'I've known people who went to prison'

LAST night, Martina Cole was lounging by her indoor swimming-pool, sipping a glass of vintage port and nibbling on some expensive cheeses.

This does not mean that one of Britain's most successful novelists, one who regularly outsells Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell and Danielle Steel, leads the life of a nun. Far from it. She has been married and divorced, has two children and has had several passionate love affairs. Her heart has been broken, sure, but she has fractured a few herself. "I'm seeing someone at the moment, actually," she confides in her sexy, gravelly voice. "The guy is a bit younger than me. I don't want him moving in. I never want to live with a man again - you have to compromise to live with someone, and I won't do that. I'm financially independent - that's real girl power," she announces.

She wears a sharp black designer suit. Around her neck is a chunky silver crucifix, and on the third finger of her left hand she sports some serious bling - a couple of absolutely fabulous diamond rings, complemented by an immaculate French manicure. She exudes a strict, classy glamour. Fellow crime writer Mark Timlin calls her "a pocket Venus, who tells the filthiest jokes I've ever heard and can drink most men under the table". "The black suit is my working uniform," Cole says. "I figured out a while ago that this is what Martina Cole, crime novelist, should wear. I used to be very girlie. Now I'm androgynous."

Her black velvet stilettos are by Jasper Conran. The capacious, chic, black leather handbag is by Prada - "I've got two, sweetheart!" - and cost only a tenth of what she paid for her new BMW, since she has a weakness for fast, sleek cars. She has just bought a boat so that the family can go water-skiing next year. She has been "a bit clever" with her money, even investing in West End shows, from 101 Dalmatians to the upcoming See How They Run, starring Tim Pigott-Smith.

At home, in the luxurious five-bedroom Essex house she shares with her eight-year-old daughter Freddie and a housekeeper, the curvaceous Cole has another, more colourful wardrobe. "That's Tina's," she says with a loud laugh. It's made up of jeans and T-shirts and lots of swimsuits, because every morning she dives into her turquoise-blue pool. "Bliss!"

Life has not always been so sybaritic for the 47-year-old single parent and grandmother. She grew up on a tough council estate, and has had to defeat poverty, cancer and chronic arthritis to become the award-winning millionaire author she is today.

Her last novel, The Take, which was named Crime Thriller of the Year at April's British Book Awards, even knocked The Da Vinci Code off the top of the bestseller lists. And all this is despite the fact that Cole's curiously addictive books rarely get reviewed, and that most literary editors haven't even heard of her. But she is a born storyteller, and has sold more than three million copies of her gritty tales of gruesome gangland goings-on. Her books sell in 21 countries, and I can confidently predict that her latest blockbuster - the powerful, compelling Close - will soar immediately to the top of the charts when it is published later this week.

A warm, likeable woman, Cole is about to embark on a world tour. As ever, this means getting mobbed by fans. A recent book-signing at Canary Wharf attracted so many people that the security guards thought there was a bomb scare. Her 28-year-old son, Christopher, once took an early copy of one of her novels on the tube and was accosted by commuters desperate to know where he had got it. One woman offered him 50 for it. "Amazing, innit?" says Cole, roaring raucously.

In Close, an epic saga that sweeps across 40 years and tells of the battling Brodie family, there's a dire warning: your sins will find you out. It simply goes to prove what I've always believed about Cole. She may be a self-confessed "blonde, Essex girl", but she's also an ethics girl - her books have a morality and invariably a redemptive, deeply moving ending. "I do like my messages," she admits.

While she's hugely popular in Britain, she is also revered in Russia, Eastern Europe and South Africa. Her favourite gig is Paisley, a place often shunned, she points out, by the rest of the elite crime scribes. She will spend next month in Australia and New Zealand to promote Close. Even Prince Charles is a fan, according to his bodyguard, a CID officer Cole met recently. "I know!" she exclaims. "Who'd have thought!"

Nobody can blame the heir to the throne for enjoying a good story. There is an authenticity and an integrity about Cole's books, even if they are full of swearing and set in an amoral, violent world of crime, drugs, prostitution, rape, incest, domestic violence and murder most foul; telling of families that prey together but don't always stay together. "I write about what I know and I say what other people think," she asserts. "I write about the kind of people I grew up around in the East End and Essex. I've lived that life; I've known people who went to prison."

She is a patron of Chelmsford Women's Aid, teaches creative writing at Belmarsh prison (though she refuses to teach sex offenders) and is a regular visitor to Holloway women's prison. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that her books are the most stolen from British bookshops and the most borrowed from prison libraries - particularly The Jump, which is about a prison escape. When it was made into a major ITV series, each episode of The Jump was watched by more than ten million viewers when it was screened in 1998. Her novel Dangerous Lady was also a ratings hit for ITV, in 1995. Further adaptations of her books are being planned; Cole has recently set up her own TV production company.

The criminal underworld respects her, and she respects it. Gangland bosses confess the truth to her because they trust her. Lifers write asking her to visit them so that they can tell her their stories. She grew up around a lot of criminals, some of whom ended up doing long stretches inside - latter-day versions of guys like 'Mad' Frankie Fraser and Eddie and Charlie Richardson, for example, who were even more infamous and powerful on the 1960s gangland scene than the Krays. The Richardsons' notoriety was firmly established in 1967 by the shocking Torture Trial, in which they and their lieutenants - Fraser was their enforcer - were convicted of brutal acts of violence, fraud and extortion.

When 69-year-old Eddie Richardson, who served 11 years in prison in the wake of that trial and a further 12 years for conspiring to import drugs in 1989, wrote his memoir The Last Word earlier this year, it was at Cole's instigation. She provided the foreword for his book and turned out for his launch parties. She says, "The man's a gent, wonderful with women. If we'd been the same age I would have snapped him up."

For his part, Richardson told me he first read Cole's novels when he was in prison. "Everybody was queuing up to read 'em."

But in Cole's world a grisly fate always awaits the bad guys: vicious villains get plastic bags tied over their heads and are left to die; grasses get their mouths cut from ear to ear; and pint glasses are smashed into faces before they're beaten to a bloodied pulp with a hammer. "Some people have accused me of glamorising violence," she says, "but I don't. I'm very anti-violence, anti-crime."

She is a Catholic who believes that if you do something wrong you should go to prison. But she also insists that everyone deserves a second chance: Eddie Richardson, for example, educated himself in prison and has gone on to become an artist. "I write about the fallout, the emotional effect crime has on families. If your husband goes to prison, it's terrible - but it also affects brothers, sisters, wives, mothers. People often forget that - certainly a lot of crime writers do. Families of criminals are victims too.

"People who like my books want to know about that world, or maybe they already live in that world. They like the fact that I bring it to life in a realistic manner. The dialogue is how they really speak - and I am non-judgemental," she says.

THE daughter of a "very beautiful" psychiatric nurse from Dublin and a merchant seaman from Cork, Cole is the youngest of five children. She grew up being told by her mother - "a harsh woman" - that you get the life you deserve. "My mother could cause an argument in an empty house. She had more fights than John Wayne!"

A rebel from an early age, Cole was "a mouthy little cow", regularly playing truant and finally getting expelled from convent school for reading the rude bits in Harold Robbins's raunchy novel The Betsy and throwing a textbook at a nun. She was sent to a unit for troubled youngsters, eventually leaving at 15 with no qualifications. Now she has an honorary degree from East London University.

As a fiery teenager, she had run-ins with the police. Her first boyfriend was an armed robber. She was 14, he was 19. "He was gorgeous - I still love him to this day. He went to prison for a long time, but is still one of my oldest and closest friends. He was always good to me and to his family and friends."

By the time she was 18, Cole had a son, Christopher. The child's father died soon after. She lived in a council flat with no carpets and no furniture apart from a bed and a 15 cooker. She got herself three jobs, cleaning, waitressing and working in bars and nightclubs. Her parents helped her, but they died within eight months of each other when she was 21. "I worked every hour God sent. I just got on with it," she says. "By the time I was 21, I'd bought my first house - no one in my family had ever done that."

She started writing the stories that became her first novel, Dangerous Lady, because she has always slept for only two or three hours a night. An elderly neighbour was hooked on Mills & Boon books, but couldn't afford to buy them. After reading one of Cole's stories, she gave her a pile of exercise books and a packet of 40 cigarettes. "Write me some more," she ordered.

Her mother and her aunt had been nurses, so Cole trained as one too. She ended up running her own nursing agency, supplying staff to hospitals. She also got married, though she refuses to talk about her husband. They divorced in the late 1990s. As a voracious reader ("everything from AJ Cronin to Hemingway and James Ellroy"), she determined in her early 30s to have a go at writing a novel. She found an agent, Darley Anderson ("I liked the name, although I thought it would be a woman") through The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook at the local library. The moment he read the manuscript of Dangerous Lady, Anderson called and said, "Martina Cole, you are going to be a star." She has written a book virtually every year since.

Eight years ago, she discovered she was pregnant with her daughter Freddie, who was born just after Cole's grandson, Louis, who is now nine. "So Freddie was born Louis's aunt. It's like something from one of my books, innit? And Christopher and his wife are about to have a second baby. Another grandchild! I can't wait."

Life is forever throwing things at Cole. While she was pregnant with Freddie, a painful lump on her knee was diagnosed as a malignant tumour. "Before and after the operation I was exhausted, what with a new baby and all, but I never stopped writing. I've always got the energy to write; I'd do it for nothing. I write all night, sometimes for 16 hours at a stretch.

"I used to feel that if anything awful was going to happen, it would happen to me. But you get on with it. I love my life, despite having chronic rheumatoid arthritis since my 20s. I do well with it, though sometimes I can barely move. I believe in making the best of everything. As my mum always said, what can't be cured must be endured. Yesterday, I said to Freddie, who's a very serious little girl, 'Why is it your cup is always half-empty and mine is always half-full?' She said, 'I can't help the way I drink.'"

So does she have any regrets? "My love, let me tell you straight, I don't regret the things I've done. I only regret the things I haven't done."

• Close, by Martina Cole (Headline, 18.99), is out this week