Ex-detective Ian Austin talks about his new novel, The Agency

By Greg Fleming

Ian Austin draws on his experience in the police force to write crime fiction.
Ian Austin draws on his experience in the police force to write crime fiction.

Ex-detective Ian Austin came late to writing, but unwittingly he'd already researched much of the material for his new novel The Agency.

Depression, days on end in a transit van monitoring suspects, chasing criminals, a relationship break-up, a marathon runner; on the face of it, his damaged hero Dan Calder and its author - an English-born ex-detective, keen runner and covert-surveillance specialist who, like Calder, immigrated to New Zealand in 2003 - seem interchangeable.
But you'd be wrong.

"No, no, no - and this is something I get asked a lot - I am not Dan Calder," says Austin when we meet at an Auckland cafe. "It's important to me that I produce the best product that I can. That's what I was like in the police and that's what I'm like as a writer, but the only way I can do that at the moment is to use my experiences in quite a personal way. As I get more skilled in the next two books you'll see the Calder character is less and less like me."

After an injury on the job and a marriage break-up, Austin suffered from depression and found that fiction was a great way to transform and process negative experiences. His first novel The Ideas Man appeared in 2012, but it's the recently released The Agency that's got local crime fans talking. The next two Dan Calder books are complete and he's already working on the fourth.

"I thought I'd be done with Dan Calder after the three in this trilogy - but people who know about these things told me that'd be a stupid move - so he's back in the fourth," he says. "All the writing has been therapeutic - but mostly subconsciously. I love and look forward to doing it and never suffer from writer's block."

One trick Austin uses is to finish each day with half a sentence, and complete it the next morning. He writes at his home office in Bombay, with views as far as the Waitakere Ranges; his thoughts outpacing his hand. Life is happier now thanks to a positive new mind-set and partner, artist Sallie Clough, who's a big supporter of his new career (that's her artwork on the cover).

"One of the happy by-products of writing is looking back at my past and considering those experiences - learning from them and, hopefully, doing things better in the future," he says. "These days I just try to be the best version of myself every day; a better partner, writer and father."

But Austin's police smarts are still very much with him. He sneak-read my list of questions before I asked them and has the steely bearing of a man who's used to being in charge.

"Could I have written these books without being a policeman?" he asks reading upside-down off my notepad. "The answer is no. The police work I did was great training for being a writer - giving evidence in court, writing reports and statements - and I have used all of that experience."

Austin's years working undercover figure in The Agency, too. He once disguised himself as a deaf priest and eavesdropped on a suspect on a train (in the book version he plays pool with the suspect).

Although he may have come late to crime fiction, he wants to be up there with the genre's heavy-hitters.

"I respect writers like Paul Cleave, Ian Rankin and Lee Child, but I don't want to emulate them," he says. "They've got a formula that works extremely well for them. I don't pretend I can do what they do, but then I like to think they can't do what I can either."

After a rocky road to publication - a dodgy local agent who sold the rights to an equally dodgy American publisher - ("I didn't do due diligence," Austin says, clearly annoyed at himself) - he has since bought back the rights to The Agency.

The good news is that book quickly sold out after its first printing - quite a feat for a self-published book - and is now on its third.

"I think it's only a matter of time until the momentum reaches a tipping point," says Austin who's been invited to attend a crime writer's conference in Scotland next month off the back of the novel's success.

"As I write more I gain confidence. I think it's key to surround yourself with the best people - Stephen Stratford edited The Agency and we have a great team who are the very best at what they do."

He wants the series to find a home at a top international publishing house.

The next outing for Calder (who faced a wily female serial killer in The Agency) is the intriguingly titled The Second Grave - from the Confucius saying - "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." Calder returns to England and comes face-to-face with his old nemesis in the police.

"This has a proper villain in it - one who's a really nasty piece of work."

For Austin, it seems, crime writing may be the best revenge of all.

The Agency (Nationwide Book Distributors, $30)
by Ian Austin

- NZ Herald

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