Barry Maitland’s Brock and Kolla books showcase the best kind of thriller — smart writing and inventive plots. He talks to Linda Herrick.
When Australian crime writer Barry Maitland was searching for a model for Stafford Nesbit, the choleric am-dram theatre director (and possible serial killer) central to his thriller All My Enemies, he was at long last able to inflict payback on one of his most fearsome adversaries, even if it had taken decades. Maitland, who lives in Maitland (more on that later) in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, giggles down the phone.
The sinister Stafford is "an exaggeration of my English teacher at school", he says, laughing.
All My Enemies has just been been released in the United States and Australasia, yet it first came out in 1996 - but only in Britain. The third in what has since grown to be a series of 11 novels featuring Scotland Yard detectives David Brock and Kathy Kolla, All My Enemies has been re-released because his fans were grumbling about not being able to read it.
It's a sign of how dedicated his followers are, especially in the United States, Australia and, increasingly, New Zealand.
That's because his books are so satisfying. His first Brock and Kolla book, The Marx Sisters (1994), was shortlisted for the UK Crime Writers Association's John Creasey Award for best new fiction, and its sequel, The Malcontenta (1995), was joint winner of the inaugural Ned Kelly Award for best crime fiction. While many thriller series are quite formulaic, Maitland's intelligent writing never follows the same pattern and his eye for detail is astounding.
That should be no surprise because before he took up writing full-time, he'd had a long and successful career as an architect. His last job was as Chair of Architecture at the University of Newcastle.
Born in Scotland 70 years ago, Maitland's family moved to London when he was 5. He studied architecture at Cambridge University and took a PhD at the University of Sheffield. His specialty was urban design, creating "New Towns" in Liverpool and Scotland. He also became an expert on the design of shopping malls, which he put to
fascinating use in the thriller Silvermeadow, which explores a series of disappearances in a giant mall.
"I have written a number of books on architecture and a couple of them were about the design of malls," he says. "I spent one summer travelling across the United States going from shopping mall to shopping mall, so in a way Silvermeadow was a way of getting that out of my system."
In Silvermeadow, Maitland dissects the psychology behind the layout of malls, where there is no obvious start or end to the flow of foot traffic, and people are subconsciously lured to drift from shop to shop. "I have worked on buildings like that," he says, "and the developers are very expert at that sort of thing."
Maitland moved to Australia in 1984 to take up the job at the University of Newcastle, retiring in 2000. While he wrote two early novels - both rejected - his real impetus came about because of the December 28, 1989 earthquake in Newcastle, which killed 13 people and caused A$4 billion worth of damage.
"It was very alarming. Houses fell down and people got killed and it was such a strange time," he recalls.
"The army moved in and closed off the centre of the city and my house was inside the cordon, so people couldn't come and visit. As a kind of reaction to that, I was reading crime and I thought, 'oh, what if I write a crime novel as a form of escapism from the chaos going on around me?' So that's how I started writing The Marx Sisters, the first one."
The earthquake, which badly damaged his house, was also the reason he moved to Maitland, a "nice little country town" about 30km from Newcastle.
With each book set in a specific part of London, the reader develops a real feel for the city and its people.
"I go back to London a lot," says Maitland. "That's how I start each book, by searching for a corner of London, some place where I can imagine the characters that interest me and the setting that interests me. Sometimes, like in Chelsea Mansions, they are wealthy areas, the golden postcode, other times they are areas that are impoverished.
"I really like the research," he continues. "In each of the stories as well as the place there is usually a theme of some sort where it takes you into some corner of life that maybe you're not familiar with. The Chalon Heads was about people who collect rare stamps. It was fascinating. I asked myself, 'what would be the most innocent thing a retired gangster could do?' Collect stamps. Later on, I discovered that one of the most valuable stamps in the world is owned by an American on death row."
As far as the research went into the dynamics of the amateur theatre group portrayed in All My Enemies, Maitland didn't have to look far. He used to act in an am-dram outfit in Sheffield. "It's wonderful for a crime story," he says. "It's so intense ... all the love affairs, the rivalries, the rows, it's such an emotional hothouse."
Maitland's books pay meticulous attention to police procedure and the stifling effects of bureaucracy. He turned to his niece, who worked in the forensic science labs at Scotland Yard. "And she was married to a copper, so between them they gave me tremendous help."
After about six months of research for each book, Maitland says he plots it all out as much as he can - then things change as he starts to write.
"The characters come to life and I begin to realise that what I thought might be happening isn't as interesting as something else that occurs to me."
Thrillers lose their thrill when you can spot the killer's identity a mile away. Maitland likes to keep you guessing.
"A reader said at a festival that at page 250 he had realised who the murderer was, then at page 300 that Brock and Kolla had recognised who the murderer was, and then he said he realised there were 50 pages to go and so we must all be wrong. I really like a strong plot."
All My Enemies (Allen & Unwin $36.99) is out now.