Robert Edric: 'I think good people have evil in them'

With 12 literary novels under his belt, Robert Edric has turned to crime. James Urquhart talked to him about murder, Hull and Henderson's Relish
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The Independent Culture

It's stickily hot when I finally roll into Hornsea, a good 50 miles further east than almost anywhere, and just north of Hull which is - as Robert Edric later jokes - "the back of nowhere". Edric breezes out to greet me, relaxed affability in shorts and bare feet, offering a glass of chilled Oyster Bay which quickly dispels any imagined provincialism. His house is uncluttered, spacious and airy. Panels of sunlight illuminate an attractively plain décor with understated nautical touches, as though the groaning bookshelves were all battened down against impending bad weather.

Immediately he introduces lunch, a Nigella-inspired salad upon which a roasted chicken appears to have crashed, and launches into an anecdote about the comedian Johnny Vegas watching Nigella videos after the pub in lieu of porn. Half the ingredients in her recipes aren't available in East Yorkshire, Edric scoffs, plonking a large bottle of Henderson's Relish down alongside the balsamic. "It costs about 45p and you can only buy it in Sheffield," he assures me, but doesn't open it.

This is no bluff pretence. Edric is peaceably at home with both the local and the cosmopolitan. He has lived in and around Hull for two decades but Cradle Song (Doubleday, £12.99), his highly accomplished début as a crime writer, is the first book he has located in the city.

Logic suggested that he should set it in London. "I do believe there is a metropolitan emphasis to most things, from social or economic policies to writing," he admits, but he eventually chose Hull because it had scarcely ever been the setting for modern novels. "It's terra incognita - and how clichéd have thrillers from Manchester become recently?" he demands.

Cradle Song is no grimy plod round a Northern town. In fact, Hull itself hardly gets a mention after Edric's painstaking whittling-away of extraneous description to bring his characters' hopes and anxieties into sharp relief. "I'm a firm believer in letting the reader do some work," he claims, "especially in a detective novel. Let them imagine Hull. The detail isn't relevant."

Robert Edric came to Hornsea, East Yorkshire, in 1982, when his wife Sara began teaching French in the nearby school where she is now deputy headteacher. His first novel, Winter Garden, won the 1985 James Tait Black Prize. Cradle Song is his 13th. "She earns the money that keeps us," Edric says. "I've never been self-supporting. I'd have to live in a hedgerow and forage for food." He writes intensely for two months, revises exhaustively for four, and works hard at "creative resting" over the summer: "when I go to seed, like leaving a field fallow".

He has already flexed his own imagination in a dozen novels, all penned in East Yorkshire but boasting exotic locales from the Arctic to the Congo, which he has never visited. I suggested that Hull must have been easier to research, but - given how assured the police processes in Cradle Song feel - his reply is laced with disdain: "I did none whatsoever. If it's convincing, that's because I make it convincing. I don't know whether a Chief Superintendent is senior to a Detective Inspector, but then this isn't a police procedural."

I applaud Edric's indignant refusal to be circumscribed by personal experience or dogmatic research. "Write what you know? It's bollocks. Write what you don't know is the best advice, because you can prove to yourself that you can make that imaginative leap to what you assume you are going to be writing about."

I have caught Robert Edric after a week of leading an Arvon Foundation creative-writing course, and I sense a tacit dismay at the uneven balance of retired hobbyists and aspirant apprentices taking the courses. He softens his tone slightly, and qualifies: "I do say write about what you know, but understand that to mean you know about how people feel, about love, hate and friendship, fear and loathing. If you can capture that and empathise with your characters, then why not write about 15th-century French peasants or 18th-century Indian squaws?"

This creativity, grounded in complex relationships rather than facts, has certainly born fruit in Cradle Song, first of a planned trilogy of Hull-based thrillers featuring private detective Leo Rivers. Local businessman James Bishop hires Rivers to investigate rumours as to why Roper, who confessed to murdering Bishop's young daughter five years ago, is returning to Hull pending a rumoured appeal.

"I didn't really want to write a book about someone murdering teenage girls; I wanted the focus to be psychological," Edric explains. "It's more about Bishop, the father of the murdered girl, than about her killer. The idea of a man having lost his daughter was almost more interesting than finding out what sweaty little men were involved in the paedophile ring."

What seems to galvanise Edric is not who has guilt, which is a sliding scale rather than a sharp demarcation, but how such crimes coalesce. "I think good people have got a bit of evil in them and vice versa," Edric allows. But his mastery of this genre does not fully explain why he has turned to crime, just as he had amassed a following for his literary fiction.

"I love crime novels, and I haven't written one before because I enjoy reading them too much," he states, disarmingly. "The best crime writing is a long way ahead of the pack: James Lee Burke, Michael Connolly, Carl Hiaasen, Dennis Lehane - it's impressively good writing, regardless of what they are writing about."

So why try his hand now? The answer remains ambiguous.

While writing his previous novel, Peacetime, a measured, moody piece set in the Fens in 1946, he felt the need to change: not just veer off but take a 90-degree turn into a distinctly different genre. But Peacetime, I complain, also revolved around a young girl, abusive relationships and enormous local hostility towards an incoming authority figure. "That's never occurred to me," he reflects, mulling the thematic links. Then, brightly: "They're the same book!"

Which, of course, they are not. Edric's fans can look forward to his usual sharply realised characters operating in a tense, pressured environment rather than the more laconic drift of Peacetime. Crime aficionados might also enjoy sifting through his literary backlist. While the genre has shifted at least 60 degrees, the calibre of writing has not.

Edric prefers to write a book and have his agent sell it; he has even been known to repay an advance and pull a manuscript out of production that he was not entirely happy with. For the first time, he now has a contract for the remaining books in his crime trilogy. "I had this grand concept called the Song Cycle," he reveals slightly sheepishly. Cradle Song is set in winter and the manuscript for Siren Song, which is set in summer, is already with his agent; Swan Song will be set in the autumn. "If I'd been able to think of another phrase with 'song' in it I'd have got a quarter more money for a quartet," he jests. How about "The Song Remains the Same"? I venture, which hits the right note. He roars with laughter and glugs some more Oyster Bay out of the warming bottle.

Biography

Robert Edric was born (as Gary Edric Armitage) in Sheffield in 1956. He was educated in Sheffield before reading geography at Hull University. Novel-writing proved a wonderful release after the constraints of his doctoral thesis on landscape, structure and space in the Victorian novel. His first novel, Winter Garden, won the 1985 James Tait Black Prize, and its successors include A New Ice Age, Elysium, In Desolate Heaven and The Book of the Heathen. Peacetime was long-listed for the 1992 Man Booker Prize. Cradle Song (Doubleday), the first of a crime trilogy, is his 13th novel. He lives with his wife, a deputy headteacher, in Hornsea, East Yorkshire.

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