Today I am delighted to feature an interview with crime fiction author Robert Crouch. Over to you Robert…
RC – Thank you so much for letting me answer your questions. They were challenging and great fun at the same time, and probably the most interesting questions I’ve answered. And thank you for being so thorough in your research.
F – Congratulations on your crime fiction series featuring Kent Fisher, an environmental health officer. After reading your bio, I discovered that you worked in this field for many years. What was it about the job that you thought lent itself to crime solving?
RC – Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) are law enforcement officers. We protect public health, safety at work, hygiene in restaurants, that kind of thing. This means we have the skills and experience to investigate offences and take prosecutions. We follow the same rules and procedures as the police, and often work with them. While we don’t investigate crimes like murder, we gather evidence, interview suspects and so on.
I started thinking how much fun it would be to have an EHO solving murders. After all, if an elderly lady from St Mary Mead can do it, why not an EHO? We have extensive contacts in the community and local business world and work with many other agencies – as I try to show in my books. This gives EHOs access to lots of information and knowledge.
It also offers a different, if not unique slant on crime and crime fiction, which I hope readers will enjoy.
F – I understand that you started writing at a very young age. Could you tell us a little about your career path as a novelist?
RC – I won a national short story competition when I was 12. I asked for a typewriter for my 13th birthday, which raised a few eyebrows. After saving money from my paper round, I bought a portable typewriter and wrote my first novel at the age of 17. I sent it to a children’s publisher and received a very complimentary letter back, but no offer. I didn’t tell them I was only 17. I was worried they might think I was some precocious kid.
Maybe I should have told them…
After leaving school, life, work, marriage and building a home pushed writing into the background. My writing was piecemeal and lacked any direction or purpose. With hindsight, I realise I wasn’t writing about what mattered to me. That realisation didn’t arrive until the late 1980s when Inspector Morse and Miss Marple were on TV. Then I read A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton, and discovered PI Kinsey Millhone.
At last I knew what I wanted to do.
I created EHO, Kent Fisher, and wrote three novels. An agent advised me the characters weren’t strong enough so I revised and revised, but I was never happy with the results.
In 2006, I quit smoking, not realising it would mean an end to writing as the two were intrinsically linked. Nine months later, the urge to write returned. I started a humorous blog about my experiences as an Environmental Health Manager. In an effort to disguise myself, I used Kent Fisher to relate the tales and called it Fisher’s Fables. This is now a book that contains every blog post.
Five years into the blog, I realised what was staring me in the face – I’d found my author voice.
I rewrote two of the original novels. An author friend introduced me to a publisher, who read the first chapter of No Accident and offered me a contract. It was published in June 2016 and the adventure began.
F – You have set the Kent Fisher novels in East Sussex – your home turf. Do you think an author can write a successful novel if they’ve never visited the setting of their book?
RC – I’m sure they can, but I’ll bet they can write a better novel if they know an area well. I’ve never taken Kent anywhere that I haven’t visited, including the local police custody unit and an embalming room at an undertaker’s. If he ventures beyond the South Downs, it’s always to somewhere I know reasonably well.
F – Though I haven’t yet read the Kent Fisher novels, I’ve learned from reading reviews that he is quite the rebel who bends the rules on occasion. Are any of Kent Fisher’s experiences your own?
RC – Kent often acts the way I wanted to, but couldn’t without breaking rules. But I could still be creative in my solutions to real problems, as long as no one was hurt or adversely affected by my actions.
Many of my experiences from hygiene inspections, infectious disease investigation and more mundane issues find their way into the stories to add a little colour and give people a window on a world they know little about. For instance, I’ve investigated several fatal workplace accidents in my career. I used these experiences to create a murder disguised as a work accident. That’s how Kent investigates his first murder. But the accident is completely fictitious.
All the experiences I use in the books are fictionalised for two reasons –
1. I don’t want to upset or offend anyone.
2. They are much more exciting and fun to write.
F – I see from your website that you have a sweet little dog, a West Highland terrier named Harvey. Has Harvey ever inspired one of your plots?
RC – Harvey’s yet to inspire a plot, though he features strongly in all the books as Columbo. He’s instrumental in helping Kent solve murders, especially in the climax to No Bodies. Columbo is also Kent’s sounding board, which allows me to reveal what he’s thinking and deducing in a more interesting way. Readers seem to enjoy this relationship and love Columbo, of course.
F – At present, there are five Kent Fisher novels with two other books that feature this character. Do you think there will be many more Fisher novels, or has this character run his course?
RC – My aim has always been to write credible novels that offer a fresh approach to crime fiction. In real life, EHOs don’t investigate murders, which raises the challenge I call ‘Jessica Fletcher syndrome’. I don’t want people to be murdered wherever Kent goes. Neither does he set out to investigate murders. He’s drawn into these investigations, sometimes reluctantly, which makes them more believable and realistic, I hope.
As I don’t plan the novels, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Neither can I plan ahead as each new book depends on what happened in the one before, if that makes sense.
Then there’s the backstory, which is Kent’s personal and work lives, his animal sanctuary and the characters close to him. What happens to them also influences the books that may follow. Sometimes, Kent and other characters surprise me by not doing what I want them to do. This can take parts of the story in a different direction, which in turn will influence what happens in the backstory and the next novel.
All I can say is that as long as I can put Kent through the wringer in an entertaining murder mystery, I’ll keep writing about him.
F – If you attended a crime writer’s convention and all of your favourite novelists were in attendance, who would you most like to meet?
RC – I’d love to have a good natter with many of the novelists I’m friends with on social media. Who would I most like to meet? It would have to be Louise Ross, who writes the Inspector Ryan series as LJ Ross. The books are easy to read, entertaining in so many ways and the right blend of character and plot. I’ve been told we have similar writing styles, so it would be interesting to find out how she plots and works.
F – Writers also tend to be avid readers. What type of book do you like to read for pleasure?
RC – Crime fiction, would you believe?
I rarely depart from crime as there’s so much to choose from and I love discovering new authors. Police procedurals tend to be my favourites, especially Peter James, who sets his novels down the road in Brighton. Sue Grafton is my favourite novelist of all time and the inspiration behind Kent Fisher. I prefer the cosy end of the market to gritty and violent stories. There’s enough of that in the world already without adding to it.
F – If you could sit and enjoy a chat and a drink with another crime novelist – who would it be?
RC – I was lucky enough to have a conversation on Facebook Messenger with Sue Grafton a couple of years before she died. As well as offering an insight into her life and writing, it was a wonderful experience that made me wish I could meet her in person.
I met Elly Griffiths at a talk a few years ago. She was a hoot – very funny and such a lovely person. I managed to get a few words with her and left wishing we could spend more time together, talking crime and writing.
F – What current novelist do you feel is underrated or deserves to be more well known?
RC – Apart from me? LOL.
There are so many good writers to choose from. Looking back over the authors I’ve read in the last couple of years, the one I’ve enjoyed reading the most is Cheryl Bradshaw. She writes a series featuring private eye Sloane Monroe, who reminds me of Sue Grafton’s, Kinsey Millhone. The series is set in the US, where she may be well known, but I’m not sure many people have heard of her in the UK.
F – What has been YOUR favourite crime fiction title read recently? (I ask so that we can all add that title to our TBRs.)
RC – I’ve just finished an advance copy of Bury Them Deep by James Oswald. The story ticked along at a measured pace with the plot slowly spreading out like ripples on a pond. The further I read, the better it became as the missing person plotline grew into something far more sinister and complex. It’s a brilliant example of how to build momentum and complexity through credible, engaging characters and a plot with more depth than you first realise.
F – Do you have family and/or friends proof-read your novel, or did you depend on your publisher’s editorial staff?
RC – My wife, Carol, is the first to read my revised and edited first draft. She always gives me an honest appraisal and flags up any errors or concerns. A couple of beta readers also give me honest feedback before my professional editor, Liz, gives me her valuable input. Then it’s up to me to apply the final polish.
I have to say I love editing and revising, polishing and improving the story.
F – Do you read all the reviews of your work? How important are reviews to YOU as a novelist?
RC – Always. It’s the best way to find out what works and doesn’t work for readers. My books will never appeal to everyone, so it’s good to know what works. Reviews can also help readers who haven’t tried your books before.
All authors want reviews. It’s good for visibility and hopefully encourages new readers to read our books, which is why bloggers like you make such a positive difference to authors like me.
F – What part of being a novelist do you dislike the most? Re-writes? Book promotion? Pushy bloggers? LOL
RC – Easy – writing a synopsis. Agents and publishers always want them. I understand this, but I can’t write them as I don’t plan my novels. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If I did, they wouldn’t be as exciting to write.
When I became an indie author, I solved that dislike, only to create another – writing the blurb. It’s not easy condensing 85,000 words into a short, eye catching pitch that grabs readers. I do my best, but I’m always looking to improve it where I can.
F – Do you find the prospect of maintaining a series daunting?
RC – Each book can be daunting if I think about it too much. I worry about the stories becoming hackneyed and repetitive. Then readers tell me each book is better than the last, which means the bar keeps getting higher, increasing the pressure. That’s why I focus only on the story I’m writing. I listen to my inner voice, which soon tells me if something isn’t working.
I do the best I can and hope each book gives the reader as much fun and enjoyment as it gave me when I wrote it.
F – I am a huge fan of cover art and have been working on a blog series called “Cover Love”. How much input do you have in choosing the covers for your books? Why is there a raven on the cover of each book?
RC – It’s a partnership with my cover designer, Jane. I wanted a distinct brand that said murder mystery. The photograph in the background is one I took and used for every book. I then suggest the foreground images which change for each book, along with the title, strapline and blurb, of course. Everything else is down to Jane, who came up with the font, the layout, the styling and the shades we use.
The crow is symbolic of murder, so I thought it would be fun to have it on every cover. There’s also a Westie on the spine of the paperbacks to let people know the books sit at the cosy end of the crime fiction market.
F – I have long been a fan of the British police procedural – yet I live in Canada. (My excuse is that my Mum was a war-bride from Lincolnshire). Do you find you have as many fans in North America as in Britain?
RC – Unfortunately, I don’t, which is why I’m delighted to be interviewed by you. It would be brilliant to be discovered by your fellow Canadians. If they’d like to spread the word to the guys south of you, I might be able to give you a different answer.
F – How long does it normally take you to write a book from start to finish?
RC – It can take anywhere between 4 and 8 months to write the first draft. Then I put it to one side for 4-6 weeks to clear it out of my system before editing and revising, which usually takes about a month, occasionally longer.
F – I’ve recently retired from a library career and have known for some time that mysteries/crime thrillers are some of the most read genres of fiction. Why do you think crime fiction is so popular? Why did YOU choose this genre?
RC – It’s about life and death, I guess. People are fascinated by murder and love to see the killers hunted down and brought to justice, which is what we all want in real life, but don’t always get. Fictional crime is also much safer, but still exciting and gritty, if that’s what you like.I chose to write crime fiction because I love mysteries, cryptic crosswords, word games and puzzles. I want to write murder mysteries as complex and baffling as the ones produced by Agatha Christie and Colin Dexter. Imagine my delight when readers and bloggers compare my books to those by Agatha Christie.
F – What interview question have you not been asked yet that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
RC – I don’t know if there’s a question I wish people would ask, but there’s one I’ve anticipated but have not been asked yet.
Why do you write?
The simple answer is because I have to.
I love to tell stories as much as I love to read them. Fiction was always more appealing than reality when I was a child. My father died when I was eight and we were poor. Reading gave me an escape, a chance to escape into wonderful new worlds where anything was possible.
Writing allowed me to create my own worlds and dreams. When I discovered that others liked my stories, I knew I wanted to entertain people, to let them share my dreams and world. That’s why I always kept going, even when the rejection slips suggested I would never make it as an author.
In the end, I did make it and there’s nothing better than knowing others enjoy the story you wrote.
That’s why I write.
F – Thank-you SO much Robert! I enjoyed your responses as I imagine my blog’s followers will as well.
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After a long career as an environmental health officer, Robert Crouch now writes full time from his home in East Sussex. You can often find him walking on the South Downs with his West Highland white terrier, Harvey, researching his settings. The peace and beauty of those rolling hills and sheer white cliffs always inspire him, filling him with ideas for future Kent Fisher mysteries.