains: "It is one of those places where art and society and politics coincide really easily."
Contemporary issues are central to all Waites's books. "If you are setting books in a recognisably contemporary society then you should be looking at what is going on in that society," he says simply. "Crime fiction is the perfect vehicle to deal with those issues because you have an engagement with the strange and deviant, right and wrong. You are asking all the moral questions there." Though he is under contract to write more Joe Donovan books, he wants to return to what he terms his "secret history" series of standalone titles. As well as Mary Bell, he tackled the miners' strike in Born Under Punches, and has another true-life event in mind for his next literary outing. With the typical superstition of a writer of an unwritten novel, he refuses to say exactly what the event is... only that it is long forgotten and happened close to where he lived.
At the moment, though, he is happy to remain in the company of Joe Donovan. "I really like spending time with him! When I started writing about him, I spent six months trying to get his voice right in my head before starting the novel because so much depended on him." Donovan bears more than a passing resemblance to Waites – he even shares the same T-shirt collection, though his taste in leather jackets is slightly more dubious (brown rather than black). Like Ian Rankin's Rebus, Donovan also shares his creator's taste in music. "The one thing I didn't want him to be was a jazz fan," Waites adds, before wondering out loud why jazz-loving 'tecs always love cool jazz. "It's never Acker Bilk is it?" He lets out a loud guffaw.
The proliferation in recent years of music-loving male crime writers sounds like the revenge of the Q generation, I observe. "I really hate to think it is that," he grimaces. "That said, I went to see Richmond Fontaine last time they played, and half the audience were male writers and nearly all of them were crime writers: Matt Thorne, Mark Billington and Paul Johnston. All these male writers of a similar age were all standing there looking very sad."
The extract: White Riot By Martyn Waites (Pocket Books £6.99)
'...The sun over the city was like a magnifying glass held over an anthill, the rising temperatures setting the inhabitants aflame. As people lost sleep, focus and patience with each other... conflict flashpoints were everywhere. Road rage, abuse, assaults, fights all on the up. And that magnifying glass still overhead, unrelenting. The city was working its way to the brink...'Reuse content