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Kevin Sampson’s taut made-in-Merseyside crime caper, The Killing Pool, is to be adapted for TV. Think Nordic Noir with a twist of Northern nous. It’s a cracking holiday read, too, should you be headed to Fuerteventura for a fortnight.

Red Union Films and Pinewood Pictures will co-produce the Liverpool-set crime thriller, adapted from the first in a promised series of Sampson-penned thrillers featuring drug surveillance specialist Billy McCartney. Production starts early next year.

When the book was released, we asked Sampson to peel back the scene-of-the-crime tape and show us the inner workings of his incident room…

“There are two questions writers get asked more than any other, and they are: where do you get your ideas? What do you do for research? But, whatever answer we trot out, the truth very seldom comes into it. It’s not that you can’t or don’t want to answer. The truth is that you don’t really know where your ideas come from – or you haven’t given real, serious thought to the matter. You slip into an unintentionally glib PR persona where you try to make the book sound interesting; you try to make yourself seem intelligent without coming over as a twat; but you don’t really, honestly, truthfully answer the question.

Awaydays was published 15 years ago this month and I’ve been talking about it ever since, yet it was only when the film came out that I began to remember those first seeds and atoms of ideas that, eventually, came together to form the basis of the book. Where did it come from? Was there a moment, a flash of inspiration when I thought – hang on, this is good, this…

There was – there were several – but those moments and ideas came many, many years ago. I wrote a draft of Awaydays in 1982, so by the time the book was published in ’98 I had genuinely forgotten a lot of the detail of its very early osmosis.

My new book is a crime thriller, The Killing Pool, published today, and I’ve been doing a lot of interviews – many of them starting with questions along the lines of:

“Where did you get the story idea? What was your inspiration?”

Some of those were on live radio, and you just don’t get time to answer the question fully, even if you knew the answers. So, for perhaps the first time in my life, I thought I’d sit down and try to give a reliable account of how and why this book came together in the way that it has done. The process is fraught with cock-ups and misgivings and radical changes of direction. I wasn’t always in complete control of the characters, the tone and the direction of The Killing Pool in quite the way writers like to pretend to be. But I’m very, very happy with the way the book has developed. I’m massively critical of my own work but I don’t think I’ve been happier with a novel, ever.

That initial niggling seed of something that sometimes turns into a full-blown story can occur at any time. The creative subconscious is always at work, suggesting little threads and ideas. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with gangster stories. Films, books, news stories in The Echo, it doesn’t matter – I’m a sucker for them.

Seven of my favourite films of all time are gangster movies. My Top five TV drama series’ would have to include The Sopranos, The Wire and Spiral. I’ve been going to football regularly for over 40 years now, sitting on trains and in pubs, listening to stories, rumours, exaggerations and, no doubt, something akin to the truth about local gangland figures. I’m out and about in town, and I believe that Liverpool is one of the most atmospheric, contrary, beautiful, evil places in the world – and that inspires me.

I have all this on my doorstep and in my day-to-day life – yet every time a series like The Killing is being lionised, they ask the question: why can’t we tell stories and make drama like this here in the U.K?

My job is to make things up and, about six years ago, I started thinking that perhaps I’d try. I began by trying to conceive of a character – a man so old-school in his courtly attitudes and approach that you could, rightfully, call him a Lawman. In my imagination, this guy was more Sherriff than Cop. In many ways, he was a modern-day, Liverpool-based Lone Ranger; a man behind a mask, acting out a role, cleaning the streets of the kind of baddies that has made his own life a misery.

That was the starting point.

As I have done with all my books, I started to think about a setting, too – the physical alleyways and avenues where this story would play out – and I began to pound the beat. I was walking, cycling and driving around Lodge Lane, Garston Docks, Sefton Park trying to visualise specific scenes. I’ll spend hours, days, weeks, months, walking around the areas I’m writing about, imagining the scenarios – and, bit by bit, things will begin to interlock.

Names are very important, too. Each writer is different to the next but, for me, my characters have to fit their names, and vice versa. I’ll start off with a mental image of someone – could be someone living, could be dead, could be a complete figment of my imagination. “Shakespeare”, for example, was loosely based upon The Beatles legendary first manager, Lord Woodbine – someone I only knew in my imagination, but whose demeanour and affectations were very real to me. Perhaps surprisingly, my main character in The Killing Pool, DCI Billy McCartney, was one of the last to be christened. It’s fitting, I think, that a complex, conflicted lawman who is, in many respects, playing out a role should carry the name of one of his adopted city’s most famous sons.

So, a part of the process is a case of waiting it out, in the hope that, sooner or later, it will come together – but the best of it happens by accident. The book plays out over three distinct but inter-locking time periods: 1984, 1997 & present day. I had my rough structure and I knew the bones of the story – but I was looking for a backdrop for one of the key early scenes.

Central to the plot is a hideous attack which has repercussions over the entire story; but where would this heinous crime take place? Given the significance – and we only discover the extent of its significance very, very late in the story – locating this crime was of critical importance. I was meeting some friends in The Quarter one Sunday. There was a queue going back to the door, so we decided to walk down to Chinatown, instead. There’s no doing justice to these moments when they come… I can only liken it to that feeling, when you’re a kid, and you suddenly realise you can tell the time; the penny drops.

It’s a spiritual moment, but you just know it’s right. And walking down the hill towards Chinatown it just smacked me in the mouth – the grandeur of the arch, the history, the seedy glamour, the neon… Chinatown is one of Liverpool’s great international cultural symbols. It links our cosmopolitan maritime past with our present and our future. In fiction terms, in terms of The Killing Pool it went beyond being the answer to a writer’s roadblock…Chinatown as a setting and a symbol unleashed a whole new scope of possibility. I could barely get through my dim-sum. I wanted to get back and write that scene…

The crime fiction market is saturated. It’s madness for anyone to think they can just gatecrash and have an instant smash hit, no matter how brilliant they think their characters and their story may be. If McCartney is going to make an impact, it will most likely take three or four books. But to stand a chance of getting a second volume out there, let alone a third or fourth, there has to be something distinctive about your book – something that allows it to punch its weight. As I’ve intimated, there’s a complexity to McCartney himself that develops as the book progresses. The reveal about why he wants to see this one particular drug-dealing lynchpin behind bars more than any other is one that reviewers have found shocking – yet the ground bait is scattered right throughout the book.

As much as I’d love to, I can’t explain how and why that particular element came together until the book has been out a while for fear of spoiling it for readers. But the other idea I had – which I’d forgotten about until I started writing this – is that my brilliant idea to make sure the book stood out was to publish it in four complimentary volumes, in a beautiful, noir-design slipcase. The volumes were going to be called Chinatown; The Triangle; Gangsterland and McCartney. I had four red Moleskine jotters, full of scribbled notes for each separate story and how it would lock into the next. But things change during the coming-together of a book.

I condensed the four volumes into one – still called Gangsterland. I sent it off with the usual mixed emotions – relief; optimism; fear. My publisher called back within the week. Hallelujah – he thought it was utterly brilliant; but he went on to say that he was the worst person in the publishing world to judge it as he knew nothing about Crime Fiction. The manuscript was circulated around the different departments of Random House and two things came back. People liked the book; but they really didn’t like the title at all. They felt that a book written by me with a title like Gangsterland would invite expectations of something macho and action-packed with a very high body-count and the distinct possibility of a snarling upper lip. I could see their point, but I was thinking more of classic titles like Badlands than Grand Theft Auto when I came up with the title. I thought it was cultish in a good way.

So we went back and forth with potential new titles before, as happens, the title just dropped into my lap (ears, to be precise.) I was heading across the Four Bridges one Sunday morning, taking my littlest to the Soccer Dome in Seacombe. Beautiful morning. The water on the docks was mirror-flat; the cranes and containers standing over the wharf, seagulls cawing, and a big red oil tanker drifting into view on the Mersey. It was poetic – yet I started thinking about some of the river’s terrible secrets; some of the Bad Cargo those boats have brought in and out of the city. I was transfixed by this image of the placid dock water; depthless, still. Black. And what comes on the radio, just I pass the old weighing house? Oh yes – The Killing Moon. I’m pathologically intrigued and influenced by fate, and this just seemed meant to be.

I’m sorry, but that’s where it started; that was where Gangsterland ended and The Killing Pool starts. You never get chance to answer properly when interviewers ask “where do you get your ideas from” but that’s how the story really starts.

The Killing Pool, Random House


Pic: Kevin Cummins