Having given up a successful career as a barrister to fulfil his dream of being an author, John Connor tells Rod McPhee why crime doesn’t always pay.
IT’S been a decade since Peter Winship first put pen to paper as a novelist and turned his back on life as a crown prosecutor in West Yorkshire.
His decision to swap the law for literature came at the same time that crime writing was becoming big business. While once derided as inferior to pure literary fiction, thanks to the likes of Ian Rankin, Lee Child and Val McDermid, in the last 10 years it has not only stepped out of the shadows, but it’s also proved lucrative for publishers.
The genre’s popularity was confirmed earlier this year when Forbes produced its list of best-sellling authors. The league table was filled with familiar faces from Stephen King to JK Rowling and Ken Follett, but right at the top was James Patterson, creator of Alex Cross, the crime-solving single father.
According to the bean counters at Forbes, since Patterson’s debut novel, The Thomas Berryman Number was published in 1976, he has sold 270 million books and in the previous 12 months alone had racked up sales worth $84m – 20 per cent up year on year.
Patterson’s rise to fame and fortune is enough to prompt every aspiring crime writer to resign from the day job, but as Winship knows, it’s not always as easy that. Truth is that while the years he has spent writing under the pseudonym, John Connor, have given him enormous satisfaction, financially he would have been better off sticking to the law.
Connor is still signed with influential publishing house Orion, he’s about to release his seventh book and there’s an eighth on the way – for those who have never prised anything more than a generic rejection letter from a publishing house, that alone is something of an achievement.
It’s just that, with his 50th birthday fast approaching, he’s yet to become the next Rankin or Ellroy. And that’s contrasted with his success in his previous incarnation as lead prosecutor for West Yorkshire. Not that Connor has any regrets. If the move has taught him anything, it’s that there is more to life than how much you take home in your pay packet each month.
“I’m certainly not earning what I was earning as a barrister. Back then I was getting something like £60,000 a year,” he says. “I’m in a very fortunate position where we don’t need the money because I’m looking after my two kids and writing while my wife works for the European Parliament.
“I’m a writer and a stay-at-home dad. About 70 per cent of my time is spent with the kids and I love it. I’d recommend it. Writing, on the other hand, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend.”
His first two books, The Phoenix and The Playroom, were released in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Both revolved around lead character Detective Constable Karen Sharpe, and were derived from the years Connor had spent handling some of the most disturbing cases in Leeds, Bradford and Halifax.
The television rights to his first five novels were quickly snapped up by the BBC, but never quite made it on to the screen. Meanwhile, his first few books sold well, but the last few? Not so well.
Now, as he releases his seventh novel, The Vanishing, he sounds disillusioned yet strangely determined after what he sarcastically describes as “10 wasted years”.
He says: “It’s been a struggle all along. If you come at it from the point of view of wanting to write something interesting and worthwhile and entertaining, well, those are the three things that makes it hard if you want to produce something other than some stupid trite piece of content.
“You set yourself a goal of doing any of those things in one genre. It’s easy to do two of those, but doing all three feels like one long compromise. It ended up being a long way from doing what I wanted to do at the start.”
Part of the problem for Winship was the fact that he had so much experience of real life crime that he felt he realised he was exploiting and misrepresenting his past, and doing so at a time when crime writing and dramas are increasing filled with what he disapprovingly calls “torture porn”.
“It’s a gratuitous exploitation of human distress,” he says. “But you can’t get away from the fact that people find that entertaining. But it’s not realistic and my problem with the whole genre is a complete lack of realism and if you’ve worked with the police for 15 years you have a worse problem.
“I have experienced those crimes – that’s half my problem. I’ve experienced them and I know what they’re like which makes me think: ‘You can’t do that just for entertainment!’”
How strong was the link between Winship’s work experiences and those of his books?
The Playroom, which features the kidnap of the daughter of a Bradford judge while at the same time DC Sharpe is heading an enquiry into historic child abuse allegations, was, he says, a mixture of actual cases he dealt with.
In A Child’s Game, his third novel, the victim is a tycoon living in a Leeds penthouse, and the plot arc touches on money laundering and the drugs trade, which Winship became all too familiar with during his 15 years in crown courts across the county.
It’s easy to see how it all became a little too close for comfort, even though he now resides in Belgium with his wife and two children, Tom, seven, and six-year-old Sarah. Small wonder then that he’s distanced himself from all that and, with the release of The Vanishing, Winship’s making a departure.
“There’s nothing in it from my past,” he says. “All my other books have used details from cases, kicked off from real-life experiences. I just wanted to make a change. The other books were more police procedural, though they were moving towards thrillers. The Vanishing is a clear thriller. I wanted to get away from all that misery that was in my real life past and casework.”
But one real-life link remains.
“Every time I see Madeleine McCann’s parents I just can’t understand how they survive after what happened to their daughter,” he says. “In a way, I wanted to give that poor woman her child back, so I wrote this book about a mother who saw her own daughter disappear 21 years earlier.
“And I think this book comes closest to me getting it right – it’s worth a read and probably the best one yet.”
Perhaps The Vanishing will be the book that serves as the launchpad he’s hoped for, but he’s been in the writing game too long now to allow his expectations to get the better of him.
“I’m what you call a mid-list author,” he says. “Publishers told me they break their lists up – there are the huge brands, which they maintain, then they have mid-listers who they don’t spend any real money on – you just sink or swim.
“You don’t get any real marketing money, that just goes on maintaining the brands. That’s not a criticism. I’m fortunate that they publish anything at all other than brands. But it’s like a Darwinian thing – if your books sells by word of mouth or the internet then you might become a brand.”
But aside from that he’s also up against wider issues within the publishing industry.
Winship says: “People are just buying less books, and I’m not sure if the industry has a clue quite what to do about ebooks. They really have to get their act together on that. The hardback version of The Vanishing is £20 and it’s £4.99 for the Kindle version, well, everyone knows there isn’t £4.99 worth of work in a Kindle version.”
So, where does his career go from here?
“I haven’t a clue,” he laughs. “One thing I do know is that I won’t be coming back as a prosecutor in West Yorkshire and I don’t think I could come back even if I wanted to. The truth is, no matter where I go from here, I want to continue writing.”
The Vanishing by John Connor published by Orion, priced £20 is out now. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.
SCENES OF THE CRIME
According to recent figures, sales of crime fiction in the UK are nearing £200m, easily beating celebrity biography, romance and food and drink.
Next month the annual celebration of murder most foul will arrive in Harrogate when Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival gets underway. “Being scared is thrilling,” says the event’s chair Val McDermid. “A crime novel gives you and adrenalin surge, it’s exciting, suspense laden and you can’t help wondering what’s going to happen next. But you know that it’s fiction and the protagonist is going to make it okay in the end.”
To find out more, go to www.harrogateinternational festivals.com