In 2013 he published A Song From Dead Lips, the first in a series of books featuring Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen and Woman Police Constable Helen Tozer, the first woman to join the detective team. A Song From Dead Lips is set in October 1968 and the Breen and Tozer books have been described by the New York Times as “an elegy for an entire alienated generation.” As well as the four Breen and Tozer books, William has written two contemporary crime novels set in Dungeness, Kent, which have received critical praise from Val McDermid, Peter May, Barry Forshaw and C.J. Sansom.
William: Ooh. Being born a long time ago helped. I remember The Beatles coming to my town in Devon when they were filming Magical Mystery tour. It was hilarious. Devon was still in the 1950s at the time, so it was like the Martians had landed. But also, lots of reading and talking to people who were there at the time. When I wrote A House of Knives, for example, I wanted to know about attitudes to heroin in the late 1960s, so I called up the remarkable Caroline Coon who was one of the co-founders of Release. It was a charity which tried to help drug users with the law and addiction issues – and at the time there were so few people who really understood what was happening in terms of drug use. She was amazing and instrumental in helping me reimagine a world before we knew what heroin was going to do to society.
Carol: Sympathy For The Devil, the fourth Breen and Tozer book, set in 1969, describes the Rolling Stones concert that they dedicated to Brian Jones, who died shortly before the concert. This seems to me to be a very symbolic end to the decade, very skilfully used. Do you plan to continue the story of Breen and Tozer into the 1970s?
William: Thank you so much. I do plan to continue them. I would love to see them in the age of Bolan and Bowie. London was still a real epicentre of cultural change in that decade and at some point I’ll pick up the thread…
Carol: When reviewing The Birdwatcher, C.J. Sansom said that your depiction of the Kent countryside near Dungeness was a ‘Superb description of a haunting, blighted landscape.’ I get the impression that in all your books setting is a fundamental ingredient. Is Kent an area that you were already familiar with when you were considering settings for The Birdwatcher?
William: Yes… in fact though I’d been there before, the last time I’d been was for the ash scattering of a friend, so there was something very emotional about the place already for me. When I was looking for a
deliberately rural location – to write something that was very different from the Breen and Tozer books – it struck me what a great but also very meaningful location it would be to use. There’s a socking great nuclear power station there so you’re not short of metaphors. And then I started thinking about what kind of person might live there… it’s an amazing place for migrating birds… I came up with the idea of William South, The Birdwatcher. And it also struck me that people who are there are often people who want to be on their own, so that set me going on who he would be.
Carol: When it was published, The Birdwatcher was described as a stand-alone novel. At what stage did you decide that DS Alexandra Cupidi required a ‘spin-off’ series of her own?
William: Cupidi was a really important character for me… though I gather that many people didn’t really like her in The Birdwatcher. But I really totally knew who she was from the start. If you read Salt Lane you’ll understand why. And I was thinking from about half way through writing The Birdwatcher… I really want to do something else with her. But I was terrified of using a woman as a central character because I hadn’t done it before. I remember telling Elly Griffiths and Lesley Thomson about this and they both urged me to go for it. They also made a wise suggestion – that if I could get the scenes where she talked to other women right I could make her a credible character.
Carol: What are you writing at the moment and when is it due to be published?
William: I’m just editing a book called Dungeness, which is the second Alexandra Cupidi book. It’s been one of the hardest I’ve ever had to write and I’m not sure why. It caused me sleepless nights to get right, but I’m really pleased with it now. It’s out in May 2019.
Carol: To finish off, could you tell us a little about yourself and your hobbies and interests?
A House of Scars (2015)
Sympathy for the Devil (2107)
The Bird Watcher (2016)
Salt Lane (2018)
Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.
The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.