Thursday, April 10, 2014

Crime-writer Margaret Murphy: Truth, Lies, and Creative Collaboration

Every now and then I like to invite one of my crime-writing friends to be a guest on my blog. This time it's the turn of Margaret Murphy. I really wanted to know more about Margaret's colloboration with forensic scientist, Dave Barclay, and how that works. This is what I learned:

A.D. Garrett is the pen name for Margaret Murphy and Professor Dave Barclay’s writing collaboration. Margaret is a Dagger Award-winning novelist, RLF Writing Fellow, and past Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association. As head of Physical Evidence at the UK National Crime and Operations Faculty for 10 years, Dave undertook physical evidence reviews in 233 murders.
Their debut novel, EVERYONE LIES, has had rave reviews and reached the top ten in Amazon Kindle last autumn. Margaret has penned 9 novels under her own name, so how did the writing collaboration happen?
‘During Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture in 2008, the city hosted the BA Science Festival,’ Margaret explains. ‘The Macaulay (now the Hutton) Institute wanted to organize a panel discussion, open to the general public, examining the science behind crime fiction. Did I know three writers brave (or foolhardy) enough to have their work scrutinized, explained, and potentially ridiculed by a panel of six (yes, six!) scientists? The first “Murder, Mystery & Microscopes” featured me, Val McDermid and Peter James. In the event, the scientists let us off lightly, the event was a double sell-out, and has since become a staple of public science lectures.
            ‘Fast forward to the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival 2010. My agent, Felicity Blunt, and I watched Ann Cleeves and Mark Billingham getting the MMM treatment; the forensics expert was Dave Barclay, whom I’d met in 2008,’ Margaret says. ‘I am a scientist by training, and Felicity said she’d love to get the two of us together on a project. We met over gin & tonic and Dave and I later agreed our respective contributions.’

So how did the partnership work? ‘Dave came up with three ten-point plots and we chose one that had the potential to build into a satisfying thriller. From there, we exchanged ideas, and talked about the characters, with Dave advising on scientific and procedural elements.  The writing is my job, so when we felt we had enough background, I got to work. We had the main protagonists: forensic scientist, Professor Nick Fennimore, and DCI Kate Simms. We had also worked out the central plot – an unexplained blip in the number of overdoses among north Manchester’s heroin addicts, which Simms suspects is something more sinister. Being science trained, I could do some forensic research myself; when a question arose that was beyond my experience, Dave would provide briefing notes or a PowerPoint presentation – or we would Skype.’

Are there any CSI-style cheats or inventions in the novel? ‘Fennimore is a forensic scientist, which means the science has to be right. That said, EVERYONE LIES is a work of fiction, so the characters had to have depth and complexity to engage the readers, and as a thriller, the story needed both tension and pace. The writing process is organic – characters will do unpredictable things against the better judgment of the writer – and I added in storylines and characters and scratched out others along the way. In these instances, Dave would deal with the scientific consequences of my untidy creative mind.’
Will the collaboration continue? ‘Happily, the second novel is completed and is due out in July,’ Margaret says. ‘Fennimore and Simms go Stateside, on the trail of a serial killer. That was fun to research. In May 2012, we spent three weeks in Tulsa and St Louis, talking to experts covering a range of aspects of the US Criminal Justice System. Highlights included being guided around the Homicide Department in Tulsa, and talking to detectives, Cold Case Investigators, and CSIs. They’d had 19 homicides between January and May – and said it had been unusually quiet. We also talked to District Attorneys, a forensic anthropologist, and a judge in Oklahoma. Our guide and facilitator, Mike Nance, was formerly a homicide detective, and is now a Team Adam consultant. Mike is also a co-founder of the International Association of Cold Case Investigators. Please check out their Facebook page and like it – these guys do important work. In St Louis, we met with just-retired head of the Major Case Squad, Bill Baker, and the Godfather of Homicide, Joe Burgoon, and listened to a fund of stories that impressed on me both the humour and compassion of the men and women who stand between ordinary people and those who would do us harm. It’s impossible in a short blog to do justice to everyone who helped and guided us, but I will be blogging the research trip, day by day, on the A.D. Garrett website from 30th April to 17th May, so I hope you’ll drop by.

EVERYONE LIES, published by Constable Crime, is now out in paperback and in e-format. The sequel, BELIEVE NO ONE, will be published on 3rd July.

For information on the books (including foreign publications), events, writing and forensic science, visit the A.D. Garrett website at or follow @adgarrett1 on Twitter.

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