The huge surge in the readership of crime novels during the present unpleasantness arises partly, no doubt, from the visceral pleasure, sheer entertainment and, yes, reassurance to be had from a gripping plot, set within a somewhat familiar formula in a world where justice might actually triumph. But according to Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and many others in the know, another factor in the continued fascination the genre exerts is that the crime novel is the perfect vehicle to explore contemporary issues.
There are few better examples than Trevor Wood’s debut crime novel The Man on The Street. Fresh, authentic and gritty as well as thought-provoking, this award-winning book is centred not on some unstoppable, heroic figure or an eccentric old lady, but on a homeless veteran named Jimmy Mullen, a troubled man grappling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and living on the often-mean streets of Newcastle. One night he witnesses a murder, but he’s so far beneath most people’s radar that no one believes him, and so Jimmy is compelled by society’s indifference to step back into a world from which he’d absented himself.
“Homeless people are right at the centre of society, yet hidden to a large extent, and I was intrigued by the idea of a crime being witnessed by someone who is invisible to so many people,” observes Wood of his novel, which received the Crime Writers’ Association’s ‘John Creasey New Blood Dagger’ award (one of the genre’s highest accolades) in 2020. Obviously following Northern Soul’s lead, The Man on The Street was also among The Guardian’s year-end Books of the Year, while the perspicacious McDermid hailed it as her favourite debut of the year in The Express, and The Spectator named it as one of their five Christmas reads.
“I’ve lived in Newcastle for almost 30 years and consider myself an adopted Geordie, though I still can’t speak the language,’ says Wood, with a laugh. “In previous incarnations I’ve been a reasonably successful playwright and have also worked as a journalist and spin doctor for the city council. Prior to that, I was in the Royal Navy for 16 years. I’m a very late starter to this novel-writing lark and I was 61 when The Man on the Street was published.”
“The point of the two-year course was to deliver an 80,000-word crime novel, and probably 60 to 70 per cent of The Man on the Street as it was eventually published, after the usual string of rejections, was actually developed during that time on the course,” explains the music, beer and crime fiction fan, who’s recently been approached by the makers of Line of Duty and Bodyguard about a TV adaptation of his book. He has also just signed deals in Norway, with Jo Nesbø’s publisher, and also in Sweden.
“The initial spark for it all was this idea I’d had for a one-off crime novel where a deadly crime happens in front of a homeless man,” says Wood, “but the people involved don’t even notice him.”
Despite encouragement from his course tutors and visiting writers like Rankin and Lee Child (who, incidentally, came up with Jimmy’s ‘Sherlock Homeless’ nickname, a gift for headline writers everywhere), Wood wasn’t convinced that he was the right person to write a book largely set amid the homeless community. He began research that included volunteering as a cook once a week for the homeless and disadvantaged people using The People’s Kitchen in Newcastle, something which he still continues to do.
“I didn’t hide the fact that I was a writer, and I was writing a book. But that wasn’t the point,” he insists. “I just wanted to give something back. I thought ‘I can’t be writing a book about this community and not be contributing more than I do at the moment’. Their perspective on poverty and homelessness is one that’s rarely if ever heard and that was quite important to me. I try very hard to capture the grim reality of that situation without wallowing too much in the misery.”
He adds: “The homeless are mostly demonised and I wanted to humanise them, to show the resilience, fortitude and humour that’s essential for survival in that situation, and to illustrate that a lot of the people aren’t there because of some kind of weakness but because circumstances have conspired against them, because of one bad decision, or simply bad luck.
“There seems to be a worldwide shortage in empathy at the moment and I hope that, in a small way, I’m doing something to help redress the balance. My dream was that people who may have different views would pick this book up as crime readers and it might just change their perspective a little bit, so that the next time they’re wandering past someone who’s looking for help, they might actually give them some.”
As well as this laudable sense of purpose, Wood’s writing has also been praised for its strong sense of place.
“As The Man on the Street was very much set in the real world, right in the heart of Newcastle, I spent a lot of time walking around taking photographs of places that I wanted to use. It’s amazing what the camera reveals that you haven’t noticed with the naked eye.”
An equally thrilling second adventure for Jimmy, his dog (only called ‘Dog’) and his growing band of irregulars, One Way Street, appears in print in June, although the vagaries of publishing combined with a worldwide pandemic mean that it’s already available as an e-book and audiobook. Meanwhile, a short ‘origin’ story called Underdogs describing the first meeting between Jimmy and ‘Dog’ (“the only recurring character I’m told I have to keep from serious harm,” reveals Wood) appears in Home Fixtures, a highly recommended short story anthology put together by the aforementioned McDermid to help support the Homeless World Cup Foundation.
Wood has also just finished a draft of a third and final full-length book featuring Jimmy, tentatively entitled Dead End Street.
“I didn’t want my homeless protagonist tripping over bodies and solving crime for the next ten years, which seemed to take it out of the real world I’ve tried to set it in. But, having written The Man on The Street as a standalone, everybody who offered me a deal said ‘no, really, people will want to read more about these characters’ and, having been persuaded, I could see a way to making it a three-book series. That’s it, though.
“So, I need to end it somewhere solid. I didn’t want to leave Jimmy on the streets his whole life. I’m much more interested in characters than plot and I did want to develop his character, to see him move through the system a little bit. But I’m not a planner, I start with an opening chapter and then I go from there, literally making it up as I go along. I figure that if I don’t know what they’re going to do next, it’ll be very hard for a reader to anticipate it.”
Main image by Reece James Morrison