By Russel D McLean


“I did Barlinnie prison late last year. I was on tour, doing a lot of the Scottish prisons… and the strange thing is… that all the men said to me, you write great men! And I think that’s a big compliment.” Bestselling crime novelist Martina Cole, talking across a mobile connection from Cyprus where she has been working on her latest book, is discussing the reactions from readers in the prison system, where her titles are among the most requested in the UK. “One guy said to me, that if anyone ever told him [he’d] be caught sitting in public reading a book called Two Women, ‘they’d have called me a liar!’” She laughs, a distinctive, throaty chuckle that immediately endears her to you.

I’ve hosted live events with Cole twice before, and remember how nervous I was the first time we met. Cole’s reputation is that she “tells it like it is”, and it’s easy to assume a direct correlation between the author and her work. Her early life growing up in Essex, from dating a bank robber as a teenager to living on the poverty line as a young single mother, informs some of her fiction.

She always wanted to write, and started by crafting stories for her neighbours in exchange for cigarettes – Mills and Boon-style romances that her audience lapped up. At age 30, she decided to send her first crime novel, Dangerous Lady, to publishers. She first wrote it in her early twenties, but had never shown it to anyone else. The book sold for one of the highest advances paid at the time. With her background and connections, you anticipate she might be tough and even difficult to interview. But in reality, Cole, now 56, is generous, engaging and unexpectedly modest.

It’s no surprise that her books are popular inside. Cole writes about characters who would, in any other novel, be the bad guys. Her latest, Get Even, tells the story of Sharon, whose husband is killed in a particularly brutal fashion. Decades later, she discovers why he was murdered and decides to confront those responsible. As her story unfolds, Cole shows the complexity of a world where you can’t always rely on the authorities for closure or justice.

We continue to discuss those readers who discovered her work while incarcerated. “When you send someone to jail,” she says, “you sentence the whole family.” Prisoners and literacy are topics she feels passionate about. “It’s amazing how many young men in prison can’t read. And if you can’t read or write, how do you fill in a job application?” Her upbeat tone vanishes for a second. There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but at least if they’re picking up and reading books by authors like Cole, maybe there’s a chance.

We move on to a running theme through her last few books: women in love with dangerous men. I ask Cole if this is perhaps something personal for her, and she laughs. “Oh God, yeah! The badder the better for me.” Talking about this reminds her of when she was young, and how you wouldn’t ask where someone’s dad was, presumably because he might be behind bars. Maybe this is why her books often span decades. London in the 1960s offered a particularly golden era for those roguish “bad boys”, although Get Even begins a little later, during the 1980s.

Cole likes her tales to chart the way things change. If she’s going a long way back, she’ll often call on ex-gangster Eddie Richardson for advice. They are good friends, and she values his advice on “where people got drunk, where people had their suits made, what cars they would drive…” She also has “the most eclectic collection of old black and white films you’ve ever seen. I like to look at the London roads and what [people] were wearing.” Cole even collects old A-Z's of London so she can make sure that her characters get across the city in a realistic fashion. “When you put things as they would have happened around [something fictional]… that, I think, is what makes people believe that the stories are true.”

She has a wealth of genuine contacts, built up over the years, to help her get those details right. Beyond Richardson, she rattles off several names that form a who’s who of the old London underworld, although not all the stories they tell her are on the record. “I must be the only author in the world who asks people to help them, and then I get, ‘Don’t you dare put my name in your book!’”

Her casts tend to “evolve over time,” becoming quite different people by the time a book’s climax is reached. “My mum used to say to me that 18 and 30 are two completely different things. And then… 45. And it’s so true, everything changes. You have to learn to adapt.” The same can be said of the world she writes about; Cole is attuned to changes in society and how acceptance of cultural norms creep in over time.

Two of Get Even’s characters are closeted gay men, and the adjustment in attitude from the 1980s through to the 2010s is woven subtly into the fabric of the story. Cole tells me these scenes are spot on. Back then, “Other than Ronnie, there were no outwardly gay gangsters, really.” It’s a strong theme; how people present themselves and how they really are. Cole treats the subject with sensitivity while still portraying the reality of people’s experiences.

Some people dismiss her books as glorifying criminality and brutality, but perhaps they are underestimating much of what Cole does. “I don’t glorify the violence,” she says. “There’s far more… in Stephen King’s books. I mean, God, he’s had facial scalpings and everything. But you can get away with it in horror.” She wonders if being a woman means that people react more to her depictions of such acts. “I remember years ago, with Dangerous Lady, one of the copy editors wondered if it was too violent. I said, well, [the protagonist]’s a criminal, she’s not gonna hit ’em with her handbag, is she?”

Family is another signature of Cole’s work, and one that readers relate to. She tells me about a woman in Glasgow who came to a signing, struggling with the fact that her sons were locked up for murder and attempted murder. “I could see her trying to work it out… She said, ‘I always tried to teach them right from wrong’, and I said to her ‘You can’t blame yourself; no child comes with a set of instructions and you just have to do the best you can.’” Cole could well be talking to one of her characters, who struggle to do the right thing in often difficult circumstances.

There have been many pretenders to Cole’s throne, but none have matched her record-breaking sales. Her books have been adapted several times for TV and the stage, and she has even done vocal work on an album from Brixton-based collective Alabama 3, whose song Woke Up This Morning became the theme for the US gangster show, The Sopranos. I wonder whether, despite this success, there is still some elitism surrounding critical reaction to her work. She admits that while someone once told her she’ll “never win the Booker Prize” she doesn’t mind, “as long as it keeps me in fags!”

Cole reminds me a little of the old-school pulp writers: looked down on by some of the literati due to her popularity, but devoured by a devoted readership who relate to what she’s writing about and appreciate her straightforward, highly readable style. This is reflected in the crowds who come out time and again to hear her speak during her national tours. In Scotland, “a lovely man from this bookshop in Dundee” attends most of her events with a welcome present of Dundee Cake. No doubt, he’ll be among those present at this year’s Bloody Scotland festival where Cole will be in discussion with ex-con-turned-journalist Erwin James about her books, her life and her work. She’s looking forward to it, calling herself a “lover of Scotland” and enthusiastically describing her previous experiences on tour.

As our time draws to a close, I ask Cole, aside from connecting with her readers, what she loves most about writing for a living. “I get to spend all day with people I like,” she says. “And if they get on my nerves, I can kill ’em. I don’t know many other people who can say that… Maybe Tony Soprano!” And once again that laugh rolls down the phone line from Cyprus.

Martina Cole is at the Bloody Scotland book festival on September 12. For tickets call 01786 27 4000 or go to Get Even is published by Headline, priced £19.99