Kathy Walton meets Britain’s best-selling crime writer…
Her tales of crime are the most popular novels in British prisons – and the ones most likely to be stolen from shops. In fact, her books get nicked so often in her native East London that booksellers hide them under the counter.
It's an undeniably enviable distinction for a writer and when I catch up with Martina Cole (who divides her time between an impressive pile in rural Kent and a home on Cyprus) it is the first thing she tells me.
We meet when she is between appearances on a busy tour promoting her latest book Betrayal. Like most of her novels (20+ and still counting) it is set on an estate in East London, where drug dealing, violence and prostitution are a way of life for some families, whose members will stop at nothing to succeed, even if (spoiler alert!) that means shafting one of their own.
The publicity blurb says that Cole ‘tells it like it is’ and certainly, after a week when I couldn’t drag myself away from Betrayal or an earlier novel, The Know, I feel as if I’ve known her characters all my life. Most tellingly, I desperately want to find out what happens to them, which is why I can’t resist asking her how much she draws on her imagination and how much her characters are based on real people.
It is a question she has surely been asked many times before and, to my surprise, she is cagey. “I grew up on an Essex council estate,” she says by way of explanation. When I press her, she admits that while “all my characters are fictitious”, she does know people in organised crime.
One, a villain she dubs “the most dangerous man in Liverpool” is “really nice, handsome, he gave me a lovely dinner, he is well dressed and very charming. I’ve always had a good experience [with criminals] and have never felt threatened or compromised,” she says. “In their own way, they’re lovely people.” Wisely, she refuses to divulge any more. “I’d lose all my contacts overnight,” she says simply.
Certainly, the Mr Big characters in her novels often cut very appealing and plausible figures, ensuring that they make regular charitable donations and covering their tracks with seemingly legitimate businesses that convince even their wives and children.
“It doesn’t matter which city I’m in, people come up to me and say ‘is it such and such family you’re writing about?’ It isn’t, but every community has one of these families and so people recognise them,” she says.
Women are among Cole’s biggest fans, with mothers often buying her book because they’ve got a son in prison. She laughs again when she tells me another anecdote. “I met one woman who said, ‘My son’s doing 25 years for violent crime, but he’s a lovely boy. He went to private school, you know…’ and I thought, well, I bet you’re pleased about that.”
Martina Cole is a publishing phenomenon, having rarely been out of the best sellers list since her first novel, Dangerous Lady, came out in 1992. She has sold more than 15million novels across the world, and in 2011 became the first British female novelist writing for adults to surpass the £50 million sales mark.
It’s a remarkable achievement for the daughter of poor Irish immigrants, who left school at 15 with no qualifications, was married and divorced by 17 and had her first baby at 18. A series of odd jobs followed, until, aged 32, she chose an agent at random and sent off her manuscript for Dangerous Lady, earning her the biggest advance ever paid to an unknown author.
Famously and unusually, Cole is still with the same agent, publicist and publisher who first took her on and is known throughout the industry for her loyalty. Personally too: “I’ve still got the same friends I had at school,” she says proudly. “They tell me that I haven’t changed at all, I just drive a better car. If I lost all my friends, who would I have to write about?”
Just as most of Cole’s friends are still working-class women, so are the women in her novels, for whom her sympathy positively shines through: single mothers struggling to feed their kids; desperate creatures driven by addiction or poverty into prostitution; and their daughters, all of whom struggle to make a better life for themselves.
“If there was one thing I could do to lift these women out of their situations, it would be to teach them to keep themselves, so that no matter what happens in life, they can pick themselves up and look after themselves,” she says.
She continues: “At signings, I meet women who thought their lives were sorted, but then the ground fell out from under them. The Daily Mail and Middle England make assumptions about single mothers with five fathers for their children, but [any] woman can be abandoned or widowed,” she says.
But what about Jade, the anti-heroine of Betrayal, who, when we meet her, is living a life of luxury and running an upmarket brothel exploiting vulnerable young women, even under-age girls?
Cole is in no doubt that the Jades of this world have no female friends because, quite simply, they have no feelings left. “She’s been used by men herself and knows nothing else,” says Cole of such women. “I’d never want to meet women like that. For her, [running a brothel] is about controlling men. She has a nice house and car, it’s all about things because her emotions have all gone.”
A passionate believer in the redemptive power of education, Cole regularly runs writing workshops in prisons. Even so, she admits that some people (such as Aiden O’Hara, the sociopathic protagonist of Betrayal) are just born that way. “Some men are victims of their environment too and [with some prisoners] my heart goes out to them, but for others, it’s just in ‘em.”
By contrast, her female characters rarely get mad – “that doesn’t do anyone any good” – rather, as in the title of another of her novels, they get even. Underneath their tough exterior, many women in her novels are fundamentally decent and full of compassion. Reeva, the matriarch in Betrayal; and Joanie, the tart with a heart whose daughter goes missing in The Know, both adore their children, however delinquent.
When I mention that Reeva and Joanie always put home cooked food on the table, Coke lights up, all but turning into a walking recipe book, telling me about fish she eats in Cyprus and the roasts she makes her three grandchildren. “I have an Aga you know and make my own jam. People never expect that from me.” Good food, apparently, is the only thing that can drag her away from reading.
When she’s not writing, she is volunteering as an ambassador of the Reading Agency’s Reading Ahead programme or visiting prisons. Inmates love her books (in fact, one man in HMP Belmarsh said her books could have been set in his mum’s house) and she receives bags of fan mail from prisoners, asking for reading tips and even for her hand in marriage.
So is she ever tempted to accept any of these proposals? Cue hoots of throaty smoker’s laughter from the twice divorced Cole. ‘No way, I’d rather poke my eyes out than live with a man. I like men, but I couldn’t eat a whole one.”
Martina Cole will be signing copies of ‘Betrayal’ and talking to Chris Simmons, online editor of CrimeSquad.com, at Chorleywood War Memorial Hall on Tuesday, 8 November at 7.30pm. For event voucher (£10, which goes towards a copy of the book bought on the night) or to buy a hardback copy of ‘Betrayal’ (pub. Headline, price £19.99), contact Chorleywood Bookshop on 01923 283566 or visit www.chilternbookshops.co.uk