Morse, Vera, Poirot and, um, Kojak. The titles given to fictional detectives are as recognisable as the back of a crime-lover’s hand. But few, if any, have Donald Trump to thank for the genesis of their name – unless they were dreamed up M.W. Craven, winner of the prestigious CWA Gold Dagger for The Puppet Show.
“I struggled with Washington Poe,” he says of the lead character of the Cumbria-set novel. “I didn’t have a name and I have to write the name to get invested in the story. I was about a third of the way through and I didn’t have a name. But it’s Donald Trump’s fault actually. He’d said something silly and I was reading about it in the Washington Post and my wife said, what are you laughing at? I said, something in the Washington Post and she was only half listening and said, what’s the Washington Poe? I thought, what a great name.”
After a quick Google, Craven discovered there was “a politician in Georgia called Washington Poe from the 1800s or something like that but there’s nobody else”. And so Washington Poe, a dark and cynical detective (is there any other fictive kind?) who lives a monastic existence in a shepherd’s croft on the most desolate moorland in Cumbria was born. Given the success of his first and second outings (of which more later), as well as a TV series in the offing, Washington Poe is destined to become as familiar as John Rebus and Jane Tennison.
But Washington Poe nearly didn’t happen. Carlisle-born Craven, now in his early 50s, only became a professional writer a few years ago having spent much of his career in the military and the probation service. By his own admission, he joined the army “by accident” at 16 (“may that wily recruiting sergeant have a lifetime of TV programmes with incorrectly synced audio”) and, after a brief flirtation with becoming an expert in otters, he left in 1995 to complete a degree in social work with specialisms in criminology and substance misuse. Life as a probation officer in Whitehaven and Carlisle followed for the next 16 years. During this time, however, a life-changing experience made him pick up his pen again.
“In 2003 I went to hospital and they found a massive malignant tumour, an illness called Burkitt’s lymphoma which is very, very rare in the UK. It is normally found in the jaws of Africans but mine was wrapped round my kidney. I had a lot of chemotherapy, I was an inpatient in the RVI in Newcastle for about six months. It was so complicated they couldn’t treat me in Cumbria. When I came out my mobility wasn’t as good as it was when I went in. Before I was cycling and playing cricket and all sorts of things. So I started to write again, just for myself. I’d always written as a child but I’d grown out of the habit.”
Ten years later, Craven, who grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne and retains the distinctive Geordie lilt, entered the CWA’s Debut Dagger.
“I was shortlisted and so I went down to London and I met Lee Child and a few other of my heroes. And from then on it snowballed. An agent wanted to see my work so I finished it and sent if off to an agent who hated it but gave me good feedback. I rewrote it. I went to a writing conference and met my first publisher there and he published my very first book. The next year at the same conference [Crime and Publishment in Gretna] I met my agent and I was able to give him a copy of my first book who said, when you’ve written your second book please do send it to me. And he signed me on the strength of that second book, Body Breaker.”
By 2015, Craven was a senior probation officer (“I was in charge of Cumbria”). Then the chance to take voluntary redundancy came up and, with the support of his family, he decided to give writing a go for a year.
“It was something I’d always wanted to do and now I had the chance to do it properly. I was working very hard but it was touch and go for a bit because I was still with a small publisher then and with the best will in the world you don’t get a lot of money from that. It wasn’t until I signed with my agent that things started to look up.”
With a view to launching a new series of detective novels, Craven’s agent initially wanted a rewrite of Body Breaker, the second of two books featuring a Cumbrian-based intransigent investigator called Avison Fluke. But Craven told him it would be easier to start from scratch. However, as Craven discovered, things don’t happen quickly in the world of publishing. It wasn’t until January 2017 that he met with publishing house Little, Brown who were happy to offer him a contract provided he could wait 18 months for publication.
Today, Craven is in the enviable position of producing one new book a year, not to mention imminent reissues of his Avison Fluke series (“With Avison Fluke, I think he was originally called Albert. But my mother died in 2011 and her middle name was Avison. She’d supported my writing and reading. She was always driving me to the library, and was a huge influence on where I am now. So I renamed my protagonist after her.”). He has also secured numerous foreign rights deals and a TV deal with Studio Lambert for The Puppet Show.
As an interviewee, Carlisle-based Craven is all Northern humour and self-deprecation. He’s clearly enjoying life and so I wonder, as he does, where the darkness in his books comes from. In The Puppet Show, for example, a serial killer is burning people alive in the Lake District’s prehistoric stone circles. Meanwhile, in Black Summer, Poe’s second appearance with his socially awkward sidekick Tilly Bradshaw, the first chapter is so horrifying that I can honestly say I was scarred for life, not least because, as Craven tells me, what he describes is actually true. Without wanting to divulge any spoilers, the fact that one of the central characters is a chef is an important plot point. “There are some really gipping dishes out there but I read about this and thought, I can make that work,” Craven says.
With the benefit of hindsight, Craven recognises that his career in probation (“writing pre-sentence reports, using the simplest language, getting straight to the point, not repeating things you’ve already said”) honed his writing into sharp and direct prose, and it certainly gave him a unique understanding of the criminal underworld and sections of society both high and low. No doubt we will see more examples of this in the third Washington Poe book, The Curator, out in June. I wait with bated (and terrified) breath.
Main image by Julie Winspear
Black Summer is out now in paperback