First do no harm

Candy Denman

A portrait of medical crime fiction author, Candy Denman

by publisher, Erik Empson

I meet Candy after several other appointments, having driven up and down the M1 a couple of times and added to London’s congestion some. I am welcomed into her comfortable St. Albans home; so comfortable, in fact, that after sitting on one of those sofas that seem to swallow you up and suspend you mid-air, our conversation takes on a dream-like quality.

I apologise for my fatigue but Candy puts me at ease and our meeting passes so quickly and the talk passes so smoothly that I do wonder whether the ex-nurse has slipped something into my tea. There is a lot that I want to hear from her. For several years she wrote for TV, penning some of the most popular episodes for The Bill, Doctors, and Heartbeat. I wonder why she stopped doing this. It was a mixture of wanting a new challenge and the TV executives losing their marbles it seems. She was perceived as being too old and they wanted younger writers. They can’t do that, I protest. No they can’t, but they did. Candy is not even old. TV’s loss, fiction’s gain, I think, because Candy has set herself to writing what is an original take on the crime genre.

Her books centre on Callie Hughes who is a GP and a police doctor. The latter is a role that is less common these days but still a feature of the criminal justice system. Police doctors visit people in custody who are unwell or need checking on but are also called to crime scenes to pronounce death or evaluate victims’ needs. By picking this role for her main protagonist, Candy has found a subject who has much day-to-day involvement with the police but little power or influence over their casework. Yet Callie Hughes is the kind of plucky intelligent woman who is not ready to let injustice go on during her watch, and when the police come up short she is ready to do a bit of investigating herself. Candy explains that her character is inspired by the many female medical practitioners she has met over the years, but I’d wager there is more than a little of herself therein.

And certainly the intelligence of Dr Callie Hughes reflects that of her creator. Readers like books with characters who are familiar to them, as much as publishers do. They like not having to do the work of getting to know a whole group of people only for them to disappear, never to return. But at the same time, that often leads writers to give their prime movers typical institutional roles – it is a lot more credible that a cop will have a series of different murder cases to deal with than Joe Bloggs. Writers perhaps want to write about how ordinary people deal with situations, but Joe Bloggs can’t seemingly get involved in so many murders on his street without stretching plausibility. By being connected to the police in her daily role, but outside of their powers, Candy’s police doctor creation manages to straddle both.

The themes and plot lines that she picks, whether illegal immigrants found dead in the channel, a prostitute whose death is dismissed by the police, a disturbed youngster who is framed, are often those of people on the margins of society whose stories need telling. She carefully weaves their lives into our own, showing how intrinsically events are connected and how injustice ultimately affects us all. The medical slant provides a novel angle that allows her to explore the deficiencies within policing, and how it is often only thanks to the efforts of people brave enough to stick their neck out and call out malpractice that change can be made.

HMS Cumberland, Candy Denman’s father’s first ship

Clearly Candy’s medical experience allows her to lend much authenticity to these stories. And when she doesn’t know something, she has more than enough professional contacts to check her facts. We meet at a time when COVID is still a serious issue and talk about vaccinations. The latter are a cornerstone of modern medicine. We both find the notion of NHS staff being resistant to taking a vaccine as antithetical to the principles of the profession and its duty of care to the patient. But we also talk about how much, over the years, the NHS has been bolstered by excellence of staff from overseas and how without that, it would have been a less effective force.

Candy exudes such a quiet dignified confidence that I wanted to explore her background a little. On her shelf is a picture of a stately looking gentleman in a navy officer’s uniform. It is a picture of her father. I discover that he had a distinguished career in the Admiralty after serving as an officer on big-hitting ships during the Second World War. I can barely contain my glee when Candy details the boats he was on: HMS Cumberland, HMS King George V, and HMS Ajax are a veritable hall of fame. Unfortunately, like many of his generation he seldom spoke about his wartime experiences. However understandable, this is regrettable because from protecting the Arctic convoys, to supplying Malta and supporting the invasion of Italy, those ships – the King George V was involved in the sinking of the Bismarck – played a pivotal role.

Perhaps having four daughters didn’t help her father open up. Candy jokingly recounts how he would bemoan that even the dog in their house was female – he didn’t use that term, but I can’t repeat the one he apparently chose – hence outnumbered and probably outgunned, he would retreat to his study.

If when growing up Candy stayed distant from the shadow cast upon us by the war, she did not fully exit its embrace. When she was at nursing college she met her husband, Bob, a medic in the RAF, who was working there at the time. They have been together ever since and during her writing career he has acted as a sounding board for her ideas. Like many of the writers I meet, their families are often the unseen supports of the process, the mentions in the acknowledgements perhaps never quite reflecting their patience for what is inevitably much a solitary pursuit. I spy the writer’s studio in the garden, but this I quickly surmise is way out of bounds.

My overriding impression of Candy is one of calm and collectedness. Even though writers for TV are not often in the limelight, this suited her. She enjoyed being on set and getting involved in shaping the stories, in the case of Doctors she was central from the outset, but was also happy for directors to take them in different directions – in one case on The Bill changing the gender of a main character.

The author doesn’t have anything to prove, and for that reason her novels can explore new ground whilst delivering on what readers often want – a world of danger that ends when they read the final page, justice delivered. But she does have an axe to grind. And that is one of putting the struggles of women in a man’s world at the heart of her fiction. One does not have to look far to see the unfairness entrenched in society, and that is putting it somewhat mildly. Whereas TV is pretty slow to deliver in this respect, the impact of fiction can be powerful and immediate. I sense that with this new freedom, and responsibility, Candy is only just getting started.

Candy has so far written five books in the Dr Callie Hughes mystery series. The first three are collected in a box set on Kindle and are currently available to download for just 99p. Visit her author page for links to all of her books, on Kindle and in paperback.

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