Magherafelt's Man of Mystery

Crime author Paul Charles on taking the Agatha Christie approach for his latest whodunnit and why fictional detectives needn't be dysfunctional

Music agent Paul Charles has managed everyone from the Belfast band Fruupp, to Don McLean, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and The Undertones. Originally from Magherafelt but London-based for more than 30 years now, he’s also a successful crime writer, with multiple detective series to his name.

His latest book, St Ernan’s Blues, is part of his popular Inspector Starrett mysteries and the third novel in the series. Subsequently, Charles will be flying over to Belfast for a special launch event of the book at No Alibis Bookstore on May 26.

What sparked your idea for St Ernan's Blues? The setting seems quite a quirky one, in a retirement home for priests.

For the third Inspector Starrett mystery I wanted to take a bit of an Agatha Christie approach, you know, where I had the majority of the suspects in the one space. But rather than have everyone on a train, or on a boat, or in a mansion, I put them all in a home for retired priests on a small island.

The priests, it transpires, have all been ‘retired’ to the island to live out their days for – in the majority of cases - being involved in questionable behaviour at the very least. St Ernan’s Island is a real island, as is the house on St Ernan’s Island (both as seen on the book jacket) and both with a fabulous rich history. So for me, the ideal place to set a crime.

What's the story in a nutshell?

The book starts and finishes with a crime. At the beginning, the body of a young novice priest is discovered and the Guards are called for. Starrett arrives and the investigation starts. Pretty soon he and his team discover that the majority of the priests had been ‘retired’ to St Ernan’s Island over matters they hope would never be discovered.

It turns out that Starrett himself has some history with one of the residents. At the same time as trying to uncover the priests’ secrets, Starrett is not only dealing with an ill senior and mentor, but also with his very complicated love life.

How would you describe the Inspector Starrett series to new readers and how do they differ in terms of writing style/content from your Inspector Christy Kennedy novels? Do you have a personal preference for either of the two?

I’ll start with the final part of the question: I don’t really have a preference between Kennedy and Starrett. I really love writing both characters. In fact, the reason I started the Starrett series is because there were things I wanted to deal with – life and crime in a small village and rural community – that I couldn’t address in the Kennedy, London-based, mysteries.

Starrett’s motivation is not so much sending the guilty to prison as it is in keeping the innocent out of prison. Like Kennedy, he loves the puzzle of the crime. He’d spent a good chuck of his adult life in London and then, restless and unmotivated, he returned to his birthplace – Ramelton in Co Donegal – to face up to some personal issues and to start, in his 40s, a career in the Gardaí.

He dresses well, isn’t obsessed by music (likes Rory Gallagher, Christy Moore, Planxty, The Clancy Brothers and Neil Diamond) and loves his Guinness. His mother is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, and Starrett feels that she may have passed some of her gifted powers onto him. But he would never admit this to anyone but himself. His love life is, as I say, complicated, but more about that in the three books...

Do you carry out much/any research before you start writing your books or how do you approach the writing process?

Yes - a lot. I like the mysteries to read as real. In a way what I’m trying to do is the opposite of what Norman Mailer did in The Executioner’s Song – make a true crime (the Gary Gilmour story) read as a novel – by endeavouring to make a novel read like a true crime book.

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In St Ernan’s Blues for instance, I spent a lot of time getting to know the island, the house, Donegal town - the history of all three. I also spent ages on building the character of all the priests and their back stories, really getting to know them, if you will. Then, when I had all that together, I felt comfortable and excited about starting off with Starrett on this adventure.

How does writing fit in with your day-to-day work in the music business?

When I’m working on the first draft of a story I’ll write every morning from 6.00am to 9.30am. When I start a book I never know the outcome – ‘whodunnit’. In fact, I don’t want to know. To me it would be a bit like reading a book if you already knew the ending. So I go to my book each day as a reader to ‘discover’ what happens next. After my reading chores I head to the office and put on my other hat!

Why did you decide to make Starrett and Kennedy likeable characters who don't fall into the 'dysfunctional cop' stereotype?

I’ve found that the majority of the police I have met are really decent people, they’re not dysfunctional. If nothing else the police and Guards – and this applies to Kennedy and Starrett - need to have a clear head to be able to stand a chance of solving the puzzle of the crime.

Apart from anything else I’m drawn to likeable characters. If I’m going to spend time in someone’s company, or be with them for 300-odd pages, I want to like them. Don’t forget we already have (have to have) the ‘baddies’ in the pages, so my view has always been you don’t need to make your cops a complete waste of space.

Do you find it challenging to switch from one detective to the other when writing, especially having started a new series with the McCusker mysteries?

No, not at all. To me they’re real people. They’re very different people. I’ve spent a lot of time in their company, I’ve gotten to know them very well but, as is with the case with great friends, I’m still getting to know them. Same with McCusker. I have him in my mind’s eye. I can tune into him very quickly. His genesis was similar to the Starrett Mysteries in that, from when I was very young, a trip from Magherafelt down to Belfast was always a very exciting adventure.

Then in my teens, when I started to manage a group (the Blues by Five), Belfast was always the ‘mecca’ for us. We’d go down there as often as possible to visit the clubs and see The Method, The Gentry, Sam Mahood, The Soul Foundation or, one of Ireland’s best ever groups, The Interns. Then when I left Magherafelt and moved to London, I covered the London music scene for City Week, a Belfast newspaper which morphed into Thursday Magazine.

When I started to work in the music industry in London I booked all the visiting artists into the Irish university circuit, including Queen’s University. So over the years I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Belfast. With the regeneration and amazing street vibe of recent years, I’d been trying to figure out how to set a mystery in the city. I couldn’t make it work for Kennedy or Starrett for that matter, and so McCusker was born.

I did two McCusker short stories - The Case of The Humming Bees and Based on A True Story - which went down really well and so I was good to go and wrote my first McCusker full-length mystery, Down on Cyprus Avenue.

What's next then for you on the writing front?

I’ve started work on my second McCusker mystery: A Day in the Life of Louis Bloom. The only problem is, the day in question is the last day of his life.

St Ernan's Blues is available to purchase now. No Alibis Bookstore, Belfast host a free launch event on Thursday, May 26, from 6.30pm. To reserve a seat contact david@noalibis.com or call 028 9031 9601.