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Graham Bartlett on writing a strong female lead in the male-dominated genre of gritty crime fiction

Graham Bartlett on writing a strong female lead in the male-dominated genre of gritty crime fiction

They say write what you know and in all but one aspect I might have taken that to extremes. In a previous life I was a Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, in a role grandiosely titled Divisional Commander for Brighton and Hove. That meant that I was in charge, and to blame so it seemed, for policing in a city of 300,000 residents and nine million annual visitors, on the coast fifty miles south of London. The job was part about policing, part local and sometimes national politics but in the main it was combining them all.

When I became a crime writer (and that’s a long story) I chose to write about a Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, in a role grandiosely titled Divisional Commander for Brighton and Hove . . . you get the gist. Seriously though, I knew from first-hand experience the drama that could be triggered by myopic, partisan and egocentric policies (such as the austerity cuts, extremist political leadership and the power wielded by big business) and how the human cost of that could be countless lives lost. No one was writing about when these worlds collide, so I thought I would.

My first book, Bad for Good, which deals with the question of what happens when the cuts are so severe that vigilantism becomes the crime control measure of choice, risked being autobiographical. I had already written a non-fiction around my experiences and was determined that my central character for this new thriller series would be as fictional as readers expect. One way to avoid this was to make that person a woman.

That decision immediately threw up a number of challenges. I am a white, heterosexual, lower-middle class, fifty-something bloke. I worked my hide off to reach the level I did but knew that my efforts paled when compared to those of the women who reached that or higher rank. I had no first-hand experience of sexism, misogyny, stereotyping or side-lining. I cannot help my characteristics, and don’t apologise for them, but I felt a huge responsibility to write Chief Superintendent Joanne Howe well.

I was blessed with knowing some brilliant senior women officers, many in fact, and sought them out to learn of their struggles compared to mine. Former Assistant Chief Constable Di Roskilly picked up on my assumption that all the pressures were external. She described to me how her inner dialogue was constantly chipping away that when she was at work she should be at home, and when she was at home she should be at work. She wanted to be a superb police officer and the perfect mum, all at the same time. I thought she nailed both but she was racked with self-doubt. Others, like Chief Superintendent Lisa Bell, told me how they were side-lined into low-impact jobs when they had children or reduced their hours. This dented their confidence and reduced the opportunity to show how operationally brilliant they were. Little of that affected me and my male colleagues and, whilst I rated the women senior officers above many of the men, the glass ceiling seemed impermeable to them.

In Bad for Good, Force of Hate (which is out in paperback this week) and City on Fire (published on 21st March 2024), Jo Howe struggles with these very issues and suffers hugely from imposter syndrome. She was a surprise pick for the Brighton commander’s job and the favourite, a red-blooded male called Gary Hedges, becomes her deputy and things don’t go well. Jo confides her doubts to her husband but he’s preoccupied with his journalistic career and resents having to pull his weight on the child-care front.

As these are thrillers, of course Jo’s life, and the lives of many others, are sometimes in mortal danger, yet her first thought is always an inward apology to her sons and husband that she’s going to die and leave them. In Force of Hate, she finds a greater strength but still wonders how on earth she ended up doing her job as she’s subjected to outrageous misogyny from the neo-Nazi council leaders who are plotting an atrocity and her own corrupt Chief Constable.

I found it deeply enlightening to write her responding to these physical and psychological attacks. If I were writing Joe, instead of Jo, I might have been tempted to opt for more primal responses; fighting fire with fire, even a fight in the car park. But Jo is smarter than that. She, whilst deeply traumatised by the hell I throw at her, knows that brains outmatch brawn every time and often we see her reeling her male colleagues back in while devising more cunning ways to confront their foes.

At times it felt daft to centre my debut novels around a gender I’d never been but once I found my groove, and had those brilliant women on speed dial, I never looked back. I hate cliched characters but the challenge of writing Jo soon became so natural and I found myself thinking and speaking like her the second I sat at my desk, safe in the knowledge that Di would check it all through anyway, and her feedback is always perfect. Direct, unapologetic but always perfect.

Force of Hate, Book 2 in the Jo Howe Series, is published in paperback by Allison and Busby on 21 September 2023

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