NI Troubles the inspiration for series of crime thrillers

John in Kyoto, Japan where he lived for 13 years and met his wife
John in Kyoto, Japan where he lived for 13 years and met his wife

Northern Irish author John Steele has been nominated for a crime writer’s award for a book he wrote as a bet with a friend.

Having accepted a pub wager, the 46-year-old set about using his experience of growing up during the Troubles to inspire the first of a series of fictional books based on terrorism, collusion and organised crime.

Author John Steele

Author John Steele

The end product – entitled Ravenhill – has been nominated for a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Dagger Award.

John said: “The CWA Daggers are the UK’s biggest crime and thriller fiction awards.

“Ravenhill has made the long list which is 10 from 84 in my category (John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award for the best crime novel by a first-time author of any nationality first published in the UK in English during the judging period).

“The short list will be out in just under two weeks. So fingers crossed I’m on it.”

John continued: “I wrote ‘Ravenhill’ for a bet. I was living abroad for a lot of years. I moved back to Belfast in 2010 with my wife. I couldn’t get work in Belfast so I ended up coming to England where I got a teaching job.

“A mate of mine who is a Londoner, we were having a drink one night, and he knew I had already written short stories that I had published, he said why don’t you write a novel. I said I didn’t have the time.

“He set me a date and bet me a night on him in the pub that I couldn’t have it written by then.

“Then my wife got pregnant which was good because it gave me a deadline – I had to get the first draft written by the time my daughter was born.”

Then came the next hurdle for the Belfast man.

John said: “The problem was what to write about. I grew up with crime thrillers on TV like ‘The Professionals’ and seventies New York films like ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3’. They say write what you know, so I thought, I’ll write about Northern Ireland.

“There’s been so much written about here – from the likes of Gerald Seymour, Jack Higgins, Stuart Neville, Colin Bateman – so I thought what can I do a little different.

“I thought, nobody’s really written about east Belfast which is where I’m from. The first book is very much about the paramilitaries in east Belfast and about the RUC.

“It’s not solely in the past or present. The book is set in the mid 90s just before the peace agreement and in present day (in the literary sense).

“The main character Jackie Shaw is embroiled in the paramilitary scene in east Belfast in early 90s then he disappears, rumoured to have been shot dead by the Army.

“Then he turns up 20 years later for his father’s funeral. The guys he had been involved with in the past get their hooks into him again but he’s not who they think he is.”

He commented: “My publisher is an independent – Silvertail Books – who took me on despite many larger publishers complimenting the novel but turning it down because, in their words, ‘Northern Ireland doesn’t sell’.”

He explained why the book is dedicated to his daughter Hana, now four: “It’s written for my daughter even though I wouldn’t want her to read it until she’s at least 18.

“I lived in New York, in Hungary and then spent 13 years in Japan. I married a woman I met in Japan and our daughter was born in England.

“My wife Tomoe doesn’t really get Northern Ireland even though she lived here for a year and my daughter will get it even less.

“This is my way of trying to make some sense of the Troubles for her. I realise it’s only one narrative.”

He added: “Like myself, the main character was away from Belfast for a long time and when he comes back everything is so different, times have changed and he feels a certain sense of disconnect.

“I was never involved with paramilitaries nor was I in the police, but I’ve known people who were affected by the Troubles. I was born in 1972. You couldn’t have grown up in Northern Ireland at that time and not known someone who was affected by it.

“I did talk to people when I was writing the book to get background.”

John’s second book – Seven Skins – was published last month.

It carries on the Jackie Shaw series, but is based in London where the hero is pulled into a conspiracy involving collusion, former republican terrorists, organised crime and a trafficked young girl from eastern Europe.

The third book in the series will be set in Japan, with a fourth possibly set in New York.

John was recently in Belfast’s Waterstones for an event in connection with his new book, which is now on sale in the store. The evening involved an interview with NI crime writer Anthony Quinn.