Bestselling Scots crime writer Denzil Meyrik tells Marianne Taylor about the books that shaped him

Favourite book you read as a child?

Like most kids of my vintage we read Enid Blyton before graduating on to something more sophisticated.

In Kintyre, we were fortunate to have the brilliant Angus MacVicar as de facto writer in residence. He had such an eclectic canon of work. His novel The Black Wherry is a tale of smuggling and derring-do set in the 1700s. For me, the best thing was the Kintyre setting we all recognised. MacVicar used landmarks and buildings we knew so well, though he was careful to change names in order to protect the innocent. I remember thinking what a good idea this was. It’s funny how things stay with you.

I paid tribute to him in the DCI Daley novel The Rat Stone Serenade. Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted The Black Wherry Inn in my “Blaan”, derived from the old name for Southend, the village in Kintyre where Angus lived and worked.

What was the first book to make an impact on you?

I’m a product of the Scottish education system of the 1970s and, like my peers, was introduced to the usual diet of books thought suitable for the improvement of young minds. My then English teacher, Liz McCulloch, recognised that I had an interest in history and politics, so gave me her own copy of Orwell’s magnificent A Homage to Catalonia. I devoured that book; it’s history, horror and many hardships. I still count it among my favourites.

His description of the insanity and brutality of the Spanish Civil War should be required reading in all schools.

What books made you laugh or cry?

Anything by George MacDonald Fraser makes me howl with laughter. I must thank my old buddy Ronnie Kelly for introducing me to the Flashman books when we were teenagers. I still read them from time to time.

Of course, I need not go into the appeal of arch cad Harry Flashman to the impressionable teenage mind, as he romps his way across the many battlefields of the Victorian era. But these novels are treasure troves of detail. Flashman is a fictional character but the history is real. It’s also a study of the human condition. I often wonder how influenced Michael Dobbs, writer of House of Cards, was by McDonald Fraser. There is much of Flashman in his Francis Urquhart. MacDonald Fraser himself was heavily influenced by the great Mark Twain. And so the wheel of literary influence rolls on.

The crying bit is easy. I defy anyone to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s In the Court of the Red Czar without feeling tears fall down their face at the horrific crimes of Stalin’s regime. Nobody was safe; the dictator could be across the dining table from his best friend, laughing, singing and topping up his or her glasses. The next day that person and their whole family could be dragged off to the Lubyanka never to see the light of day again.

The suffering and death of millions of Russians stained his hands. Horrific, harrowing, but compelling reading. Yes, you will cry.

Favourite character, and why?

I’m going to cheat and chose two, but they are forever interlinked: Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin from the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian. I’m often surprised when people ask me about my favourite books then look surprised when I mention my love for these.

As O’Brian often writes, here is a wooden world, a microcosm of everything that happens in a normal, landbound community. The humour is subtle but plentiful. There’s a surfeit of bathos, pathos and action. Bold Captain Aubrey is like a seal: graceful and peerless at sea, but bumbling and awkward on land. Maturin is the perfect foil: waspish, irreverent and quick of mind.

I think many readers are put off by the setting, but they shouldn’t be. Like all the best characters, Aubrey and Maturin live lives that reflect our own. Despite the backdrop of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, there’s something here for everyone. Their many exchanges are priceless.

Least favourite genre?

I will caveat this before I answer: there is no such thing as a worthless genre.

As a crime writer, I note the sniff in some literary circles when any “genre” is mentioned. This is arrant nonsense. I’ve read some mind numbingly boring, so-called literary fiction, just as I have in genre fiction and indeed non-fiction works. Good writing is good writing, QED. What is Hilary Mantel if not a writer of historical fiction? But she’s bloody good.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison, of course, and in my case I won’t be reaching for romantic fiction any time soon. But I acknowledge the fact I’m probably missing out on a book or two I’d perhaps enjoy. It’s great being a hypocrite – I’m proud of it!

Book you wish you’d written?

Oh, this is easy: anything by JK Rowling. Think of the money!

Seriously though, this author has done so much to inspire a whole generation of young (and many older) people to pick up a good book. In this age of diversion this is no mean feat.

For me, those who write for children should be the most lauded in the writing community. Without them and their skill of inspiring youngsters to develop the reading bug, where would we all be?

E-reader or print?

Both! It’s interesting to note that readers under 35 have driven the revival in print sales. I prefer a good old-fashioned book. But for reasons of portability, yes, I have an e-reader.

I think we should also consider audiobooks. This sector of the industry has seen enormous growth in the last two or three years. It goes back to the very dawn of humanity and the oral tradition of telling of tales. I listen to lots of audiobooks. One of my favourite reads/listens recently was Michael Palin’s excellent Erebus. Highly recommended.

Last book read?

The Blood Is Still by Douglas Skelton. It’s heart-warming to note that very elderly people can still pen excellent books!

Favourite Scottish book?

The Lion in the North by John Prebble. Here’s a potted history of Scotland, both accessible and compelling. Of course, much of our history reads like the best of thrillers, so he had a head start. If you want to find out about the country and its rich past, this is the book for you.

Guilty pleasure?

I was 11 when the first Star Wars film appeared. I remember reading the companion book before seeing it because it took the film about six months to get to Campbeltown. Though some of the recent offerings from the franchise haven’t reached the heights of the original trilogy, there exists another way to experience The Force. I’m not averse to reading some of the excellent graphic novels set a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Perfect on an iPad.

Most interesting or unusual use of a book?

If you’ve been to a supermarket recently, you’ll realise that toilet tissue was in short supply. Newspapers are rough on the skin, but the pages of a book are just the job! I’m not telling which volumes were sacrificed first.

Denzil Meyrik’s latest book, Jeremiah’s Bell, published by Polygon, is out now in print, ebook and audiobook, priced £8.99.