John McAllister Does Things By the Book

The Armagh author on how early writing habits and working life during the Troubles continues to shape his acclaimed crime novels

From working with champion greyhounds and helping out at the bookies as a boy, to being an accountant and now a successful writer, John McAllister has certainly enjoyed a varied career.

The Ballymena-born author, who has lived in Armagh since the seventies, has just released his latest crime novel – Barlow by the Book. The second of a trilogy (with a possible fourth in the pipeline), it continues the tale of rogue policeman John Barlow, who’s incidentally based on a real-life character from McAllister’s youth.

McAllister – for many years a numbers man by trade who is now retired – has enjoyed much acclaim as a writer in recent years. His previous Barlow novel, The Station Sergeant, was enthusiastically received by readers and critics, while he also has a short story collection and another novel published. And, while he may have waited until retirement to pursue writing in earnest, his love of words was evident from a young age.

'I wrote my first novel when I was at boarding school,' he says. 'But I didn’t realise writing was such hard work and with exams and so on, I let it slip.'

Attending St MacNissi’s College in Carnlough - now St Killian’s College – McAllister says it was common to go to boarding school at that time and that he was keen to go. 'There wasn’t the same transport back then and I hated travelling, so my mother put me on to board,' he says. 'It was great because all the monitors knew my big sister, so I got spoiled.' 

St MacNissi’s College

The young McAllister also used to help his uncle Jackie – nicknamed ‘king of the greyhound men’ - with his champion greyhounds during the summer holidays. 'He had 100 greyhounds at one time,' he says. 'He won the English Derby and the St Leger competition. That was a big classic.' 

The McAllister family business meanwhile, was in Coleraine, where McAllister’s father owned a bookies. Although his father passed away when McAllister was nine, his mother kept the business going and so he also used to work there on Saturdays, especially, as he says, during the Grand National.

After school, he joined an accounting firm in Ballymena, also working elsewhere before later settling in Armagh, where he established his own business. His office was often ‘rattled’, as he puts it, during the Troubles, as were many of his clients’ premises.

'I spent two years on bomb damage accounts,' he says. 'I can’t remember the number of times my office was rattled. In 1982 or ’84, a car bomb went off across the street. The exterior wall stayed up, but everything else had to be replaced. I was lucky – I was in the office down the back, where I kept my greyhounds.

'I went out the door and the police yelled at me to run, so I had to leave the car. A neighbour gave me a lift home and my wife asked what had happened to the car. Then the bang went off…'

With both McAllister and his wife now retired, the novelist likes to keep to an early morning writing routine. Indeed, he acquired the habit while previously completing his Masters in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin.

'I took time out from the office to do that,' he says. 'I sometimes got up at 5am and wrote for a couple of hours. I was then in the office until 11am and I got the train to Trinity for afternoon lectures.'

Indeed, it was on these train journeys that McAllister first got to writing about the infamous Barlow. 'I always made myself write on the train for ten minutes,' he says. 'I had memories of this old policeman in Ballymena who was a bit of a rogue. I wrote down a few stories about him, which led to a lot of stories which I used for my Masters.

'I forgot about him, but people kept asking me about Barlow. They all said he reminded them of the local man in their town. A few friends nagged me and then I wrote the first Barlow novel. I still get up at 6am in the morning and write until about 8am. I take a break and then try to write from 9am for most of the morning.'

McAllister’s writing success has also resulted in a sideline career as a creative writing teacher, having run various classes over the past few years. 'I do like helping other writers,' he says. 'The classes are good fun.' And, while he now writes crime, originally, McAllister had much different intentions when he began his creative journey.

'My first novel was a cowboy book!' he says. 'When I started writing, I was about 40 and I was 20 years behind with regards to what was being published. I would have read cowboy books when I was young, but they didn’t publish those sort of books anymore, so I had to sit down and read modern books for two or three years until I was caught up in style and subject matter.'

It obviously paid off and McAllister still likes to keep up to date with the publishing scene, although he doesn’t read much when deep into writing his own books. He adds: 'If a book’s badly written, I won’t pursue it either.' 

Meanwhile, he’s also developed an interest in the film industry in the past few years, and indeed, almost made it onto Game of Thrones – and might just yet. “I signed up with Extras NI a couple of years ago,” he says.

'I never actually got picked until Game of Thrones came along though. The first time, they looked at me and said I wouldn’t do, but they thanked me for turning up anyway. I’d had my hair cut the day before you see…'

He pauses, then adds wryly: 'I was the accountant for a film once though!' 

Barlow by the Book launches at Culture Night in Armagh on September 18; Hodges Figgis and at Waterstones in Ballymena on October 2, published by Portnoy Publishing.