Manchester has everything a crime writer needs

Interview of Neil White by Bernard Strainchamps (November 21, 2014)

Neil White is a criminal lawyer and a writer. He is based in Manchester.

Why did you choose Manchester?

I’m a criminal lawyer. I used to be a defence lawyer and trained in Manchester, so the early part of my legal career was in Manchester. I’m a prosecutor now and the area in which I prosecute includes Manchester. It just seemed to be the natural choice. As a city, Manchester has everything a crime writer needs. Plenty of inner city problems, dark narrow streets, and surrounded by brooding moors. There are plenty of opportunities for settings.

You worked on oppositions between the characters: brothers, ex-lovers, generations, criminals. Furthermore, at the half of the novel, the reader knows more than the protagonists. Could you say few words about the construction of the novel?

I wish I could say that I set out with some particular method of construction in mind, but I’m not that scientific. One thing I do like to have is at least three strands, however, with one being the principal strand. These allows me to switch between the strands throughout the novel, which hopefully keeps the pages turning, as the reader will want to find out what happens with the other strands.

As for the rest, it is usually just me thinking “what can happen next” and then working out what I think works and what doesn’t. I plot as I go along, to an extent. I know the ending and who does what, but I don’t set out a strict plot outline as I think of things as I’m writing, which allows me to develop the plot rather than merely writing what I’d planned out.

Since “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris, there have been many thrillers on serial killers, each one nastier than the others. Where does your interest in psychopaths come from?

Murders have always fascinated, and I think this is because people are interested in the darker sides of the human minds. Perhaps it is amazement at what some people can do, or even the enjoyment of people doing something horrific that they have thought of doing but never acted out.

People like to be scared too. The advantage of a crime thriller over, perhaps, a ghost story or horror story, is that firstly it poses questions then solves them, like who did it and why; people are naturally inquisitive and want answers. Secondly, there is the horror of knowing that whatever is in the pages could equally happen in real life. I can say that I have seen crueller and more gruesome things in real cases than many acts set out in crime novels.

Crime has always interested me. It’s those dark corners of the mind that I find fascinating. When I was training to be a lawyer, I only ever imagined myself as a criminal lawyer. I imagined myself in a courtroom, not a boardroom. Even as an experienced criminal lawyer, I’ve been practising now for twenty years, I am still staggered at the crimes people commit, from the terrible to the bizarre. Human beings are interesting and complex and unpredictable. Crimes demonstrate that more clearly than anything.

You don’t spare Joe Parker, your criminal defence lawyer. Whose side are you on?

As a prosecuting lawyer, I couldn’t resist making it uncomfortable for a defence lawyer. Equally, however, I did want to show the reality of being a defence lawyer, as it is in England. I think of myself as a criminal lawyer who happens to prosecute, rather than as just a prosecutor, if you get my distinction.

How did you come to write crime novels?

I had wanted to be a writer for a long time before I became one. It was the one thing I could do well at school, put words on the page. Once I’d finished my legal studies, I started to write, although it was a long time before I was eventually published. As for the choice of crime fiction, it was only ever going to be crime fiction, as that is what I read. My goal was simple: to write a book I would want to read, and I have kept to that.

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