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Preparing for Crime

Philip Hamer interrogates Manchester crime writer Chris Simms

Published on May 9th 2008.

Preparing for Crime

Composing advertising copy seems to be a fine apprenticeship for a writer. Salman Rushdie and Fay Weldon are perhaps the most distinguished practitioners of the ‘hidden persuader’s’ dark art who became hugely successful novelists. But local crime writer Chris Simms’ grin really broadens when you ask him day-job and he replies, “I work in advertising, as did the acknowledged master of crime fiction, Raymond Chandler.”

“I’ve had no problem whatsoever with my publishers about setting my last four novels in Manchester. A changing city, even in a ramshackle way, is a perfect setting for the sort of crime stories I write.”

Chris is about to publish his sixth novel, Hell’s Fire, which is the fourth to feature Manchester-based Detective Inspector Jon Spicer and his Major Crime Incident Team. Simms sees his copywriting career, which he still pursues part-time, as being the perfect preparation for a crime writer: “You have to employ economy with words and the novel becomes a sort of elongated ad with an image and a headline that provides the momentum. No one can write crime fiction successfully unless you charge up that momentum.”

Chris’s novels are dripping with this ingredient, though his first two novels, Outside The White Lines and Pecking Order, were noticeably quieter offerings inspired by more literary books like Patrick McCabe’s brilliant The Butcher Boy and Patrick Suskind’s masterpiece, Perfume. “I got excellent reviews for my first two, but crime has always been my real interest. Crime books have, in recent years, become really popular you know. Don’t ask me why, but they have surpassed romantic fiction as the most borrowed from libraries and their sales are strong.”

Recently, Waterstone’s nominated Chris as one of their “25 Writers of the Future”, though he thinks that was “a rather timid exercise that didn’t really add up to much at the end of the day”. He reminds me that Savage Moon was one of the original 700 novels considered by those new hot book-promoters: Richard and Judy. They deserve credit, Chris says, for being one of the few showcases for books currently on our TV screens. He hopes the programme’s researchers give him another chance with the new novel.

Chris’s quiet modesty belies his talent. He is one of the few crime writers with an established back-list published by Orion, the crime arm of the famous publisher Weidenfield and Nicholson, arguably the most impressive crime list in the UK. He tells me that he feels really honoured to share a publisher with the American James Lee Burke, who he cites as his favourite crime writer.

Killing The Beasts was the first novel to feature DI Spicer. It also starred post-IRA bomb and Commonwealth Games Manchester. “I’ve had no problem whatsoever with my publishers about setting my last four novels in Manchester. A changing city, even in a ramshackle way, is a perfect setting for the sort of crime stories I write. I’m also very lucky in that for some time now I’ve known a good friend who has grown higher in the Greater Manchester Police as the years have gone on. That type of contact can be vital to a crime writer.”

Chris spends three months researching his novels, and the entire gestation period takes a year - he writes them in long hand. “It’s vital to get the forensics right and the expert Ian Pepper is a fantastic source. There’s a lot of intriguing stuff about arson and its detection in my new book. You’ve got to be wary of the amazing advances in DNA because a crime can be solved so quickly these days that a crime writer wouldn’t be able to fill a page with his tale, let alone an entire novel.” As for authentic dialogue, Chris says that travelling on public transport and listening in to conversations is important to him.

His love for a girl from Marple, in Cheshire, brought Chris to the outskirts of Manchester. The Sussex-born Sociology graduate is proud that themes, rather than characters, dominate his work and says that Spicer is emphatically not a Mancunian Rebus, the Edinburgh detective created by Ian Rankin. “There is little cynicism in Spicer, and he is younger, and he has none of the world weariness or complicated love life of Rebus,” he says. “My Spicer novels have permitted me to explore so many topics that interest me: consumer and car culture, the way we treat animals, plastic surgery and terrorism have all been the topics that have galvanised my work.”

Hell’s Fire’s extremely prescient theme, the way certain people pervert a religion, can be added to that list. When a church is torched in central Manchester and a charred corpse and satanic symbols are found in the ruins, DI Spicer is called in. Blaise Pascal’s view that ‘men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction’ provides the book’s template and as Spicer is drawn in as the bodies turn up, others close to him become equally affected. It is thoughtful and exciting crime fiction at its best.

Hell’s Fire is published by Orion on 1 May at £9 99 pbk and £18 99 hdbk.

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