A portrait of author Ray Clark
by publisher Erik Empson
I know I’ll get on well with Ray as soon as I discover that, like me, he is holding out against getting a smartphone. This puts him in the self-elected class of the socially disadvantaged where achieving small things like buying a parking ticket or collecting a parcel become near impossible. Ray is old school. But don’t woe him, or me. The stuff we used to use wasn’t broken, it was in some ways much better than what we have today. It still works despite efforts to make it obsolete. Perhaps a bit like Ray. He has only just upgraded to Windows XP!
The author is someone who exudes a quiet self-confidence and has a clear idea of where he wants to be. He surprises me somewhat when he says writing is his primary passion because I know he is also a talented singer and guitarist, and I’d assumed that’s where he saw his true calling. Writing is something of a solitary, often unrecognised, pursuit that can be done in pyjamas whereas Ray looks good in the limelight – he dresses dapper, and is probably one of those guys who wake up looking good and never seem to age.
He lives alone with few distractions other than a cat, and three other neighbour’s cats who clearly feel comfortable around him especially at mealtimes, and is very much focused. His working life has switched back and forth from full-time entertainment roles to that being put on the backburner for shifts within the motor industry. Now he has resisted efforts by his boss to work more than part time, as he knows clearly what he wants to do with his days. This would appear to be write, sing, write, sing, eat occasionally, write, sing…
We decide to meet in Leeds as that is where his seven-book series of murder mysteries featuring Detective Inspector Stewart Gardener is set. He actually hails originally from Hull and moved to Goole at twenty-five where he has lived ever since. Work used to take him to Leeds and it was whilst having lunch there that he decided it was the right location for his books. Leeds today is quite an impressive place. If in the past it was one of the poorer British cities, now it looks increasingly upmarket. There is an abundance of swanky eateries and bars all vying for the business of people who flock there. It is a busy place. It has retained some of the redbrick industrial architecture from its past but today you are more likely to get a daquiri than a stamp from what was the huge general post office, and check out a hangover from one of its libraries.
Some of these juxtapositions make it a great place to set a crime fiction series. And the visible contradictions weave their way into Ray’s novels. In the first book, not giving anything away as it happens on the first pages, the cop protagonist’s wife is shot and dies in his arms. Not a great advert for the city’s image but if you want to be the London of the north, you’ll have to take the good with the bad. As we follow Gardener on his hunt for the killer, throughout the books we enter into its residual darkness. Lurking and festering in the shadows is a certain depravity. Santa Clauses working in the grottos have dirty secrets. Visitors to the Leeds Grand Theatre get more than billed when a man is found dead hanging from the stage. Creeps find creepy ways to do away with other creeps.
Why so dark, dude? Ray explains that when his grandmother used to come to stay, she had a liberal attitude to what he could watch on television. So whilst his schoolmates were getting their brains mashed by Blue Peter he was staying up late, watching horror films and absorbing the gory detail. It is not so much that violence is normalised for Ray, he has a kind of fascination for it, which contrasts with his warm, open demeanour and no-nonsense say-it-like-it-is northern candour. The greatest literary influence on him by far has been Graham Masterton whose debut novel, The Manitou, is about a malignant spirit avenging white folk for their treatment of Native Americans.
He confesses to wanting to emulate some of these themes in his books, but one can also see – in the warm relationship Gardener has with his son, and fondness and respect for his father – that he held back from stepping into the horror genre. We’ve advertised his books in ways such as “a murder mystery with a slice of horror” because readers should be warned that there are some stomach-churning moments, but they don’t stray far enough out of the meter for the violence to really take centre stage.
Ray’s fascination with Masterton led to his first serious foray into writing, with a book about him published with an introduction by Peter James. And although for the last few years Ray has concentrated on his police procedural fiction, he has also penned two supernatural thrillers which we are currently considering publishing.
Absence of smartphone notwithstanding, Ray is a resourceful person. A trained mechanic, he learned guitar by swapping lessons for fixing a guy’s car. Now, he has accumulated a group of advisors – a working detective, a chemist and others – who help him get the facts straight about the various devilish ways the murders take place in his books. They are all possible, if not probable, and if you like your literary steak raw and bloody, if not gruesome, his books are for you.
We drop back into griping about the modern world now and then during the conversation. I am curious about the motor trade and how it lends itself to writing. Some jobs where you can do things by rote, lend themselves to the mind wandering and lingering in the arcane. Ray explains how Goole has for a long time been a crucial part of the transport industry, and continues to be so with the recent arrival of a big contract for Siemens to produce passenger trains there. He is comfortable in this world which retains its strong links to the industrial past, and he does seem slightly disorientated by the fast-changing layout of inner-city Leeds and bemused that before long he’ll need an app to get around it. I guess one of the joys of being a writer is casting the world exactly as you would have it.
It’s always been a concern of mine how, with the advent of the digital revolution, the basic realities of interpersonal conduct are affected. We might bump into people more often, but that is because people have their face in their phones, ambling aimlessly down the street, and real random encounters are less frequent. The collateral effect seems to be that exchanging the time of day, or a banal observation about the weather, which may in the past have been an opening for a more profound engagement, has now de facto vanished. How could it not? I remember walking to school at a pace that I could continue reading whatever book I had in hand. And often when travelling, I find myself in a pub with a book for company. But rarely will I pass time in such a way without someone asking me what I am reading. Whoever asks a stranger what they’re doing on their phone? Something private is going on in public, but it stops there.
People like Ray suffer most from this development because they are naturally affable and enjoy sharing their experiences. Yet I can’t help thinking that the heightened sensitivity to the world around him unincumbered by being constantly on the internet, allows him to step out of his bubble and pick up on the nuances of what is going on around him. With characteristic verve he has become involved with a charity organisation to raise awareness about oesophageal cancer. No doubt they have an app or two also, but he has thrown himself into organising gigs to raise funds and has quite selflessly picked up this gauntlet where those who should be carrying it, namely public health services, have fallen short.
We leave the bar where we’ve met, Ray nursing a single drink all evening because he is driving. Given his scepticism about modern technology, I half expected a horse drawn carriage with a headless driver to be waiting for him, but he gets into a thoroughly modern car deserving of the day job. I wonder if he’ll find his way home out of the city as I wander back into the centre. Despite the modern architecture, Leeds is full of dingy alleys and hidden places, just waiting for another dark crime. I hurry on, mildly safer in the knowledge that the worst of them will probably happen on the pages of Ray’s next tome, rather than to me that night!
A full list of Ray’s books published with us can be found on his author page here.