ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After an MA in English, Simon Beckett spent several years as a property repairer before teaching in Spain. Back in the UK, he played percussion in several bands. He has been a freelance journalist since 1992, writing for national British newspapers and magazines. Some of his more memorable assignments have included going on police drugs raids, touring brothels with a vice unit and trying to learn how to win a gun fight in Nevada. It was a visit to the Body Farm in Tennessee that was the inspiration behind the internationally bestselling David Hunter crime thrillers, which have now been translated into 29 languages.
Simon's novels have now sold 7 million copies worldwide, and he was the UK's top selling author in Europe for 2009. The Chemistry of Death was shortlisted for the 2006 CWA's Duncan Lawrie (Gold) Dagger and the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year in 2008. He has also been shortlisted twice for the Dagger in the Library award, in 2009 and 2010, when he was highly commended. In 2011 The Calling of the Grave spent nine weeks at the top of the German hardback charts, and also reached No. 1 in Austria, Switzerland and Poland.
As well as the David Hunter series, he is the author of four psychological thrillers; Fine Lines, Animals (winner of the ‘Marlowe’ award for Best International Crime Novel), Where There's Smoke and Owning Jacob. These were recently published in Germany (as Voyeur, Tiere, Flammenbrut and Obsession) where they all were #1 bestsellers. Owning Jacob has also now been published in Italy and the Netherlands.
Simon is married and lives in Sheffield, England.
Portrait Photography: Robert Fairer
Q. WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
A. I grew up - and still live in - Sheffield. I had a fairly ordinary working class background, at a time when the city was still dominated by the steel industry. I've lived in other places but always gravitated back here. It tends to get a lot of bad press, but it's a good place to live, and a lot greener than most people give it credit for - I mean that in the sense of trees and countryside rather than the ecological sense. I don't set my novels here, because I think it's difficult to be objective about somewhere you know well. But other writers have no problem with that, so it's just a case of different strokes, I suppose.
Q. WHAT DID YOU DO BEFORE YOU STARTED TO WRITE FULL TIME?
A. After university I somehow ended up doing property repairs for several years. Not much fun in winter, believe me. That was followed by a stint teaching English in Spain, and then I came back to the UK and played percussion in various bands. None of them came to anything, but several musician friends became successful after I'd left, which probably says it all. At more or less the same time, I started writing feature articles for the national broadsheets and colour supplements. I don't have any formal training as a journalist, but I've always found it complements writing novels fairly well. It forces you to be disciplined, and gets you away from your desk, which is no bad thing. And if not for the journalism I would never have visited the Body Farm and had the idea for The Chemistry of Death .
Q. HOW DID YOU FIRST START WRITING?
A. It was something I'd always been interested in, but I only really started to think of it as a potential career when I went to teach in Spain. I worked in the evenings, so I used to write during the daytime. It was hardly an overnight thing, though, because it was six years before I was finally published. I didn't have an agent, so I started touting my manuscript around publishers myself. After countless rejection slips it was picked out of the slush-pile, and within 48-hours I'd got myself both a book-deal and an agent. That was a real water-shed moment.
Q. HAVE YOU ALWAYS SEEN YOURSELF AS A CRIME WRITER?
A. I can't remember ever sitting down and thinking 'Right, I'm going to write a crime novel'. I think it was more a case of my ideas tending more towards the darker aspects of life, so it was a natural development rather than a conscious decision.
Q. WHAT TYPE OF CRIME FICTION WOULD YOU SAY YOU WRITE?
A. I suppose the David Hunter novels fall under the banner of forensic crime thrillers, because the main character is a forensic anthropologist. But character and psychological motivation are just as important to me as the forensic aspects. And although I'm happy to be thought of as a crime-writer, I don't like the way crime fiction tends to be pigeon-holed. It still tends to be dismissed in some quarters, as though it isn't 'proper' writing. That's starting to change now, I think, but I can't see a crime novel being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize any time soon.
Q. WHICH CRIME WRITERS DO YOU MOST ADMIRE?
A. I used to be hooked on Raymond Chandler's novels, and I still think The Long Goodbye is a classic. I also love the Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald - there's another flawed and introspective main character, although McGee is a bit more prone to the rough-stuff than David Hunter. But my favourite has to be Peter O'Donnell - for my money, the Modesty Blaise series is second to none. Looking at more contemporary writers, I think James Lee Burke is pretty much at the top of the tree. Referring back to the previous question, anyone who thinks crime fiction can't also be good literature should read one of his novels.
Q. YOU'VE SAID ELSEWHERE THAT THE IDEA FOR THE CHEMISTRY OF DEATH CAME FROM A VISIT TO THE BODY FARM IN TENNESSEE. BUT HOW DID DAVID HUNTER DEVELOP AS YOUR MAIN CHARACTER, AND IS HE BASED ON ANY REAL-LIFE FORENSIC SCIENTIST?
A. No, David Hunter is entirely fictional. But the forensic techniques he uses are authentic. When it came to creating a central character, to begin with it was more a case of knowing what I didn't want. There are enough heavy-drinking, maverick tough-guys in crime fiction already, without me adding to them. I wanted a character who was more flawed, who was introspective and even quite vulnerable in some respects. Hunter's very human - he doubts himself all the time. But there's still a stubborn streak in him. He's got a strong sense of right and wrong, and he'll stick his neck out for something he believes in. So once I'd an idea of the sort of character he was, it was a case of building a convincing background for him. And when you've done that, it isn't long before the character himself starts to take over.
Q. WE KNOW A LITTLE ABOUT HUNTER'S PAST, BUT THERE'S AN AWFUL LOT WE STILL DON'T KNOW ABOUT HIM. IS THAT SOMETHING YOU PLAN TO CHANGE?
A. Definitely. As the series progresses we'll find out more about Hunter's history - perhaps with one or two surprises along the way. But it'll be more of a drip-feed from book to book. I like the idea of getting to know a character more progressively rather than giving away everything all at once.
Q. DO YOU HAVE A SCIENTIFIC BACKGROUND YOURSELF?
A. Not exactly, although I did plan on being a biochemist at one point. I was all set to take a degree in Biochemistry at university until I failed Biology and Chemistry A-level, and ended up taking an English degree instead. Funny how things turn out, isn't it?
Q. HOW IMPORTANT IS RESEARCH IN YOUR WRITING?
A. It's very important. It shouldn't be allowed to take over the story, but if the scientific and other details are accurate it gives a greater sense of authenticity. Besides which, being a freelance journalist I have a real phobia about getting my facts wrong. So if I don't know something, I'll ask someone who does. There are several forensic anthropologists, both UK and US-based, who are good enough to help me with that side of things, and I enjoy tracking down experts in whatever other fields I might need to know about, from diabetic comas to police communications in the Outer Hebrides. And I'll obviously visit locations where a book is set, to get a feel for the landscape and area. I might not get everything right, but I do my best.