‘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

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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!’

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