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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

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Life on the mean streets

Set your novel in Kenya and you hand yourself a dilemma. This is a place where nothing you invent will seem implausible to readers. But how can fiction compete with such astonishing reality?

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Paying the mortgage: Nick Brownlee with his new book Bait

Nick Brownlee’s debut novel, Bait, is a detective story featuring a Kenyan cop and a Brit who retired there after serving with the Flying Squad.

And yet the main character is Kenya itself. A land of black and white contrasts, of hard living and easy dying.

A friend’s wedding brought the place into Nick’s life. He says: “In Nairobi you’ve got 300,000 people living in slums and just up the road there’s a five-star hotel.

“It’s a third-world country but it has a lot of European influences and a lot of ex-pats with their lifestyles and attitudes. I went back there in March for research, just after the riots. One of the ex-pats said ‘It was dreadful. You couldn’t get any lemon for the G&Ts.’”

On another occasion Nick was in a taxi between Mombassa and Malindi. “There was a traffic jam. Some guy had been run down and killed. Because the police in Mombassa and the police in Malindi couldn’t decide whose jurisdiction he lay in, they just left him. People were driving around his body. The driver turned around and said ‘Life is cheap in Kenya.’

“Which gives you a lot of scope as a writer. Lots of ways to dispose of people.”

And there are other advantages for a crime writer who admits he can’t be bothered to research the finer points of forensics.

“So many crime novels are solved with forensic evidence or CCTV footage. The detection system in Kenya is probably 100 years behind here in terms of forensics so I could have a drama where the detective solves it the old-fashioned way.

“I think the setting is what got me a publisher. It’s a bit different from the normal crime thriller. I’m trying to have a sweep of adventure with a crime backbone. Anything can happen in Kenya. Running through the jungle and being attacked by crocodiles. You’d struggle to have that if it was set in Scunthorpe.”

Or Irthington. Nick lives there with his wife Jane and their three-year-old daughter Georgia. He and Jane came to Cumbria seven years ago after a spell down south when Nick was features editor of the Sunday People, waging weekly war against any celebrities his employer could catch in the act – any act as long as it sold papers.

Nick, 40, had worked on his hometown paper The Chronicle in Newcastle, where his grandfather John Brownlee had been news editor in the 60s.

Life on a Sunday red-top was very different. He describes it, almost with a shudder, as “so cut-throat. A nasty place to work.

“The tabloid world is inhabited by a certain type of person who’s a lot more thick-skinned than me.”

Every Thursday Nick would watch a different celebrity trudge into the editor’s office. They were being exposed that Sunday: maybe they’d like to talk, to try and limit the damage a little?

His other memories are of walking through London dressed as Austin Powers, escorting a couple of “aliens” through the capital when the film Mars Attacks was released, and chaperoning former Page 3 girl Samantha Fox for a weekend when she had just come out as a lesbian.

“The People had bought her story. I was in a nightclub with her and her manager when some guy from the Daily Mail turned up. I was pushing him away – from journalist to bouncer overnight.”

The final straw was a story about a woman whose two daughters had died of overdoses. Nick wrote about her campaign against drugs. His story was distorted and headlined ‘Is this Britain’s worst mum?’

Nick set up Hadrian News and Features news agency, which supplies stories to the national press, and started working on Bait. But he became a published author long before his first novel was completed.

He heard that a publisher was looking for someone to write a book about Coronation Street. In two weeks. A fortnight later Nick was the proud father of Real Soaps: Coronation Street.

He’s lost count of the non-fiction titles he has written since, on subjects including cricket, rugby, alcohol, cannabis and manufactured pop acts.

His CV also includes a football book with John Motson. “I’d always been a fan of his. Suddenly he’s on the phone: ‘Hi, Nick. It’s John Motson.’ Of course he didn’t write the book. It was all me. But I guess he’s more famous than me.”

Is there any invisible thread linking these seemingly unrelated tomes? “The mortgage. The non-fiction work is just the way I earn a living. I’m a writer for hire. A hack.”

Nick allows himself a little more credit for his novel, but he’s hardly precious about it. The aim was to spin a good yarn in the spirit of the swashbuckling adventure authors he admires, such as Clive Cussler.

Bait had been written, rewritten and consigned to a drawer but it always cried to be let out again. Eventually Nick sent it out into the world where last year he found an agent then a publisher, Piatkus.

The main characters, apart from Kenya, are “maverick crime-busting duo” Inspector Daniel Jouma and Jake Moore.

Jouma is a 50-year-old world-weary Kenyan detective whose biggest adversary is the corruption around him. Moore retired to Kenya from the Flying Squad in his 30s after being shot during a robbery. He’s working as a fishing boat skipper but business is bad so he agrees to team up with Jouma in a murder case with far-reaching implications.

Says Nick: “I always had the first part in mind, about a guy getting gutted. It was just setting it somewhere.

“Crime fiction tends to reflect society, and how depraved your view of mankind is. A lot of what I’ve read has got a touch of misanthropy about it. The hard-drinking cop, the psychopathic killer. I’ve always thought there should be a bit of light somewhere and Daniel Jouma is my outlet for that.

“People have said you can see the journalistic influence. Short chapters with a bang at the start and a bang at the finish. Keep them interested.”

Bait has already earned an enthusiastic review from best-selling crime writer Mark Billingham and its follow-up, Burn, is finished and due to be published next summer.

The rights to Bait have been sold in the USA and Europe and Nick is still at the stage of gazing at the book as if it were a newborn.

Exciting times, although his agent has told him not to give up the day job at the news agency. This advice was no reflection on the quality of his book; just an honest assessment of the publishing business’s unpredictable nature.

For Daniel Jouma, Jake Moore and Nick Brownlee, the adventure has just begun.

Bait will be published on Thursday December 4. The launch takes place at Waterstone’s in Carlisle on December 3 at 6.30pm. Call 01228 542300 for more details.

RLytollis@cngroup.co.uk

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