Crime writer Leigh Russell tells JULIAN COLE why she has decided to transplant one of her characters to York.
PEOPLE move to York for many reasons, not least because it is a pleasant place to live. What is perhaps less usual is for a novelist to move one of her characters to the city.
Leigh Russell came to crime relatively late in life, with her debut novel Cut Short. Now aged in her late fifties, she is the author of six crime novels featuring her characters DI Geraldine Steel and Detective Sergeant Ian Peterson.
The pair appear together and then apart in psychologically driven procedural novels set in Kent and London. In a new development, Ian Peterson has just been given his own spin-off novel, Cold Sacrifice, at the end of which he announces to his rather unimpressed wife that he’s been promoted and they are moving to York.
Leigh is a noted lover of the colour purple, rarely dressing in any other shade. She is also an almost retired teacher. “I always say the only fiction I ever wrote before Cut Short was on school reports,” she says.
The new series came about after her publishers, No Exit, spotted that she could fair rattle a book out.
“My publisher tumbled to the fact that I am able to write two books a year because I am at it all the time, so they said, ‘What about a spin-off series?’ and Ian Peterson was the obvious thing. When Geraldine moved to London, I had no thoughts of doing another series for Ian, but they sort of kept in touch and she meets up with him in each of her books.”
Crime fiction has been set in York before, although not as much as you might suppose. John Baker’s acclaimed Sam Turner novels have been among the most prominent. Earlier this year, Helen Cadbury published her crime debut, To Catch A Rabbit, and my own Rounder Brothers trilogy might be said to have added to the York noir genre.
Leigh, who lives in Hertfordshire, chose York for a number of reasons, and partly because her husband came to university here.
“And we like York, it’s a nice size,” she says. “London is so vast.
There’s so much going on here, there’s so much history.”
The second Ian Peterson novel, the first one to be set in the city, will start with a death at the York Races. The novel does not have a name yet. Couldn’t it be called Death At The Races?
“It might be,” says Leigh. “I just don’t know yet.” So who is killed?
“You have to read the book to find out.”
Ian Peterson will be living in the south side of York, perhaps around Fulford, and the first York story will be published as an e-book in June, with a print edition due to follow in September. The novel is written and being polished as we speak and Leigh is already starting her new Geraldine Steel novel.
So do you now write a book in six months? “I have to,” says Leigh, laughing.
This suggests that she is a quick writer, but Leigh doesn’t necessarily see it like that. “The writing is not what’s on the keyboard; the writing is what’s in the head. Once I’ve got the ideas, then it’s relatively quick to write them down.”
Her main interest lies in motive and the mental mechanics. “I’m really exploring what drives people to kill. I’m not really interested in the blood and guts. It seems to me that once you get inside we are all more or less the same. It’s what goes on in the characters’ head that interests me.
“I basically try to write a good story with convincing characters.
And so far so good, it seems to work. Because in a way I think everything has been done, the bent copper, the good guy who’s really a bad guy, the bad guy who’s really a good guy. How many permutations can you have?”
Why does Leigh think crime is such a popular genre?
“Okay,” she says, taking a breath.
“It’s goodies and baddies. And I wonder whether if with religion playing less of a role in life today crime has become more popular because it gives us a moral compass.
“There are characters on the side of good and characters who are clearly committing evil acts. Then there’s the tension and suspense.
Then the page turning: when is this killer going to get caught?
There’s the puzzle aspect when you have to try and work out who the killer is.”
All coming soon to a page near you.
• Leigh Russell will be signing copies of Cold Sacrifice in Waterstone’s in York at noon today and at Waterstone’s in Scarborough, on Friday, from 11am to 2pm.
• The first Geraldine Steel novel, Cut Short – which was shortlisted for a CWA Dagger Award – is on promotion at Amazon for Kindle for 99p until the end of the month.