Dear Reader: a letter from Kevin Sampson
The Killing Pool has just turned five. Right from the start, the book and its enigmatic protagonist DCI Billy McCartney were widely acclaimed. The Killing Pool figured in numerous Best of the Year round-ups, yet only three critics ever tapped into the last-page reveal. At first that baffled me. Almost from page one, the clues are there; McCartney talking of himself ‘putting on the cape’ once again, a masked hero riding into to town to drive out the bad guys. More ground bait is liberally sprinkled throughout the book’s three sections with references to Mac’s syringes; one rookie cop demands a transfer when she catches the boss shooting up. There are hopeless trysts and forlorn late-night phone calls to “Daddy.” Yet, after a while, it struck me that McCartney’s anonymity was perfectly fitting. Although it can be the making of a book if readers begin speaking excitedly of The Twist and That Ending, with Mac it was always more of a Reveal… and I began to think it was only right that he should carry on for as long as possible behind his mask.
When I started writing the book in 2010, my big motivators were TV shows rather than books. I loved The Sopranos – possibly still love it more than any other TV creation, ever – and, in its wake, came the dawning of box set TV. There was The Wire, The Shield, Brotherhood, The Killing, Gomorrah, Spiral, Marseille. Closer to home, there was the earthy and addictive Dublin gangster series Love/Hate – yet nothing remotely as good from the UK. The thing that elevates the American shows, and the likes of Gomorrah and Love/Hate is their powerful sense of place; they mainline the viewer right into the beat and brutality of those streets. Multicultural Paris is not merely a backdrop in Spiral, it is woven into its palette – part of its narrative DNA. You get a similar sense of locale in crime fiction with Jo Nesbo’s down and dirty Oslo or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, but – certainly in 2010 – my feeling was that not enough UK crime writing properly got under the skin of its setting. Crime – serious, organised crime – takes place in the underworld; what a place to evoke!
Liverpool is a vivid, pulsating setting for the kind of dark and complex crime novel I wanted to write. It’s a port whose waterfront has the same kinetic duality of all world cities. Its warehouses, docks and casinos teem with high-rollers and low-life; it is both generous and spontaneous as well as cruel and dangerous. In all port cities, there is a thriving black market. Going back to the darkest days of slavery there has always been bad cargo coming in and out of the Port of Liverpool. Since drug dealers replaced armed robbers as the city’s most notorious criminals, Liverpool has taken its place alongside Dublin, Amsterdam, Caracas and Istanbul as part of a global cartel of international container ports that account for industrial-scale import of Class A narcotics. That’s more than a backdrop – it’s a writer’s dream. The challenge, then, was to create a cast of characters to populate this world in a believable and relatable way, and to find another kind of lifer – a maverick cop whose obsession with the world of organised drug dealing is all too personal.
That is how McCartney came about. I wanted an outsider, in every sense – a stateless, restless enigma with long-standing ghosts and demons he needs to lay to rest. All writers have their own process. I like to have an avatar. If I can picture my character then, though they will never exist, I can bring them to life. My McCartney, though lonely, would go against the grain of pugnacious alcoholic divorcees. He was going to be vain, elegant, stylish – given to looking in mirrors. Around the time I began writing, David Bowie resurfaced after a long time away from the public eye. Although even more gaunt than ever, my first thought was that the Thin White Duke, as always, was the embodiment of androgynous chic. He always had that otherness and, even in his 60s, he was cool. My second thought was – that’s Mac. Whenever I sat down to describe McCartney’s visits to the tailor, the members’ club, the unlicensed syringe supplier, that was the physical persona I was describing – the ultimate outsider.
Happy fifth birthday to The Killing Pool and many happy returns to Mac the enigma. If you’re delving into his web of deceit for the first time, picture David Bowie – and keep going until the very last line.
Have you read Kevin Sampson’s DCI Billy McCartney books? Let us know in the comments below!