Thursday, April 7, 2016

My Inspiration? It's criminal curiosity!

Stanley - Thursday

One of the reasons I enjoyed being a moderator on panels at mystery conferences is that I read at least one book of each of the authors on the panel.  More often than not, they are new to me.  In May I'm moderating a panel at Crimefest in Bristol titled Making A Point:  What Are You Trying to Say?  The panelists are Kati Hiekkapelto, Kevin Murray, Timothy Williams, and Robert Wilson.  I've finished Kati's absorbing The Defenceless and Kevin Murray's chilling Blood of the Rose, both of which I highly recommend.  

This week I've asked Kevin Murray to be our guest.  

Kevin Murray
I found out after I had finished reading his book, that he had worked for many years on The Star newspaper in Johannesburg as a crime reporter.  In 1978 he was posted to London to work on Fleet Street.  One day he was waiting in a queue at Victoria Station,standing behind a young lass.  With typical South African friendliness, he started chatting to her. They were married her six months later.  Since then Kevin has lived in England.

Other than his journalistic writing, Kevin has written several successful leadership coaching books.  The first was entitled: The Language of Leaders. and received much acclaim from the literary and leadership worlds alike. For the book, he interviewed the Chairmen and CEOs of 70 top organisations.

His second book on leadership, Communicate to Inspire – a guide for leaders, was shortlisted for the Chartered Management Institute’s Management Book of the Year award, and reached No 2 on the WH Smith management book charts.

Both leaders books have been published in many languages around the world.
Then his roots from the world of crime beckoned, and he wrote his first crime novel, Blood of the Rose, which has a very chilling premise.
I hope that he enjoys the same success in this new genre as another South African crime journalist who left South Africa for Britain and became a hugely successful crime author - the great James McClure.  Given the revelations from Panama this past week, perhaps his next mystery will combine business leadership and crime!

In this blog, he shares where his inspiration comes from, for both genres.  

Take it away, Kevin.

Writers are often advised to write what they know.  This in itself could be a rather troubling piece of advice when you’re embarking on a novel about a remorseless, barbaric serial killer.  But much of the world’s greatest fiction, particularly crime fiction, is driven by fact and the real crimes perpetrated by others, the mysteries that haunt and challenge us.  Perhaps that’s the thrill of crime fiction, the relationship with the darker side of the world.
My own fascination stems from earlier in  my career when I was the crime reporter for The Star newspaper in Johannesburg.    

In the mid-80s violent crime was rife in South Africa and there was no shortage of material to feed the imagination of a crime writer.  I often described Johannesburg as the crime capital of the universe. Yet it wasn’t the more lurid or sensational aspects of the criminal act that fascinated me, but the forensic analysis – the careful accumulation and examination of even the most trivial of physical evidence to build, and ultimately solve, a case.  

You have to remember techniques and technology were far removed from the slick, almost mercurial, presentation of forensics we see now, particularly through popular shows such a CSI.  You couldn’t perform a tissue analysis with a smartphone, or find DNA traces with a tablet.  But this was the fascination for me, that a case could turn on tracing a partial fingerprint, discovering the relevance of an item of clothing, or matching ballistics to tie a weapon to the person who fired it. It truly was detective work.
There was one compelling mystery in particular that became the genesis for my novel, Blood of the Rose.  The case?  The Boksburg Suitcase Murder of the mid-late Sixties.  I had discovered this article in my newspaper’s archives while researching a feature I was writing.  It told the story of  how a suitcase containing a middle-aged woman’s decapitated torso was fished from Boksburg Lake.  

The inspiration for Blood of the Rose

Further badly decomposed body parts, including the unrecognisable head, were found in other suitcases.  But the body could not be identified, even after pathologists worked with artists to painstakingly produce a likeness of the victim’s features.  I won’t go into all the details here – they can easily be found on the internet – but it eventually took four years to formally identify the body as that of Catherine Burch.  The final piece of proof?  An expert in the police fingerprinting bureau found a fingerprint on a letter written by Catherine that matched those of her corpse.

When the police went round to interview her husband, he committed suicide before they could get to him, thus closing the case.

As a journalist this case was vital in sparking my interest in forensics, and how the most trivial or innocuous of items can hold the key to unlocking a seemingly indecipherable mystery. Forensic investigation was progressing rapidly and more and more cases, like this one, were being solved thanks to the unique combination of progressive science and human ingenuity. Throw in a large dose of intuition and curiosity and any crime could be solved…eventually. I simply felt compelled to take my interest from the pages of the newspaper into a fictional world of my own creation  – a world where a faceless, remorseless and brutal killer is pursued doggedly by a police team using every clue, no matter how small, to try and break the case. I set the novel in the 80s, but I didn’t leave any bodies in a suitcase. 

This idea gripped me for years and years before I finally got round to writing it. It was my inspiration. 

I have also written and had published two leadership books. The first of those was also born of reading newspaper headlines about CEO’s who lost their jobs because they couldn’t engineer the changes necessary in the companies they led. Those headlines caused me to ponder a question for years before I finally got round to researching the answer and writing up the result. The question: Why do really smart leaders fail? Why do so many struggle to take their people with them? 

I went out to put that question to scores of leaders, and what they told me led me to insights about what it takes to be truly inspiring. I just had to write it.

Having satisfied the need to tell those stories, I am currently engaged in a third leadership book, about the power of purpose in our personal and working lives. A year or so ago I was taken to a special restaurant in a prison in the UK called The Clink. It is an initiative to rehabilitate prisoners by teaching them the  skills of running a restaurant - from cooking to waiting tables to food preparation and restaurant management.  As a member of the public, you can book to experience a unique meal behind bars, and my experience got me asking questions again.

The Clink - a prison restaurant with a difference
I discovered that 60% of prisoners reoffend within a few months of being freed. It seemed to me that prisons were really colleges of crime! Yet, the prisoners who had been given the experience of running The Clink had a reoffending rate of just 6%. They had been given a new purpose, and it had transformed their lives. My new driving question? What effect does purpose have on us as individuals, and what do leaders need to know and do about it to improve the performance of their businesses?

This new book has to be handed in by July, and will be published early in 2017.

Before I have even finished this one, however, a new question is in my mind, and another book is forming.

This time? I saw an article about the daughter of an infamous serial killer in the USA, interviewed 20 years after her father had been captured and sent to jail. Her life had been a misery. My question: What happens to the children of serial killers and is murder in their DNA? 

I can’t wait to get on to that one, and already have an an outline plot and a  working title: The Killing Kind

So, newspaper articles are often my source of inspiration, and when allied to my curiosity, cause me to have to suffer a burning question until I can answer it.

What is YOUR source of inspiration?


  1. I find my inspiration in unexpected places and events that I never consciously thought could so dramatically shape a story line...spurred on, of course, by the gifted writing I see in folks like you and Stan!

    Sorry I'll miss you guys at Crimefest, but go easy on him, Kevin, and ENJOY!

  2. Welcome, Kevin. I fall in love with places. And then I find a moment in their history in which to set my stories. Or conversely I become fascinated with a dramatic moment in history. And then I invent a murder so I can tell the story of the investigation with that history woven in.

    BTW, my day job for 25 years was as a consultant in management and leadership. My first three books were about that. Then I switched teams and wrote for the employees--Never Work for a Jerk and Monster Boss. We are the only two I know of who have published in both genres. I hope we meet one day. Sorry to say it won't be at this year's Crimefest.

  3. One would think that Crimefest would be surrounded by police, an opportunity to apprehend so many offenders in one easy swoop. Or swallow. Or scoop.

    Thanks for writing, Kevin, I *SO* look forward to your book, "Decapitate to Inspire Fear - A Guide for Leaders."

  4. Hi Kevin, nice piece. My inspiration comes from little snippets that i then play the 'what if' game with.

    I often describe authors as having a kind of autism. We lack the filtering system that 'normal' people have to ignore anything that's not immediately important and/or useful. Instead, we're constantly bombarded with plot ideas to the point where we're beating them off with a stick.

    No? Ah, just me, then ...