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OH, I DO love my bad characters," says Martina Cole. "There's a dark side of myself that I'm indulging." The queen of crime novels for women is in Dublin to promote her 18th book, The Faithless, a thriller by way of a multi-generational London Irish family saga that features possibly the nastiest mother ever created in fiction, Cynthia Tailor.

There's a gleeful edge to the author when she talks about Cynthia, who is so relentlessly horrible that one of Cole's pacifist friends declared: "Even I wanted to kill her by chapter 10. Sometimes I read my work back and even I'm amazed at how nasty it is," she says.

Back home in England, Cole is a glamorous grandmother of three who likes nothing better than to cook a "good Irish Sunday roast" for her extended brood.

"When I first started out, the British press, in particular, were quite disappointed that I wasn't from a violent Irish criminal background myself," she says. "I had a normal upbringing. My mother was from Glasnevin in Dublin, my father was from Cork. I grew up in Essex and it was very ordinary -- convent school and the whole lot."

While studying with the nuns, the teenage Cole wrote her first novel, about a schoolgirl who moonlights as a CIA agent. She gives a throaty, smoker's laugh, remembering it. "She could do all these backflips and karate chops," she says. "So, I think I always had an imagination for violence."

This imaginary bent has translated into major success. At the last count, Cole has sold just over 10 million books, four of which have had huge success as TV series. So where does the inspiration come from?


"I was sick of the books I was reading in the 1970s," she says. "All the lead female characters were models. They'd have an abortion on a Thursday and another lover by Saturday. I wanted to write a book about women and put them in a man's world."

The result was Dangerous Lady (1992), in which a 17- year-old girl takes on the hard men in London's Irish criminal underworld and wins the game on her own terms.

"Women were ready for novels that weren't all about sex and shopping," she says. "There are some great books about sex and shopping, but my books shocked women out of that and gave them something else. I write about the criminal underworld but I also write about what happens to women emotionally when they get caught up in it, how it affects them. I think that's why people like my books."

Aside from those sales, Cole has become that rare thing that every ambitious writer wishes for, the celebrity author. It's something she takes in her stride. "I love it. For years I got up and went to a job that I hated. To get paid for what I'd do for free is wonderful. Once I was sleeping on the floor of a kitchen and now I live in a 600-year-old house that is a beautiful home. It's a great privilege."

Martina Cole's The Faithless is published by Headline (€15.99)