Insider knowledge is the best defence
Scotland may seem to be awash with crime writers – with no less than 10 of them appearing at Grantown’s Wee Crime Festival this weekend – but few are so well acquainted with real life crime as WHS McIntyre.
William, to give him his first name, is a criminal defence lawyer with Russel + Aitken, Scotland’s oldest law firm and so has far more first hand experience of those who uphold the laws and those who break them than most of his crime writing peers, experience he has put to use in his Best Defence series featuring criminal lawyer Robbie Munro.
After self-publishing the first books in the series, William has now signed to Dingwall-based publisher Sandstone Press, who published their first release in the series, Present Tense, last month.
Your day job is obviously a rich source of inspiration for a novelist, but what do your colleagues think of "turning to crime"? Are they nervous they might make an appearance in one of your novels?
The colleagues who I spend most time with are fellow members of the Criminal Bar at Falkirk. It’s a small, friendly group who have been highly supportive of my writing to date. A lot of a court lawyer’s time is spent waiting, and, as I say in my acknowledgement page in my latest book, Present Tense, sitting around listening to a bunch of defence lawyers holding forth on a wide range of subjects, usually entirely unrelated to law, helps a lot when coming up with lines of dialogue, especially for the less sophisticated of my fictional characters.
A lawyer, after reading a book of mine once said, "It’s not exactly Marcel Proust, is it?", and, although it’s true that my books are not written in French, nor do they explore in any depth the darkness and complexity of the human condition, in my defence I did have to point out that as I recalled (or would have recalled if I’d bothered to read it) there were few jokes and definitely no helicopter crashes in Proust’s opus, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Though my colleague’s comment was tongue in cheek, I nevertheless used his name for a character in my next book who was a teenage drug-dealer, on remand for killing his girlfriend. So, it does pay for critics to tread carefully.
You obviously write about crime, but is it true that you didn’t regard the Robbie Munro books as crime fiction, at least in the conventional sense?
People love genres and crime fiction is a hole that houses many a pigeon – as well as the occasional turkey. A lot of crime fiction these days centres around a maverick cop chasing a serial killer. It’s usually a Detective Inspector (DI), though I see there are even Detective Chief Inspectors out and about solving crimes, as opposed to sitting in the office, drinking coffee and ordering other people to do the solving. I always wonder how all these fictional policemen, who break so many of the rules, manage to rise to such high ranks!
I’m not knocking this type of story, there is clearly a market for it and some extremely good authors, but I feel there is an escalating trend to try and shock the reader, usually by an increase in stomach-churning and graphic violence or by making the victims highly vulnerable, i.e. women or children. In the last such crime novel I read, the hero, a detective inspector (divorced, with a daughter as they usually are) was chasing a serial killer whose M.O. was to murder gay politicians by ramming a varied assortment of items up their respective bottoms until they bled to death. Ouch.
This sort of unrealistic crime fiction, with its gratuitous violence, is something I poke a little fun at in book five of the Best Defence series, aptly (if unimaginatively) entitled, Crime Fiction. Perhaps it’s an age thing or perhaps it’s because I deal with so many horrible, real life cases that I find I’m a wee bit scunnered by the glorification of what actress Doon Mackichan recently referred to as "crime porn".
Don’t get me wrong, there is violence in my books, but it’s understated and matter of fact. It’s one ingredient, not the whole cake. In the very latest book, Good News Bad News, out April 2017, I even have the temerity not to kill anyone, which is rare in a crime novel, though hopefully it is still an exciting and interesting read.
So back to the question, no I don’t see the Best Defence series as conventional crime fiction.
For one thing it isn’t written from the viewpoint of police officers or their forensic pathologists, but from the other side of the criminal justice fence. It’s not unique. It’s been extremely well done many times before, most notably in my opinion by Michael Connelly in books such as The Lincoln Lawyer and by John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey stories, but those were California and London – Robbie Munro is all about Scotland, and a lawyer, not unlike myself and many of my colleagues, is trying to cling onto the wreckage of a once proud criminal justice system and do the best for his clients.
Is one motivation behind the Best Defence series the ability to right wrongs and provide a sense of justice that is all too lacking in real life?
That’s a very interesting question. I have a theory that all crime fiction is based on an innate sense of justice and a longing for it to prevail; however, a question I often pose in my books is: what is justice? It’s not as easy to define as you might think. Most people will say justice is the same as the law. Is it?
My namesake William McIntyre, an 18 year old homeless boy from Ayrshire, who moved to Edinburgh for fame and fortune in the 1800s, was hanged for stealing a bale of cloth to sleep under in a local park. Was that justice? It was certainly the law at the time.
As they used to say: "Hang a thief when he’s young, and he’ll not steal when he’s old." So Robbie Munro often faces the dilemma, is it acceptable to bend or break the law in order to secure justice?
That leads to another question: whose sense of justice are we talking about? Everyone thinks their own sense of justice is best – Robbie Munro is no different, perhaps just more determined to achieve it.
How important is humour to the series and to dealing with criminal law in real life?
This is an easier question! Humour is essential to the series and is a thread that runs through each of the stories. It’s not a case of making fun of crime or the victims of crime, it’s about highlighting the peculiar situations that arise in Robbie’s professional and private life, usually through his own fault, because, like the rest of us, he is far from perfect and prone to mistakes – very prone to mistakes.
It seems to me the tendency in legal dramas on TV, especially British ones, is to pack them full of very serious lawyers. Crime and justice are serious matters, no-one’s laughing at them, but there is humour in criminal law, just as there is in every walk of life, dark though it may be at times.
I am sure that even undertakers and oncologists have a laugh now and again. It’s human nature and shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of an artificial sense of realism.
You’ve been called a new writer when the Best Defence series is already well established. How have you found the transition from independent author to being part of a publishing house like Sandstone? Has it made a big difference to how the books are received and their profile?
You’re right, there’s nothing very new about me, but there is no doubt that being "traditionally" published is a boost to one’s ego, if not to one’s wallet. It’s a sign that people who know about these sort of things have recognized a quality in your work and believe it is deserving of a wider audience and that they are prepared to stake their reputation and, of course, their money on it.
I self-published the first five books in the Best Defence series via Amazon Kindle. Does that make them worse than those that are traditionally published? Of course not.
There are some excellent self-published books and self-publishing as an eBook, especially, is an effective way of putting your work out there in the hope that others will notice and appreciate it. Remember, publishers don’t always get it right. Think of all those having sleepless night at knocking back Harry Potter.
That said, the backing of a publishing house – especially one awarded the accolade of Scotland’s Publisher of the Year – brings many advantages. It’s extremely helpful to have a professional editor’s opinion on my writing, an expert eye that can recognise mistakes, such as discrepancies in the mood and voice of various characters in different scenes and to recommend changes – some of which I agree with!
I’m fond of a good rant occasionally, usually on the subject of the criminal justice system, politicians or Legal Aid and sometimes voice this via my character, in which case Sandstone’s editorial director, Moira Forsyth, puts a wee comment in the margin saying "delete, this is you talking, William, not Robbie!"
As for how the published books are received, we will above to wait and see, but the fact that I have the backing of a publisher with Sandstone’s reputation lends immense credibility to my work. Furthermore, from a marketing point of view, where before I had to rely on word of mouth, I now have an excellent publicity officer, who works tirelessly on my behalf.
What does the future hold? Will you stick with Robbie’s adventures or do you have different stories in mind?
I was going to stop after the third book. I thought I had stopped after the sixth, until approached by Sandstone Press in the summer of 2015. Since then I have written another two.
After each book I tell myself I’m going to write something different – I have the initial chapters of few novels on my PC, and each time I finish a Best Defence book, I’m determined to write something different. Then something happens and I think, that would be a great plot for a Robbie Munro story!
At the moment I’m mulling over some ideas. I have a busy professional life and not much time to write, so I let the ideas build up in the back of my mind and when I come to write, usually during the winter months, I lift the flood gates and let it flow out onto the page. Robbie is practically one of the family now, and I’d hate to see him go, so I think we can safely say, God willing, that there will be a ninth in the Best Defence Series.
Present Tense by WHS McIntyre is published by Sandstone Press.
WHS McIntyre will be appearing at the fourth Dark Nights, Dark Deeds Wee Crime Festival organised by Grantown’s Bookmark Bookshop on Friday and Saturday at the town’s Garth Hotel.
Also taking part are Douglas Skelton, Matt Bendoris, Shelley Day, Russel McLean, Neil Broadfoot, Michael Malone, Caro Ramsay, Chris Dolan and Lesley Kelly.
For more information, visit The Bookmark.
Originally posted in The Inverness Courier on the 27th October, 2017.