Paul Burke caught up with Will Shindler to ask about his incendiary debut crime novel, The Burning Men.
The Burning Men is the incendiary introduction of DI Alex Finn and DC Mattie Paulsen. Set in south London this gritty tale of murder and revenge is a gripping read. Will may be familiar to you, he’s been a broadcast journalist for the BBC for twenty-five years, currently reading the news on Radio London. Will has worked for 5 Live as a sports reporter and was one of the stadium presenters at the London Olympics in 2012. This isn’t his first step into fiction though, Will worked for ten years as a scriptwriter on Born and Bred, The Bill and Doctors. The Burning Men is a dark police procedural, a really promising start to a new crime series.
Paul Burke: The Burning Men is your first novel but you have a background in screen writing, tell us a little bit about that please, and how does that prepare you for writing a novel? (There are some very visual, punchy scenes in the book.)
Will Shindler: That’s an interesting question. I was initially very nervous about writing prose because I literally have no previous experience of it and I’ve always been rather wary about even trying. But I approached plotting The Burning Men as if it were a screenplay, so it’s very gratifying that you found it so visual. In terms of the actual writing there’s obviously a world of difference though.
PB: Of course The Burning Men is a fiction but how important was it to you to get the authentic feel of real of police work and the experience of a fire crew into the novel?
WS: Critical! Fortunately I’ve been very lucky over the years in gaining access to people who’ve been there, seen and done it. Hopefully that comes through in the book.
PB: Being a seasoned reporter across several fields has put you close to big stories over the years did that experience feed into The Burning Men?
WS: Yes – most definitely. The ‘day job’ is working for BBC Radio London and I think it was almost inevitable that some of that would bleed through into the book. I hope the various bits involving the media feel authentic to the reader – they certainly come rooted from my own experiences.
PB: The Burning Men is set south of the Thames. When I lived in London I was aware that there was a south versus north of the river thing going on. It also seemed like everyone south of the river worked north and vice versa. Are you a south-side boy? You’ve picked a part of London less well explored for the setting of The Burning Men.
WS: Well… I grew up in South London and live there now, so yes, I know the area pretty well, and I worked very hard to hopefully give the series a real sense of place. But, and it’s a big but – I also lived in North London for nearly fifteen years, and it’s a part of the capital I’m very fond of. Don’t ask me about East or West London though – they’re foreign lands to me!
PB: Do you think that modern media has changed the way crime novels are written now? For example, there’s a significant WhatsApp group in the book.
WS: I suppose… but I think writers will always try and depict the world we’re in as authentically as possible. Future generations will probably read this stuff and wonder what an earth a WhatsApp group ever was!
PB: The novel opens with a fire, a major incident that fuels (sorry) the story but the introduction of DI Alex Finn and his dying wife, Karin, in chapter two is equally impactful. Is it fair to say that grief is very much a theme of the novel?
WS: Yes… I think it’s fair to say Finn’s grief is something that ripples through this book and into subsequent novels in the series too. That’s how it is in life, and that’s the beauty of a series, that you can chart that journey authentically.
PB: Karin is brave, she sets out to make sure that Alex will survive after she is gone, it’s a touching portrayal. Karin wants to manage Alex’s response to her death, it’s very selfless, do you think that’s a typical of the concern of a dying partner?
WS: Hmmm. Good question. Everybody is different aren’t they, and so are their relationships. Karin knows her man though – left to his own devices Finn will closet himself away from the world, so she’s keen – even from beyond the grave – to ensure he doesn’t. You haven’t seen the last of that either, by the way.
PB: When Karin dies Alex returns to work as soon as he can talk his boss into letting him. He can’t bury his grief and when he interviews Adesh’s wife Stephanie about her husband’s death it overwhelms him. Yet in the end he begins to come to terms with loss through the case. Is that the way you see it?
WS: I think the best way of answering that is that in the seven stages of grief, Finn’s still a long way from the end of his recovery, by the end of The Burning Men.
PB: Alex and Maddie are the two detectives who centre the novel, they both have significant baggage. Often there’s only one rebel/troubled character but you have two, was that a rewarding dynamic to write?
WS: Yes, very much so. On the surface they’re very different people. He’s a middle aged man suffering from a recent bereavement; she’s a woman in her mid-twenties with some issues of her own. But I like friendships that defy definitions – I’ve had a few of my own like that over the years – sometimes you just connect with someone, and that’s what these two do.
PB: Police murder work is about team in Britain, it’s fair to say that Jackie ‘O’ Ojo, Alex’s old partner, is a very important character too. She’s working on another case at the start of the novel which is why Maddie joins the team. Do you see Jackie as a stabilising character in the novel?
WS: Yes – I think that’s a very good description. She’s a very cool, grounded personality, and given the demons troubling Finn and Paulsen brings some much needed perspective. She’s a lot of fun to give dialogue to, because she’s not frightened to be dispassionate and say things as they are.
PB: The fire fighters agree to go their separate ways after the fatal fire, the murder of one of the group forces them back together. The shared secret eats away at them. Living with the guilt consumes them. The Burning Men has some cracking action but is it fair to say it’s an emotional ride too?
WS: I hope so! You’re always looking for the emotional centre to a story and I think you’ve absolutely hit upon the core themes of this book.
PB: The guilt come from a moral dilemma the firefighters face, it’s not giving anything away to say that they make a choice, a man is dead, they have a chance to profit but actions are not without consequences. Do you want the reader to will put themselves in the shoes of the firemen?
WS: Very much so. Shades of grey are always interesting aren’t they? At the Theakston’s Crime Festival last summer when we were giving away proofs we asked people what they’d do in that situation – most opted to take the cash! Make of that what you will…
PB: So, I know you’ll be busy with The Burning Men which has introduced DI Alex Finn and DC Maddie but this is the opener for a new series can you tell us anything about their next case, the future?
WS: Well… if the theme driving The Burning Men is guilt, then I’d say the best word to describe the next book would be choices…
PB: Are you a crime fiction fan? Who are you reading at the moment and is there a book that you would recommend to NB readers?
WS: Yes – crime novels have always been a passion. I’m currently reading (and loving) Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton. And it feels very unfair to pick out one book to recommend – but last year two that I read (yes, two – I’m cheating) and I thought fabulous were The Poison Garden by Alex Marwood and The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor.
PB: What’s it like being a journalist answering questions instead of asking them?
WS: Ha! Definitely think I’m better at asking them….
The Burning Men by Will Shindler
Hodder & Stoughton 9781529301694 hbk Feb 2020