Ill health prompted Alex Gray to turn to crime at 51 and her best-selling novels have been celebrating and dissecting Glasgow’s mean streets ever since, finds Janet Christie
A cupcake topped with a swirl of icing on which a chocolate truffle is balanced is poised half-way to Alex Gray’s glossed lips. There’s the murmur of polite conversation and the chink of teaspoon against china in the elegantly-tiled Glasgow tea room where we sit. To the casual observer we could be discussing the provenance of her snazzy suede boots and purple sequined top, or the merits of first flush darjeeling over lapsang souchong. But we’re not. We’re talking murder, prostitution and terrorism, things that are all in a day’s work for this crime writer whose 11th Glasgow-based detective novel, The Bird That Did Not Sing, is published this week.
“Hard-bitten crime writer?” says Gray. “The only thing that’s hard-bitten about me is this cupcake,” she says and takes a bite. Given the subject matter of her books and androgynous name, some of her readers are surprised to find that Alex Gray is a woman.
“It’s Sandy really, Sandra. My mother wanted me to be Alexandra so Alex is short for that and Gray is my middle name. I have men coming up to me at book signings saying I thought you were a man. It confuses them. There was a deliberate sense that I didn’t want a woman’s name on the first book, to say this is a women’s book. I wanted it to be for everyone. But 80 per cent of crime fiction readers are women of my generation,” she says.
And how old is that?
“Old enough to know better than to tell a journalist,” she laughs. “Well, you can look it up anyway, I suppose, so I’m 63.”
Publishing her first book at 51, Gray felt she came late to the scene but thinks her books benefit from her having lived a little.
“I thought I was late for a beginner, but the publishers said they preferred someone with life experience. Not that younger writers don’t have something to say, but experience can enrich it,” she says, looking out onto the rain-lashed Glasgow city centre street.
We’re a mere five-minute walk away from the lane where her main character Bill Lorimer meets a junkie informer at the site of her prostitute friend’s murder, and narrowly escapes with his life. It’s this juxtaposition of civilization and lawlessness that captivates Gray and why she used the Norman MacCaig quote, “the frontier is never somewhere else,” as a title for one of her books.
“Murder can happen anywhere, in nice places to nice people too. That’s what makes it horrific. It always happens to someone else? No it doesn’t. It can happen to anyone,” she says.
“Scratch at the veneer of respectability and underneath, human beings are still the same primitive, cruel people they always were. Hopefully civilization has made us less reluctant to crack each other over the head, but open any newspaper and it’s full of murders.
“It’s romantic and wrong to paint a world that is too upbeat and all the ends finish up nicely. Real life isn’t like that,” she says.
Gray’s books are set in her home city and follow detective superintendent Bill Lorimer as he solves yet another murder. Yet the streets she portrays are not all mean for Lorimer and his wife Maggie.
“The thing I wanted to show from the very beginning was my Glasgow. It was William McIlvanney who inspired our generation. He made me think it was possible to write about my city and I’m so proud of it that it irked me when other writers portrayed it as all Sighthill and the Gorbals, the East End and gang culture. There is that, but my Glasgow is the city of culture, of art galleries and concerts too,” she says.
Not that Gray ignores the harsher side of her home town and her time as a DSS home visitor showed a different Glasgow that also finds its way into her books.
“The DSS visiting was eye-opening. It made me grow up a lot. I had been to school and uni, lived in something of a rarefied, sheltered atmosphere, but then I found myself on the streets of 1970s Govan. The police went about in twos, but I was on my own, visiting people in Dickensian tenements with rat-infested basements. I met some real characters who gave me an insight into real life in a very deprived area, saw babies with rickets, old men with hypothermia and that made me see the city in an objective way. I think that finds its way into the books,” she says.
Gray was always destined for a life of crime. Miss Galbraith, her primary four teacher, said she would grow up to be an author and she did. A lover of crime fiction she devoured PD James, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. “All the classics. But I wasn’t English upper class and the puzzle wasn’t the thing that dominated my mind. I’m more fascinated by the psychology, ever since I read Crime and Punishment at 14. Why do people do these things? And by the repercussions and ripples they cause,” she says.
“I hope my books are very moral. At the end of the day good will come out, though you might lose some good people along the way. There was a really nice Egyptian policeman I had killed that upset a lot of people. But these things happen,” she says, wielding a fork with forensic precision to remove the chocolate from the top of her cupcake.
Gray has been a full-timer writer ever since she was diagnosed with ME 21 years ago and had to give up the teaching that followed her DSS stint. Her health has been chequered ever since, but she views this as material. Having survived Asian flu as a child during the 1959 pandemic, she has had her thyroid removed, endured back surgery, ME and viral pneumonia.
“I have a rotten immune system and have had umpteen operations,” she says cheerfully. “But I’ve survived lots of things. I’ve got books to write! Maybe that’s why I have a preoccupation with life and death.”
Although Gray admits there are elements of her in her detective hero Lorimer – his love of birdwatching, long and happy marriage, tendency to introspection, he’s not her.
“I’d have made a rubbish detective. I’m far too gullible and have a terrible memory,” she says.
Neither is Lorimer the typecast ‘tec with a broken marriage and empty fridge.
“He’s more up to date than Taggart, say. He’s not the heavy drinker with the chip on his shoulder. Lorimer’s normal and that’s much more interesting,” she says.
What she does share with him is his dogged approach – she’s been up since 5:30am writing today – and is a stickler for research.
“It’s crucial; it sparks authenticity for the reader. I had no criminals or police in my family, knew nothing about crime other than what I’d seen on TV so I had to find out. I wanted it to be authentic so from the outset I approached the chief constable for advice.”
She’s also researched the pathology of neck injury, done a course in forensic medical science at Glasgow University, studied forensic psychology and belongs to the legal medical society.
“I did go to a post-mortem once at the mortuary but you’re not allowed to do that these days – health and safety,” she says.
The Bird That Did Not Sing is set against the backdrop of the Commonwealth Games, as the city gears up for its moment in the international spotlight. Away from the press conferences and PR, the police and MI6 deal with terrorist threats and the underside of the tourist invasion: increased prostitution and human trafficking to satisfy it. There are murders and a plot to blow up the opening ceremony by misguided patriots.
“I thought it made a change from al-Qaeda. I got the idea for this book from visiting the Olympics. We saw the football at Hampden then went down to London for a week. I was nervous about the Underground and saw all the security there and that sowed the seeds of what if? What if something goes wrong with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games? What if there was a threat to blow up the opening ceremony? My daughter said, you can’t write that!”
But she did.
As well as writing the Lorimer books – the 12th is due out next year – she is the criminal mind behind the Bloody Scotland festival. Now in its third year, this celebration of Scottish and international crime writers takes place in Stirling and is growing. Why launch a book festival?
“Because I’m totally mad and I like prosecco. Lynn Anderson [fellow crime writer] and I were on our second bottle at the Crime Writers Festival and decided we would have ‘the Harrogate of the North’. It started as a tipsy idea and became a huge amount of work. There are masterclasses, workshops, readings, and it’s quirky and Scottish too. The name was my idea because I like to imagine the likes of Ian Rankin and Stuart MacBride saying to people, “Are you going to Bloody Scotland this year?”
So what about the Commonwealth Games? Is she worried about going, about a terrorist attack and that she may have tempted fate?
“I’m terrified. But I’ve got tickets for the Games so I’ll be there. Also, there is a huge security operation taking care of things we’ll never hear about. I’m not going to the opening ceremony though!” she says.
The Bird That Did Not Sing by Alex Gray is published by Little, Brown on Thursday, £12.99. Alex will host a launch event at Waterstones, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow at 6pm on Thursday, (0141-332 9105) and will give a talk and do a signing at Blackwell’s, South Bridge, Edinburgh on Wednesday, 26 March at 6:30pm (0131-622 8229);
Bloody Scotland, Scotland’s Crime Writing Festival, 19-21 September (www.bloodyscotland.com).