Return of the King of ‘Yarmouth Noir’
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Norfolk author Henry Sutton is about to publish the second in his acclaimed 'Yarmouth Noir' crime thrillers. Daniel Bardsley caught up with him.
The Norwich-based crime writer Henry Sutton is more interested in the people who commit crimes than in those who try to solve them.
So his novels set in Great Yarmouth focus on the town's murky – and sometimes bloody – underworld, rather than on the detectives who pick up the pieces.
'There's very little crime fiction told from the perspective of criminals,' said Henry in his book-filled office at the University of East Anglia, where he works as a senior lecturer in creative writing.
'And I wanted to write about a crime family. I wanted a matriarch. I'm bored with male-dominated crime fiction.'
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So taking centre stage is Tatty, a feisty widowed mother-of-three who is stepping up to the challenge of replacing her late and unlamented husband, Rich, at the top of Yarmouth's underworld after his sudden death.
There's also her loyal henchman, Frank, her husband's former right-hand man, who is a hardcore bruiser as well as being gay.
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And there are plenty of other assorted criminal allies and rivals keen to seize the opportunities created by the vacuum left by Rich's absence.
In researching this series, Henry picked the brains of a barrister who had defended a number of notorious criminals. This lawyer provided useful nuggets of information, in particular telling Henry that those like Tatty and Frank, in not fitting the gangster stereotype, 'have to be tougher and more determined than anyone else' to survive.
It fits Henry's pattern of writing about people who are 'in the wrong place' and 'trying to understand who they are'.
'All of my characters have never really belonged anywhere,' he said.
The first of what will be a trilogy of crime books by Henry set in Yarmouth (and published under the pseudonym Harry Brett) was Time to Win, which garnered much praise from professional critics and crime fiction fans alike after its release last year. Dubbed, 'The Godfather in Great Yarmouth,' by Ian Rankin, it has just come out in paperback.
Later this month, the second book, Red Hot Front, is launched and has more than enough action – including multiple violent deaths – to keep readers hooked.
While Henry has worked hard to create characters who will strike a chord with readers, Yarmouth itself takes equal star billing. There is probably no one better able to write about the town than Henry, who spent the first seven years of his life in neighbouring Gorleston before his family moved to Norwich.
'I feel I can write about Yarmouth – my great-grandfather's business was centred there. He was a trawlerman who ended up running a fishing empire. He had a big fleet, [but] he lost everything in the Second World War,' said Henry, 54, a father-of-three who is married to a UEA academic.
So significant a figure to Yarmouth was Henry's great-grandfather that, to this day, there is a street in the town named after him – Sutton Road.
While Henry has strong links to Yarmouth, as a crime writer he did not want to sanitise the town: Time to Win and Red Hot Front depict it as a place where rival crime gangs battle for supremacy with often lethal results. Those in the know have indicated that his depiction is not unrealistic.
'A number of people have come up to me, a couple of ex-police, to say, 'Yes, I get this. I see these characters.' They may've been being nice. No one has come up to me and said, 'Yarmouth isn't like this,'' he said.
'Yarmouth is a town that has a certain amount of deprivation … It's got some extraordinary things and some bleak things.
'If you look at the statistics in relation to crime and mental health and drug abuse, Yarmouth doesn't do very well. That shouldn't be forgotten. My criminal family want to address this. They might be addressing it by ill-gotten gains.'
Henry's interest in crime writing pre-dates his gritty Yarmouth thrillers.
His last book before he started the trilogy was My Criminal World, a witty and enjoyable volume about a novelist with remarkable similarities to Henry who is struggling to write a crime novel while becoming paranoid about what his wife is up to. With this, his ninth novel, he was 'moving towards aspects of crime fiction', a genre he has 'always enjoyed'.
'It does things literary fiction doesn't sometimes do. It has very strong stories, dramatic stories about life and death, things that are really important,' he said.
'It's a skill to make a novel entertaining and suspenseful. A lot comes down to structure and craft.'
Also, Henry is a founder of Noirwich, the crime writing festival, and director of the crime writing version of the UEA's celebrated MA in creative writing.
He concedes there 'used to be' snobbery about crime fiction, but says his efforts are about trying to change that. Good crime writing is 'as good as any writing'.
'UEA takes it very seriously, which I'm extremely pleased about. It's very important to me it's studied properly at university and people understand why it works and creative writers are given the opportunity to … express themselves in the genre,' he said. 'The other thing which is important is that it translates well to the small screen and large screen, not just through adaptation, but through original dramas.'
Indeed Henry would like to see East Anglia given a bit more attention when it comes to crime drama.
'What we want is a big Norfolk TV crime drama; we're waiting for that. We've got the locations. I'm surprised something hasn't been set here yet,' he said.
Henry's journey to becoming a crime writer has been long and varied. Early in his career he worked as a journalist for ECN, which became Archant, before moving to London to work on business magazines. He went on to become travel editor of The European newspaper, literary editor of Esquire magazine and books editor of the Daily Mirror, where he was in charge of serialisations.
But while he enjoyed working as a journalist – especially when he was jetting all over the world – it was never his true calling.
'I had always wanted to be a writer and a writer of fiction. It seemed to me that journalism was a good way of doing that,' he said.
His first book, Gorleston, set in the town he comes from, was released in 1995, when he was in his early 30s.
Among the novels that followed was the extraordinary Flying, which was inspired by Henry's time as a travel journalist. It dissected the lives of the pilots and cabin crew on a return transatlantic trip and was designed to be read on just such a return journey, with the second part slightly shorter than the first to account for the differences in flight time between the outward and inward legs.
'I wish I had known what I know now 30 years ago, 20 years ago. There's a lot of accumulated knowledge, but nevertheless I don't regret anything I've written. I wouldn't be where I am without writing the other books,' he said.
Now, with nearly a dozen books under his belt, Henry says he is 'lucky I'm still published', knowing that many of his contemporaries are less fortunate.
'It gets harder as you get older unless you're having big successes. Publishers look at book sales. In many ways it's a lot easier being a debut novelist than a novelist who's written a certain number of books,' he said.
'That's not a good thing [although] it's good for young writers. Part of what I do at the UEA is supporting new writers.'
Henry is busy finishing the third book in his Yarmouth trilogy, aiming to have it completed in June or July.
He tries to write at least 500 words a day, working daily between 6am and 9am in the study of his Norwich home.
'When I'm behind schedule I will get up at 5, but I will go to bed quite early. It's really hard writing a novel. It doesn't get any easier,' he said.
Red Hot Front by Harry Brett is published by Little, Brown at £18.99