Sunday 21 July 2019

'Some people buy a sports car, I'm playing Glastonbury' - crime writer Stuart Neville on the move into music

Northern Irish crime writer Stuart Neville is taking a novel approach to the midlife crisis by swapping his pen for a guitar

Pseudonym: Stuart Neville has a new book out under his pen name of Haylen Beck
Pseudonym: Stuart Neville has a new book out under his pen name of Haylen Beck

Lee Henry

This afternoon, as thousands gather in the sun-dappled Avalonian fields of Pilton, Somerset for the return of Michael Eavis' Glastonbury Festival - around the same time as Wicklow's finest, Hozier, takes the Pyramid Stage to church - Armagh-based crime writer Stuart Neville will strap on an electric guitar and, at the ripe old age of 47, ascend the steps of the Acoustic Stage to fulfil his musical destiny.

"Some people, when they hit their late 40s, buy themselves a sports car or start wearing leather trousers. For my midlife crisis, I'm playing the biggest music festival in the world," Neville laughs over coffee on the veranda of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace centre in Bellaghy, Co Derry on a chilly Sunday morning.

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"I'm definitely living out a bit of a fantasy and I'm going to enjoy every minute. You could say it's been a long time coming."

You see, before he chanced upon a copy of Stephen King's The Shining as a young teenager and fell in love with literature; before he decided to make the leap from consuming to crafting stories; before bursting on to the scene with his 2009 debut novel The Twelve, lauded by the New York Times as a must-read, and going on to establish himself as one of Ulster's finest hard-boiled scribes, Neville aspired to be a rock star.

He studied music at the University of Salford in Manchester and performed with various garage bands before "drifting" from job to job. In the end, however, the musical dream eluded him; thus the frustrated axeman became the celebrated author. Until, one mid-September day in 2016, while attending the Bouchercon crime-fiction convention in New Orleans, Neville found himself rattling through a collection of covers on the stage of the iconic House of Blues.

"It was very hot, and I remember it having been quite a long day, so myself and fellow writers Mark Billingham and Doug Johnstone were relieved to sit down for a few pints after the panels and other events. As it turned out, there was a band playing, but they weren't very good, so, slightly tipsy, I suppose, somehow we managed to take their place and got through a few tunes without completely embarrassing ourselves. Surprisingly, it went down a storm." If their origin story plays out like a scene from one of their books, the following chapters in the Fun Lovin' Crime Writers' story are no less dramatic. After word of Neville, Billingham and Johnstone's jam got out, Edinburgh Festival programmers booked them for the Spiegeltent. Liverpool's Luca Veste plus Scotland's Val McDermid and Chris Brookmyre were hastily added to the group's ranks, and after just a few haphazard rehearsals, the Fun Lovin' Crime Writers became a regular feature on the literary festival circuit.

"But Glastonbury," Neville adds, with more than a hint of concern in his voice, "will be a different story altogether. Each time we've performed up until now, since that first gig in Edinburgh's Charlotte Square, it's been for a home crowd, other writers or people who have bought our books. There's been a huge amount of goodwill there, obviously, but the thought of playing for strangers is slightly terrifying. We hope they have as much fun as we do. That's what it's all about for us. Once the fun stops, that'll be the end of that."

Revellers at Worthy Farm can expect a set list made up of crime-themed covers including The Clash's 'I Fought the Law', Johnny Cash's 'Folsom Prison Blues' and Elvis Costello's 'Watching the Detectives'. No original material will be forthcoming. "There are not inconsiderable egos involved in this band," Neville quips, "so that could prove challenging. We decided against it early on. I'm reminded of Father Ted and Dougal attempting to write a song in their bedroom and it quickly descending into chaos."

It's turning out to be a busy summer for Neville, who has been preparing for Glastonbury while simultaneously promoting his latest book, Lost You, the second accredited to his pseudonym, Haylen Beck. Set in a high-end Floridian hotel, it follows troubled writer Libby as she escapes with her son for a well-earned break pursued by a destructive secret. The idea came to Neville while holidaying with his own young family in Salou a few years ago. "Our apartment was on the top floor of a typical family resort; you opened the door and there at the end of the corridor was the elevator. Every day, our boy would race ahead to press the button and I would have to chase after him loaded down with armfuls of inflatables. One day I asked myself, 'What if he got in, the doors closed and we lost him?' You need more than that to sustain a novel so the book became less about a child being lost and more about a child being found."

The pen name is necessary, Neville argues, because it "frees" him up to set stories in places other than Belfast, which features so prominently in his own books, from The Twelve -the story of a former paramilitary strong-arm haunted by the ghosts of his victims, rebranded The Ghosts of Belfast for the American market - right through to So Say the Fallen, the latest police procedural in Neville's DCI Serena Flanagan series.

"Both Beck books are set in America," Neville says. "And it's fun to explore character against that much larger canvas. But with Beck, I'm also able to change up my style. It's very much in the Harlan Coben sphere of mystery, lots of twists and reversals. I can see myself moving away from the police procedural in the years ahead. Lee Child can revisit a character over decades and keep it fresh but I don't have that skill. For me, every book has to be different."

The "blokey" tropes of crime fiction being naturally restrictive, writing from the female perspective has liberated Neville further still. "It's a challenge and that's why I like it - it pushes me to be better." As does the competition. Neville has always been a fan of southern Irish crime writing, citing the likes of Tana French and Jane Casey as favourites, and is excited to see more women write fiction north of the border. "Claire Allan and Claire McGowan are knocking it out of the park and long may it continue."

Currently working on the next, possibly the last, DCI Flanagan story, Neville is happy to replace the solitude of work with the camaraderie of performance for now.

"I always used music as part of my process," he concludes. "It helps me to escape the real world. Everything from AC/DC to Miles Davis. You'll find me writing in my local library most days because my home office is where I keep my collection of guitars. There are worse distractions but playing Glastonbury with your friends could well be the best of them."

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