Married to the mob: Martina Cole

She is Britain's most successful woman novelist after JK Rowling, a crime writer whose fans queue round the block at her book signings. Is it because her female characters are just so damned ballsy?

Women have been at the forefront of British crime-writing since Hercule Poirot first made it into print in 1920 as the product of the imagination of Agatha Christie, the daughter of a wealthy stockbroker.

Martina Cole, the contemporary queen of the British crime novel, draws from a rather different well to the creator of Miss Marple.

She is a former punk with a tattoo of Betty Boop on her shoulder. An unashamed Essex blonde, the daughter of Irish immigrants and a single mother, she has her own record label and a pointy leather shoe named in her honour. And she is helping to keep British publishing afloat. After J K Rowling, she is the most successful British female novelist of the past decade, shifting books to the value of more than £40m and outselling Jackie Collins, to whom she was once compared for her racy style, by four to one.

Cole's world is the underworld; she illuminates with rare authenticity the murky habitat of the career criminals of the East End of London and its Essex hinterland, where she grew up. Sitting up late at night with her laptop and a pot of coffee, her daughter tucked up in bed, she tells the stories of modern gangsters and, more importantly, the women who live with them.

After 16 novels, three of which have been translated into television series, she has chalked up in excess of 10 million sales. Many of those who buy Cole's books say they don't bother with any other authors. Phil Stone, charts editor at The Bookseller, says: "Trying to encourage a section of the population that doesn't normally pick up books is great for her publisher, great for Martina and it's great for booksellers too."

Her books, with titles including Dangerous Lady and Hard Girls, are among those most-requested in prison libraries, especially in women's jails, a fact which the author takes as a compliment to her eye for detail.

It could be said that Martina Cole is merely another beneficiary of Britain's enduring fascination with gangsters, a voyeuristic national obsession that would put British organised crime activity on a par with that of Bogota, Los Angeles or Palermo. Cole's novels cover similar territory to that of mob-related films such as Essex Boys and The Krays, and the numerous capers directed by Guy Ritchie or acted by Danny Dyer depicting the naughtiness of East End rogues. But it would be a fundamental misunderstanding simply to lump Cole in with this industry. Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of The Independent, says Cole stands apart from other British female crime writers and compares her work to the tradition established by James M Cain, the American author of The Postman Always Rings Twice. "She's a hard-boiled writer with the toughness, drive and economy of the hardest American writers," he says.

It would also be wrong to suggest that Cole is on a mission to celebrate thuggery. "It's true that there's a lot of violence in the world that I write about, but I include the emotional aspects of violence and what happens to you if you get caught up in that world and you're not strong enough to cope," she said in a recent interview.

Friends describe her as "compassionate". Cole, who had her first child at the age of 19, when she was living in a council flat in the Essex town of Tilbury, is a supporter of Gingerbread, the charity for one-parent families. She visits prisoners to teach them creative writing. She is a practising Catholic who collects crucifixes and is campaigning to have British prisoner Linda Carty removed from death row in Texas.

In her stories, the female characters invariably triumph. "It's crucial that Martina's women are tough," says Darley Anderson, her agent of 20 years. "Whatever the world throws at them they survive. Quite often the men go under but the women don't."

Anderson says he knew he was on to a winner immediately after Cole sent him Dangerous Lady. She had written the manuscript aged 21 but left it unpublished for nine years before finding it while moving house. After the agent read the book he told his friends he had "discovered a star". He met up with "an Essex blonde in very high heels", and his literary instincts were confirmed when the publisher Headline demanded Cole's signature the day after Anderson put her out for auction.

Despite the efforts of her mother, a psychiatric nurse, and her father, a merchant seaman, Cole was expelled from school "for getting up to all sorts". After the birth of her son Chris she had to work three jobs, demonstrating the survival instincts of some of her heroines. In spite of her lack of formal education, Anderson describes Cole as "one of the savviest people I've ever met", noting that "in her early days she was underestimated, particularly by men, and would run rings round them". She is, he repeats, "totally unlike other authors".

Cole, 51, now lives in the Kent countryside with her 12-year-old daughter Freddie. She has an orchard with plums and quince, swaps vegetables with her farmer neighbours and keeps eight chickens – a cockerel and eight layers. She likes to cook with an Aga, though she still makes the tripe or boiled bacon dishes that she was taught to make by her Irish mother.

And she keeps the novels coming annually, failing to produce only in the year in which her son had a car accident. The Know and The Graft were both number one best-sellers; then came The Take, The Business, The Family. Cole's fiercely loyal followers knows what to expect: relentless drama and incident to rival the pace of any soap opera. She once erased a 30,000-word passage on the grounds that she had re-read it and found it boring. She writes highly visual scenes that do not overly challenge the reader's powers of concentration but are admired for their realism.

Among her fans is Tulisa, the singer from the pop group N-Dubz. "I'm a massive Martina Cole fan. I read everything she brings out," she says. "Some people say all her books are so similar that they get boring – but I relate to the gritty storylines of the London gangster underworld and local boys on council estates because it's the lifestyle I grew up around."

Cole's appeal extends way beyond London. Her bond with her readers is so strong that, unlike other authors, she attracts crowds of 500 to book signings and was recently implored by booksellers to make a visit to her fans in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

For Cole's story is more than one of the school dropout who beat the system to make it famous, like a literary Katie Price. True, when she made her debut she was written off by snobs as a one-book wonder. But part of the reason she remains at the top of the best-seller lists 18 years later is the recognition by her publishers Headline that they were on to something special. Sustained and targeted marketing through poster advertising, and PR linked to April releases of books aimed at the holiday market have kept Cole in the public eye and steadily built her brand. Her latest book, The Family, is accompanied by an iTunes app and Cole this year set up a record label, Hostage Music, to which she signed the London band Alabama 3.

In her early days, Cole was heavily dependent on WH Smith and was largely ignored by bookshops. In the past decade she has benefited greatly from sales through Tesco and Asda, while Waterstones and independent outlets have responded to a growing demand from regular book buyers. Far from being the one-book wonder, Martina Cole, like the women she writes about, has come out on top.

A life in brief

Born: 1959, Essex.

Education: Attended a convent school which she disliked and left at 15 with no qualifications.

Family: The daughter of a psychiatric nurse and a merchant seaman, Cole is the youngest of five children.

Career: In her thirties she gave up her job as a secretary and decided to "give it a year" and see if could make it as a professional writer. Her first novel, Dangerous Lady, secured her a two-book deal £150,000, a record at that time.

She says: "They'd never say to Stephen King or Ian Rankin – 'Gosh, your books are so violent!' If I was a man, I'd be the Irvine Welsh of the South-east."

They say: "Martina Cole is the biggest-selling hardback adult fiction author in the UK. She creates bold, rich characters and places them within compelling emotional stories." Elaine Pyke, Sky One drama commissioner

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