The Five By Five Interview with Douglas Skelton
“Five By Five?” Um, well… As well as being a big crime fiction fan I am also a big Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, with a soft spot for “rogue slayer” Faith, who uses the phrase constantly – though she never explains what it means, it’s an expression used in telecoms/military comms to confirm a signal is being received clearly, so hopefully this means we’ll get a clearer picture of our interviewees!
My second guest in the Five By Five hotseat is Scottish author Douglas Skelton. I’ve always been impressed at the variety of styles in his fiction, from the hard-edged Davie McCall series to the gallus Dominic Queste novels and standalone The Janus Run, a US-set thriller. He is currently writing a series featuring a young woman journalist, Rebecca Connolly, and I honestly can’t praise the first two, Thunder Bay and The Blood Is Still, highly enough. When he’s not writing novels, he can be found cramming puns into the scripts for the Carry On Sleuthing plays, and being one-quarter of the Four Blokes In Search Of A Plot who create a short story live from nothing but audience suggestions for a protagonist and a murder weapon (it’s really quite something to see). I’m delighted he has agreed to be grilled as he celebrates the publication of his latest novel, A Rattle Of Bones.
Douglas Skelton was born in Glasgow and has been a bank clerk, tax officer, taxi driver (for two days), wine waiter (for two hours), journalist and investigator. He has written 11 true crime/criminal history books, but now concentrates on fiction. A Rattle Of Bones is his tenth novel and the third in the Rebecca Connolly series after Thunder Bay (longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize in 2019) and The Blood Is Still. Follow him on Twitter @DouglasSkelton1 and find his website at: www.douglasskelton.com
First, the sensible questions…
Q1 Tell us a bit about your journey to publication and how you got to where you are now. Why crime fiction rather than another genre?
I was working for a local newspaper in the west end of Glasgow while also writing freelance features for the Evening Times on historic crimes (Bible John, Peter Manuel, the IRA attack on a prison van in the 1920s and others). The then-features editor Russell Kyle suggested there might be a book in them and referred me to Bill Campbell at Mainstream Publishing in Edinburgh. I put together a submission, added cases, wrote some sample chapters and within weeks had a contract. It was so easy I thought it would always be like that (and it was for the non-fiction because publishers approached me!). When I moved into fiction it was not as simple…
Why crime fiction? It’s what I have read since I was a teenager, perhaps earlier because I can remember reading a James Bond book and being disappointed it wasn’t really like the films. I suppose that’s a thriller rather than crime but I often blur the distinction.
Q2 What was it like writing your first novel, and what is it like now you’ve got ten under your belt?
I found the leap to fiction fairly easy. Some people, mostly police officers, said I had been making stuff up all along anyway… If anything, it’s grown harder for some reason and it’s difficult to say why. Perhaps because I really don’t want to repeat myself too much, I like to challenge myself, which is why I have moved from gritty underworld stories (Davie McCall), to lighter, though still with darkness, thrillers (Dominic Queste), a New York chase thriller that was essentially a tribute to the 70s tales I love so much (Janus Run) and now dark, lyrical mysteries that often hark back to Scotland’s past or myths (Rebecca Connolly). And it’s 13 – there’s one I wrote before Davie McCall that has never been published, plus another two yet to come. But who’s counting?
Q3 What made you decide to focus on Scottish history with the Rebecca Connolly series?
It’s something I am interested in. With the non-fiction I moved away from near contemporary crime to retell historical cases and also some smattering of history. We have a rich and textured past and our criminal history is peppered with fascinating cases. I also thought it would be interesting – and a challenge – to see how I could thread such things into a contemporary crime thriller.
Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
The easy answer is this: I like having written. I think it was Dorothy Parker who first said that and it’s a quote I love because in my case it is so true. Writing is work and sometimes I feel as if there are impediments between me and my keyboard. Research can be interesting, though, and playing God is a thrill. I like to at least attempt to subvert expectations. While writing the Davie McCall series I couldn’t use Twitter because it only had 140 characters but I’d killed most of them off… I do enjoy meeting readers but also knowing that something I have written has brought pleasure, has entertained. I do this for a living but to know that someone has enjoyed what you have written is also what it’s all about.
Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
As I said earlier, I’ve completed another two books – a Rebecca Connolly and another idea I’ve had; yet another new direction, yet another challenge. Time will tell if I have risen to it but I will say that it was something I thoroughly enjoyed writing and there is much in it that makes me proud. Not sure if that’s a good thing or bad, though!
Now for the quick-fire round…
Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
Has to be the boys in the 87th Precinct – Ed McBain’s ensemble cast of characters.
Q2 What book have you reread the most?
Again, has to be one of the 87th Precinct novels. Maybe Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here.
Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
I’m fairly mainstream in my methods – no obscure poisons, no elaborate torture devices, no serial killers with unique methods of despatch. They are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned.
Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
I’m sure I have many. In life it must be “MICKEY, DON’T EAT THAT!” (Mickey is my dog).
Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
Bookmark. I’m not a barbarian.
Thanks so much to Douglas for taking the time to be grilled – it’s exciting to hear that there are new stories on the way, they’re sure to be a treat for readers. If you haven’t read any of Douglas’ novels, there is something to suit whatever your preferred type of crime fiction, so do dive in. I have A Rattle Of Bones close to the top of my TBR stack, so look out for my thoughts on that here soon.
Douglas’ latest novel is A Rattle Of Bones: In 1752, Seamus a’Ghlynne – James of the Glen – was executed for the murder of government man Colin Campbell. He was almost certainly innocent. So when banners are placed at his gravesite claiming that his namesake, James Stewart, is innocent of murder, reporter Rebecca Connolly smells a story. Stewart has been in prison for ten years for the brutal murder of his lover, lawyer and politician Murdo Maxwell, in his Appin home. As Rebecca keeps digging, she finds herself in the sights of Inverness crime matriarch Mo Burke, who wants payback for the damage caused to her family in a previous case. Set against the stunning backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, A Rattle of Bones is a tale of injustice and mystery, and the echo of the past in the present.
A Rattle Of Bones is available in paperback and ebook from bookshops, or you can buy direct from the publisher.