Interview with Neil White
Neil white is one of Britain’s best known crime fiction writers. Famous for his DC Laura McGanity and Parker Brothers series of books, and more recently, the Dan Grant trilogy, featuring a defence lawyer. The final novel in the trilogy, The Innocent Ones, is out now.
The Crime Hub wanted to find out how a lawyer became such a successful author.
Neil, you started your career as a solicitor in independent practice, then at the Crown Prosecution Service. Was that something you found rewarding?
I did, and still do, in the sense that I still work as a solicitor, albeit as a freelancer, and I found them rewarding for the same reason, that it was about trying to do my best.
As a defence solicitor, I wanted my clients to feel satisfied that I had done my best for them, which as a defence lawyer can mean a number of different things. A shorter sentence than anticipated can be as much of a “win” as an acquittal. Sometimes, defendants just want to feel that someone is standing up for them, because often they come from the most marginalised parts of society, so to have someone sticking up for them is sometimes enough.
Even as a prosecutor, I’ve come across some defence solicitors who I regarded as not particularly able, for arguing nonsense (and I mean nonsensical legal arguments, not simply following their clients’ instructions), but were loved by their clients. I came to realise that making a lot of noise is sometimes all a client wants.
Unfortunately, however, satisfaction from defendants can often be a hard thing to accomplish, because the starting point has to be that the evidence is against them, or else there wouldn’t be a case, it is the nature of many that they expect things to go their way even when it seems obvious that it isn’t.
And it is perhaps a personal failing of mine that I would take it personally if their dissatisfaction was expressed to me, so that I felt like it was my fault, when it was often just a matter of evidential weight. I think I would deal with it better now, as an older lawyer, but as a fresh solicitor, newly-qualified, it was tough.
As a prosecutor, satisfaction came from the results. I would often feel like I had done a good job and achieved some justice for a victim of crime.
Many other times, I felt like all my efforts had been utterly pointless, because the uncertainty of the criminal justice system can never offer any guarantees.
But I like the law. If we met at a social function, I would describe myself as a criminal solicitor, not a writer.
You must have noticed the cuts in the criminal justice system over the years, particularly to the CPS and the police. It must have been very challenging to work in that environment?
Yes and no, to an extent, because of course the CPS is very much police-led, and if the police aren’t investigating as many crimes, not as much comes across the CPS desks, so the workload doesn’t necessarily increase at the same rate as the decrease in staff numbers.
That isn’t to say that it hasn’t become challenging, and it does seem a lot of effort is spent in trying to get more out of not as much. One of the reasons behind my decision to leave the CPS as an employee in 2015 was because for the first time in my career I felt like I had absolutely no handle on many of the cases I was running. There were many other factors, including the signing of a new book contract, but the workload and the way the CPS was having to restructure itself was part of the reason for my unhappiness at the time.
During your time at the CPS did you experience defendants being acquitted by juries of serious crimes, whom you believed were guilty? Or did you always accept that the sanctity of the jury’s verdict?
The simple answer is yes, all the time, and it was frustrating, but equally I accept that it is how the criminal justice system works.
I wouldn’t want to see anything other than the burden of proof as it is, beyond reasonable doubt. Anything less becomes a toss of a coin.
I’m not quite as convinced about the merits of the jury system, as opposed to judges giving rulings, but equally I think judges can be often more problematic in cases than juries.
Every advocate knows that the prospects of success in a criminal case, whether prosecuting or defending, can be changed immensely by the approach of the judge, and probably more so than any inexperience or prejudices brought by the jurors. I have held low opinions of many judges. Of jurors, I would just say that they tried their best (and then blame the judge).
Like many aspects of society’s governance, it’s not a perfect system, but perhaps the best option of the ones available, so you’ve just got to roll with the punches when things don’t go your way.
Are you able to pinpoint a specific event or moment when you decided to start writing?
Probably when going to university gave me the confidence to believe that I could.
I went to university late, when I was 24, and I’ve only got one GSCE (in English), but at school I’d always been able to write stories. It was the one thing I was good at.
When I started my degree, I thought that again it was the one strength I had, the ability to put words on the page, and by then I was comparing myself to people who were always destined for university. Once I started my training contract, I decided to give it a go. It didn’t occur to me, of course, that I was spending six years of my life to qualify as a solicitor, to take my life on a different path, and even before I’d finished those six years I was starting to work out how to do something else. A low boredom threshold perhaps.
How were you able to juggle the demands of being a criminal solicitor with an early writing career?
It took me twelve years to get a publishing contract, so those years weren’t too bad, because of course I had no deadlines to meet, even though at times it felt frustrating.
Once I signed my first publishing contract, it was exciting, so that pulled me along for a while, but it was tiring. For a while, I cut my working hours down to three days a week, which helped, but it is hard to write when you’ve been applying your mind to something else all day. There were times when I felt exhausted, but I was pursuing what I’d dreamed of doing so I had no complaints, even though at times I just wanted to sleep at my desk
When did you get your first publishing deal? That must have been a special time?
My first book contract was signed in November 2006, and my first book, Fallen Idols, was published in July 2007, and was in fact the first crime book published by Avon, as I was part of their launch.
It was very exciting, because there had been so many near misses and I’d started to think it was never going to happen. I was on holiday when I found out that Avon were interested, and I can remember frantically trying to get a signal on my phone so I could call my agent after she had emailed me.
What surprised me, however, was how much my goals changed, but that is human nature. Before then, I just wanted one book on one shelf, to prove I could do it. Once it is that book on that shelf, however, I wanted more.
Many of the main characters in your novels are lawyers or detectives, do you think you could have made it as a crime writer if you hadn’t worked in the CJS first?
I’m not sure. I don’t kid myself that it was just my writing that did it. When I was first approached by Avon, my agent told me that I had to call the person who then became my editor. It felt like a job interview, as no contract had been signed at this point, and I thought I’d be talking about my writing and plans for future books. In fact, all she asked about were cases I’d been involved in, so I realised straight away that a big part of it was the ability of the publisher to sell me to shops as “authentic”.
The truthful answer is, therefore, “perhaps not”.
Is there one novel that you have written of which you are most proud?
It’s a real cop-out of an answer, but I’ll say the last one, The Innocent Ones, simply because as a writer all I can hope to achieve is to make the next book better than the last. But also Lost In Nashville, because I enjoyed writing it the most.
In 2017 Lost In Nashville was published, a complete departure from your other novels, a lawyer’s road trip with his father across America. Why did you write it?
It was the book I always wanted to write. It’s as simple as that. A bit of a hobby book, but I’d talked about it for years.
My father was a Johnny Cash obsessive, so his songs were the soundtrack to my childhood, and I became a fan myself. One day, I was curious about some of the places he sang about, and I realised how close some of them were, and that I could do it as a road trip, and I thought it would make a great book.
My original intention was to write it as a travelogue, but in trying to put some of the research in that form, a Bill Bryson type book, I realised that I couldn’t pull it off. By the time I did the trip, I’d decided to novelise it.
The relationship between the two main characters is deeply moving. Are there any parallels with your own life?
Thank you for saying that, and the answer is very much so.
The first draft was written more like an autobiography, with many aspects of my father’s life included, but in the end I couldn’t do it to the old boy. He wasn’t a bad man. Just wasn’t always a good one. He was never overtly cruel to me. More neglectful. But I always knew which pubs to go to when I wanted to look him up. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have heard from him in decades, but whenever I did look him up, and I always made a point of it at least once a year, we always got on, and chatted over a few pints.
I remember the last moment of quality time I had with him. We used to watch rugby league together when I was a child (Wakefield Trinity is my team), so when Australia were touring I resolved to take him. I did, and when we were both parting, after a post-game pub session, he said, “I’ll keep in touch, I promise.” I smiled and said, “no you won’t”.
He had a major stroke a couple of weeks later and slowly declined until his death last year.
After I’d done the first draft, I realised that there was too much stuff in there that wasn’t fair on him, so I changed the back story. I’m glad I did.
What has been your greatest moment so far as a writer? Seeing your book, Cold Kill, hit the top spot in the kindle charts must be up there?
It is that, probably, and it wasn’t just the kindle chart, but ebooks generally. Someone who knows about these things told me that if ebooks were counted as a book unit, I sold more books in July 2011 than anyone else.
It was fun to see it at the top, but more so because it was something that couldn’t be taken away from me, a number one bestseller.
I do get a thrill out of seeing my books in supermarkets, and my computer is filled with photographs I’ve taken in Tesco and Asda.
Neil tweets from @neilwhite1965