A hero for today

Kent Fisher and Columbo

Have you ever read a book or watched a TV programme and wished you could write something as good?

Inspector MorseNeither had I until I saw the original Inspector Morse series. The superb characterisation, complex and intriguing plots, and the beautiful Oxford settings captivated me. About the same time, BBC 1 aired the Miss Marple series, adapted from Agatha Christie’s books.

Both programmes evoked the same emotion and desire to write a complex murder mystery.

At this point, I should tell you I was already a writer. Not a successful one, unless you include the national short story competition I won at the age of 12. That early enthusiasm and promise never quite materialised into something a publisher would want or take – until Morse and Marple got under my skin.

I sensed a brighter future. But first, I needed a hero for my murder mysteries – someone different, someone flawed but principled, charismatic and up to the job.

Police officer or private investigator?

While I’d worked with the police many times as an environmental health officer (EHO), I had no idea how they investigated murders. With DNA evidence making its mark, I thought I’d leave it those who understood such things.

Sue GraftonEqually, I had no idea how private investigators worked. Sue Grafton’s first novel, A is for Alibi, featuring PI Kinsey Millhone tempted me to create my own investigator. The character was feisty, sassy, funny and quite ruthless in completing any job she took. The books were a joy to read.

Could I create a male version of Kinsey?

It took some time for Kent Fisher to evolve. The name took almost as long to create, but that’s a subject for another day. He was tough, determined, single-minded, hopeless in love, and had a good stock of witty one-liners.

But was he flawed?

In his first outings, he was more like Rambo than Morse. That’ll teach me to make him a former paratrooper. He was married to an unsuitable woman. While it seemed like a good idea at the time for extra conflict, I couldn’t imagine him falling for such a woman. Net result – I failed to write with any conviction.

My attempts to make him a PI fared no better.

Thanks to my healthy appetite for Dick Francis, that left me with one option. Many of his heroes were ordinary people, drawn into adventures and investigations that often put them in grave danger.

Kent Fisher became an EHO

Kent Fisher and ColumboAn environmental health officer conjured up an image of a person in a suit, carrying a clipboard and talking like some dreary, faceless bureaucrat. That was how TV writers saw them at the time. It was hardly an image to inspire readers, was it?

So I gave Kent a past as a hunt saboteur and environmental protestor, who chained himself to trees and bulldozers to stop developers destroying the countryside he loved. This ensured he had as many enemies as he had supporters, offering plenty of storylines for the future.

Without thinking, I knew he would live in an animal sanctuary, confirming his dedication to the natural world.

While I doubt if he’s anyone’s idea of a detective, to me he’s a hero for today. He’s an ordinary person who solves the most complex and difficult murders I can dream up.

This posed another challenge – how would an EHO solve a murder? Let’s be honest, during my long career, no one has ever walked into the council offices and asked me to investigate a murder.

I’ll admit I’ve wanted to murder many awkward members of the public, councillors and restaurateurs and publicans over the years. Luckily, I can now do that in my novels.

Finally it came to me – disguise a murder as a fatal work accident. Kent Fisher goes in to investigate with the police. They pass the investigation to him and he uncovers a murder.

Simple.

But no one believes him, of course, so he has to solve it himself.

It led me to the highly original title of No Accident, which was traditionally published in June 2016.

A fresh approach to the traditional murder mystery

Thoroughly modern, with contemporary themes about protecting wildlife and the environment, Kent Fisher was like no other detective out there. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how much you like the traumatised police inspectors with pen-pushing superiors that seem to dominate crime fiction these days.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the part the characters and backstory would play in the hearts and minds of readers. I simply set out to build a world around Kent and fill it with strong, engaging characters that would impact on his life and work.

HarveyAnd that’s before we get to the rescue dog he adopted. Named Columbo after Kent’s favourite TV detective, the West Highland white terrier would become a firm favourite with readers and reviewers.

With his personal life as complex as the murders Kent solved, the story drew in people who didn’t normally read crime. Readers cared about these people, about this world Kent lived in, as much as they enjoyed trying to solve the murders.

But that’s something for another post…


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