In the first in a monthly series focusing on Hull in the run up to it becoming UK City of Culture 2017, Julian Cole is taken on a tour by local crime writer Nick Quantrill.
THE train to Hull is slow and endless flatlands roll by. I am off to see crime writer Nick Quantrill, a product of that sometimes downtrodden city. “I’ll meet you next to the statue of Philip Larkin in the station,” he says, “because that feels fitting.”
As the train pulls in Nick is standing by the dashing representation of Larkin, that man of lyricism and discontent. The great poet called Hull “as good a place to write in as any” – which was almost a compliment. But the old grump stayed long enough, so he must have liked the city well enough.
Hull is UK City of Culture 2017 and that is why Nick is giving me this guided tour today. That and a new book. “I was born in 1974 so I was brought up in the 80s when it was like a dying town almost,” says Nick.
“The fishing industry had gone and that continued into the 90s until The Deep opened as a millennium project and the football stadium was built. That seemed to kick some pride back into the city really and made everyone realise that Hull wasn’t the crap town it had been branded by cheap and nasty books.”
As we walk around, the city feels between times. Nearly everywhere is being improved for next year. Half the roads in the centre have been dug up and the acclaimed Ferens Art Gallery is shut for refurbishment.
Leaving the centre, we cross the busy dual carriageway to the marina, where yachts and motorboats bob about on a grey sea beneath a grey sky. When the sun shines it looks wonderful here, Nick tells me.
Nearby is the old Fruit Market, now a busy cultural hub of music, theatre, bars and galleries. The road is being dug up here, too. We wander towards The Deep with its remarkable jutting forehead, then head for the Old Town, a place of cobbled streets and the city’s Museum Quarter, which includes Wilberforce House, once home to the anti-slavery campaigner.
A short walk away and Nick stops in front of a tall Victorian brick building. “That’s where Joe Geraghty had his office,” he says. Nick is the author of three novels about private investigator Geraghty – Broken Dreams, The Late Greats and The Crooked Beat.
The locale doesn’t exactly suggest Raymond Chandler. “I couldn’t have femme fatales working into his office every five minutes,” Nick says. “I had to think of a northern man who lived in the twentieth century.”
Next we stop at Kardomah94, a bar and art-space enterprisingly carved from the bottom of an office block where Nick will be launching his new novel, The Dead Can’t Talk, on Friday.
Here, as well as everywhere else we visit, Nick bumps into someone he knows. It’s not a big place, Hull – and Nick has never left. He was born in the city and attended Trinity House, an all boys’ nautical school.
“In the past it produced people to go to sea,” he says. In his day, the only difference to an ordinary school was that he did a GCSE in nautical studies. “I got a grade G,” he says. “I was banned from sailing – I was that bad. I was a danger to myself and anyone who went in with me.”
Nick didn’t go away to university but worked as an accountant in the city, and in his mid-twenties did an Open University degree in social policy and criminology.
He believes The Deep and the stadium restored a bit of pride to Hull. “From there the seeds of City of Culture were sown, and there was a groundswell of independent stuff going on, things like the Fruit Market regenerating itself,” he says.
When it came to writing crime, he had no doubt about the setting. “It was always going to be Hull stories for me,” Nick says. “I was a big fan of people like Ian Rankin and I liked the way he wrote about his city of Edinburgh, and I thought, I am going to write about Hull.”
The city chose him, you might say, as did the genre. “It was always going to be crime. It was that cliché really. When I was five I read the Famous Five books and I was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes when I was a teenager.”
The turning point came when he was doing his Open University degree. “I was reading things on the theory of crime, and I was picking up a book by Ian Rankin and it covered the same things, but told in a page-turning thriller.
“That was my lightbulb moment. I thought I could write a crime novel. How hard could it be to write a crime novel? Then you start trying…” Nick laughs at his own presumption as we sit chatting in the café at Hull Central Library.
The Geraghty novels are sparse and fairly short, and often concern small crimes. “I don’t want to write about serial killers and things like that. I just want to reflect the realities of living in Hull. So with The Crooked Beat it was all about smuggled cigarettes.”
Sport fills out the shadows in Nick’s novels, which make many references to Rugby League, but he is not a writer who likes to describe his characters. “I’m not big on descriptive passages in crime novels. I like crime novels to be short and to the point and hard-hitting.”
So he leaves the reader to paint their own picture of Joe Geraghty, aside from one detail. “I refer to him as being an ex-scrum half…” Ah, so he’s quite big then? “No, they’re small,” he says, laughing (this interviewer knows a lot more about crime novels than Rugby League).
Nick is more of a football fan himself, but says that rugby league defines Hull, or did in the past. “If you worked on the trawlers, you would work in the west side where Hull FC was based. If you worked bringing the fish in, you lived on the east side of the city and you supported Hull KR. And I didn’t really know that.”
Nick’s new novel features two new characters. And one old one: Hull itself. Anna Stone is a disillusioned police officer whose sister has gone missing.
“And the only person who can help her unravel the mystery is a guy called Luke Carver, who’s just come out of prison. She put him in there a couple of years ago. He’s a bit of a drifter. He’s ex-Army, ex-prison but he’s got information about her missing sister.”
The story delves into the past and is set against a local by-election. “We’ve got a bit of politics in there too, and corruption – all the good stuff.”
Nick says the novel concerns two characters trying to make peace with themselves. “I suppose what I was asking myself via these two characters is why would you want to stay in Hull. What is there in Hull for people? I was asking myself that really. Whereas Geraghty was rooted in the city, these two aren’t.”
With that he leads me back to Larkin, we make our farewells, and I wait for the slow train to shake and rattle its way back to York.
The Dead Can’t Talk is published by Caffeine Nights on Thursday, with a launch event on Friday at Kardomah94, in Hull.