Jack Carston

Material Evidence

This is the first of the Jack Carston series, set in the fictional town of Cairnburgh, somewhere near Aberdeen in north-east Scotland. It came about because a publisher (Piatkus) liked a stand-alone thriller I’d sent them but weren’t doing thrillers at the time and asked if I had any police procedurals. I didn’t, but I wrote this and they published it.

I learned a lot from it, not least the value of cutting. My editor suggested reducing the manuscript by some 70 pages. I did, and realised how much better the end result was.

Like all my books, it’s character-driven, but this time the central mystery concerns the character of the victim as well as that of Carston. I decided he wouldn’t be the usual troubled cop with drink or other issues but instead a happily married individual. On the other hand, he does find chores such as administration frustrating and is very wary of the incompetence he sees in the upper layers of the force.

The victim’s described by others as a high-flying businesswoman, a middle-aged drunken depressive and more or less anything else in between. Carston realises that he needs to find out who she really was in order to uncover the truth about her death.  When he does, it’s all worse than he’d imagined.


Rough Justice

The second novel in a series is supposed to be harder to write but, for me, that wasn’t the case. For a start, it was the fourth I’d written but, apart from that, being published has a stimulating effect. It confirms that you can do it, so I was just keen to get this one written. I knew the characters in the CID team already and wanted to learn more about them.

It came from newspaper items about squatters. Even when they take care of – and even improve – the property, they get a bad press while the moneyed people who own it and can afford to leave it empty get all the protection. And, in my daily life, I’d met a person who treated others with contempt, so the story also let me take a wee revenge on him and his ilk.

A couple of murders happen in the world of antiques and there’s also a rape. This wasn’t easy to write but, as the late Susanna Yager wrote in her review, it’s there to push the story on and it helps to make the dénouement more satisfying.

It’s in Rough Justice that Carston’s self-questioning begins. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that would become an important part of his character.


The Darkness

This won the silver medal in the 2011 Forward National Literature Awards for Mystery.

It’s a rewrite of the stand-alone thriller I mentioned in Material Evidence. It’s a combination of first and third person narrative and, once again, it was triggered by revenge – not for me but on behalf of a waiter who was serving us a meal in a restaurant. I recognized his accent, said he was far from home, and he replied that he had to get as far away as possible. His reason – a drunk driver whose actions I’ve described in the book along with their consequences.

The first version was a pretty blunt vigilante story with little shading, but when Carston got involved and started musing on where his sympathies lay in the case, I realized how biased my first version had been and it became a much more nuanced story. It’s had lots of excellent reviews, many of which make the point that, like Carston, the readers’ sympathy for or dislike of particular characters sets up questions about their own morality. One reviewer wrote, ‘get yourself a copy of The Darkness and ask yourself this; what would you do?’


Shadow Selves

Carston was shaken by his self-examination in The Darkness and that continues here. It’s his 4th outing and it takes him into a hospital and a university, where attitudes continue to question the notion of acceptable behaviour. The fact that I was myself a university lecturer has made people suggest that the book’s characters may be based on ex-colleagues. But fiction doesn’t work that way. In the past, I’ve tried basing characters on real people but the real people get in the way, leaving the characters no room to develop.

University and hospital politics are the triggers for much of what happens here, but the main inspiration for it was a visit I made to a hospital theatre to see an operation. I was afraid I’d faint or be an embarrassment in other ways but, in fact, it was a fascinating, instructive experience and left me with even more respect for the people involved.

The twist in the end here surprises even Carston and, once again, is designed to make the reader confront accepted notions of right and wrong.


Unsafe Acts

Working on an offshore platform in the North Sea is tough. When you approach one in a helicopter, it looks tiny in a vast expanse of water. When you’re on it, it’s a huge factory whose products and pressures are explosive.

This novel came from another ‘what if’ question, one involving the need to decommission platforms once they’re no longer profitable. It also explores the subject of homophobia and the law’s seeming ambivalence towards punishing ‘queer-bashers’.

It’s the fifth in the series, and it sees Carston dealing with a couple of murders, fraud and the offshore mystery. At the same time he’s trying to minimise the damage done by a dangerously inexperienced member of his team and answer a disciplinary charge made by a vindictive superior officer.

Luckily, his wife Kath is always there to keep him sane.