It’s no crime to read

Barry Maitland is a writer of crime fiction, and very successful he is too. His second novel, The Malcontenta won the inaugural Ned Kelly Award in 1996 for best crime novel by an Australian author, and his Brock and Kolla series is into its 11th novel.

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At the moment, Maitland is touring Australia under the Get Reading banner.  Get Reading is an Australian government initiative and runs through the month of August each year.  It is designed to promote reading, just for the sake of it, because it seems some people need more encouragement to read.

Maitland, who in his previous life was an architect and university lecturer, recently visited Canberra on the tour, where he shared some of his own back story, as well as insights into his characters and books.

His Brock and Kolla (or Kathy, ‘cause she’s a girl) characters are two detectives living and working for the Metropolitan Police in London.  Maitland has set all of his crime novels in different parts of the city, and as the story unfolds, readers get to learn more and more about each location, its residents and Maitland’s impression of how it ticks.  For this London-o-phile, it’s a joy to read his books.

He credits a young writer of television who came to talk to his school-boy English class as his first inspiration to become a writer. However it wasn’t until the 1989 earthquake struck Newcastle – where Maitland settled on moving from England to Australia in 1984 – that he perhaps realised that he had better get on with what he really wanted to do in life.

During his talk at Woden Library, Maitland referred to the changing tone and nature of crime fiction in the late 1980s, and the emergence of strong female detectives, such as V I Warshawski (Sara Paretsky) as having an influence on his decision to have a male/female team as his lead characters in the first book.  He was also fortunate enough to have a niece who worked as a forensic scientist with the police in London, and with her husband being a police officer, Maitland was able to learn a great deal by talking with them. 

“DNA science was just appearing,” he said, “and I was able to go out with ordinary cops in South London, getting a feel for the culture.”

Certainly, the grittiness of Maitland’s style and the exposure to real life policing come through in his books.  Brock is an old style detective who believes in leg work, the power of whisky, gut instinct … and using computers where necessary.  Kathy Kolla, who comes to work with Brock and his team at their headquarters at Queen Anne’s Gate (rather than New Scotland Yard), represents the change that was coming not only in policing, but also in society.  (Keely Hawes’ Alex Drake in the TV series, Ashes to Ashes is another brilliant exposition of the emerging role of women in the police in the 1980s).

By setting his novels in London, Maitland has a never ending canvass on which to paint his word portraits.  “London is a fascinating place, with all kinds of isolated districts and suburbs … I can explore a corner of the city with interesting characters who have their own stories.  And I can spin an idea for a murder in that area.”

Maitland thinks that over the life of the eleven Brock and Kolla books to date, Kathy has now emerged from Brock’s shadow.  “I’ve been growing the characters and seen how Kathy has developed.  She is stronger and I see her as the lead character.”

When asked about the links between his training as an architect and the crime genre, Maitland agreed that crime fiction was analogous to the “promenade architectural” as expounded by Le Corbusier, where the reader is taken on a journey through a set of circumstances until they wind up at the end or conclusion – somewhat like walking through a well designed building. “Both detectives and architects are faced with an amount of data.  The detective has to find a conceptual reason for why things occur, while an architect turns the data into a beautiful building.  Both have to have a concept.”

The public’s hunger for crime fiction saw Maitland’s publishers request that Brock and Kolla’s activities move to become a series very early on, and he appears to still be willing to meet that need.  He has also written a novel set in Australia – Bright Air too is a murder mystery, exploring the world of rock climbing, and the suspicious death of a young climber amongst a milieu of interesting characters, breathtaking locations (London it ain’t) and an unexpected ending.

Maitland ‘s books are definitely page turners, and it’s no wonder Get Reading was happy to have him be an ambassador this year.

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