‘I’ve got away with murder for 25 years!’
Once upon a time, a literary agent called a blonde from Essex and said: ‘You’re going to be a star!’ And that’s exactly what Martina Cole has become
The Queen of Crime, Martina Cole, on the secret to writing killer novels
Dubbed The Queen of Crime, Martina Cole has written a book a year since her first crime novel, Dangerous Lady, in 1992 to her latest book, Damaged. Now 58, she reflects on her amazing life.
I hated school, but always loved books.
I’m from a big Irish Catholic family, the youngest of five, and I went to a convent school. In my spare time, I was an avid reader, and I’d sit at home and write poems for hours, but at school, there was a very strict regime. I had to wear a horrible uniform, with a straw boater, a sash and big red knickers. I felt like I had no freedom, so I became very rebellious. I was eventually expelled at the age of 15. A nun threw an O-level physics textbook at me – so I threw it back. As you can imagine, that didn’t go down too well!
When life got tough, writing was my escape.
My younger years weren’t exactly conventional. I got married aged 16, divorced at 17, and was pregnant with my son, Chris, by the time I reached 18. We lived in a little flat in Tilbury, Essex, and money was tight. I worked every hour God sent doing lots of different jobs – in pubs, an off licence and supermarkets. At weekends, I earned a bit of extra cash by going round to people’s houses and dismantling their cookers to clean them. I’m a neat freak, and I’ve always found housework strangely relaxing.
We couldn’t afford a TV, so I wrote in my spare time.
It was a way of exploring new, exciting and faraway places without leaving the sofa. I wrote Mills & Boon-style romances for my neighbour, who paid me in cigarettes. However, I was particularly fascinated by crime, and read every newspaper I could. I’d sit and wonder what had happened in the murder cases – making up characters and theories. I’ve always lived inside my head. I still do!
It took years before I sent Dangerous Lady to an agent.
In my thirties, I was working for a nursing agency, and had built up a stable enough income to move house. I was clearing out my flat, and tucked away in a cupboard was all my writing. There were three novels, half a dozen comedy scripts and a few plays. Deciding that part of my life was over, I vowed to burn it all the next day. But then I saw the manuscript for Dangerous Lady. Some part of me felt curious to rediscover the writing of my 21-year-old self, so I sat on the floor with a cigarette and a glass of wine, and began to read. ‘This ain’t half bad,’ I remember thinking, ‘I’d actually buy this!’ So I chose an agent at random – Darley Anderson, purely because I liked his name – sent it off, and he rang me the next day. I was offered a £150,000 advance – back then it was the largest amount that an unknown author had ever been paid. It felt like a dream.
If there’s one thing I could tell my younger self, it’s to have faith and believe.
I wasted so much time wondering, being negative about myself and afraid to take a risk. Back then, I didn’t take myself seriously enough. I didn’t think anyone would ever be interested in what I had to say – I was an unmarried mother with an unremarkable life. Even when Dangerous Lady did well, I never thought there’d be a second success. But then my next book sold even better than the first – and so it went on.
Here I am now, 25 books in, and I can’t believe my luck.
I have a beautiful medieval house in Kent, a holiday home in northern Cyprus, and several bags that cost more than I care to admit! I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am. I’m no stranger to graft and I’m not always extravagant,
‘I didn’t think anyone would ever be interested in what I had to say’
but I do believe in reward. Everyone deserves a little treat now and again!
I’m the most stolen author from bookshops – and to me, that’s the ultimate compliment!
In parts of east London, they have to keep my books behind the counter for fear of them getting nicked! I’m also the most read author in prisons. But the way I see it, if the people I write about want to read my books, I’m doing something right. Whether it’s murders, bank robberies or prison breakouts, I do a lot of research, so I know exactly how something would happen. Scary as this sounds, I know so much about that world now that if
I really premeditated a crime, I could probably get away with it!
To this day, one of my favourite parts of the job is doing writing workshops in prisons.
I’ve met some fascinating people. Over the years, I’ve seen the system change a lot. When I first started out, I’d come up against a lot of opposition – people saying ‘why go and talk to them? They’re criminals.’ Now, the focus is much more on life skills and education, as it should be. If you can’t write your name, you can’t fill out a job application, so a life of crime becomes a vicious circle. We shouldn’t send a person out of prison in a worse state than when they went in. I think that’s why offenders like my books. I write from an emotional standpoint, exploring the characters’ backstories. Family, relationships and motivations are central themes. I aim to get to the heart of why people act in a certain way.
Family is the most important part of my life.
I love my own company, and would rather poke my eyes out than get married these days! I like nothing more than my own bed, my own TV and my own chocolate. However, I’ll always cherish family time. My son, Chris, is now 41, and my daughter, Freddie Mary, is 19. I also have three grandchildren, Lewis, 20, Talia, 10, and Little Chris, 6, who I absolutely dote on. Almost every Saturday night, they’ll come and stay with ‘Nannio’ or ‘Nanny Teen’, as they call me. I always do a lot of cooking with the younger two, baking cakes or making jam.
It works out well when I look after the grandchildren, because I’m a real night owl.
I’ll put the little ones to bed, then sit and write, often until
4am. I go to bed at 4.30am, but am up and alert by 7.30am, ready to make croissants with them on Sunday morning. It was the same when my children were little, too. I’ve always resented sleep – ever since I was a teenager, I’ve felt like it’s a waste of time. Generally, I average three or four hours a night.
Stories will always drive me.
It’s the thrill of wanting to know what happens next – I love the entire process. In 25 years, I’ve never felt bored. For so long,
I got up and went off to do a job I hated, purely to pay the bills. Now, I’m always excited about the next chapter. I love creating characters – giving them lives to live, cars to drive, even choosing how to decorate their homes. It’s like playing God and, if they get on my nerves, I can kill them off! Of course, it’s not always that brutal. I do give second chances… sometimes.
• Martina’s latest book, Damaged (Headline, £20), is out on 19 September
‘I love the process – if a character gets on my nerves, I can kill them off!’