It is not only the masters degree in creative writing from Manchester Metropolitan University which fuels James Ellson's literary abilities. His niche is the crime thriller, and his words drip with authenticity.
They do so because he is an ex cop who witnessed real life horror. As a night-duty Detective Inspector in Greater Manchester Police, he dealt with murder, shootings, and tragedy in the pressurised "golden hour" - the 60 minutes after an incident when the gathering of evidence could be the difference between someone getting caught or getting away with it.
He worked on the Stockport Division before switching to Moss Side where his workload was vast. At the time Manchester was gaining national notoriety for its gun crime. In 2007 there were 146 shootings across the region and the south side of the city was plagued by lethal feuds.
A glance at the Manchester Evening New s archives from 2009 and 2010 gives an indication of what he was dealing with. He was quoted after a 19-year-old man was shot in Fallowfield; teenage robbers threatened to shoot a female vicar in Stockport; and a gang of up to 30 masked youths dressed in black were intercepted by police as they carried out a sinister search for their target on an estate in Longsight.
James' professional desire to do a "perfect job" with every investigation and the nature of what he saw, "a lot of dead bodies", eventually took its toll. He suffered burn-out. He had a break-down and his impressive career as a cop - 10 years with the Met in London, and five years with GMP - was over.
He now has a dual life - as a writer and running a small holding in Derbyshire. But his days as a detective remain vivid in his memory and have been put to creative use .
This week his second novel "Cold Dawn" is published. It is a sequel to his first "The Trail" and again features DCI Rick Castle, based in south Manchester. The new book sees DI Castle "remove" a prisoner, Calix Coniston, from Strangeways in breach of all protocol. He needs him to entice "Hant Khetan" the officer's nemesis back from Nepal to the UK so he can arrest him on British soil.
Khetan is the FBI's most wanted in Southwest Asia and feared to be "the next Osama bin Laden". Getting the prisoner - a former associate of Khetan out of prison in Manchester is a key, and tense part of the plot. The mechanics of the process of being inside the jail to reach an inmate ring true.
The chapter is the foundation for the story. And Castle's boss warns him that if his "wild goose chase yields a golden egg" he will be branded a wonder cop. But if the prisoner escapes his career will conclude "in the central property store".
James said: "I went to Strangeways and other UK prisons a dozen or so times in my career. This was to interview prisoners, or, to ‘produce’ them, a procedure requiring much paperwork and restrictions. This means taking them out of prison and temporarily housing them in a police station, for purposes of interview, or to drive them past their scenes of crime to clarify their involvement.
"I was very familiar with this procedure. It’s always a nervy affair producing a prisoner, and there’s an enormous sense of relief to return them to prison without mishap." Ironically, in the novel the prisoner, Coniston, does escape.
James is an accomplished mountaineer, which also feeds the thriller. "I am a climber and mountaineer; notable ascents include soloing the Matterhorn, and climbing 6,800 metre Ama Dablam in Nepal, known as the ‘Matterhorn of the Himalaya’. I was almost sent to the Hindu Kush in Pakistan on a missing person enquiry while working for GMP. This was the spark that led to The Trail – and a plot centring on a missing person enquiry in Nepal.
"I was involved in countless operations involving OPs - Observation Points - buildings or vehicles used to surveil criminal targets. In Cold Dawn , Rick and his team spend some time in an OP."
He admits that he remains haunted by the aftermath of some of the incidents he had to deal with as a police officer. Three are forever embossed in his memory. "Two siblings falling from the tenth floor of a tower block. Their broken bodies lay on the pavement, entwined forever. A school headmaster found dead in his garage.
"An old man found in a bath, dead from old age. He lived in a small block of ten flats with a communal entrance and hallway. He’d been dead for six months."
He added: "I think most people in the job are haunted by their experiences. And that’s why Rick Castle is also haunted by deaths he’s dealt with. In Cold Dawn , the highlighted case in Rick’s backstory involves a father killing his wife and triplets, then turning the gun on himself. This is not a scenario I encountered during my service, but I dealt with deaths – murder, suicide, sudden – on a weekly, sometimes daily basis.
"I wrote the first draft of Cold Dawn five years ago, then completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Met Uni, a three-year course and subsequently rewrote almost every word. The plot remained more or less the same, although the ending change." He now writes something every day: "I like to stay in the ‘zone’, both in terms of writing in general, and if I’m writing a book, then staying in the head of the protagonist. So, for a while, I become DCI Rick Castle. And then for a while, I become the antagonist Calix Coniston.
"I write for a couple of hours before breakfast, then work on the smallholding during the day, we’ve got a few acres, keep chickens and bees, a veg garden, and lots of apple trees, and write for another couple of hours before dinner. It’s a good mix of the physical and the cerebral, and often when I’m scything or hoeing my beans, I mull my characters and my plots."
The opening pages of "Cold Dawn" sees DCI Castle tending to his bees in white smock and veil, talking to a fellow beekeeper, - his Superintendent in the force. Again the detail is forensic - culled from James' other life on the smallholding.
James said: "I even write on Christmas Day. Inspired by Daley Thompson, who trained twice on Christmas Day because he knew his competitors would only be training once. He has written a draft for his third book, with the working title of 'A Cold Summer'.
Now aged 51, his switch to the "Good Life" has born fruit in two ways: "Developing a smallholding over the last ten years – spending so much time outside and among trees – has helped me recover from my police career. Genetically, we are still hunter-gatherers, and most people most of the time are happier in green spaces. Taking ‘a walk in the country’ is a universal pick-me-up. It’s worked for me.
"I don’t have regrets about leaving, but I do sometimes miss the buzz of an early morning knock-on, or the satisfaction of identifying a new line of enquiry in a case. However, more than anything, I now feel privileged to have two careers, detective and writer."
His former career remains his inspiration however. "They say, write what you know. My police career gave me a language and a ready pool of stories to delve into as a writer. Stories that can generate large numbers of readers. As a former detective, as someone who has actually done it, I have a huge advantage in creating these stories.
"Also, what makes The Trail and Cold Dawn stand out is the real investigative technique. Detectives start an investigation by asking themselves four questions: What do I know? What are my hypotheses for what happened? What else do I need to know? How can I find the information I need.
"These four questions are taught on every SIO (Senior Investigating Officer) course in the country, and the developing hypotheses, form part of DCI Castle’s investigations."
When his first novel was published a nationwide tour to promote it was scrapped due to the pandemic. But he salvaged the situation with a classic police technique. He turned house to house inquiries into door to door sales.
"In February 2020 I launched my debut novel at Waterstones in Manchester, the first of 25 events in a countrywide book tour. However, the sudden emergence of Covid-19 scuppered the rest of the dates. A lot of people had far more serious things to worry about. Still, I was enormously disappointed. It had taken ten years for me to get my first book published, having started writing it soon after leaving Greater Manchester Police in 2010.
"When the book tour was cancelled, I tried all sorts of promotion. Articles in newspapers and magazines, social media, slots on the radio. I was interviewed by Becky Want for her show on Radio Manchester, and by the Reverend Richard Coles for Radio 4’s Saturday Live . Despite my efforts, sales were still slow.
"I then had a light-bulb idea: selling the book door-to-door. Not during lockdown – I was still an abider for the rules – but in the periods when the law was relaxed.
"I chose a Thursday, hoping people would be end-of-week buoyant but not out socialising. So, one afternoon, about 5pm, not too early so people would have finished work, not too late to avoid clashing with supper or bedtimes or suggest a strange person was calling, I knocked on my first door.
"The house was in a new estate on the outskirts of a local town. Newish cars sat on the drive, the homeowners doing well and used to spending money. At least, I hoped so. I was sweating into my shoes and my stomach was churning. I had no idea what to expect – dismissal, mockery, rudeness.
"I hoped at least for interest, and maybe, just maybe the occasional sale. Above all, I was intrigued as to whether my idea might work. I had my doubts, and hadn’t even told my wife because I thought she’d talk me out of it.
"Of course, I’d knocked on a lot of doors during my 15-year career as a police officer. ‘Knock-ons’ as they’re known in the job can be divided into two: attempts to arrest suspects, and house-to-house enquiries for witnesses.
"Fast forward 25 years, and I was knocking again. Not using the police method, but as if I was calling on a friend for a game of football. The door on the new estate opened. ‘Yes?’ ‘I’ve written a book, thought you might be interested.’ So far so good, the door still open, the woman not dismissive. ‘I used to be a police officer, finished at Moss Side. Really, Moss Side finished me.’
"There was a smile of recognition, understanding, empathy. Hairs rose on the back of my neck and I hadn’t even sold a copy. I pitched it. ‘It’s crime fiction – a missing person enquiry leads Manchester DCI Rick Castle to Nepal. A country I’ve visited many times for trekking and climbing. They say, write what you know.’ Another smile, and then– ‘I’ll have one.
"I kept knocking on doors, week after week, for five months. I upped my selling game. I sold an average of ten books, and once hit a purple patch of selling four books in five houses. My record for 90 minutes was 13.
"A couple of times I was chased down the street in a good way. Only a few people were brusque, and one person had Covid. The latter was delighted I’d called, so bored were they in isolation. I stood well back and conducted the transaction by taking turns at a window."
The choice of name of the detective in his novels, Rick Castle, is intriguing. When asked if he knows there is a real life Detective Sergeant Rick CASTLEY in GMP, currently serving with the Serious and Organised Crime Unit, he replies: "I do. I worked with him at Stockport – he was a brilliant detective."
Cold Dawn was published on August 18 It can be bought online and ordered from bookshops. The launch is at Manchester Waterstones (Deansgate) on September 8, 6.30 pm. James has a website at: https://jamesellson.com/
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