Crime Author Interviews: Robert Crouch
Today we’re welcoming Environmental Health Officer & debutante crime author, Robert Crouch, to the blog. His new novel, No Accident, is out tomorrow. Here’s Rob to tell you all about it.
First of all, thank you Dan and Sean for this opportunity to talk about my writing.
Let’s start with the obvious question: What made you become an author?
I think all authors have something to say and a love of words.
I’ve always loved words and felt comfortable with them. As a child, I was fascinated by the newspaper – all those pictures and words, letting me into new worlds. I learned to read at an early age and was soon immersed in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, where the children solved mysteries. When I came across a word I didn’t understand, I wrote it down in a notebook and looked up the meaning later, determined to use it myself. English was my favourite subject at school and I loved writing stories, invariably scoring good marks. On my twelfth birthday, I asked for a typewriter and produced stories for my friends. When I started work, I always had something to say, writing humorous stories and spoof memos from Human Resources to entertain my colleagues.
I’ve written all my life. I’ve published articles in national magazines and written a monthly column for one, but in all this time I never quite discovered what I needed to take me to the next level and become an author. Then, about 5 years ago, I realised something I think I’ve suspected all my life – I wanted to entertain people. It changed my focus and made me think about the reader and what they might want. I also started a blog, called Fisher’s Fables, which developed many of the characters in No Accident. It helped me develop a distinctive voice as a writer, which then gave me the confidence to write better.
This is when I stopped writing to entertain myself and became an author.
Why the South Downs? What is it about that part of England that makes it so unique?
The South Downs in East Sussex have a gentle, peaceful beauty. The hills have soft curves rather than rugged rock faces, though the spectacular white cliffs of the Seven Sisters are breathtaking. Then, of course, there’s Beachy Head, famous for more sombre reasons. Once on the Downs, the views reach far, especially along the coast towards Brighton. The prevailing west wind blows the gorse and hawthorn bushes into quiffs. In summer, the hills teem with flowers and wildlife. And no matter how many visitors there are, or what time of year it is, the Downs always feel peaceful, offering great views over the surrounding countryside and the villages that nestle in the valleys.
The tranquility and gentle beauty of the South Downs is the perfect backdrop to the sometimes ugly world that Kent Fisher delves into.
You’ve been compared to Agatha Christie. Does that comparison scare you? Those are big shoes to fill.
A reviewer thought Agatha Christie fans would love No Accident. That’s a fantastic compliment because I’m a huge fan of Miss Marple. I can watch the Joan Hickson series time after time, never failing to admire the intricate way the plots are woven together. But I’m not trying to imitate Agatha Christie. I’m simply trying to write the best and most entertaining murder mysteries I can. If they make people think of Agatha Christie, that’s a wonderful bonus.
It seems like many crime novelists have a law-enforcement background, but I’ve never heard of an Environmental Health Officer writing crime fiction before. How much does that background help you write murder mysteries?
Environmental health officers (EHOs) are law enforcers. Over the years, I’ve closed verminous food businesses, investigated many serious and fatal workplace accidents and resolved countless problems and complaints. I’ve prosecuted people and businesses in court and worked to the same criminal evidence rules as the police, though we operate in a completely different environment and manner as we’re not investigating crimes like murder and rape. We often work with the police and many years ago I met a Scenes of Crime Officer, who taught me a lot about preserving a scene.
The varied nature of the work throws up opportunities as EHOs go into so many different places and meet so many people. For instance, we inspect the kitchens in care and nursing homes, so it would easy for Kent Fisher to detect signs of possible abuse during a visit and build a story around that. Or substitute the kitchen in a hotel, or a school, or a kebab shop for a different type of story.
I notice you had environmental health notify the police of a dead, decomposing body in Dead on Demand. But did you know that local authorities have to bury people who die without relatives? This usually falls to environmental health, who will examine the deceased belongings, looking for evidence of any savings or money that could be used to pay for the funeral. Imagine what you could find among the personal belongings to set a story off.
If you have to pick just one, and it can’t be Agatha Christie, who is your favourite author ever?
Gosh, that’s a tough one. It has to be Sue Grafton, who writes the Alphabet Series, featuring private investigator, Kinsey Millhone. These books inspired me to create my own private detective and I give more than a nod to Sue Grafton and Kinsey in my stories.
When you think about crime fiction, what’s the most important element? The plot? The criminal? The victim?
With a murder mystery or whodunit, the plot is crucial. It has to be believable, plausible with a good dose of red herrings and suspects. It’s also the starting point of the planning. I don’t plan in great detail as I like stories to evolve and surprise me. But I usually know who the victim is and why they’ve been murdered. From here, I set up the suspects and drop the breadcrumbs that set Kent on the trail.
As I love crime series like Morse, Endeavour, Lewis, Miss Marple, and Lieutenant Columbo, I wanted to write something that shared the same high production values. I wanted strong, believable characters, complex plots, a picturesque settings and backstories that impact on the plot, sometimes in unexpected ways. These are the values that drive me when I write. When I conceived Kent Fisher, I wanted him to be on TV at 8pm before the watershed, not after it.
Tell me about No Accident.
Kent Fisher, EHO, investigates a work accident early one morning. On the surface, it looks like a simple case of carelessness on the part of the victim. But there are details that don’t quite fit or make sense to him so he detours from normal procedure to investigate them. Naturally, he meets resistance on all sides, from the playboy owner of the theme park where the accident happened to his own boss, who thinks the accident is an ‘open and shut’ case. Despite the resistance and the risks he takes, Kent starts to unravel a complex series of secrets that impact on his personal and professional lives, threatening everyone and everything he holds dear.
This is no accident – it’s murder.
Kent is billed as “No Ordinary Detective”. What sets him apart?
I mean Kent’s not your usual detective. He’s not a police officer, a pathologist, crime scene investigator or private detective. He’s an EHO. As such, he’s not bound by the rules and procedures the police have to follow, with the obvious exception of PACE. He’s not under the same scrutiny or pressures as the police. Equally, he doesn’t have their resources and he could never compete with them. So, not being a trained detective, he follows details that seem wrong or out of place and sees where they lead him. It makes him flexible or haphazard, depending on your viewpoint. People are not as suspicious of him as they would be with a police officer, so he can usually learn more and get away with more. In some cases, EHO powers of entry sometimes exceed those of the police, making it easier for him to get into places.
Like me, he’s a huge fan of Lieutenant Columbo and Kinsey Millhone, and copies their methods. I can’t think of a police officer who would admit to that.
When’s the book available?
The eBook should be available on Amazon on 20th June with a paperback following around four weeks later in July.
If one of our readers wants to find out more about you, or about Kent Fisher, where should they look?
My website, http://robertcrouch.co.uk would be the best place. It has details about Kent, No Accident, the next mystery, No Bodies, the South Downs, and links to my author page on Facebook and my Twitter account. It’s growing and evolving, so I’m adding content all the time. I also have Robservations, a weekly blog that covers anything interesting I’ve been up to during the week, like being interviewed, for instance.
I’m launching a monthly email newsletter in the next week or so to provide extra information and details, such as character bios, walks on the South Downs, behind the scenes, that won’t be generally available on the website. The newsletter’s entitled, The Tollingdon Tribune, which is the name of the local newspaper in the Kent Fisher mysteries and people can sign up on the website.
Thank you so much for letting me share my love of writing with you. I hope I can return the compliment in the near future and interview you.