above a shoe shop in the mid-1960's, Neil White spent most of his
Wakefield in West Yorkshire as his father pursued a career in the shoe
This took Neil to Bridlington in his teens, where he failed all his
discovered that doing nothing soon turns into long-term unemployment.
Re-inventing himself, Neil returned to education in his 20's, qualified
solicitor when he was 30, and now spends his days in the courtroom and
evenings writing crime fiction. With the publication of his latest
book, Dead Silent (Harper Collins),
sent Laura Harman to interrogate him.
Without meaning to
begin in too obvious a place, how much of yourself do you find that you
into your characters? You have said that Jack is you, if you had more
do you wish you could be more involved in crimes the way he is?
From the start, I've always
thought of Jack Garrett as like me but less laid-back; there is lots of
there. If there is a given situation, the thought process of how the
deals with the situation is a mix of what I think that character would
how I would react if I was there and was more ballsy. The problem with
it too much on myself that any piece of misfortune could well be dealt
a shrug and a "them's the breaks" response.
In terms of being involved in crimes, I did
want to be a police officer at one point in my life, but I realised
that I was
too squeamish; I would struggle to deal with a bad road crash or a
sick. It would be fun to get more hands-on though. I still work as a CPS
solicitor three days a week, but that is very clean and detached,
although I do
enjoy a good old bad-tempered courtroom spat now and again. The problem
is that I'm a bit of a role-player, in that when I get my suit and tie
go to work, I turn into someone I perhaps don't recognise, with a
social outlook, all about getting the bad guys. Once I get home and put
scruffs, I turn back into genial old Neil again.
However, I have often thought
that if I stopped being a prosecutor, I would like to be a store
private detective, or anything really that involved lots of skulking
finished off with a bit of a fight.
You came into
this career after
deciding to return to school. Do you feel more qualified to ponder upon
contemporary social problems, having experienced some of them yourself?
That's a tough one, because it's
hard to know whether I like gritty stuff because I've got a working
background, or I just happen to like gritty stuff. As a child, I used
crime programmes on television, and my father, the Johnny Cash
always playing music that told gritty stories of prison life and
poverty, and none
of that was because I was on a council estate in Wakefield. It was
just what I liked and he liked (my father's father was a colliery
deputy-manager, and so had a relatively affluent upbringing, in a
detached Coal Board house).
Also, the council estate I grew
up on never felt grim. Most people worked back then, there was never a
that crime or drugs had a hold, and as there were not as many material
possessions in the seventies, the only real differences between
were things like driveways and whether the television was black and
The dole years in the eighties
were tough spiritually, and I remember what it feels like to not just
nothing, but also to feel that having nothing is about as good as life
going to get, but I think I was saved by youth, because as good as it
can be to
have nice things, I had some great times with friends that had little
with money or status.
The main thing I take from my
own experience is that it is all more complicated than it seems. I know
was never a risk of me being involved in crime, but that is more to do
fear of the consequences than any moral standpoint. The one thing I do
is that I ended up with a chip on my shoulder, and although I like to
that I've shrugged it off, I am still more comfortable in a working
than a nice restaurant. The irony is that I have learnt more about real
problems, like the depths of alcoholism and drug misuse that people
through being a criminal lawyer, because I come across people who live
like nothing from my own personal experience.
So I don't necessarily feel more
qualified, as I'm not sure I've "lived the life", but it doesn't feel
unfamiliar, which must help.
There is a good deal of human
interest in Dead Silent. It almost seems as though
this is as important
as the crime aspect. Would you say that anthropology is a key part of
People commit crimes, and
different things drive people to act like they do. What interests me
crime is what is going on in people's heads. I am always intrigued when
someone in court who has done something you wouldn't expect to happen
their background, and so I want to know what's going through their
heads. I remember
conducting a case of a woman charged with murder, where I was the
the initial hearing, and as she was brought up from the dock she
blinked at the
lights and had a general look of disbelief mixed in with fear, and I
could have sat down with her and really found out what was going
mind. That's what fascinates me about crime.
But crime comes from all sectors
of society and for a whole host of reasons, and sometimes it is too
generalise about "criminals". Some people do lead criminal
lifestyles, have decided that it is the best way to provide for
whereas others sometimes fall into it through a mix of circumstance and
luck. It is always a tricky area, because in one sense poverty creates
poverty stifles opportunities, but equally people who choose crime are
going to be poor, except for those who get really good at it, and the
divides those who offend by choice or circumstance is too blurred to
Do you find
it hard to write
about the harsher realities of crime, or do you find that you have
hardened to it, for example when Laura is in peril?
I want to be affected by the
harsher realities of it, and that's why I like crime fiction. I want to
the horror, the squeamishness, the blood, because ultimately it isn't
so I can enjoy it knowing that no one was really hurt. If I was too
it, I don't think I would enjoy writing it, as I wouldn't enjoy reading
best example I can think of is the film Marathon Man
Hoffman, which involves a scene where Dustin Hoffman is "examined" by
a former death camp dentist. When the dentist finds a cavity, he rams
instrument hard into it, and it's one of those shut your eyes and
moments. The point of this example is that if you ask anyone if they
the film, they will always say "oh, is that one with the teeth", and
shudder or grimace. As a writer, I accept that my book will occupy
mind for a very short time, and the gaps will be filled by life and
written by other people, and so if I can ever write a book that makes
go "oh, is that the book with the …" and shudder, then I
that my work is done.
Many crime heroes have their
little idiosyncrasies, whether it be a certain Belgian arrogance or a
earthy alcohol dependency. Jack, however, is an incredibly real
you intentionally shy away from creating a more caricatured man?
Yes, I did. I've never been a
big fan of heroes who are incredibly heroic. I've always preferred the
hero in an incredible situation. The danger with idiosyncrasies is that
can appear contrived and distracting, and only really work if they are
the story. The best contemporary series characters, like Mark
Thorne or Rankin's Rebus, allow the idiosyncrasies to develop as the
the character develops, so it is part of the character's story, rather
have them shoe-horned them in to make the character interesting.
you ever find yourself
surprised by where your stories take you? Or do you know from the off
path you will be walking?
A bit of both really. When I
start out, I know what the story is about and how it ends, along with
major plot points. Joining everything together sometimes involves a
I realise that getting from one part of a story to another doesn't work
original idea, or I might think of something better as I'm writing it.
the story isn't exactly how I perceived at the start, but has the same
your website you note a
childhood love of the Famous Five. Do you think that such books can
something to the adult author (and reader) in terms of inspiration and
Just the memory of seeing a
mystery unfold in a way that is exciting and sometimes a little scary.
thing about them is that the mysteries were solved by ordinary
the police or super sleuths. Okay, really posh and privileged children
uncles who lived on strange islands, but the premise is the same, and
are ten, you see the mystery, the excitement, not the class divide.
Are you tempted to use cases
you've been involved in as a basis for a story? Or do you try not to
that might just be too real?
I don't use cases I have come
across as the basis for a story, as it just wouldn't be right. What I
though are the little asides or comments you pick up on, like the slang
police or comments by witnesses. What I do take from my prosecuting is
comfort that it is hard to be too extreme, if it can be described as a
because real crime provides more grim realities than any writer could
you enjoy the contrast
between the beautiful rolling landscape of the book and the viciousness
acts committed there?
I do find middle class crime
interesting. I have dealt with a few fraud cases involving outwardly
respectable people, and it has become clear, when I have trawled
bank and credit card statements, that everything was always going to
crashing down around them, and I have been intrigued as to how they
normal lives, go to sleep, kiss the kids goodnight, smile for the
all of that going on in the background. What goes on behind the
curtains is often more interesting than what goes on in the everyday
in the grimmer parts of town. As much as I enjoy a "grim up north"
tale, the countryside and the warmth are as much a part of the map as
terraced streets and derelict mills.
that Patrick is your favourite character from Spongebob
this really be true? I would say mine is definitely Squidward.
Patrick is by far the best
character. Preferring Squidward is like saying that you prefer Mr Burns
Homer Simpson. I can't believe I've been challenged on that point.
Neil’s website neilwhite.net
2. Lost Souls
3. Last Rites