Queen of Crime Martina Cole Talks to ZANI FeaturedWritten by Matteo Sedazzari
She walks into her son’s bedroom and smiles a warm and loving smile as she sees he is fast asleep, dreaming of a wonderland. Despite finding it hard to make ends meet, the beautiful and curvy woman still has her reveries, something inside tells her to get their ‘happily ever after’. She knows it exists, the inner child in her still believes in magic, she has to otherwise it’s a lifetime of dead end jobs or crime. She sees that every day, lives next to door to it, talks to the villains in the pub, their wives or girlfriends in the supermarket. This world and these people don’t scare or intimidate her, she is inspired by them and feels some warmth towards them. She understands them, and they understand her. That gives her hope and safety, just like Snow White escaping the clutches of her evil step mother, to find solace with seven outcasts, due to them being born deformed. Like the stories read to her as a child, the words she heard gave her hope and strength.
Now, as a stunning woman, words are stronger to her than ever. In the twilight she writes to escape the humdrum of everyday life and to create her own world. But it is not a creation of beauty, but one of crime and punishment. Yet, due to self doubt, she believes that a working class girl isn’t meant to be an author. With her son safely in the hands of the sandman, she pulls out a couple of jotter pads from under the stairs which have a novel she wrote many years ago, Dangerous Lady. She puts the kettle on and lights another cigarette, she begins to read. As she closes the last jotter pad she hears the birds start to sing, their beautiful natural sound enhances her state of bliss. ‘Dangerous Lady is going to be a best seller’ she screams out. All this time, the answer to all her prayers had been lying dormant in her house, only seeing the light of day when she and her son moved house and she found the handwritten novel packed away. Maybe if she hadn’t moved on that particular day Dangerous Lady may just have stayed as a piece of personal memorabilia, Martina Cole would not have become the bestselling author that she is today and we, the reading public, would not be entertained and thrilled by dark crime novels, from her debut Dangerous Lady to the newest title Betrayal, a story about the loyalty and disloyalty of the O’Hara crime family in London.
How Martina Cole became an author is a well known ‘dreams come true’ anecdote. Single mother finds ten year old handwritten manuscript, reads it, believes in it, rewrites it on a typewriter, sends to an agent, agent says yes, agent sends to a publisher, publisher says yes and as we know the rest is history. Furthermore, all of those at the start of Cole’s journey in the early 90’s, are still working with her today. “I’m lucky; I’ve still got Darley Anderson as my agent. I got published on my first attempt, but I am not so sure that I would have been published ten years beforehand when I wrote the book. No one would have been ready for it. I’ve got the same publisher, Headline, same publicist, Louise, from when I started 25/26 years ago, which I think is pretty rare in publishing today. Headline had been so fascinated that I was their first home grown author, the one they discovered and said let’s do something.”
Yet it wasn’t an overnight success, Cole struggled for years after marrying, divorcing and becoming a parent before she turned 21. When she reached that age she buried both her parents within six months of each other. Life was tough, living on a council estate in Tilbury Essex where crime was, and still is, a necessity to some to put food on the table. Being a woman and from a working class background with little or no academic qualifications, Cole believed she was born on the wrong side of the tracks to become an author “I thought you had to have a degree or something like that to be a writer.” declared Cole in 2016.
Born in March 1959, Averley Essex, the youngest of five children to mother, a psychiatric nurse and her father, a merchant seaman, from Dublin and Cork respectively. Both worked hard to give the best to their children, by all accounts their house was the first on the estate to have a colour TV and wall to wall carpets. Yet these luxuries came from hard work, meaning that more often than not the children were left alone during the festive season. “My mother would work on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, usually my father was away at sea during Christmas.” recalls Cole. Crime, especially the underworld of London is a domain associated with Cole and her writing, yet her life as a villain was short lived. “Stole a bottle of nail varnish when I was about 15 but my mother bashed the living daylights out of me, and walked me back to the shop. My life of crime was over pretty much as soon as it began.” Thanks to her mother’s honesty and respect she went on to pen a classic debut novel, Dangerous Lady, which has not dated. Cole feels the same. “ Next year it’s 25 years since Dangerous Lady came out I feel like it was only ten years ago, it’s such a long time. My novels have lasted longer than my marriages, (laughs).”
24 novels later and Martina Cole is still going strong. Does she always believe that her next release is going to be a success. “I am not all that confident even after all these years of being an author. The first week before a book is due out, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I am still convinced that nobody will buy it. But probably for me I think that is a good thing.” Refreshing to hear after spanning three decades as a bestselling author. When The Beatles released a single it went to number one, which seems to be the case when Cole releases a book. Does she see herself as a comparison to the Fab Four ? “Bit like The Beatles, please, what are you after? I never take it for granted that it will be a bestseller, never. I write for me, never written for an audience, even my audience. I wrote Dangerous Lady around 1980, 1981 for myself, because all the books at the time had women that were just beautiful models, not powerful. I suppose I wrote the anti-book for women.” Writing for yourself is in keeping with the traditional entertainment of the working class who, for centuries, learnt to entertain themselves, be it a sing-song around the pub piano or an elderly relative telling the children a late night yarn. An ideology that Cole maintained before hitting the big time, as her neighbours knew of her stories and would often pay the price of a packet of cigarettes or a pint of milk for them. Her neighbours and friends all liked her work, but often with little if any encouragement for her to take her talent further. “Where I come from no one said to me, ‘go and be a writer Tina’, no one said anything like that to me.” The belief and drive came from Cole alone, when she did show initiative and courage it was not met with enthusiasm in fact the opposite. “I was going to buy this Nursing Agency, I had even got a 25 K loan from the bank to buy. I went in the bank, said ‘I want to take a six-month sabbatical, I want to write a book’ they rolled about the floor laughing, really you Tina ?’ ‘Yes me’.”
Cole is a great story teller, with a strong command of the English language, no one could last 24 years as a ‘paperback writer’ without having these skills. Furthermore, it is her attention to detail, be it taking us back to Swinging London in the 60s with Goodnight Lady or the hedonistic ways of the early 90’s in The Take. How does she manage to create detailed flashbacks of yesteryear’s Great Britain? “I do all the research first, some people I ask I can’t name, but one is Eddie Richardson, as in the Richardson’s. I can call Eddie anytime of the day, he’d say ‘no Tina, we got our suits made there, we drove those cars.” Having ‘friends in high places’ is certainly a much needed bonus. Her global audience loves her style and stories, how does she view herself as a writer? “Look, I don’t write literature, I have never pretended to, I write popular fiction that suits me. I love my books; I love the fact that I am the most read books in prison in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and love the fact that my books are the most stolen books in shops, that validates what you do. I don’t have a problem being a bestseller, I don’t have the urge to write the definitive English novel. I like what I do, I enjoy what I do, I have always written for me.”
Cole is not being selfish or self-centred, she has a creative philosophy that works perfectly for her as it is honest, not someone working on the marketing campaign before they have penned their first word. Nor is she dismissing her skills, she is not interested in being highbrow, she loves to write pure honest ‘pulp fiction’, which is a marvellous genre, as its aim is to entertain and thrill us, the readers. So Cole has her own agenda, her chosen category of fiction and always delivers the goods on an annual basis. How does she manage this ? “I only need four hours sleep, I’m a night girl, always have been, always will be. When everyone else is getting ready to go to bed at ten at night, I am getting ready for work. I have stayed up writing for 30 hours non-stop.” A good work ethic which clearly works, yet how does it evolve to the final draft? “After the 2nd draft, the book should start writing itself. You know where it’s going to go, what it’s going to do. When I am at the final draft, I know exactly what is going to happen, and that’s when I get the idea for the next book.” Is Cole one step ahead ? “I hope so, I don’t know, you tell me. (laughing). The lovely thing I say about being a writer is that you can be with people who you want to be with all day and if they get on your nerves you can kill them off. You are God, the paper on the walls, cars, supplies, you give them life, children. I love the concept of that, because my real life is not as structured as my books.” So when writing Cole cuts herself off from the world. “By the final draft, I’m gone, you won’t see me. I usually write in just under a month, I will work twenty hours a day, I won’t sleep probably for maybe a few days. My publicist Louise says people read your books so fast, because I write so fast, don’t know if that is probably true.“ The style of a true pulp writer, surely Cole has heroes from this genre. “James Elroy, first time I met him I was in awe of him. James and I did something together in Amsterdam, they had us down as the King and Queen of Crime, I was like oh my God.” Nice to see she is still a fan, presume reading books is also key in her process. “Always been such a big reader, even when I am writing, I will read a book a week, and when I am not writing, I will read a book a day. One of the biggest compliments was this year at Harrogate, I was supposed to go to a quiz night, I couldn’t go because I had a migraine, my son went instead. He came back, said we lost, but Mark Lawson said you are the best read women he has ever met in his life. That was a nice compliment, because I have had no education whatsoever.”
Even though Cole keeps her feet firmly on the ground, she likes to treat herself when a book is a success, usually buying herself a present. What does she plan for Betrayal ?“I have no idea, wait until it comes out. I bought myself a Bentley once, another time bought an Elvis special music player. I buy myself something really wacky, something that I will really love.” Well Cole deserves to treat herself, a self-educated woman who, at a young age, has taken the world of literature by storm, being a woman and a writer of thrillers, she has faced elitism of this world “A while back a well-known writer said I wouldn't want your readers reading my books Martina, I just replied 'They wouldn't, because my readers like a good story.” How rude, sounds like the author in question was hiding his jealousy behind his pseudo intellect, does the snobbery still exist? “I think it does, there are still those authors who think because they don’t sell many books they must be geniuses. Well a good book is going to sell, as I said earlier, I don’t write literature, I have never pretended to.”
Cole’s novels are a roller-coaster into the underbelly of Great Britain, a real page turner into a dark world, which at first seems glamorous. Yet as the story unfolds we are taken into a world of the prison hierarchy, crumbling criminal empires, drug usage, child abuse and such like. Delivered with an almighty punch, certainly not light reading. As the social, economic and family landscape changes within the book, so do the characters, in particular the key ones, which are usually the women. Naïve at the start of the novel, not seeing the true nature of their nearest and dearest, like Maura Ryan in Dangerous Lady or Donna Brunos in The Jump. However, a catalyst occurs which turns them from victims to tough survivors. “I take people on a journey, I set a lot of my books in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, where women were expected not to be educated and not to have an opinion but rely on their big handsome husbands. I want to show that a fine-looking man is not the man you think he is. Extraordinary things happen to you in life, good and bad. The dynamics in my books are always about the man and the woman, how their perception changes. A lot of women back in time married when they were 17, like me. All they saw was a big handsome man, thinking they were so lucky. What you want at 15 and what you want at 25 are two totally different things. Same when you are 35, 45. My character development is about changing perceptions.”
Four of Cole’s novels, Dangerous Lady, The Jump, The Runaway and The Take have been adapted for television as well as Dangerous Lady, Two Women and The Graft becoming stage adaptations of her novels. In fact it was the TV version of The Take that made me want to read her work. Is she pleased with these versions? “I was involved in all of them, as the script editor, I helped with the rewrites for the screen. In a book you live in the world, in a film you see the world, you can’t change that, because that is how the mind works. I was lucky to get Tom Hardy to play Freddie Jackson in The Take, he was Freddie, he had Freddie’s presence, but just six inches shorter, but don’t tell him that.”
Freddie Jackson is a tough alpha male villain who, at the start, is what many men would like to be, yet as the pages turn Jackson’s world turns into a darkened place, darker than the simple life of the underworld, yet some men still see Jackson as Numero Uno. “I still have men saying to me they want to be like Freddie Jackson, really I say, he raped his sister-in-law… I didn’t want people to like or want to be Freddie, but I want them to understand him rightly or wrongly.” Freddie Jackson is certainly a complex man . Another strong feature and sub-plot of Cole’s is police corruption like Get Even and many more, which has not gone unnoticed by the long arm of the law. “After I did Dangerous Lady I was on holiday, I met a man and his wife, the man was from the West Midlands Crime Scene. I didn’t know that he was. The wife told me she loved the book, but he kept giving me dirty stares. Then we got talking and he told me he didn’t like the book and that he was a policeman. I said ‘I worked that one out myself, I write fiction and the fact that it’s bothered you so much is telling you something. It’s not a biography about you’. I used to get a lot of aggro from the police, don’t want to go into it. Not so much now. I know a retired detective from Barking, he tells me you’ve picked that definitive time and that’s how it was. I often think, especially in the 70’s and the early 80’s, that a lot of those policemen could have gone either way. Still don’t trust the police today, if I am honest. Smiley Culture, I mean he died from a self-inflicted stab wound after a police raid?” Yes the ‘suicide’ of Smiley Culture is certainly questionable
Cole, by her admittance, didn’t join some of her peers in a life of crime, yet she took like a moth to a flame to early youth cultures of Great Britain. “I was a Skinhead really early 70’s when it was still Rude Boys. I hated the way it became vulgarised with this really awful racist thing. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. My father was a merchant seaman, he used to say to me and the other kids, if the only thing you can find against someone is the colour of their skin then there is something wrong with you, not them. My father never judged anyone. I was a Punk, well before Malcolm McLaren hijacked it. Being part of a youth culture helps to give you identity, be it a Rude Boy, Mod, Punk, Suedehead, Skinhead. I am thinking of doing a one off for a television series set around the early days of Punk in London, but don’t get too excited it’s just an idea at the moment, I did like the big bands as well, went to see Pink Floyd with Linda Lewis in 1976 at Knebworth for £2.75, not very punk but so what. I love Floyd. Used to go to Camden, went there a lot in the early 70’s, saw The Dire Straits. It was a different world back then, you didn’t have online, MTV, you had to go and see bands. Saw Bowie loads of times back in the 70s. I loved Bowie, he still inspires me today.” Interesting to know, perhaps when the BBC are doing a Punk, Skinhead or Rude Boy Special, they should talk to Cole, not the usual suspects, I’m sure she would light up the screen.
And today music is still important to Cole just as when she was a beautiful tearaway. “I do a lot with Hostage Records, music with Alabama 3 and studio JAMM. Music is probably the biggest part of my life, after writing and books. I must be the only mother who asks their teenage daughter to turn up the music, she’s 19 and into The Doors or Hendrix, music like that. I used to argue with my oldest, my son who is 40, over Eminem and Dr Dre, I used to say to him these are modern day poets. He couldn’t see it, he couldn’t get it. I would say, you are not seeing it from the right perspective. We’re Irish, for all Irish everything goes by word of mouth, but after years of arguing he now agrees with me. I gave my kids music; if you are going to give your kids one thing, give them good music.” Wonderful words of wisdom. Being Irish Catholic, where music is passed down from generation to generation, Cole’s mother was no different. “My mum was a jazz pianist, I remember seeing her play at Ronnie Scott’s, I remember being about ten or eleven, patrolling Camden Market with my mother whilst she was collecting 78’s. I was brought up on Betty Smith and the blues, always thought that was one of the greatest things my mother could give to me was music. I can remember her finding Darktown Strutters' Ball at Camden, she was like a child in a sweet shop.” The love for her mother, music and London is wonderful and inspiring to hear. Even though the words are positive there is a tough side to Cole, which I sensed from the onset, a toughness that got her expelled from an all girls convent school at 15 for throwing a text book at a nun “ I hated school, it was just rules and regulations which I still hate today.”
Like most artists, be it a musician, painter, actor, author and such like, there is a magical moment when something reaches out and connects , changing everything within a second. Cole saw the light at an early age. “Call of the Wild by Jack London was the book that made me fall in love with books. I remember reading this as a kid and wanting to go to Yukon, Canada, blew me away. I learnt at an early age how words can take you to another place. I got into reading when I was really young as my nan taught me and the other kids to read and write before we went to school.”
So from reading Call of the Wild at an early age gave Cole a desire that has taken her on an amazing and successful journey. Yet far from reeling in the rewards she has a strong and burning yearning to help others. Cole is the ambassador for the Reading Agency, a programme to help and develop the reading skills of young adults usually from non-privileged backgrounds, in particular in prisons. “Erwin James, he’s an old friend of mine. convicted murderer, who turned to books in prison. You’ve got to read Redeemable - A Memoir of Darkness and Hope, best book you will ever buy this year. Anyway I have always argued this, in the prisons there is a lack of education. I know a lot of prisoners come to my talks just to see a female, break their routine, but I just hope a couple of them will say, you know what, I’m going to pick up a book. I believe we should encourage more education, I have been working in the prisons for over 25 years, I have noticed things changing. Back then, a lot of the prison officers were ex-army, so they played by those rules. HMP Liverpool which is, and was, one of Britain hardest prisons, the governor there has done an excellent job, a real model prison. You’ve also got The Clink Restaurant London in Brixton Prison, you are not allowed drink there, but the inmates are given a chance to achieve skills. My argument is, that whether they are there through drink or drugs, I am a great believer in redeeming people, I really am. One of the biggest shocks and heart break to me is how many of the young men in prison can’t read or write. Really? Britain has one of the best educational systems in the world? I never used it, so I get where they are coming from.”
Outside of writing and music, Cole is passionate about cookery, she might have another project mixing her ‘friends’ with her culinary skills. “I want to do a Crook Cook Book for charity, I know a former prisoner, who has now got a big jazz label, can’t say his name. He has learnt to cook the best ever Spaghetti Bolognese from a tin of corn beef. He learnt to do that in prison. Another friend of mine in Parkhurst learnt to cook from the Italians he was in prison with. Did the best bit of pasta I have ever had. In Parkhurst they have got their own kitchen the inmates do all their own cooking. A lot of men love cooking, in the 70’s a man couldn’t say that.” Very true, all my male friends, including me, know and enjoy cooking. Martina Cole is a very attractive woman yet she seems to be single, and happy being so. “People say to me about you’re this age and you are on your own, I don’t see that as a problem, I choose to be on my own. Writing is a very solitary job. I have never met a man who could put up with me writing all night long. I think a lot of people want too much of your time, I have a great life with my family and friends, have a wonderful second home in Northern Cyprus.” A keen one to help others, what advice does she have for aspiring authors? “Write for yourself, never think what is relevant for your times, something you want to read and the chance someone else will want to read it.” Wonderful career advice, I will certainly take note, as a creator and a reader. Any female characters from her own and other works she can identify with? “Fannie Flagg Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Ruth Jamison who in the end stood up to her husband, missed out on getting the film rights for this. I suppose my first female character, Maura Ryan, and Sue Dalston from Two Women, she stood up to her husband, and Maura is a strong, beautiful and powerful woman. Did Cole ever want to be like Maura Ryan? “What woman wouldn’t.” Cole says with a playful giggle.
Martina Cole is a headstrong and conscientious woman with a big heart, yet someone I wouldn’t want to cross as she can clearly stand up for herself. Her enthusiasm for her work and the world is stimulating. Cole talks like her books, fast and furious, she doesn’t mince her words nor tip toe around an issue, straight to the point. Old school, you know where you stand with direct people, which I admire and respect a lot. Whether Cole stays writing a book a year I can’t say, yet I sense I could be wrong. She may move into other areas. Maybe we will see her cook book, a story written especially for television or the cinema, or maybe focus on music, I don’t know, maybe it’s wrong of me to suggest or predict this. Yet Martina Cole’s energy and drive is motivating, enough to move the toughest men in Great Britain
As the blonde puts out her cigarette, sips her tea, and types the final words of Dangerous Lady “They smile at one another as the plane gradually flew higher into the sky,” she visualises herself with her son flying into the sunset. Something inside tells her that she doesn’t need a glass slipper to make this dream come true. She knows the only hero that can truly save her is herself and she will live happily ever after.
FOOTNOTE – ZANI are pleased to say since this interview, Martina Cole’s Betrayal is now a number one best seller
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