Interview: Ken McClure, author

A background as a professional scientist and a yen for the controversial has earned sci-fi detective writer Ken McClure millions of fans. But, he tells our reporter, it's detailed research that has won him a reputation for prescience

AUTHOR Ken McClure insists his reputation as a modern Nostradamus is undeserved. Yet his medical thrillers, many starring Dr Steven Dunbar of the Sci-Med Inspectorate, seem to have accurately predicted everything from the BSE and flesh-eating bug crises, to bird flu. With a shy giggle, McClure insistently demurs. "My talent, if you can call it that, is that I can look at any situation and imagine the worst possible scenario. There's no way I could be described as an optimist. I see things that could go wrong, and occasionally they do go wrong, and that's when publishers say, 'Look, he predicted it!'"

It's hard to credit this gentle, self-deprecating man with harbouring such dark, catastrophic thoughts. If anything, he appears to be as sunny as the East Saltoun home he shares with his wife, Mina, which is light, airy and filled with art. The sitting room contains one modest bookcase housing his more than 20 titles, but there is no other evidence that this is the home of the man known as "Scotland's answer to Michael Crichton".

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The secret of his best-selling success – and he's even bigger overseas, with editions in dozens of languages – is accuracy. Nothing occurs in his novels that couldn't actually happen, scientifically speaking, because he's also an award-winning research scientist who spent decades at the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC), before turning to full-time writing 11 years ago.

McClure, the son of a long-distance lorry driver and a full-time mum, grew up in Edinburgh in a top floor tenement flat on Temple Park Crescent, overlooking the Union Canal. Inspired by a cousin whose job as a chief engineer in the Navy sent him to exotic destinations – "I could see myself wandering into bars in far-off places" – McClure applied for a cadetship with Christian Salvesen, which ran one of the biggest whaling fleets in the world at the time. "I didn't think it through, that a background at school of being good at things like English and Latin and Greek wasn't the best preparation for engineering," he jokes.

At college in Glasgow he struggled to keep up with those who'd studied more relevant subjects, and it occurred to him, too, that he'd most likely be posted to the South Georgia Islands, in Antarctica, where there wouldn't be much chance for swaggering into saloons, impressing everyone with his uniform.

He left college, spent a year making music, and finally joined the Edinburgh City Hospital for Infectious Diseases as a trainee medical lab technician in bacteriology.

"The consultant bacteriologist at the time, Dr Archie Wallace, was perhaps the most wonderful man I've ever met. He genuinely cared for everybody and persuaded me I should be all I could be. I qualified as a medical biotechnican, and in 1968, became a research assistant with the MRC unit at Edinburgh University. They were studying a very young science at the time, molecular biology. It's the basis of gene experimentation, genetic engineering, DNA and so on."

McClure's qualification as a medical lab technician was the equivalent of a BSc, which enabled him to get an MPhil and PhD in molecular genetics.

With his new career as a scientist came the opportunity – at last! – to travel the world participating in joint research projects. One trip in particular, to the University of Tel Aviv, in Israel, had the most profound effect of all – it turned him into a writer.

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"If you go to faraway places you can look back on your life and see it in perspective. I had so many adventures. Apart from anything else it was a bit like going back in time. It was 1983, and although I was in my thirties then, and married and a father, I joined up with students from all over Europe. We went on expeditions across the desert and slept on beaches by the Red Sea. Once, I had the idea that it would be a good idea to see Jerusalem's Wailing Wall at night. As I approached the Jaffa Gate I heard the click of weapons being readied, and somebody yelled at me in a language I didn't understand. I was left doing a very bad Hugh Grant impersonation, 'I'm British. I'm terribly sorry.' I realised there were things you don't do in Israel at night.

"When I got back I found it hard to settle in to my routine middle-class existence where you drive back and forth to the university every day and pat the children on the head, read a bedtime story, watch the telly. I suppose I was missing the adventurous element."

He confessed this to someone he encountered at a cocktail party who said, "You're a writer, you just don't know it". After trying, and failing, to recreate his Israel trip in diary format, McClure decided to turn it into fiction. "From the first page, it was so much fun, and so much escapism. I discovered that I didn't have to be an action hero. I didn't have to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or deliver Milk Tray by moonlight. I could write it down and it was just as good. I write thrillers for the same reason that people read them – it's escapism."

Back then he was still best known as Ken Begg. He adopted his nom de plume after an interview with the Evening News in Edinburgh brought a degree of fame, and with it, phonecalls and letters from people with incurable conditions desperate for hope that he couldn't provide.

Writing medical thrillers means that McClure retains a keen interest in the progress of science but, he tells me: "There's been an awful change. It used to be if a scientist looked at problem, they'd come up with a model or theory which they'd investigate in the lab, doing experiments to prove or disprove this. If they thought they were on the right track, they'd write it up and submit it to a journal; their paper would be read by peers for review and, if it was good enough, it was published.

"These days some scientists have latched on to the fact that image is much more important than substance in our society. They look at a problem, come up with a theory that sounds very plausible, then tell the Press – before doing the research or publishing it.

"This is challenging other scientists to disprove what they are saying. He knows that once it's in the papers, and it sounds plausible, then there's tremendous support from all the chatterers. No scientist wants to spend his time proving someone wrong – you can't get a grant for proving someone wrong, and there's no kudos in it, either. So a lot of myths are perpetuated, and I hate that."

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What is the most pernicious piece of misinformation doing the rounds, I inquire? "The damage done to the MMR vaccine means measles is making a big comeback, just because of that charlatan (Dr Andrew Wakefield]. That was pretty awful. But the same thing is probably happening with global warming. There's no doubt that global warming is happening, but the reason put forward – that it's all man's fault, and due to greenhouse gases – there isn't the evidence to back it up, it's just based on plausibility. But at one time in history the Earth being flat was common sense. It must have come as a terrible blow to people that they didn't fall off, and that there was such a thing as gravity and all these complicated things.

"It may be that man is causing global warming, but I'd prefer to have evidence, instead of lots of middle-class people reading a magazine and becoming zealots about and putting up windmills in their backyard." But surely it would be better if we drove less and recycled more? "In a tiny, tiny way, and if we completely ignore what China and India are doing. This little country putting up windmills and not driving so much is kind of a gesture, really. All the Chinese and all the Indians would like to have their time in the sun and their industrial revolution."

An advocate of freely available assisted suicide, which he views as "a natural extension of medical care," McClure is equally passionate about the need for ongoing stem-cell research.

"Stem cells are the way ahead. They are absolutely magic, and an embarrassment, because scientists don't understand how they work. One of the holy grails of science and medicine is a process called differentiation. Without it, we'd just wind up with a great big block of cells once the sperm fertilises the egg. As cells divide, some become a liver cell or a kidney or bone or brain. That process is differentiation. Stem cells are the very first ones that haven't decided what they're going to be. If you can put them into a diseased liver and persuade them that they should become liver cells, it's truly wonderful."

And the problem is that we don't know how to cajole them? "We can do it in test tubes, but often when you put stem cells into people you get an awful cancer, a teratoma, and that's the big stumbling block at the moment. There is a risk, but that's clearly the way ahead. Not pharmaceuticals."

Busy overseeing e-book editions of his backlist, McClure still manages to revisit some of his favourite novels.

He's re-reading A Tale of Two Cities, because he finds hero Sydney Carton appealing, and says that William McIlvanney's Walking Wounded is a touchstone that he returns to time after time. "Whenever I feel I'm getting a bit above myself, it reminds me of my origins here in Central Scotland. These are the people I know. When I go abroad to places where my books do so much better, and where I do radio and television and book signings, I read Walking Wounded when I get home, to remind myself: this is what you really are."

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• Lost Causes, A Dr Steven Dunbar Thriller, is out now from Polygon, 16.99

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