CRIMETIMEPREVIEW talks to writer MP Wright, who turns 50 next month and has just had his first crime novel, Heartman, published to wide acclaim. Not only is it in the running for four CWA Awards, but the BBC and World Productions are adapting his evocative, dark story – about a Barbadian former police sergeant turned private detective in 1960s Bristol – into a series.
The hero of Heartman is JT Ellington, who we meet in the book when he’s virtually down and out during a bitter 1960s winter. He is approached by a wealthy Jamaican businessman in Bristol to find a missing girl, and embarks on a perilous search that takes him into privileged circles, where sexual depravity rides hand in hand with corruption.
Having previously worked as a roadie for the likes of Duran Duran, as a private investigator and in the youth offending and probation services, Mark harboured dreams of becoming a writer for many years. Now, famine has turned to feast and he is in demand, writing more Heartman stories, working on a reboot of classic late-1960s series Callan and even talking to Channel 4 about adapting a story set during the Spanish Civil War.
He lives in Leicestershire with his partner, a school teacher, and their two children.
Can you tell us a bit about Heartman and JT Ellington?
I’ve never been into police procedurals. A lot of my crime-writer friends write them, but I’ve never been into them. But because I’ve worked in that field [probation, youth offending], procedurals always felt dull and unreal to me. I’m looking at my bookshelves now and I can see Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, and I’ve always loved those kinds of writers. Jim Burke and Walter Mosley. I love stories about the downtrodden and downbeat. When you meet Ellington he’s a broken man, and when you leave him, he’s doubly broken, but there is hope. The hope comes from Vic [his cousin, a budding criminal but loyal friend].
You are working on your next Heartman book, All Through the Night. What happens in that?
I was desperate to use real events, so All Through the Night involves corrupt orphanages, which was actually happening in the Sixties in Bristol, and the sale of children to members of US Air Force in based in Somerset. The children were moved out to wealthy childless couples in the US.
I liked the idea of Ellington going on the run with a white child in 1960s Bristol. And the only to do that is all through the night. The TV company loved it. The opening is that Ellington is asked to find a Jamaican doctor who is also an illegal abortionist. He’s run off with a number of death certificates for children who’ve apparently died at orphanages. The certificates are false and the doctor knows this. He’s agreed to sign the certificates for children that have been sold. The doctor takes the next child that is to be shipped out. I take the story to places like the Cheddar Gorge, and TV dictated that we’d end the next book at the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Tony Marchant, the TV dramatist behind series such as Garrow’s Law and Holding On, is developing Heartman for TV. How is that going?
Obviously, my world in the books and his in television are different, and they wanted to expand certain things, which is wonderful, but also they wanted to incorporate a love interest, which I stuck my heels in about. World Productions [makers of Line of Duty, The Great Train Robbery] were very good about that and said fair enough.
I never planned to write more than three Ellington novels. My agent said could you think of something to move Ellington further on. The only thing I could I think of was that the third book, The Restless Coffins, finds Ellington returning to Barbados. I came up with a reason at the end of that book to have him move on into the 1970s. The fourth book, The Rivers of Blood, taken from Enoch Powell’s speech, focuses on 1970 and the blossoming Asian community within Bristol. I liked the idea of showing two different cultures, because neither got on particularly well.
What else will happen to Ellington in future stories?
If Ellington is going to fall in love in the future it should be with a white woman. I want to add oil to the fire. He’s not welcome in St Pauls, he’s not welcome in white society, so he ends up living on a canal boat. He isolates himself.
I always knew that as the books progress, his criminal cousin Vic should become more powerful and darker. I never saw him in the James Lee Burke role of Cletus and Dave Robicheaux. I like the idea that Vic should become more irascible and criminal. That creates a distinct divide, but there’s still the connection of blood.
It looks like they’re going to kick off with filming at the end of this year. The BBC have said they want it sooner rather than later.
Tell me about your background and genesis as a writer.
After A Levels, I became a roadie for the likes of Duran Duran, and then retrained in ’88 as a health nurse working in prisons like Rampton and Broadmoor. Then I moved to the Probation Service, specialised in sex offending monitoring and so forth. Then private investigator. Then youth offending. Five years in high risk youth offending, then early retirement after 25 years service.
I’d written for 20 years and did nothing with it. I enrolled in a creative writing course at Leicester University, tutored by the brilliant Guardian columnist Damien G Walter. I took the bare bones of my book to him in screenplay form and Damien advised to restructure it, telling me it had the makings of a good novel.
The annual CrimeFest in Bristol has a session for wannabe authors to pitch their books to an agent. That’s where you got your break. I’d always wondered whether anyone really ever got discovered at those sessions.
It does work. In May 2011 I pitched to Broo Doherty, David Headley and Camilla Wray. All three of them wanted more. I had an offer of representation from two of them by the end of the week. I was lucky to be introduced to my wonderful literary agent, Philip Patterson of Marjacq Scripts. Phil and I just got on. He’s a lover of real ale and he made very few comments on edits to the book. I think we edited Heartman in less than 14 days.
How difficult was it for you, as a white writer, to create a black protagonist?
It has been a hard slog for the book. We couldn’t flog it to some of the biggest publishing houses in the country because they were worried about a white writer writing about black experience. This was despite the fact that some of the biggest supporters of the book in its earliest days, particularly in Birmingham and Leicester and St Pauls, have been from the black community because it didn’t depict black characters as either being pimps, drug dealers or knocking women around. It’s been read in all the main pubs featured in Heartman, and received fantastic reviews in the national press.
You’re pretty committed to capturing the historical context accurately.
Without getting too heavy about it, it’s my politics. I’m a life-long Socialist. Back in the 1980s, I was a member of the Anti-Fascist League. I grew up in a rural, very racist home. My grandmother was a prostitute, my grandfather was a bareknuckle fighter, my dad took the Queen’s shilling rather than go to prison, joining the Parachute Regiment. It was a loving home but there were no books.
As a debut author to have your first book bought, optioned and then kicked into production, I’ve been reluctant to dig my heels in. But I did want the language to stay the same, it had to be true to history. It would be a disgrace to show it in anything but it’s true sense. One of the things I got wrong in the original draft was that I allowed my characters to go into Bristol pubs, when I didn’t understand what that would have meant. When the early drafts were read within the black community, a guy came up to me and said he loved it but no black man ever went into a pub in Bristol in 1965. They fought to have the right to go in there.
What’s it been like working with Tony Marchant and World Productions? What changes have they made?
We waited 18 months to get Tony Marchant on board. I think he read the book three times, and was keen to get to grips with the character and the setting. I received countless questions – Can we do this? Would that be appropriate for the time?
They wanted to show Ellington getting off the boat [which is not in book], and I was happy with that. That made sense historically and you could create conflict out of that. Then they said, can we get Tony to write a scene in which Ellington approaches Avon and Somerset Police for a job. That’s where I went, that would never happen in a million years. He would have been treated, forgive my language, as a ‘wog’ or ‘coon’. Tony’s worked on things like The Mark of Cain, he’s got a real social conscious. He has that phrase, everything’s political. I’ve got faith that they’ll do the right thing by it.
What I’m looking for is that it’s got to look as good as Endeavour, which is beautiful and feels like it’s in the 1960s. Heartman needs that.
And Ellington has already been immortalised by beer makers!
Beers have been made after the characters in the book. I’m a member of CAMRA, we’ve got a brand new Heartman ale and an Ellington’s black IPA and Ellington’s Extra, which was at the National Beer Festival in London. They really have taken off.
How did you get involved with the new version of Callan?
I was approached by my film and TV agent, Luke Speed at Marjacq. He’d contacted by the James Mitchell Foundation, the trust that looks after Mitchell’s work, including Callan and When the Boat Comes In. Peter Mitchell, James Mitchell’s son, had read Heartman and thought I would be the ideal person to perhaps bring Callan into a contemporary setting.
Callan – about a brutal government hitman, played by Edward Woodward in the original – first hit the screen in 1967. Do you remember it at all?
I grew up with the series as a child and have all the DVDs. I was also a fan of Public Eye and Hazell.
How have you approached your reboot?
I think the character of Callan has got a lot to say about the way the state is run. Are there people like Callan in the world today?
The subtitle for the first episode is One Shot, One Kill, which is a term that military snipers use. In the original books Callan was a Royal Marine. So we’ve still got Callan in the Marines and he has moved onto the Special Boat Squadron. He’s still a sniper.
I knew we had to get the swinging lightbulb in somewhere [which famously featured in the opening titles]. My TV agent also represents Andy McNab and Andy suggested how I could use the lightbulb. So, we’re in modern-day Afghanistan, Callan is with his spotter and he’s following a target. There is a bit of kit snipers use, a lamp that offers light during the night but which is not seen outside. I used that lamp to scan across Callan’s eyes in the opening sequence as he looks down the sight of his rifle.
I have the modern Callan involved in safety deposit box robbery – which has just happened [for real in Hatton Garden]! He’s doing nine years in Wormwood Scrubs and we open with the flicking of a light over Callan’s eyes. He ’s offered a deal – he can work for the section and he’s told the job will involve no violence. He’s asked to keep his eye on a South London bail hostel, watching a Chechen money man. These are Chechen gangsters supplying the parts for a dirty bomb. That’s the basic synopsis for the first story.
I’m working on bringing back all the original characters – Lonely, Hunter, Liz the secretary.
In addition to Heartman and Callan, what other active projects do you have?
Channel 4 is interested in a script I wrote 10 years ago, Skimming Stones Across the Ebro, set in 1937 during Spanish Civil War. I’ve also got a synopsis for an espionage trilogy, with the first book called The Seven Martyrs, which I’m planning out.