Cooking the book

Authors have long used crime novels as a way to explore and comment on social issues – but Trevor Wood is one of few to put a homeless character at the centre of a book

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As a recent massive uplift in genre sales have proved, readers love crime novels. Obviously, there’s the pleasure and entertainment to be had from a gripping plot set within a reassuringly familiar formula, in a world where justice can actually triumph. But Ian Rankin and other popular crime writers also point out that, along with all that, the crime novel can be the perfect vehicle for a discussion of contemporary issues.

That’s a notion exemplified by the debut crime novel from Newcastle-based Trevor Wood. The Man On The Street is centred on Jimmy Mullen, a homeless veteran, grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder and living on the streets of Newcastle. One night, he witnesses a murder but he’s so far beneath most people’s radar that no one believes him, compelling Mullen to step back into a world from which he’d absented himself.

Fresh, authentic, gritty and thought-provoking, The Man On The Street won last year’s Crime Writers Association John Creasey New Blood Dagger, one of the genre’s highest accolades. An equally thrilling second adventure for Jimmy, his dog (only called Dog) and his growing band of irregulars, One Way Street appears in print in March, although, thanks to a combination of the vagaries of publishing and a worldwide pandemic, it’s already available as an e-book and audiobook. Meanwhile, a short origin story called Underdogs, describing the first meeting between Jimmy and Dog (“the only recurring character I’m told I have to keep from serious harm,” Wood laughs) appears in Home Fixtures, a highly-recommended short story anthology put together by Val McDermid to help support the Homeless World
Cup Foundation.

“The initial spark for it all was this idea I’d had for a one-off crime novel where a deadly crime happens in front of a homeless man but the people involved don’t even notice him,” says Wood, who served for 16 years in the Royal Navy before many more years as a journalist, then as a playwright. “Homeless people are right at the centre of society, yet hidden to a large extent, and I liked the idea of a crime being witnessed by someone who is invisible to so many people.”

Wood had signed up for the part-time crime writing MA at the University of East Anglia in the hope of fulfilling a lifelong ambition to write his own crime novel.

“The point of the two year course was to deliver an 80,000 word crime novel and probably 60-70 per cent of The Man On The Street as it was eventually published, after the usual string of rejections, was actually developed during that time on the course,” explains the 61-year-old crime fiction fan, who’s recently been approached by the makers of Line Of Duty and Bodyguard about a TV adaptation of his book.

Despite encouragement from his course tutors and visiting writers like Ian Rankin and Lee Child (who came up with Jimmy’s Sherlock Homeless nickname), Wood wasn’t convinced he was the right person to write a book largely set amidst the homeless community. He began research that included volunteering as a cook at the People’s Kitchen in Newcastle (as he continues to do, once a week) and discovered that it’s thought that about 10 per cent of the homeless community could be ex-servicemen.

“I thought ‘okay, I know how ex-servicemen think’, so I started to look a bit more at the idea of ex-servicemen who were homeless and I came across a warts-and-all book called the Veteran’s Survival Guide, written by a former soldier called Jimmy Johnson. After enduring two tours of Northern Ireland, in which he saw some horrific things, Johnson ended up with the most appalling PTSD, which saw him spiral downwards, ultimately committing murder twice and ending up in prison for life.

“To his enormous credit, he said: ‘I think I can stop other people from having these same problems and doing what I’ve done.’ So he wrote his book about the kind of help you can get. That was inspiring, I have to say, and led me to borrow his name for my character Jimmy, along with another Jimmy, a homeless man who was a well-known face around town, often riding on the Metro. Sadly, he died a few years ago, but he was such a character that his story resonated with me.”

Understandably anxious to rebut any suggestion that he might have exploited them in some way, Wood insists that the homeless and disadvantaged people using the People’s Kitchen have been “incredibly helpful and not at all suspicious. I didn’t hide the fact that I was a writer and I was writing a book. But that wasn’t the point. I just wanted to give something back. I thought: I can’t be writing a book about this community and not be contributing more than I do at the moment.

“Their perspective on poverty and homelessness is one that’s rarely if ever heard and that was quite important to me. I try very hard to capture the grim reality of that situation without wallowing too much in the misery.

“The homeless are mostly demonised and I wanted to humanise them, to show the resilience, fortitude and humour that’s essential for survival in that situation and to illustrate that a lot of the people aren’t there because of some kind of weakness but because circumstances have conspired against them, because of one bad decision, or simply bad luck.

“There seems to be a worldwide shortage in empathy at the moment and I hope that, in a small way, I’m doing something to help redress the balance. My dream was that people who may have different views would pick this book up as crime readers and it might just change their perspective a little bit, so that the next time they’re wandering past someone who’s looking for help, they might actually give them some.” That said, the books are very much written as entertainment, with The Man On The Street supposed to be a standalone novel, not the first in a three-book series.

“I didn’t want my homeless protagonist tripping over bodies and solving crime for the next 10 years, which seemed to take it out of the real world I tried to set it in,” he chuckles. “But everybody who offered me a deal said: ‘No, really, people will want to read more about these characters.’ They eventually persuaded me, and I could see a way to making it a three book series. But that’s it.

“I didn’t want to leave Jimmy on the streets his whole life, although the third book is tentatively entitled Dead End Street! But I’m much more interested in characters than plot and I figure that if I don’t know what they’re going to do next, it’ll be very hard for a reader to anticipate it.”

The Man On The Street and One Way Street are published by Quercus 

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