Some celebratory ales in the King’s Head the day before this interview are one reason for Mike Craven’s feeling of slight disconnection. Another reason is the sense of disbelief which will last for longer than a sore head.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in,” says Mike. “Not really.”

That’s understandable. In 2015 Mike took voluntary redundancy from his job as Cumbria Probation Service’s assistant chief executive.

Last week he won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year.

Previous winners include John le Carré, Ruth Rendell, Dick Francis, Colin Dexter, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin.

“From a purely commercial perspective, it’s massive,” says Mike. “I really didn’t expect to win. Even as the names were being announced I thought ‘Absolutely not a chance.’”

He carries his mug of tea from kitchen to living room and plonks it on a magazine-strewn coffee table. The Gold Dagger trophy sits on a bookcase. Does he feel he belongs in such illustrious company?

“I don’t, to be honest. This is the bit I find hard to put into words... I am in their company now. But I still have a lot to prove. I’m only just getting started.”

That sounds like a statement of intent as well as fact. Mike’s prize-winning book is The Puppet Show: the first of his novels with publisher Little, Brown, for whom he writes as MW Craven.

The Puppet Show is also his first book to feature Washington Poe; an embittered Detective Sergeant who lives in a remote cottage near Shap.

Cumbria Tourism must be in two minds about The Puppet Show. It features Lake District stone circles... in which a serial killer is burning people alive.

Gold Dagger judges described it as an “engrossing tale” and highlighted “the wonderfully innocent and quite brilliant data analyst Tilly Bradshaw”.

Mike regards hers and Poe’s relationship as “the beating heart of the stories. I don’t think Poe is an unusual character. I think he’s been seen before in crime fiction: the misanthropic older detective.

“I don’t think we’ve seen someone like Tilly before. Someone with a very high IQ, her naivety, her guilelessness. On paper they just shouldn’t get on. They shouldn’t really know how to talk to each other.”

But they do: Tilly bringing out a protective side in Poe and he giving her the confidence to explore life away from the safe confines of an office.

And what about their creator’s life? Mike is 51 and married to Joanne; a volunteer co-ordinator with a domestic abuse charity.

They live in the Belle Vue area of Carlisle. Mike was born in the city but grew up in Newcastle, and has the accent to prove it. He admits that whether he says he’s a Geordie or a Cumbrian depends on who he’s talking to.

At 16 Mike joined the army and stayed for a decade. “A lot of beer and tattoos” is his summary. Perhaps his dark sense of humour was also nurtured there.

He returned to Cumbria as a probation officer in Whitehaven, and nearly died. A cancerous tumour was found wrapped around his right kidney. Tumour and kidney were removed but the cancer returned. Mike had months of chemotherapy.

“In 2003 I was told I was going to die,” he says. “To be honest, I don’t think about it that much these days.”

But it did change him. “I went into hospital quite shy. Ultimately, shyness comes down to caring too much about what people think. When I came out I really didn’t care about what people think.

“It made me more of a risk taker. What’s the worst that can happen? The worst that can happen has already happened.”

This mindset shaped his decision to take redundancy four years ago. Mike had already written two novels for an independent publisher, featuring Detective Chief Inspector Avison Fluke.

Then came an agent, a big publisher, Poe and Tilly, and the most prestigious award in crime writing.

Next: the prospect of a six-episode TV drama based on The Puppet Show. Negotiations with a major broadcaster are well underway.

And more book sales, more being recognised in the street, more requests for selfies.

“I get stopped, particularly in Carlisle. In Sainsbury’s the other day someone wanted a selfie taken next to the fish! I’m not used to that yet. I was on stage with Peter Robinson at the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival in September. Because I’d been shortlisted for the Dagger, that felt normal for the first time.”

The award has brought increased interest from foreign publishers. Mike already has numerous overseas deals. But home is still Belle Vue, not Bel Air.

“Some people have misconceptions about what authors earn. ‘Why haven’t you got a Porsche?’ We are doing well. But not the huge money some authors are on.”

Joanne did buy him a pair of Adidas Gazelle trainers with - at Mike’s request - ‘Poe’ stamped on one and ‘Tilly’ on the other.

The best thing about success is “the security that I can keep on doing this. There’s no chance I have to go back and get a proper job.”

Making the people behind the scenes happy is also important.

“I’m the daft public face. But there’s a vital team. Every one of them leaves the books in a better place than they found them. After the awards my editor texted me and said: ‘I’ve just had a little cry. I’m so happy.’ My agent was poured into a taxi, singing ‘Mike won the Gold Dagger!’”

Of course none of this would be possible without readers. Crime is now the world’s biggest-selling genre of fiction. What’s its enduring attraction?

“People enjoy a puzzle. Most crime books have an unanswered question. Who’s the killer? Or why they did it, or how they did it. We’re living in quite unsettling times, particularly with real-life crime. With fiction you can get interested in crime without worrying about the bad guy getting away with it, because they never do.”

Coming up with ideas is not a problem. Mike has notebooks he filled with plots when he was a child - the result, he says, of an overactive imagination. Ideas can be sparked by something he reads in a newspaper or hears on TV or in conversation. The difficulty is deciding which of them to use and how.

He confides an idea based on the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. It’s ingenious, and dark. “That’s the kind of weird, horrible, sick thing I think of,” he grins. “I will use real life events. But some are too exploitative. I wouldn’t do something about Derrick Bird.”

Another idea is a poisoner who sends his victims pressed flowers in the post just before killing them.

“That’s going to be in the fifth Poe book. Who’s doing it? How is he managing to poison them if he’s giving them advance warning?”

There’s a theory that crime writers pour their darkness onto the page and emerge shiny and happy. Mike agrees that there may be some truth in this, although he adds: “If I didn’t do this I wouldn’t be out torturing pigeons.”

It is, he says, “an acknowledged thing that romance writers are writing all this lovely stuff while bitching about each other and crime writers are the nicest bunch of people you could ever meet.

“I don’t know why that is. You have to be a certain type of character to be a crime writer. We have these twisted conversations: ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve done to an eye?’”

Readers seem to particularly enjoy his humour and his characters. For Mike, plot drives everything. Having said that: “Sometimes I will write an extra chapter just so I can get a line or a joke in. In book four, Tilly explains the rules of Muggle Quidditch to Poe.”

The second Poe novel, Black Summer, was published in hardback last June. The paperback is out in December.

The third in the series, The Curator, will be published next summer. Mike recently finished writing number four, but is about to revisit it.

“I came down to earth with a thump the night after the awards. My agent has been reading Poe 4. He said ‘It needs work. We can’t send it off yet.’

“When I sent him The Puppet Show in 2016 he said ‘You need to completely rewrite the first chapter.’ I had 18 pages of two blokes driving a gritter to Hardendale salt store. He said ‘It just goes rambling on. It just needs you burning somebody alive in the first two pages.’”

Mike accepts that success brings expectation and pressure. “There are two things that kill a crime writer’s confidence. One is getting a massive advance and the book not doing well. The other is writing a book that does well and everyone looking to see what you’ll do next.

“I’m not worried about that because most people think Black Summer is better than The Puppet Show. My writing now is far stronger than it was for The Puppet Show.”

Anyone who judges books by their covers might be surprised that the big shaven-headed bloke with the ink-coated arms can write with such ingenuity and wit. But word of his skill is spreading.

“I get emails from all around the world. A policeman in New Zealand wrote to me three weeks ago saying how much he enjoyed the books. I’ve got a lot of readers in Japan. I’ll probably have to go there next year.”

Closer to home, his fans include a neighbour whose wife visits the Craven residence every few months to ask if Mike has a new book out yet. “I’ve told her I’ll hand deliver every new one.”

Others in the Gold Dagger winner’s city remain unaware of just how good he is and how well he’s doing. “There is someone we know who’ll bump into Joanne and say ‘Oh, is Mike still writing his stories?’”