'It's like going from Poirot to Columbo' - crime write Jo Spain on her latest book The Confession
Crime writer Jo Spain has changed tack in her latest book, 'The Confession' - a whydunit centred on the themes of revenge, addiction and the Irish class divide - so writing it felt different from the start, she tells our reporter
Early last year, crime novelist Jo Spain was at home watching television with her husband Martin. She suddenly turned to him and remarked: "Imagine what would happen if a complete stranger walked in here and started hitting you with a golf club".
Not for the first time, Martin had to gently ask: "You do realise that not everyone's mind works that way?"
Luckily, Spain has found the perfect outlet for her dark and twisted thoughts. "It's the first spray of my husband's blood hitting the television screen that will haunt me in the weeks to come," reads the opening line of The Confession, her fourth novel and the one publishers Quercus believe will turn the 38-year-old Dubliner into a household name.
To reveal any more of the fast-moving plot would be unfair, so suffice it to say that this is a tense psychological thriller driven by themes of revenge, addiction and the Irish class divide.
"Writing The Confession felt different from the start," Spain tells me over afternoon coffee in a city-centre hotel. "My first three books were traditional whodunits, but I soon realised this was more of a whydunit.
"It's like going from Poirot to Columbo. You know straight away that a man called JP is the attacker, but you have to read all the way through to find out what motivated him."
Like all of Spain's novels, The Confession has a distinctly Irish social context. With Our Blessing was partly set in a Magdalene Laundry (where her own father began life), Beneath the Surface was about a murder in Leinster House and Sleeping Beauties was inspired by the real-life disappearances of women in the midlands.
This time the victim is a Celtic Tiger-era banker whose corruption and infidelities have turned his wife into an emotional wreck.
"Anyone who watches The Crown will know that the upper classes are much better at hiding their problems," Spain believes. "But deep down there's no real difference between white-collar crime and stealing from a shop.
"The characters in The Confession may be unlikeable, but I hope they're deliciously unlikeable like those in Dallas or Dynasty - you'd still love to have their lifestyle."
Spain herself comes from a "very working-class" family in the north Dublin suburb of Coolock.
"My father was a lovely man, but he had an alcohol problem and drank all our money. It makes you or break you. I really wanted to get away from that kind of poverty."
Spain had a "truly inspirational" English teacher who recognised her creative talent and encouraged her to read virtually every book in the local library. She got the points to do politics and philosophy at Trinity College, which she remembers as full of wealthy people who were less intelligent than many from her own community.
She worked in a bookies and clothes shop while studying for her degree, began a career as a freelance journalist and joined Sinn Féin mainly because "they were the only party who ever called to our door".
In 2007, Spain stood for the Dáil in Dublin Mid West, where her opponents included the then Tánaiste Mary Harney and future Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald. She performed well and won 3,462 votes but was eliminated on the fourth count.
Hugely disappointed at the time, she now regards her defeat as a blessing in disguise.
"I just wasn't cut out to be a TD. I hated going to public meetings and being the centre of attention.
"I'm very much a 'live and let live' sort of person, so I found it really difficult when people wanted to argue with me."
Instead, Spain went to work in Leinster House as an economic advisor to Sinn Féin's finance spokesman Pearse Doherty. Her period there coincided with Ireland's EU/IMF bailout, which made for an extremely gruelling workload.
When her husband lost his job during the recession, she began writing for a couple of hours every evening purely as a way to earn some extra cash.
"I've loved crime fiction since I was a dot, so I basically tried to create the sort of book I would want to read."
Spain's series detective is Inspector Tom Reynolds, a kind, relaxed, witty sleuth closely modelled on the man with whom she now has four children. "Even though Martin wouldn't be able to solve the mystery of where I keep the iron," she jokes.
With Our Blessing took a year to write and she then entered it in the Search for a Bestseller competition run by British daytime TV hosts Richard and Judy. "A few months later I was on the bus home to Blanchardstown and got an email saying I'd made the shortlist of seven. It was a genuinely life-changing moment."
Although Spain did not ultimately win Richard and Judy's £50,000 prize, the publicity was invaluable and Quercus offered her a two-book deal worth £15,000. In the two-and-a-half years since then, she has published four novels and completed another two which are due out before the end of 2018. Most authors would be delighted to come up with 1,000 words a day, but she types "as fast as my hands will allow" and in a good session can produce anything up to 10,000.
"I'm probably going to end up with carpal tunnel syndrome," she laughs, waving her right arm around. "But I didn't know writing so quickly was anything special, I thought that's just what you had to do to establish yourself."
In fact, The Confession was not even part of Spain's contract at the time. "It just spilled out of me in four weeks while I was taking a break from the Tom Reynolds series."
The publishers immediately gave her a new deal with more money and are planning to market the book as far afield as the US and Australia.
In Spain's own words, the coming year is set to be "a bit mental". Shortly before Christmas, a major international production company approached her about putting Inspector Reynolds on television (she thinks that Jimmy's Hall star Barry Ward would be ideal for the main role).
She has also written the script for another small-screen drama expected to start filming soon - "which I'm dying to talk about, but for the moment I'm sworn to total secrecy".
Despite her soft voice and modest demeanour, Spain is clearly an intensely driven person.
"I'm not sitting around waiting for life to happen," she agrees. "My father died in a house fire at the age of 44. My stepfather died on the day I had my third child. Things like that really give you a sense of your own mortality."
Although Spain remains close to some people in Sinn Féin (The Confession is dedicated to the late Martin McGuinness), she has now left politics behind for good. Thinking up gruesome ways to kill people, it seems, is just what she was born to do - no matter how much it might occasionally disturb those around her.
"When I went to my first publisher's party in London, they all said: 'We love your pseudonym, it's so perfect for a crime writer'," she recalls. "I had to tell them, no - Jo Spain is actually my real name!"
The Confession is published by Quercus