Leigh Russell is the author of the internationally bestselling Geraldine Steel series which includes Cut Short, Road Closed, Dead End, and her new release, Deep Cover. We chat to Leigh as her latest book launches…
What inspired the idea for your first novel?
As a school teacher visiting a pupil on work experience, my route took me across a park. It was a wet day, and the park was deserted. Beside a bend in the path there was a tangled mass of overgrown trees and shrubs. As I approached the bend a man appeared, as if from nowhere. He scuttled rapidly past, without looking at me. The next thing I remember was glancing down to see a woman lying in the undergrowth beneath the trees. From a grey face, her lifeless eyes stared back at me…
Yes, there is a point at which that narrative deviates into fiction! I did walk across an empty park, and a man did hurry past me, no doubt keen to get out of the rain. But there was no dead body lying in the bushes.
My debut novel, Cut Short, begins with a middle-aged school teacher who witnesses a killer fleeing from the scene of a murder in a park. A whole novel spun out from that idea. Who was the man killing women in the park? Who was his victim? A detective had to arrive in the book to hunt for the killer, and so Geraldine Steel appeared in my writing to feature in a long running series.
Where do you find your writing inspiration?
Real life can be endlessly inspiring to anyone interested in human nature. Even so, and probably unlike most crime writers, I don’t look to events in real life for inspiration for my fiction. A crime takes place when one human being causes someone else to suffer, to satisfy their own selfish needs. Murder can be driven by greed, or hatred, or jealousy, or some other vicious feeling. There is nothing in that scenario that I can contemplate with anything other than abhorrence. So, I prefer to make my stories up, and it’s difficult to tell you where I find my inspiration, because I honestly don’t know. Yet, somehow, every six months or so I sit down to write a crime novel and an idea occurs to me. It’s lucky that it does, because for me there is always a publisher’s deadline looming! Quite possibly the pressure of that expectation is what drives me to be inventive.
How do you account for the popularity of crime fiction?
I mentioned my aversion to reading about crime in the real world. Yet in fiction, crime becomes transformed. You wouldn’t believe the number of lovely people who tell me gleefully, “ooh, I love a good murder”, and we all know what they mean. Because in fiction, murder investigations become a source of entertainment. I think there are a number of reasons for this. Crime stories are at their heart about goodies and baddies. The nastier the villain, the more invested readers are in seeing a detective track them down. Crime fiction offers us a moral compass, with characters fighting for justice against the forces of evil and chaos. Crime fiction also gives us an opportunity to explore ourselves as individuals living in a society. Each of my Geraldine Steel novels examines a different social issue, such as gun crime, homelessness, and domestic abuse. Added to that, the potential for suspense and crime fiction offers the reader a powerful escape from the confusion, problems, and sheer tedium of everyday life.
In such a crowded genre, why do you think your detective is so popular?
When I started writing, we had seen many fictional detectives who were damaged in some way. They all seemed to be traumatised by a dark episode in their past, or emotionally damaged by a failed relationship. In Geraldine and Ian, I wanted to create detectives who come across as fairly ordinary people, with whom readers can identify. Fortunately, that seems to be popular with many readers. My new novel in the series, Deep Cover, sees Geraldine and Ian working on separate investigations, which adds a new dimension to their relationship.
What tips would you give to aspiring novelists?
Eugene Ionesco said, “A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of writing or thinking about writing”, and he was right. Writing can be time consuming, and it can interfere with your life, but if you have a passion for writing, then write. Write every day. Keep practicing, writing and rewriting and then rewriting again, working to improve your craft. I would also advise you to read. The best advice I’ve yet to discover for those wanting to write is brilliantly expressed in the words of William Faulkner: “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I am privileged to chair the panel of judges for the Crime Writers Association prestigious Debut Dagger Award, and to run their critiquing service. In addition to this, I am a Consultant Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund and run short online courses in fiction writing skills. In each of these roles I enjoy the opportunity to support and advise other writers. It keeps me very busy. My only regret is that I don’t have enough time to read. There are so many wonderful books I have yet to discover.
The one thing I love even more than writing is spending time with my family. We have all gone through difficult times over the past eighteen months, and it’s wonderful to be able to invite my family over again. With a four-year-old granddaughter and a six-month-old puppy, we have a lot of fun playing in the garden.
When a sex worker dies in suspicious circumstances in York, Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel struggles to remain focused on the murder investigation. She is distracted by her worries about her colleague and life partner, Ian Peterson, who has disappeared.
Geraldine becomes close to her colleague, Matthew, unaware that Ian is working undercover in London, helping to identify a criminal gang who have been targeting Geraldine.
As a second victim is discovered in York, Ian’s life is threatened by a psychopath. If he fails in his mission, both he and Geraldine may die…