ON the face of it, Neil White's life story reads like something out of a novel.
Brought up in a single-parent family on a council estate in
West Yorkshire, he left school with a solitary O-level and
spent the next seven years either on the dole, or doing dead end jobs. But rather than drift into a life of terminal failure and missed opportunity, he went back to school, passed his exams, before completing a law degree and becoming a criminal lawyer with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Not only that, White has forged a dual career as a successful crime writer, with his fourth novel, Dead Silent, published this week.
It is a remarkable example of someone picking themselves off the scrapheap, although White himself sees it in less colourful terms. "I can understand why people might think it's a bit different, but it's just how the journey of my life has unfolded," he says.
White was born in 1965 above a shoe shop in the small South Yorkshire mining town of Mexborough, before his family moved to a council
estate in Kettlethorpe, just outside Wakefield.
"It might be regarded as a rough place by some people but it didn't seem like that at the time. A lot of my friends' dads were miners, tough men with missing fingers and coal dust etched into the lines around their smiles."
He has fond memories playing in the woods and fields around Kettlethorpe, at places like Roly-poly Hill and Billy Goats Hill and still regards himself as "a Wakefield lad."
But when the family upped sticks and moved to Bridlington, his life took a downward trajectory. "I don't know why but I found school boring and I fluffed everything. I made a complete mess of my exams."
He left school at the age of 16 with just one O-level, in English, to his name. "It was the early 1980s and there weren't many jobs about and
I found out very quickly that one O-level doesn't take you very far."
He spent the next seven years on the dole, punctuated by brief spells doing dreary factory work. "I spent years just drifting between jobs, although the work was so far apart that it came as an interruption, not a blessing. If the Thatcher years were about the haves and the have-nots, then I didn't have it," he says.
Not that he blamed the government, or anyone else, for his predicament. "I think once you're on a bit of a slide it's hard to halt it, because a slide only ever goes down. It's easy to try and make it out to be somebody else's fault, but I couldn't blame my school, or
my family, it was down to me.
But you can only be a young idiot for so long and there reaches a point where you have to take responsibility for your life and do something about it."
The penny finally dropped during one of his spells working in a factory. "I was 22 and there was a bloke I worked with called Martin who was about 10 years older than me and I would chat to him from time to time. I asked how things were going and he would talk about jobs that hadn't worked out and it struck me one day that this was me in 10 years' time."
Determined to get his life back on course, he returned to Wakefield and enrolled at college to study A-level law and sociology. Even at the time he realised the stakes were high.
"I was working part-time in a food factory filling meat into pork pies and my biggest fear was that if I fluffed my exams then that was it – I'd have had my chance and the life I didn't want to lead I would end up living."
Spurred on by this, he passed his A-levels with flying colours and went to study law at Preston Polytechnic, now the University of Central
Lancashire. "Once you get there, you're on a level playing field and the years of unemployment and menial work no longer matter. It becomes a bit of a tram line, you do your degree, you do your law finals, which means you get a training contract, which means you can become a solicitor."
By the mid-1990s, White had successfully overcome each of these hurdles, going on to join the CPS in Lancashire where he now works as a senior prosecutor in serious fraud cases. Most people in a similar situation would simply be happy to have turned their lives around, but White had a burning desire to be a novelist.
"When I was growing up, my dad filled the house with sci-fi and history books and writing was something I'd always
wanted to do, so I thought why not give it a crack? I was on holiday and had a pad of paper and a pen and started bashing out the first chapter of what I thought was a really good crime book," he says.
Instead, he ended up with what he calls "400 pages of waffle". But he had learned a valuable lesson. "I learned that I needed to have a structure and that I couldn't just let the story write itself, because if you don't know where the plot's going, you get lost."
Undeterred, he continued writing, although it took 13 years before his first novel was finally published. "I had so many years of being sent rejection letters that I reached the point where I started to think it was never going to happen."
Despite all the rejections, he remained convinced that his work was good enough to get published.
His perseverance finally paid off four years ago when his book landed on an editor's desk at Avon, an imprint of Harper Collins. "At the time, they were looking for some new British authors and I think it was just the right book, at the right desk, at the right time."
White signed a five-figure book deal and his first novel, Fallen Idols, was published in 2007. His taut thrillers are based around the exploits of northern crime reporter Jack Garrett and have won a
growing army of fans. "My aim is to write books that I would want to read, that's always been my philosophy, not to write the next great literary novel. I want something which zips along and that people enjoy reading."
White, a married father of three, is happy spending his days working in the courtroom and his evenings writing crime fiction. "I'd love to see my books turned into a TV series and have an international bestseller, but if it all ended tomorrow, then I think I've done all right," he says. "I'm now writing book five of a second three-book deal, so the worst case scenario is I'll end up with six books on the shelf written by me. So, if nothing else, I'll be able to say, 'I did it', and I'm happy with that."
Dead Silent, published by Avon, is priced 6.99. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepost bookshop.co.uk. Postage and packing costs 2.75.