Q&A with James Ellson, author of ‘The Trail’

Crime writer and veteran detective James Ellson recently published his debut novel The Trail, a continent-hopping mystery thriller about detective Rick Castle who follows a kidnapping case from Manchester to Nepal. While offering readers an intelligent and exciting plot, Ellson also provides plenty of insight into real police work and authentic procedural techniques. Today, he answers some questions about his writing journey, experiences as a detective, and his future writing interests.

Tell us a bit about your writing journey…

I used to be a police officer, starting in London, and finishing as a DI at Moss Side in Manchester. In some ways, it finished me.

I was working at a weekend, and took a phone call. A murder, another one. I couldn’t do it, and folded. I was taken home, and after fifteen years without one day of sick leave, I never went back. I received counselling, and took a year’s sabbatical. Depression followed.

We moved to a smallholding in the Peak District, and I began to write. I took an OU philosophy course. The smallholding is five acres, and we keep chickens and bees, and turkeys at Christmas! There’s a greenhouse, a large soft fruit cage, and an orchard. We’re self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. My passion is fruit trees, especially apples, and I’m aiming for a hundred varieties – currently, sixty four.

The combination of writing and working outside on the smallholding helped me understand what I’d been through and moved me forward.
My first book (unpublished) was a memoir From Cop to Coppicer, and attracted strong interest from two agents. One agent suggested I write a crime thriller. I wrote alone for six years, and slowly realised that if I wanted to be published, I would have to improve. I enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The course made me read far more widely. It also introduced me to workshopping – taking it in turns to critique each other’s work. Brutal, but very, very effective. I was also lucky enough to work with Joe Stretch, a brilliant and inspirational tutor. Relative to me, my writing improved from non-league to Premiership. I worked on my book The Trail during the course, and finally found a publisher who said, ‘Yes’.

My debut novel The Trail was published by Unbound in 2020.

How does it feel to have your work out in print?

Amazing!

After writing hard for ten years – six manuscripts, over a million words – it’s great to finally connect with readers. So many great emails and messages. I launched at Waterstones in Manchester which, Paula Hawkins told me recently, is where she launched Girl On The Train (her quote is on the front cover of my book). Afterwards, there was a queue of people wanting a signed copy – I wish I’d practised my signature!

Which novels/authors had the greatest impact on writing ‘The Trail’?

During my MA, a classmate challenged me on the lack of front- and backstory of my protagonist Rick Castle; he suggested I read James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia. Its protagonist is LA patrol cop Bucky Bleichert and although the plot doesn’t kick in until page 87, it didn’t matter. By page 87, I’d become such a fan of Bucky and so interested in him that I didn’t care if he investigated the inside of a matchbox — I wanted to read about it.

Reading Lee Child has been very helpful for pace and tension. Also Andy Martin’s meta-narrative companion to Child’s twentieth book called Reacher Said Nothing. James Lee Burke and Sara O’Gran for crime fiction with a strong sense of place (both coincidentally set in New Orleans). But if I had to single out one author, then Cormac McCarthy. The Road is the book I wish I’d written, and I’ve read most of his backlist. The All the Pretty Horses trilogy is mesmerising; reading it I decided to write some Nepalese dialogue in The Trail. I also liked his dour Suttree, and The Orchard Keeper.

Which authors’ work would you stack ‘The Trail’ next to in bookshops?

None. I’d spread it across a standalone table at the front of the shop! Writing a book is hard, publishing it harder, but selling it without a major publisher (and access to bookshops) is very hard indeed.

If it had to go on a shelf, I am lucky (or unlucky) for my name to be only two letters different to James Ellroy. Our books often sit together!

How does Rick Castle stand out from other crime fiction protagonists?

Many crime thrillers focus on ‘clues’ (DNA, fingerprints), but in reality crimes with these leads are not so interesting to investigate. What makes The Trail different to most of its genre is the real investigative technique. Detectives start an investigation by asking themselves four questions:

  • What do I know?
  • What are my hypotheses for what happened?
  • What else do I need to know?
  • How can I find the information I need?

These four questions (taught on every SIO (Senior Investigating Officer) course in the country), and the developing hypotheses, form part of DCI Castle’s investigation.

During the book, Rick is plagued by flashbacks to his first week of nights as a DI – dealing with 17 deaths across a number of incidents. Many of these are drawn from my own experiences and feelings.

Care to divulge any of your future writing interests?

As well as my memoir From Cop to Coppicer, I’ve also written a rural everyman called Twelvemonth (about a man who lives on a smallholding who keeps chickens – they say ‘write what you know’!), and a thriller called Moon On the Water. One day I would like to see them all in print, but I think and hope the sequel to The Trail will be next.

The Trail is available on Amazon, and can be ordered from bookshops.

“intelligent and pacy thriller” (Paula Hawkins, Girl On The Train)

“a stunning debut from an exciting new addition to the world of crime fiction” (Stephen Booth, Cooper & Fry crime series)

Written by James Ellson and Michael Conroy.

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