Supping with the devil

Denver Murphy author and teacher

A portrait of author and teacher, Denver Murphy

by publisher, Erik Empson

For an involved father and a schoolteacher, it was almost inevitable that our conversation, after we settled in a hotel bar, should move quickly on to the world of secondary school education and parenting. Denver Murphy quickly gives me a low down on the most recent challenges in this topsy-turvy world. With a barely concealed horror, I recoil at the various conundrums you face from inside as a teacher and outside the profession as a parent.

I guess Denver quickly puts my mind in focus of the frustrations of a suburban pragmatism. The dilemmas of moving here or there, the merits of schools, the juggling of work and life decisions. All the first world problems that we need to vent about. Intelligent and sensitive, the author is saving me time as I need to see that in order to understand him. Because it is out of that psychosis of daily life whence came one of his creations: the most startling and memorable villains I have encountered in recent crime fiction.

When you see a truly good thing you need to understand what brought it to life. And if life on earth arose in the vent of some seething volcanic cauldron, miles under the ocean millions and millions of years ago, then this is the closest I might get to seeing its equivalent in a writer’s mind.

Denver’s first creation, cop turned serial-killer DCI Jeffrey Brandt, is truly atrocious. He has become increasingly disillusioned with police work. His moral compass has not gone haywire, it has ceased to work and come to rest facing a southernly direction. It points to a journey into the depths of disdain and resentment. It regresses into dark regions because in Brandt’s psyche nothing positive sees the light of day.

As a villain, Brandt is demonic. He contains all of our projected fears. Especially the peculiar one about how living a safe and proper life might gradually lead to an unveiling of some inner psychopath in ourselves. Unrecognised and bitter he turns on the society he has serviced. Perhaps one of the wonders of Brandt as a creation is, for anyone likely to have done any existential self-examination at least, how human that potential is and how much energy humans spend supressing it.

In Brandt, Denver managed to distil delicately chosen perversities of the modern age. The insecurity we all have about playing by the rules whilst being suspicious that everyone else may be on the take. The misplaced self-belief, our capacity to think cruelly, our deviousness – all when acting within these rules. Brandt’s first act of liberation, he more or less randomly stabs a woman in the street, is an act of purely selfish pleasure taken at the expense of another. It is the act of a man who has been sucked dry of goodness, or exhausted it, or who has discovered it was only a pretence.

I have no doubt Denver had fun with this character, within whose narcissistic indifference lies a sheer potential for violence only moderated by his obsession with not getting caught, but it also gave him the opportunity to explore the riposte to this descent into the abyss in the form of the woman detective Stella Johnson tasked with equalling him mentally and outwitting him on the ground. We called this trilogy Cat and Mouse. But it is up to the reader to find out who is the cat and who is the mouse.

If I dwell on Denver’s first series it is only because as a Faustian tragedy it sums up, in an exaggerated way, the author’s own misgivings about where his life is heading. He is torn between a good teaching job, which he finds unrewarding, and committing to full time crime writing – or indeed something entirely different.

The teaching profession does not lend itself to ambitious people. The job is an end in itself. Denver peaked early becoming one of the youngest deputy heads in his region. What lurks beyond that? The next step, being a headteacher, is a world quite far removed from teaching.

Having explored writing fiction and discovering that he is in fact extremely good at it, Denver is battling with the dangers of leaving the safe embrace of what he knows and putting it all into writing. He is a time bomb. Explosive because packed with energy. Churning, brewing, concocting. He is an artisan writer, he enjoys getting it just right.

Yet he is endlessly dissatisfied, concerned he has overestimated himself. Troubled he has underestimated himself. But not quite. It’s not that Denver isn’t comfortable. It’s just that he is uncomfortable with being comfortable. Scared it was all too easy, that life should have been something else.

Will crime fiction meet Denver’s need to now create his own rules? He will perhaps be happier when he is the true author of his success. But doing that would require a demonic move, one that pounced on the very things we take for granted, such as our measure of success. He wants the big bucks from being a household name – he could do it – yet is nervous about the kind of commitment that would require. He dreams of a classic car collection, but also likes the idea of trading such cars.

People come to writing for different reasons. And they are all valid. But writing great books is an end in itself. And authors who have made that leap often don’t get tripped up on their other aspirations, but see them as additional positives. Denver is frustrated, but not by the absence of options.

Our conversation which wriggled around the innards of our respective industries, was thorough. I feel my enthusiasm for Denver’s writing added to his quandary. We head out to the car park to look at the converted van we’ve been shuffling about in and talk cars for a bit. We’ve met on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. I am probably at odds with the majority of the population because I am endlessly fascinated by the city. It is a place one can understand. And also one that has inspired its very own special kind of demon.

Denver shoots off, in his wife’s car, to pick up his kid from school. I head to London thinking most good stories don’t start with, “I wish I’d never left my dull and uninspiring, unnecessarily complicated, bureaucratic and unrewarding career in teaching”. Or do they?

Denver Murphy’s DCI Brandt trilogy starts with the book One Step Ahead. It is available in the collected version Cat and Mouse. His second crime fiction series, the four books featuring DC Ruby Knight begins with The Deep End and is available in the collected version Serious Crime.

For links to these books visit the author’s page here.

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