Saturday, 19 March 2016

Author Feature: Crime writer D J Bennett

In conversation with Gillian Hamer.

Debbie Bennett has worked in law enforcement for over 25 years, in a variety of different roles, both front-line and back-office, which may be why the darker side of life tends to emerge in her writing.

She has been a VAT debt-collector, a tax-inspector and a specialist drugs investigator - even  team leader controlling all the Thames Valley breweries for beer duty (spending days at a time in breweries around the area...) and worked in e-forensics in the late 1980s, before it became trendy. She currently plays with police databases.

Debbie was long-listed (top 25) for the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger in 2005. She spends her free (!) time reading, editing and reviewing for various online websites, blogs and magazines.

Welcome, Debbie. Can you tell us a little about you and your writing?

I could – but then I’d have to kill you afterwards… Oh, all right then. I write because if I don’t – when I’m not writing – I feel like there’s something missing. I’m “between” books right now and I’m twitchy and unsettled. I know I’ll be fine once I get started on something new, but I need to find the seed for the story, and so far I haven’t got it.

I was 15 when I completed my first novel. It was lovingly handwritten in a fancy binder, and full of cardboard characters and clichéd plots. But I did it and I was proud of myself. I still have it somewhere and I get it out every now and again. I learned a lot from that and several other novels that will never see publication. But since I was a teenager, I’ve always written – from bad poetry to short stories, novels and even screen and radio plays. At the moment I’m writing dark and gritty crime, and also working as a scriptwriter on a local radio play project at

You're a fellow crime writer. Why did you chose that genre or did the genre chose you?

I started out writing fantasy – short stories and novels. For many years that was enough. I was heavily embroiled in the genre and either attending or running fantasy conventions. I edited a lot of fiction anthologies and newsletters, and knew all the right people. For a while I was in with the in-crowd, and even getting invited to the right London parties! And then something changed. I’d been working in law enforcement and doing a lot of stuff I couldn’t talk about. I still can’t – but some of jobs I’d been involved with made me curious, and having “experienced” heroin importation, I decided I wanted to look at drugs from the street angle. So I put some ideas down on paper and never stopped. Within a few months I had a very dark, gritty and graphic crime novel. And somehow it all came together and I realised this was what I was good at. From the first book came two sequels and then another three books following a different character.

But I don’t write whodunnits. So I may be outside the parameters of traditional crime and straying into thriller territory. I don’t even write howdunnits. I write will-they-survive-its. I’m more interested in the psychology. I did a course of evening classes a few years back on criminal psychology and it was a fascinating trip into how and why people commit crime – but equally fascinating is the victim’s story and how they pick up the pieces and move on afterwards.

Which crime writers do you most admire?

Paul Finch and Mark Billingham. Frances Di Plino does good cop-story too. All three of these authors give you enough of the day-to-day of policing to be interesting, but manage to avoid the endless boring bits of reality! Newer authors such as Susan Wilkins are good at showing the points of view of the bad guys as well as the good ones, and I’m also reading books by Kimberley Chambers and Jessie Keane.

What is the best and worst things about writing crime fiction?

Daring to go as far as I do? Not sure if that’s best or worst to be honest. I do write very dark with a some very graphic scenes that were difficult to write and read – I hope readers build up enough empathy to go through them with my poor characters! I did deliberate for a long time, but was advised by my agent to leave them in as they’re not gratuitous and are essential to establish motivation for the rest of the book, if not the series. 

If that’s not the worst, then I’d have to add hoping that my mother never reads my books … or at least never tells me she has! It’s a shame. If I wrote fluffy chick-lit, or even hen-lit I’d be far less backward in coming forwards, but it’s taken me a long time to be proud of what I do.

And the best? Creating real people that live and breathe and talk to me. People that have their own hopes and fears and dreams, and are as real as any of my friends. It’s an awesome thing!

You have a background in the police, how has that helped your writing?

Much of my knowledge is out of date as I haven’t been operational front-line for over 20 years now. But it does give me a good grounding and I know where to go for more up-to-date information. I know how procedures work, what happens in the cells of a police station and how incredibly monotonous surveillance really is! I know that court is utterly fascinating and that a good barrister can argue black is white – and make you believe it. 

It’s the little things that add flavour and colour to writing too – the experience of going to work one Monday and not getting home for a week (other than a flying visit for a shower and change of clothes), of sleeping in a hotel room with half a dozen blokes for that week and going to breakfast with a different one each morning – and getting some strange looks from hotel staff! Of handling hard drugs and all kinds of interesting little bits I can’t talk about but I can occasionally drip feed into a story for authenticity…

Will you ever step away from crime fiction one day and write in a new genre, if so, which?

Possibly. Never say never! I still have some fantasy stories to tell, including an almost-finished novel I’d like to complete at some point. And I have a few short stories swimming around in my subconscious.

Do you have any long term writing ambitions or goals?

To keep on writing. I’d love to make enough money to give up the day job but if I did that, I suspect I’d lose a lot of my inspiration. I’d also like to break into film or television as many readers have said my books would translate well to screen. I did try writing the screenplay a few years back, but found it incredibly hard to do. In an ideal world, I’d have Jimmy McGovern writing the screenplay for the BBC! And I’d help out and generally be involved with its production. And it’d win lots of drama awards. And …

What are the top 3 tips you would give an aspiring crime writer? 

1) Check your details – or leave them out! Nothing is more irritating to me as a reader than when a “crime” writer doesn’t actually know what a crime is. All crimes are offences, but not all offences are crimes. I won’t bore you with the details, but there is a wealth of information in the public domain that will help you understand these definitions. When you arrest somebody, there are strict legal procedures to be followed – you can’t just make it up as you go along if you want to be authentic!

2) Following on from the above – not all Police Forces are equal. While they all have to adhere to the legal bits, procedures and policies can vary significantly. For example – some forces have SOCOs (scenes of crime officers) and others have CSIs (crime scene investigators). Again you can find a lot of this stuff online. Or go and ask. I had a scene set in Cheshire in one of my novels, so I found a helpful police officer and asked him about radio procedure and he helped me get the radio commentary exactly right – for Cheshire Police.

3) Don’t have a maverick DI with a drink problem and an obsession with the feisty young new female DC. Just don’t.

Find out more about Debbie here 

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