An interview with Keith Wright, the author of One Oblique One, was called for. After reading One Oblique One, I had many questions so I took a chance and emailed him. Guess what? He loves to talk and interact with readers. He generously set aside time to answer my questions.
1: Were you already writing when you were a police officer? If so, what genre did you favor back then? If not, when did you start writing?
I was first published when I was 27 years old in 1990. I had been thinking of writing a book for a while. I was a serving Detective at the time, and I believe I was the only serving officer in the UK who was published. We know that today there are at least 42 serving or former police officers published in the UK and 104 in the USA.*
I wrote a crime novel – ‘One Oblique One’ – (this phrase is police code for ‘Sudden Death’) and I was lucky enough to find a good agent in London and thereafter he obtained a publisher for me. The book was shortlisted for the John Creasey Award for Best debut crime novel of the year. It was the first year that the award was not restricted to the UK and it was won by the terrific American writer Walter Mosley for Devil in a Blue Dress. I was fortunate to subsequently receive excellent reviews in The Times, Financial Times and Sunday Express.
*AB Patterson is an ex-cop in Australia who keeps a Twitter list on the subject.
2: Did you ever have the opportunity to visit police departments abroad? If so, what did you learn from them that you could later apply at home? If not, which department or forensic science lab would you have loved to visit?
I recall being on holiday in Florida at St Pete’s Beach and a cop rode onto the beach on a dune buggy, complete with shorts, sunglasses and trainers. That looked the sort of job that I could take to.
I would be interested in working with NYPD Homicide, or Chicago, to see if their approach is different to our own. I’m guessing that it must be, as the volume of murder in some locations far outweighs that in the UK and so the resource and time to investigate must be lessened. The investigative principles involved will be the same, I feel sure.
3: Now grief counseling and mental health are issues we acknowledge need improvement in the workplace esp. when it concerns our service men and women. What kind of mental health training did you get back then? If non, how would you have developed it to help the younger generation?
We had no mental health training at all. It was a case of learning on the job. I recall as a young uniformed officer; fresh out of the box, being introduced to my Sergeant whose nickname was ‘Strangler Smith’ (it wasn’t Smith). He got the name, apparently, as over the years he had used this method; strangling with his arm around the neck; to the point of unconsciousness, to subdue people when serious and imminent threat to the public or cops reared its head. Apparently, he knew when to release, to avoid killing them. This old guy with wrinkles and leathery skin didn’t speak much. One of the few pieces of advice he gave me was that if there was any ‘aggro’ to keep out of the way so he could strangle them!
I mention this, as my first introduction to mental health issues in the community, involved Sergeant ‘Strangler Smith.’ It was a call to a house, and upon arrival, all the windows were smashed, with curtains flapping, and much maniacal screaming, banging and crashing and weird sounds were coming from inside. It was dark, with all the lights out and the man had a knife. I was, shall we say, a little disconcerted, as a young 19-year-old turning up to deal with this. All the neighbours were outside watching. I wasn’t too sure how to deal with it, but I knew that he could not be allowed to run amok in the street. If he were to try to come outside, he must be tackled. I was only armed with a wooden truncheon and no-one had really said when it could be drawn.
Thankfully Sergeant ‘Strangler’ Smith arrived just as the man ran out. Taking my life in my hands, and desperate to stop him reaching the crowds close-by, I jumped on him, catching hold of the knife arm. ‘Strangler’ jumped on top of us, and pretty soon it was ‘night-nights’ for the poor soul, and he was taken away for assessment and help. I was given a rollicking by my Sergeant for ‘getting in the way’. I later heard he was secretly pleased that I had not bottled it and had the balls to tackle the crazed man. That was my somewhat rude introduction to dealing with mental health issues.
There were many similar occasions, when we had the opportunity to talk to the disturbed person to try to calm them down. It was usually futile, but not always and some element of physical force had to be used for their own or others protection. There was no training attached to how to speak with such distressed persons; just what we felt was right. People who are crazed are often the most frightening of all the jobs to attend. Yet they deserve to be protected and given a chance to get back on track. There but for the grace of God go you or I.
As for our own mental health; as police officers, it was not an issue that was ever mentioned. You would never dream of showing any ‘weaknesses’ to anyone. I remember a particularly bad run, as a young cop, where, over a period of a couple of weeks, I went to numerous baby and child deaths, the worst kind. Some were quite a mess. Closely examining the body in the morgue, traumatic identification by the parents, postmortems. It was something of a strain, time after time, day after day. It was the first time I was visited by the spectre of these incidents when alone in bed. I couldn’t get the images out of my mind for a few nights. I mentioned it to an older guy when on patrol and he just said, ‘You’ll get used to it, kiddo.’ He was right actually.
There is a price to pay for caring, however, and I think the sort of cops who become unfeeling and show no compassion, are, rather than ‘tough guys’, actually those who are struggling the most, and rely on such an attitude as a coping mechanism.
One of the reasons for my revising and republishing the Inspector Stark series was to address the issue of anxiety. It is a complicated subject, and we should be careful that it does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whilst at the same time supporting those at risk, and those helping those at risk. It is a fine balance acknowledging the stresses, versus creating officers who don’t have the moral courage to help those they are employed to help, as well as tackle the evilest in society rather than crumble if someone says ‘boo’ to them. It is not a job for everyone.
4: What are some of the worst police practices you have seen in movies or TV series? Which ones are your favorites?
I think the worst for me are the ‘Murder She Wrote’ style of cozy. Grandma investigates, type of stuff. They help the police at the scene and all that nonsense. I think she should be wrapped in police tape from head-to-foot and escorted from the building. I know there is a place for them, and I get it, but they aren’t for me.
Probably unsurprisingly, I prefer grittier films or TV series. In the UK I liked The Sweeney, and a terrific series called ‘Ashes to Ashes’ set in the 1980’s in a CID office, coincidentally enough. There is a great episode in The Sweeney where the DI is suspended unjustly by lesser men. His response is brilliant, and he eventually tells them to stick it ‘where the sun don’t shine’, when he is re-instated.
I like stories that reflect real-life, but the fiction element enables the story to be totally dealt with in all its nuance, whereas real-life doesn’t necessarily work like that, say on the news or in documentaries. I worry when I see stories in the newspaper where a cop who has worked as a detective or on homicide or undercover etc. and is sacked because in a moment of madness they say the wrong word. It seems unjust to me that someone who has genuinely and repeatedly risked their lives for people of all races and types for the previous thirty years, can be cast aside so callously, because they have been daft. I know, back in the day that people might say something derogatory and yet put themselves in danger to save that same type of person, whilst others did nothing. It is a paradox that the response by the powers that be, (often those who do nothing), purport to be tolerant yet, show a lack of wisdom and tolerance in doing so.
At least people are more aware of the impact that words can have, nowadays, but when things go wrong, as a one-off, like with many things, the response should be measured and proportionate, in educating those who might fall short in moments of stress or behave out of character. Anyway, I have digressed. I also like Brooklyn 99. The humour of course, is a caricature of the main protagonists; an exaggeration, but it sometimes captures interesting issues underneath the premise. Many books and films which include cops are often so dark, that they seem to think that police walk around with a constant furrowed brow. Humour is a main stay in such occupations, often at the darkest moments.
5: You mention on your website that you are revisiting works you wrote many years ago. Can you indicate for the readers what parts of One Oblique One were changed, if applicable, and what inspired you to do so?
As I touched on earlier, ‘One Oblique One’ and indeed, ‘Trace and Eliminate’, and the newly launched ‘Addressed to Kill’, have received a makeover. In One Oblique One I have given Detective Inspector Stark an issue with social anxiety. I have added a couple of regular secondary characters – DI Lee Mole and his sidekick Carl Davidson – these are obnoxious troublemakers who show the less appealing side of the CID, which I thought might be lacking previously in the books. I have improved the character arcs and motivations of some characters (I hope) such as Nobby and Steph (spoiler alert) and Ashley and later Cynthia Walker who is mixed race who has replaced a Welsh character – Barry Marsh who is in the bin, for now at least.
Being a little longer in the tooth nowadays, I feel I can address subjects that I probably by-passed previously, such as the Bechdel Test (which asks whether the piece of fiction features at least two women, who talk to each other about something other than a man!)
I have added or replaced some walk-on characters to reflect the diversity of the type of people the police deal with, often in an amusing manner, I hope. I have also made changes to some of the descriptive prose and dialogue here and there.
There is no grand plan here, other than I felt I could improve the books and the stories for the reader, which is the main raison d’etre. The books were contemporary when I first wrote them, but now offer a glimpse of social history; with all its foibles and faults, as well as, hopefully, entertaining the reader with a cracking story.
6: What is the best writing tip you got and how has it helped you? Any examples?
My agent told me the first day I met him, the rather perfunctory tip, that every scene must have a purpose and not be random, and ideally have a reference to the main protagonist or what his/her view would be.
I also think Steven King’s advice to ‘show don’t tell’ is great advice but it should be born in mind that you must not affect the pace of the book. Always ‘showing’ can draw it out too much, and you can lose the reader. It’s nice to strive for this, however, as a general premise.
Remember it is your book, nobody else’s, not the editor’s, not your agents, not even the publisher’s, or reviewer – they can write their own if they wish. Nobody really knows anything anyway. Writing a mystery can be a mystery.
7: What advice would you give your young self about to embark on a career in law enforcement now that you have retired?
‘To thine own self be true.’
I recall being at the end of my first Training Course at ‘Police Academy’. It was a ten weeks course and our trainer was a Sergeant called, would you believe, ‘Sgt Cockram.’ He had a military bearing, a deep barking voice, and a grey moustache which he curled at the edges. Let’s just say he had a certain ‘presence’ about him. Our course was his last, as he was retiring, after thirty years’ service, (he would have joined around 1950). At the end of the course he gathered us around, as he wanted to ‘tell us something.’ He said that he had been trying to think of one word for us to cling on to as we went in to our thirty years of service, and he completed his. What could this word be, we wondered? ‘Courage’? perhaps. Or ‘Strength’? ‘Diligence?’ A shiver went down my spine when he told us the word. It was ‘Compassion.’ It seemed strange coming from him, but now I know the wisdom of it. I clung on to that word pretty hard during my time in the job.
8: How has your mother influenced your writing?
My mum was a big influence on me. She loved words and writing and poetry. In fact, when she was seventy, she enrolled on an English Writing Course at night school, (she was still working) and passed an ‘O’ level exam on the subject. She was a terrific woman, a single parent who was a fighter; in a good way; fighting for survival.
When I was about fourteen or fifteen years old, I noticed some books in the house. They belonged to mum. I think they were from the Charity shop, or a gift from someone. They were crime novels by Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct series. I read them and couldn’t keep my nose out of them. They were great. This really turned me on to the subject, and the prospect of writing something similar one day was born.
Bizarrely, years later, I was to have dinner with Ed McBain. A few other writers and me. I was on an author’s panel at The World Mystery Convention, Bouchercon. I think it was 1995, and Ed McBain was there with us, there were only half a dozen of us around the table with him. He was at the conference promoting a re-telling of ‘The Birds’ movie by Alfred Hitchcock. He had written the script for the movie under the name Evan Hunter. It was a surreal moment for me and completed the circle. Life is kind of strange like that.
9: What is your favorite genre to read?
I would say, crime, or thrillers. I do like autobiographies as well. I am interested in people I suppose, and the human condition. I’ve always been able to second guess how people will react, or what their next move may be, in given circumstances. It is one of my few talents, and trust me, they are few, but well honed!
10: Can you recommend any books on writing for those thinking about picking up pen and paper?
I think that you should have your own style and mood in mind. I have only read one ‘how-to’ book; Steven Kings book ‘On writing’ which I know is very popular among writers, who rave about it. I was intrigued. It is very good.
Thank you to Keith Wright for answering my questions. His website is here. My book reviews are here. Other interviews can be found here.