Doing Justice to Valberg

Author and solicitor Desmond Doherty on the lauded crime series, and adapting to the big screen, ahead of the launch of its third instalment

Filmmaker Andrew Eaton, Jim Curran of Ulster University, Kevin Hippsley of Guildhall Press and Desmond Doherty at the 2014 eBook launch of Valberg

Having been described as 'one to watch' by global crime-writing phenomenon Lee Child, and someone who produces 'first-rate writing,' Desmond J Doherty is making a real name for himself as an author. All of his books are set in his home city of Derry~Londonderry and his latest novel, Deadlight, will launch at Ebrington Square as part of this week’s Foyle Film Festival

The setting couldn’t be more perfect, as the opening scene of Deadlight – published by Guildhall Press – sees a corrupt solicitor nailed to a chair in this very spot. It’s the third part of Doherty’s Valberg trilogy and if the reviews to date are anything to go by, it’s much anticipated.

We meet to discuss writing, the law – Doherty’s day job involves being a solicitor  and the exciting news that Valberg could be poised for the silver screen. Hence its inclusion in the film festival, where screenwriters Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry, who previously adapted Good Vibrations for the cinema, will chat about what this involves. 

Child, who created the Jack Reacher character, has been quoted as saying the Valberg books have a very visual and cinematic style. This should help out producer Andrew Eaton, who’s optioned the books for the screen with his London-based company, Revolution Films, but it wasn’t purposefully written that way, says Doherty.

'I’d never written the novel for the screen - I was just trying to be so descriptive,' he says. 'I’m just delighted if they can take it and run with it. I know in my heart they’ll remain true to the characters. The process is fascinating - listening to people talk about your work.' 

We’re chatting at the City Hotel which, incidentally, appears in all three of the Valberg novels. Indeed, the cityscape of Derry~Londonderry was an obvious choice from the very start for Doherty when it came to choosing a setting for his thrillers.

'There was absolutely no doubt about that,' he says. 'The locations are fabulous. I just don’t think they’ve been used enough before. The stories are relevant to any city though.' 

City Hotel Derry.jpg

During the day, Doherty is an established solicitor who runs his own firm, as well as being father to two young daughters. He’s worked on many high-profile cases, including the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and the Omagh bombing, and is also a member of the Irish International Courts. As a result, he’s been asked in the past to write about his experiences in this regard – something he has refused to do.

'I don’t want to because there’s quite a lot of confidentiality and privilege involved,' he says. 'I didn’t decide overnight just to become a writer though - it’s always in you. I’d always written short stories and poetry.'

When it came to writing the Valberg trilogy, the obvious choice of perspective for Doherty might have been as a solicitor, but he decided against this.

'I decided the challenge for me was to completely flip-flop and write the story from the point of view of a police officer,' he says. 'As a result of that, Jon Valberg becomes an eclectic mix of all the solicitors and police men and women I’ve known over the years.' 

Doherty’s other key character, Gerard O’Driscoll, was subsequently created from more than 25 years’ experience of criminal law. 'I was surprised – although it wasn’t the intent – that there’s been quite a lot of empathy for O’Driscoll - an understanding for his predicament,' he says.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Valberg books, the story centres on unconventional police officer Jon Valberg, whose name, says Doherty, means ‘iced mountain’. Heavily influenced by Scandinavian writers in his work, Doherty gave Valberg Swedish ancestry and describes him as a present-day police officer struggling against the ‘old system.’

Valberg also has a penchant for Seamus Heaney and is chasing a killer stalking the streets of the city in the self-titled first book. Sins of the Fathers is the second novel in the series, which progresses the characters and sees Valberg on the trail of an assassin intent on killing police and solicitors in an act of revenge. Deadlight sees the trilogy come to a head and was, Doherty says, unexpectedly emotional in the writing.

'You really have the power of life and death in your hands as a writer,' he says. 'I didn’t expect Deadlight to be such an emotional rollercoaster. It’s also an emotional journey for quite a number of the characters.

'It’s named after Operation Deadlight, which was an operation at the end of WW2 in Northern Ireland involved in sinking surrendered German U-boats. I thought it was a great metaphor for burying the truth.'

Is he worried, then about how his writing might transfer onto the big screen, and if his story will stay as he created it if all goes ahead?

'What you can get on a screen is totally different from what’s in the book,' he says. 'As a writer, you have to accept that. But the core of the story will remain the same.'

Just back from the SILK Literary Book Festival in Norway, where he met Eva Gabrielsson, partner of the late Stieg Larsson (who bought all his books), Doherty is already working on book four. In fact, he’s sticking with Valberg, although the trilogy is complete.

'I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and what had happened,' he says. 'Even though Valberg was written as a trilogy, it was a trilogy regarding O’Driscoll. The fourth book, which has a working title of The Valberg Aide Memoire, is a flow of consciousness from Jon Valberg, talking about what he’s gone through. It’s in the first person and is totally off the wall…'

Deadlight is published by Guildhall Press and will launch on Friday, November 20 at Eighty81, Ebrington Square in Derry, when BBC NI’s Marie Louise Muir will interview Doherty and chair a panel discussion about transferring a book to the screen with Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry and with local producer, Mark McCauley. Tickets are available to book now through both the festival website and the Nerve Centre box office.