Firetrap by David Hodges

By David Raterman

David Hodges is a former police superintendent with a wealth of experience at the sharp end of police work, which he draws upon in his four crime-fiction books. His most recent is FIRETRAP, a hardback published in October by Robert Hale Ltd. In it, Detective Constable Kate Hamblin narrowly escapes death when her police surveillance van is blown apart by an incendiary device. Accused of abandoning two colleagues who died in the explosion and suspended from duty, she embarks on a desperate mission to nail the killer herself. But she finds herself being stalked by the very man she is pursuing—a ruthless psychopath who is determined to silence his only witness.

Hodges is a prolific and compulsive writer who currently lives with his wife, Elizabeth, on the edge of the Somerset Levels in England. I recently had an opportunity to interview him for TheBigThrill.org:

Would you talk about your background and how it ties in with your novels?

I was born in Essex, England, just before the end of the war (1944) and always had a passion for thrillers. I cut my teeth on Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu novels but was stimulated to write by my mother and father, who introduced me so much to the joys of literature.

After a boring time working for the post office in central London, I joined the then Berkshire County Constabulary in 1964 as a police constable, later becoming a member of the Thames Valley Police on amalgamation in 1968. I then worked my way up to the rank of superintendent before retirement in 1994.

I had no real chance to write in the police, except journalistically during a 3 ½-year term as the force press public relations officer, but as soon as I retired I started writing thrillers, using my experience and knowledge of police procedure to create accurate scenarios. For me writing is a compulsion—I cannot leave it alone, much to my wife’s anguish—and usually write for an average of five hours a day, seven days a week. I suppose I began to write in the end, not only because of my love of literature, but after reading novels and watching TV centred on police crime stories, which were often totally inaccurate and in some cases farcical. My wife and two daughters would refuse to watch police television dramas with me because of my interjections of ‘That’s not right. That couldn’t possibly happen.’ I don’t pretend that my novels are 100 percent accurate, though I try to be as near to factual backgrounds as I can, because I have learned after four crime novels that poetic licence is essential sometimes in a plot; too much long-winded police procedure can be a real turn-off for readers/watchers of crime dramas. So, in essence, it is all a delicate mix.

My first novel, FLASHPOINT (about a police strike) achieved a centre page spread in THE TIMES, because of its topicality, and a very welcome accolade from Inspector Morse’s Colin Dexter. I never dreamed it would attract so much attention and it encouraged me to write a second novel, BURNOUT, which was published several years later and again sold well, though not enough to lift me into the upper league of novelists. Then Robert Hale published my first hardback crime thriller, SLICE, and have gone on to publish FIRETRAP, which was due out later at the end of October. I am currently working on a sequel to FIRETRAP which is nearly completed. I also have an autobiography on my thirty years in the police, REFLECTIONS IN BLUE, published by Pharaoh Press, the same publisher of FLASHPOINT and BURNOUT.

What compelled you to write FIRETRAP?

My previous three crime novels have had fictitious places, but with FIRETRAP I decided to break the mould and set the novel actually in Somerset, using real places, but inventing a police station at Highbridge, where there isn’t one, to avoid offending serving officers. I feel readers prefer an actual location rather than a fictitious one, so that they can identify with it—especially if they are local to the area. Authors like Colin Dexter (who used the Oxford area) and Peter James (who favours Brighton) have very successfully adopted this tactic. I got the idea for FIRETRAP out walking on the Somerset Levels one day and seeing a nondescript van parked on a wayside drove. It was a lonely place and in mid-winter very creepy, with an iced-up waterway adjacent to it and mist rising from the frozen ground. My imagination immediately latched on to a scenario involving a ruthless psychopath and I couldn’t wait to get home to start writing the book. The sequel to FIRETRAP, which is nearly completed, also centres on the same spooky area.

How did you research the novel?

I am very particular about research and spent a great deal of time and effort trying to get things right, for there is always someone who is ready to identify a perceived error. I shall always remember putting in FLASHPOINT a piece about battery terminals on a car rusting, only to be pulled up by a reader who said they don’t rust—they corrode! Researching the police background is also very important, as I have been out of the force for quite a few years now, and I constantly update myself on procedures, although the police “canteen culture” rarely changes. For research I invariably resort to the Internet now, but I also have quite a comprehensive library of books, which I am always referring to.

Why did you decide on a female protagonist (Kate) and was it difficult to get inside her head?

I didn’t really decide on a female heroine just like that. With all my books, I have a plan of how the plot should develop, but, as many writers will also admit, often the story carries the writer away, taking its own course. This is what happened to FIRETRAP and Kate evolved with it, to such an extent that I often feel she actually exists as a real person.

As a man, writing about a female character can be difficult, but I have worked with so many women police officers that I think I can understand how they think and work. Also, having been married for 44 years, with two daughters, I am pretty versed in the female psyche! One thing I have tried to do is not to make Kate any more vulnerable in her personality or any more superior than a male character. She is what she is—sensitive, but also determined and very courageous, but with flaws and worries like anyone else. And, I hope, just a little sexy!

Would you mind sharing how you teamed up with your publisher?

One of the most frustrating, soul-destroying things about the writing game is not the actual writing, which can be difficult enough, but the process of finding someone to publish the completed manuscript, and however good the written work is, it can easily end up in a publisher’s slush pile or even in his/her wastepaper bin. Most publishers will not accept manuscripts sent to them direct and most agents will not be interested in submissions unless the author is already known, with a proven track-record; it is effectively a vicious circle. Most important of all, even if a submission actually gets through, it has to be remembered that writing is first and foremost a business, without any room for sentiment, and whatever the quality of the writing, if the finished piece is not seen as saleable, it will be rejected.

I began writing at the tender age of eleven, after being inspired by Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories and Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes, and supported by my literature loving parents. But it was going to be over 45 years before I managed to break into the market with my first novel, FLASHPOINT, mainly because I joined the police force and freelance writing was frowned on during my long thirty years of service. Yet ironically, it was the police service that set me on the road when I was appointed force press, public relations officer and editor of the force newspaper. This not only gave me a practical insight into newspaper publishing at hands-on level and enabled me to cut my teeth on articles and features for the newspaper, but also provided me with the opportunity to meet professional writers, like Colin Dexter, Margaret Yorke and Anthony Price. Their advice and encouragement proved invaluable later on.

Perhaps the most valuable piece of advice I received was to “Write what you know!” For three years after retiring from the force, however, I concentrated on the genre I loved most, gothic mystery stories—and despite repeated submissions to publishers and agents, I got nowhere. Finally, I turned to the police crime thriller genre, but even after repeated submissions of my novel, FLASHPOINT—a tale about the first UK police strike in a hundred years—I suffered only rejections, often with my manuscript being returned to me unread a couple of days after being posted off.

In desperation, I started taking a magazine, called WRITERS’ NEWS, which not only provided informative articles on all aspects of writing, but available markets. Several months later, I read an article in the magazine about a writer turned publisher who was seeking manuscripts for her publishing business, PHARAOH PRESS. Her name was Sue Westoby, a lively Liverpool lass with an imaginative go-getting philosophy that was a boon to any writer. And she had the benefit of being supported by an excellent professional agent, Beth MacDougall at MGA in London. Not expecting too much, I submitted FLASHPOINT for consideration and waited for the customary rejection slip. It never arrived. Instead, I received the news I had never in my wildest dreams expected—my novel was to be published! Around 12 months later FLASHPOINT hit the market and, aided by good reviews in newspapers, the book did surprising well for a first novel.

FLASHPOINT was followed by a second crime novel, BURNOUT, and then I was very fortunate to attract the attention of mainstream publisher, Robert Hale after, again, reading an article seeking submissions, in WRITERS’ NEWS. This resulted in my first published hardback novel, SLICE, with a second hardback due out with Robert Hale in the next few weeks, entitled FIRETRAP.

In conclusion, after years in the cold, I have finally fulfilled my ambition to be a published novelist, but I am acutely conscious of something all writers should remember (even those in the best-seller list)—you are only as good as your next published book—so humility and vigilance must always be the watchwords. Writing a novel does not get easier with success either; it actually gets harder, because every writer should be seeking to improve on his/her last book.

I have been fortunate with my novels so far, but I know that good fortune can be a transient thing, which should never be taken for granted. My fifth crime novel is nearly completed, but, like all of us in the midlist game, I will be keeping my fingers crossed when I submit it in a couple of months …

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