For as long as I can remember my fascination with all things crime came with a distinctly American flavour. I grew up in a foster home. Kitty (my elderly foster mother) watched Kojak, Hawaii 5 0, Hill Street Blues, CHiPs and just about every cop show that could be caught on a two-station black and white television set the size and shape of a packet of cornflakes. I was her willing companion (plus it meant I got to stay up late and hot chocolate).
The seed was sown. As soon as I could I left behind Enid Blyton and Judy Blume novels and discovered Joseph Wambaugh and Stephen King. I loved the horror novels, but it was crime that drew me in and kept me hooked. I was amazed at how people spoke in crime novels, stunned by the wit and black humour, and in awe of the tension and violence. It became something of an obsession with me to get my paws on as many crime novels as possible, books that had Kitty ever cracked their spines would immediately have been confiscated (I’m trying to picture Kitty’s expression had she read some of the exchanges between ‘Spermwhale’ Whalen and ‘Roscoe’ Rules in The Choirboys). I had an ally in Kitty’s husband, a garrulous ex-army man, who plied my interest with both tales of war and dog-eared paperbacks, where men shot first, asked pertinent questions later, and always with a mysterious broad skulking in the shadows.
I did read a few English based novels too; Minette Walters, Colin Dexter, PD James, but my heart (my ‘grá’) was for American crime. It never once occurred to me that the Irish crime novel was mysteriously absent. I guess Irish crime didn’t feature much in my imagination.
That was all to change.
By the time I was considering writing my own novels the much-ballyhooed Celtic Tiger had landed on Irish shores and we, as a nation, promptly lost the run of ourselves. We were rich on paper, buoyed by an increasingly inflated property-bubble. In tandem, with our newfound artificial wealth, crime in Ireland flourished. Whereas before it had been largely parochial, now we had drugs, gangs and organised crime. Certainly there was plenty to write about, plenty to witness and record.
My first novel, Vicious Circle, was set in Dublin; as too were the next five, when I created the QuicK Investigation series (with detectives John Quigley and Sarah Kenny).
But then came my seventh novel, The Chosen.
The story had been kicking about in my head for months before I wrote a single word. The main premise was a hunt, where ‘he’ could pit his wits and his cunning against ‘she’.
Once I had the bones of the story in my head I went in search of suitable terrain and it was during this search I learned that ‘remote’ does not fully exist in Ireland. The country is simply too small not to run into someone else, either out walking a dog, cycling, or hiking.
Glumly I retired to a rock in the Wicklow Mountains, and, as a sudden squall exfoliated my epidermis, I pondered where to loose my killer, now named Caleb Switch. He was not the sort of man who would risk discovery by accident. He needed space and for that I needed remote.
And just like that it hit me. West, I needed to go West.
I searched for appropriate areas and settled on the mountainous region bordering Tennessee and North Carolina, and promptly roped my pal Kris (Delaware) into my plans. I struck gold here too as Kris’s boyfriend, DK, is a hunter and was kind enough to explain weapons to me (seriously, guns and crossbows are heavy, who knew?). Days later we set off on a long drive from Philly to North Carolina and my research began in earnest.
I had my trusty Canon and a tape recorder with me so I documented everything. There was a fair amount of climbing and hiking involved, and some terrific spills down some pretty steep banks (you’ll notice these appear in the book, hurts like hell, but informative). I had a long and alarming chat with a ranger in Pisgah National Park (‘you get lost here, honey, you’ll most likely stay lost) and spent a fascinating afternoon out in Marshall County with a master-craftsman called Mike Treadway, who, with the help of his wife, designs and builds takedown bows of lethal beauty. Mike was even kind enough to teach me how to shoot one, and the highlight of my trip came when I shot a foam deer out back of Mike’s workshop!
The following day, my arm bruised from recoil, I sat in a restaurant eating collared greens and baked fish. I was listening to the accents around me and on my second cup of excellent coffee when I realised something. As far from home as I was, everything was familiar. Better than that, it was as I had hoped it would be. The terrain was perfect, the people splendid; everyone had been so incredibly helpful and generous with both time and hospitality. I left the South determined to return as soon as possible.
By the journey’s end, back in Philly, I was sad to leave, but eager to get home to start writing. The Chosen is my first novel set wholly outside Ireland and as such I send it out with both pride and trepidation. I hope so very much it is enjoyed, and that I do a fantastic country justice.