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Neil Lancaster heard a story at a gathering and knew he would love to write about it – the hardback of his award-nominated book is out today!

By Margaret Chrystall

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BLACK Isle crime writer Neil Lancaster has paid tribute to the man who inspired his new crime series – the hardback is out today (September 16).

Dead Man’s Grave was already longlisted for the Scottish crime book of the year award, the McIlvanney Prize, before it comes out in book form. It was released as an ebook and audiobook back in July.

Neil Lancaster, his new book Dead Man's Grave is out on Thursday, September 16..
Neil Lancaster, his new book Dead Man's Grave is out on Thursday, September 16..

And before the debut Max Criagie series novel even made the bookshelves, Neil was working on the second draft of the third book in the series to feature Black Isle and former Metropolitan Police officer Detective Sergeant Max Craigie.

Dead Man’s Grave opens with a dedication to Scot John Fisher.

Neil had met John, a former police officer who emigrated to Australia, in Pitlochry over Christmas in 2019 – and John had told Neil a story.

“I’d been visiting friends in Pitlochry at Christmas-time and met John who had lived in Australia for many years but still had his Scottish accent!” Neil recalled.

"He told me about this gravestone he had come across that said ‘This grave never to be opened’.

“I came home all fired up thinking about it!”

In the months after that, Neil thought about what he would do with his ‘spark’, but was busy working on the third book in his existing crime series which features part-Bosnian, Highland-fostered former undercover cop, Tom Novak.

But by last summer, Neil had managed to do some internet research to locate the cemetery where the gravestone might be.

“It’s just outside the village of Latheron in Caithness. I ended up looking at satellite images as we were in lockdown.

“And I started writing a story.

“My thought process was, ‘What if someone did open the grave?’

“I didn’t want to write anything historical or about the pandemic, but a contemporary thriller.

“So I came up with the idea of an old feud that involved a big Scottish crime family and its head, a dying man – and I just started writing.

“I didn’t realise till Ian Rankin read it and liked it that the story had morphed from a police procedural into a conspiracy thriller!"

Not everyone has the privilege of the opinion of one of the country’s favourite bestselling authors!

But Neil has been lucky enough to have had some encouragement along the way in his career from some top writing names, such as Ian.

Also, it was Tony Parsons – one-time teen music writer, now creator of the DC Max Wolfe crime series – who had previously enjoyed the Tom Novak books and now suggested Neil should write a one-page pitch about the new story to send to publishers.

New book was inspired by the story of an unusual grave stone.
New book was inspired by the story of an unusual grave stone.

Neil had already found an agent, Robbie Guillory of the Kate Nash Agency.

Having started talking over Twitter, when Neil had mentioned the grave idea, literary agent Robbie had loved the idea and had asked Neil to get back in touch if he wrote something about it.

“I sent Robbie the pitch and he asked me to send him the 15,000 words I had written by then.

“He read it, got back in touch and said he would like to represent me.”

Finally, it came down to two different publishers which were keen to take on what would become Dead Man’s Grave.

Neil went for the three-book deal offered by Harper Collins HQ who brought out the ebook and audiobook of Dead Man’s Grave in July and the hardback which comes out today (Thursday).

With the three Max Craigie books he has written in the last year, Neil has had a busy lockdown.

Neil Lancaster with his dog Peggy on the Cat's Back near Strathpeffer.
Neil Lancaster with his dog Peggy on the Cat's Back near Strathpeffer.

Walking with his Cocker Spaniel Peggy is one form of relaxation – he shares that with new hero Max who has his own dog Nutmeg and she acts as an antidote to his dangerous bid to take on a ruthless crime family and the corruption they have planted into Police Scotland.

Despite the authentic procedural detail Neil brings to the story from his own past in the Met and specialist surveillance experience begun in the Forces, the counterpoint is thrilling storytelling that nails the page-turning quality any successful crime novelist needs.

The secret to that is hinted at throughout an interview with Neil. You almost lose track of the number of times he describes various aspects of creating everything from the characters to the themes he chooses to weave into the story, as “fun”.

And his enthusiasm for his new occupation as a crime writer bubbles up throughout the conversation.

First, you get a flavour of how much he enjoyed creating his mainman Det Sgt Max Craigie – and his unique sidekick, Detective Constable Janie Calder.

Neil outlines the man he has created to lead his new set of books.

“Max joined the army as a young man and went to Afghanistan, where there were obviously some difficult times which impacted on him.

“And there was a difficult situation when he was at the Met in London where he shot someone – and he has PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

“But I didn’t want the PTSD to define him. I was really keen to show that aspect.

“I know a lot of soldiers – my son is a Marine and he has gone through multiple tours of war zones and though he doesn’t suffer from PTSD he knows a lot of people who do.

“And many people are adept at managing it and not making it the centre point of their life.

“So I want it to be there for Max – and for him to have his troubles, and his demons.

“He is a lot more emotional than, say, Tom Novak from my earlier series.

Testing times for Neil Lancaster's hero Tom Novak.
Testing times for Neil Lancaster's hero Tom Novak.

“Tom Novak obviously is very cold, very clinical, he could kill someone and not turn a hair.

“But Max isn’t like that. He is emotional, he is also a married man even though there is marital difficulty, he very much loves his wife.

“I wanted him to be a happy man, a married man, but a man with demons.

“But I wanted him to have demons that he lives with, that he manages.

“The whole story about PTSD is that people are running round beating up everybody, drinking all the time and smashing up the house. Well, of course that’s not the case.

“Like everything, there are degrees of PTSD and Max sits somewhere in between. It’s a factor in his life, but it doesn’t rule his life.

“But I like writing him. I think he is a fun character to write and I really enjoy writing his relationships – with his sidekick Detective Constable Janie Calder and I love writing Ross [Max's boss, Detective Inspector Ross Fraser, also a Highlander, but originally from Dingwall]. He is bluff, crass, loudmouthed, but under it all he’s a great guy.

“So writing those characters and those relationships was a whole heap of fun to do.”

The crime family Max is up against, the Hardies, are powerfully painted.

So was it imagination or Neil’s own experience from his past that provided the inspiration?

It turns out that Neil went both ways in his bid to create a believably chilling set of criminals.

“Yes, both to be honest. I looked at major villains I worked against in London, but also very much back in the 60s and 70s and 80s you had Arthur Thompson who was the godfather of Glasgow.

“I was a little influenced by that and then thinking back to major criminal networks in London, like in London you have the Adams family, known as ‘the A team’.

“So there was a touch of that, where, yeah, they’re from the rough side of the tracks.

“But the Hardies become slightly cultured along the way. And whereas Tam Hardie senior is very much a rough Glasgow gangster, his kids are far more cultured, they had been to good schools, they were clever, it made them more of an enemy because they were more manipulative. They weren’t just yobs. I think it made them more formidable.

“They were fun to write, but horribly ruthless. When you think what they are willing to do just to try and show that the Hardies are still a force to be reckoned with.”

There’s a warmth in Neil’s creation of Max’s dog Nutmeg that probably comes from having a dog himself, his cocker Peggy.

Neil Lancaster uses his own background in his adrenalin-packed books.
Neil Lancaster uses his own background in his adrenalin-packed books.

Neil laughed: “I gave her a cameo in two of the Novak books, so thought I couldn’t really use her here, so I turned to my friend’s dog – a little shaggy blonde cockapoo and thought that was a fun thing to do as well.

“It gives Max a bit of an extra dimension that this rough tough cop has got this slightly girly dog, to be honest!

“I thought it gave his character a little bit of sensitivity really.”

It turns out Max and Janie have very contrasting music tastes, as we find out in this first book in the series.

“I think that binds them together to have something in common, they are both orphans so to speak, even though they both knew their parents. But Max was brought up by the army, Janie went into the public school system, then university – and the team are quite mean to her.

“So I like that they go on a journey together.

“I’ve written these books so quickly, three in a year – which has been quite hard, actually,” Neil admitted.

“It’s been a bit of a brain melt!

“But because I’ve been doing it quite quickly, it’s allowed me to track the progress of the characters and how they interact and how they bring each other along, so that has been really interesting to do.”

Despite working so hard and so quickly on getting the three Max Craigie books written, Neil thinks he may have an idea for the fourth Tom Novak book too.

“I’d like to say that hopefully we will see more of both characters. But I also have to leave myself enough gap to let the creativity come back!” Neil laughed.

“You’ve got to have a bit of a break to let the ideas come.

“You need the stimulus, you need to be reading the papers, watching films, watching telly and reading books.

“It’s been hard to find time to read because my brain is going so much with what I’m actually trying to create, so to try and read has been tough.

“And it’s important obviously that you do keep reading – and reading well and reading widely to improve as a writer.

“Hopefully I’m improving as a writer. I think I can say more with fewer words now.”

But Neil has been keeping his finger on the pulse of contemporary real-life issues which fuel the storyline and themes of Dead Man’s Grave.

“I’ve always been interested in corruption it has always held a place in my books. It really interests me how it happens.

“What are the weaknesses that make quite often good people become corrupt. When a major criminal has a PC they can get their claws into – and ‘how’ could be something really small and it could just involve a few quid, but once you cross that line from being honest, to corrupt, it’s almost like you can never go back.

“And that was a theme I wanted to explore, how a man at a very high level in the police could be corrupted because of one small thing he did many years ago.”

Neil Lancaster.
Neil Lancaster.

The corruption issues will continue into the second book, which Neil says should be out at the beginning of next year.

“I think we are moving into slightly Line Of Duty territory – the Scottish Line Of Duty.

Though he works in Central Scotland, Max has been given Black Isle roots by Neil.

“I want to make these books very Scottish and I know this area because I live here, so it makes it easier to write about.

“Although I’ve got Max living in the Central Belt, I wanted his feet in the Highlands.

“I really loved writing about Caithness because it is such an amazing landscape.

“When I finally visited the grave site I was just blown away by it. It’s just North of Latheron up the A9.

“I had to walk for nearly an hour to get to this tumbledown burial ground.

“I don’t know when the last person was buried in there - I suspect it was not far off 200 years ago. Nearly all the gravestones are fallen down, it’s completely overgrown and I couldn’t believe how remote it was.

“It’s this tiny little burial ground which is only the size of a big room with all these tumbledown gravestones and the weeds and then the bracken and everything, but there was the grave ‘This grave never to be opened’.

“The wind was howling and I was just thinking ‘How did this get here?’. Where was the community? It was just a fantastic amazing place, so eerie.”

Neil paused: “And if it wasn’t for that conversation that Christmas in Pitlochry in 2019, I wouldn’t have written this book.

Neil has one regret about his new book – that John Fisher who inspired it will never read it. Sadly, John died in January.

“But his son had told John before he died about the part he had played in the book being born and that it was dedicated to him,” Neil said.

“This book has put me in the realms of a big publisher with the potential to hit an awful lot more readers.

“All of it sparked out of that one conversation over a couple of glasses of whisky – and that’s why I dedicated this to John.”

Dead Man’s Grave is already out on ebook and audiobook. The hardback book (HQ), is £12.99 at Waterstones, though prices vary, is out today (Thursday, September 16). Keep in touch with Neil’s latest news on Twitter: @neillancaster66 And on Neil's website: https://neillancastercrime.co.uk/ And Neil is one of the panellists on the crime writing festival Bloody Scotland's Murder, Polis event on Friday (Sept 17) from 8.30pm online. Tickets £5, details here: https://bloodyscotland.com/events/

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