Claire McGowan, the Accidental Crime Writer

Debut novelist takes on the tough topics of race, murder and class in The Fall

Claire McGowan wrote her first novel in her native Rostrevor when she was nine-years old. It was about nine year-olds in a primary school, and, she says, ‘it wasn’t very interesting’. 19 years on, McGowan's debut novel The Fall sees her join the ranks of Northern Ireland’s crime literati, even though she does, currently, live in Kent.

The Fall was a surprise to McGowan – whose website offers the choice between thinking she is a 'fresh-faced ingenue' or a 'country bumpkin'. She admits that, at the time of writing, she hadn’t realized that she was writing crime at all.

‘I thought crime novels were just whodunits, detective novels,’ McGowan explains. ‘But there’s a lot more than that included in the genre. Crime fiction does it all now. It deals with all sorts of modern, moral issues like sexual violence and asylum seekers...'

But, while McGowan might have settled into the idea of being a Northern Irish crime-writer, she hasn’t followed the example of Stuart Neville and Colin Bateman and set her story in Northern Ireland. Instead the events in The Fall play out against a London backdrop. Hampsted and Camden, to be specific.

The area is a familiar one to McGowan, who lived there between 2007-9 while she was studying English at Oxford University. ‘It is such an interesting place,’ she says. ‘There are so many different people there, from so many different backgrounds.’

What caught McGowan’s interest in particular was the fact that the distance between one bus-stop and the next could make all the socio-economic difference in the world. The really rich neighbourhoods and the really poor ones were only a few streets apart.

McGowan uses that mix of class disparity and geographical locality to bring two very different characters – spoilt, affluent, about to marry a banker Charlotte and tough, abused Keisha, who has had her daughter taken off her – together.

The novel also toys with the idea, particulary evocative in this post-boom economic climate, of how easy it is to go from wealth to poverty: one bus-stop and a few bad decisions away.

Class, however, isn’t the only thing that Charlotte and Keisha don’t have in common. Keisha is mixed-race, and while always good to see something other than the culturally normative white, male protagonist, there are pitfalls for even the well-meaning author if they don’t share their character’s minority status. 

McGowan admits that she was nervous about writing Keisha’s character, then corrects herself. ‘I think it was more that I felt I should be nervous,’ she says. ‘But when I was writing the book, Keisha’s voice always came through really naturally and strongly.’

So far, reactions to The Fall have been predominantly positively. McGowan admits that there have been a few bad reviews on Amazon, but says that it is for the best. ‘The first couple were painful, but this way people know you haven’t just got your friends and family to write them for you.’

Publishers Headline don’t seem to have any reservations on that score, since McGowan’s second novel is due out October 2012. Avoiding the lucrative lure of the serial, McGowan has stepped away from the established world of The Fall. ‘There is no connection between the two books,’ she says. ‘They are both stand-alone novels.'

This time, however, there are no doubts about the genre. The new book is, says McGowan, a 'psychological thriller set in Northern Ireland'. These days, in fact, crime is something of a full-time job for McGowan. When she is not busy writing fiction, McGowan is also director of the Crime Writers Association.

The crime writing community is, she notes, 'really supportive' and the CWA gives new authors a chance to access that network, not to mention conferences and research opportunities, such as a recent visit to a crime lab.

Plus, McGowan says, one perk of her job is that it gets her a lot of free books to read. ‘I’ve been reading a lot of victim books lately, and I think being a crime writer gives me more idea of what to do if I need to escape some sort of horrible situation.’

Is that something she worries about a lot? ‘Most crime-writers,’ McGowan says mildly, ‘are very suspicious people.’

The Fall is out now, published by Headline. For more information visit McGowan's website Pains, Trains and Inkstains.