A major annual event in UK publishing circles is the arrival of a new novel by Martina Cole, one of Britain’s biggest-selling crime writers. Born in 1958 and reared in Essex, an English county that merges into East London (where I worked for more than a decade), her stories explore the struggles of the under-classes and inner-city deprivation, and the links between those and violent crime. I have to warn those of you with milder dispositions: Martina Cole’s work pulls no punches. It’s tough, violent, and replete with profanity. Yet, despite the darkness, her yarns show real heart and compassion amongst the knuckle-dusters, pimps, and murderers about whom she writes.
Her latest work, The Business, is no exception, and upon its release this month, it shot straight to No. 1 on the UK bestseller charts.
I was delighted to receive an invitation from Headline Publishing to attend the launch party for The Business. It was to be held at the exclusive private club Dolce, close by Piccadilly Circus in London’s West End. The invitation indicated that the British blues/alt-country group Alabama 3 would provide the entertainment. This was great news, as I hadn’t seen them perform since they played for Stephen King in 2006. Together with the invitation came a review copy of The Business and this intriguing synopsis of Cole’s new story:
Imelda Dooley is scared. Really scared. She’s played hard and fast and now she’s been caught. She’s pregnant and now she’s on her own. Her father, not a man to mess with, will see that somebody pays for this. And it’s not going to be her. So Imelda Dooley tells a lie. A lie that literally causes murders. When Mary Dooley’s husband is killed in the night’s events, she knows she must graft to keep the family afloat. And graft she does, becoming a name in her own right. But she still has to watch her daughter’s life spiral into a vicious, hate-fuelled cycle of drugs and prostitution. Caught up in the carnage that is Imelda’s existence are Mary’s adored grandchildren, Jordanna and Kenny. Pretty little Jordanna isn’t yet three and she already knows far too much. All she can do is look after her baby brother, Kenny, and try not to draw unwanted attention to herself. Set in the East End of London from the tail-end of the seventies up until the present-day, THE BUSINESS is a tale of drugs, prostitution and a young girl’s fight for survival--against all the odds.So as I selected a decent suit and dusted off my raincoat, I went back over in my head what I knew about Cole and how she’s managed to remain grounded despite her expanding popularity. What most readers don’t understand is that, as a consequence of her own tough upbringing and early adulthood, she has become an avid lobbyist for women’s rights in the prison system and does charity work for underprivileged women. In fact, she once told me tragic tales of women from South America and Africa who remain incarcerated in the British penal system, because they were so desperate to support their families, they allowed themselves to be duped into becoming drug-running “mules.” Cole helps where she can, as most of these women speak very little English and cry themselves to sleep for the children they left behind.
Martina Cole knows a little about hardships, as Jonathan Margolis of The Guardian explained in 2001:
Cole still lives close to her roots, as well as her material, near Tilbury, though in a big house now rather than the carpetless council flat she shared with her baby when she started writing. She was 20 then, but kept the manuscript of [her first novel] Dangerous Lady in a drawer for a decade. Then an old woman she was nursing told her that when you’re old, it’s the things you didn’t do that you regret, not the things you did. On the way home, she saw an electric typewriter in a shop, bought it for £200 with a tax rebate she’d just received and sat down for six months to re-craft her story. Then she picked an agent, Darley Anderson, from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook because she liked the name and assumed from it that he was a woman. Anderson, an old-school gentleman, thought it at first extraordinary that a woman could write something so gritty, but read it in a day and phoned her immediately. “‘Martina Cole?’, he said, he was ever so posh. I said ‘Yes?’. He said, ‘You are going to be a star’. I was like, “’S’cuse me?’.” Anderson quickly got her a £150,000 publishing deal.Arriving at Dolce on the appointed night, I was most impressed with the swanky venue. Security was tight; my invitation was carefully cross-checked against the guest list. Inside, the club was heaving, and the wine flowed liberally, courtesy of Headline Publishing, which really knows how to look after one of its major stars. The whole party reminded me of a glitzy film event, which is no surprise, since Cole’s work has been televised for many years and she has written for the small screen herself. This year, she has two shows airing in Britain. ITV3 (which has really begun to focus on crime fiction) is currently broadcasting a documentary series called Martina Cole’s Ladykillers, which probes into the comparatively rare phenomenon of female serial killers. And later in the year we’ll be treated to Martina Cole’s Girl Gangs, another documentary crime series.
No sooner had I shed my raincoat and pulled out my trusty camera, than Cole appeared. Looking at my camera she laughed, which reminded me of the time in 2003 when we met actor Herbert Lom. She kindly signed a copy of The Business, which is to be given away in an upcoming competition in Shots. And as she scribbled some words to that future contest winner, she told me how excited she was that Alabama 3 would be playing at her party.
With the signed novel in my sweaty palms, I left Cole to mingle with her steady stream of admirers. I trod off instead to have a chat with Headline’s senior editor, Vicki Mellor, about a new thriller she’s unleashing called Afraid, by Jack Kilborn. I heard about this book a few years ago, so already knew that “Kilborn” is in fact American wordsmith Joe [J.A.] Konrath. The premise of this forthcoming novel is terrific. I defy anyone not to be hooked by this synopsis:
The U.S. government spends billions of dollars training soldiers to kill. Now they’re attempting an alternative approach. Instead of turning soldiers into killers, the military has trained five psychopathic murderers to be part of a classified Special Forces unit.I had a chance to talk with Konrath at Bouchercon in Baltimore and was amused to discover that the British are publishing Afraid first, thanks to Mellor, who’s Konrath’s UK editor and has a very keen eye for quality crime fiction. Afraid will be released next month in the UK, but Americans will have to wait until April 2009 for their own edition. As I type these words, a review copy of Afraid is reportedly zinging its way to my mailbox, and trust me, I can’t wait to dig into it. I have a feeling this will be Konrath’s breakout novel.
Codename: Red Ops.
They are the most fearsome weapon ever created, meant to be dropped behind enemy lines. Their goals: Isolate. Terrorize. Annihilate. Five Hannibal Lecters with Rambo training. But something horrible has happened...
Welcome to Safe Haven, Population 907.
A tiny community of families, retirees, and artists, nestled between Big Lake and Little Lake MacDonald in the northwoods. One road in, one road out, thirty miles away from everything. A town so small and peaceful they don’t even have a full-time police force.
Hell has come to Safe Haven.
On their way to a mission, the Red Ops helicopter has crashed just outside of town. The team is now roaming free in the wilderness, heading for the nearest lights. Heading there to do what they do best.
Soon the phone lines are cut, the cell phones jammed, and the road blocked. Safe Haven’s only chance for survival rests on the shoulders of an aging county sheriff. And as the body count rises, he’s quickly realizing something terrifying--maybe the Red Ops haven’t come to his small town by accident ...
Safe Haven, Wisconsin. Population 907 ... 906 ... 905 ...
Also present at the Martina Cole party were Headline publicity supermo* Russ Hulbert and editorial director Jane Morpeth. Morpeth was excited about her recent purchase of UK rights to Carol O’Connell, as she finds that American author’s work stunning. I thanked Jane Morpeth for sending along a copy of O’Connell’s newest, Bone by Bone; she knows that I am a big fan of O’Connell’s Kathleen Mallory books and that O’Connell’s Judas Child (1998) is one of my all time favorite novels.
At this point, Cole swung back my way, and I escorted her outside for a smoke. (Yes, after my valiant attempt to quit the vile weed, I am back to the smoking habit--at least for the short term.) While recharging the nicotine in our systems, we saw the members of Alabama 3 arrive. Spotting Martina, they came over and lit up their own cigarettes. Lead singer-songwriter Larry Love (aka Rob Spragg) stared at me intensely and kept remarking, “I recognize you.” Then he’d laugh. Finally, he said, “Yes, you’re the guy who stuck up our jam session with Stephen King on YouTube, aren’t you?” My laugh in response was more of the nervous sort, as I suddenly worried that he was going to sue me for copyright infringement. But I admitted that the responsibility was mine. After which the group’s manager came over and said, “Man, that clip--it’s been viewed like over 4,000 times!” While Cole was occupied with some of the other smokers, I had a long conversation with the Alabama 3 folks. I asked Larry Love how this cult British band ended up fronting the theme tune to David Chase’s HBO series The Sopranos. He’d obviously been asked this a million times, but remained excited, telling me how they got the gig for The Sopranos--a story that was also reported by BBC Wales:
Welsh singer Rob Spragg, from Nelson, Caerphilly, said they were “blessed” to be associated with the series.Following our smokes, Alabama 3 were ushered inside to set up for their gig, but before they left, they invited me to their next concert at The Shepards Bush Empire on Thursday, December 4. As he shoved off, Larry Love said, “I love crime novels!”
Spragg, better known as Larry Love, said Sopranos writer and creator David Chase was making the same journey as Tony Soprano when he first heard the track.
He told BBC Radio Wales: “Initially I think David was going to have different songs for each episode but he heard our track and said, ‘This is the one’. He didn’t know who we were. He just heard the band was called Alabama 3, which seemed to create some confusion.
“Initially they thought we must be from Alabama, then they thought we were four kids from San Francisco, although the best theory was that we were three young black lads from the Bronx!
“Then of course he found out we were actually a Welshman and a Scotsman living in Brixton, London, pretending that we were from Alabama!”
As Cole and I rejoined her party, we found it in full swing. She was summoned to the front of the room, where she joined Headline Publishing’s managing director, Martin Neild, and the man who discovered her so long ago, agent Darley Anderson. As the crowd was urged to be quiet, I sat down with Chris Simmons and his partner from Crime Squad.
Neild welcomed us all to this very special party in honor of Martina Cole. He told us how delighted Headline is to have such a wonderful writer and great personality as Cole in its stable. He went on to introduce agent Anderson, who reiterated how pleased he has been to work with Cole all these years. Martina blushed, and it was obvious that she was moved by Anderson’s accolades, especially as he veered off onto the subject of literary snobbery. He recalled: “Once a highly respected literary critic had told Martina that her work would never be considered for the Booker prize, to which Martina in her broad Essex/East London accent had replied sharply, ‘It’s all right, love, the Booker money wouldn’t keep me in cigarettes for a week.’” This story naturally provoked a roar of laughter from the crowd. Anderson then passed the microphone to Martina, who had to talk loudly over the cheering. She delivered some very short but moving remarks, thanking Neild and Anderson, who she considers friends rather than business partners. And she added thanks to the crowd around her, all her friends and colleagues who helped her through the years. She concluded by saying, “Everyone get a drink and let’s listen to Alabama 3,” which was greeted with another round of applause.
As Alabama 3 came to the stage, and waiters and waitresses appeared with finger food, it was time again to mingle. I also mused on how remarkable it was that a single mother like Martina Cole, who’d once been confined to the dreary environs of a council flat, had come to be one of a major publisher’s headline authors. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help listening to the band, especially as Devlin Love closed their set with a heart-wrenching version of Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Devlin dedicated that song to Martina Cole, as he said it was her favorite.
Before I left the party, I went to thank Cole for inviting me. But typically, she just wanted to know was “did you have a good time?” All I could say was “Martina, you are the business.” And with that, I left her with a big hug.
Please understand that Martina Cole has worked brutally hard for the success she now enjoys. No one gave her anything; she has earned her space in the pantheon of legendary crime writers.
I feel I should leave the last word to Cole, who recently told The Telegraph:
“Everyone said I wouldn’t last and I did,” she says. She drains her glass. She is anxious about the interview, “as long as it isn’t all about Martina Cole, Essex girl and I’m the lowest of the low. I do get fed up because I talk to people and the same things come back.” What comes back? “Bank robbers,” she says, and adds a small cry of pain, “awww”.You can read more about Cole’s intriguing world here and here.
But you are a crime writer, I say. You write about criminals. “There are a lot of other crime writers and they get respected because they write about the police,” she says. “And I feel sometimes that I don’t because I write about criminals.” She stares into space. “I’ve never pretended to write this great f***ing literary tome.”
* American translation: “Great one.”