Joining Val McDermid and Ann Cleeves is a new and distinct voice in crime fiction. David Whetstone hears Mari Hannah's extraordinary story.
THE sky is blue, the birds are singing in the budding trees and I’ve come to this tranquil corner of rural Northumberland to talk murder.
Mari (pronounce it to rhyme with starry) Hannah is smiling. As the latest crime writer from the region to set the publishing world alight, she’s up for that.
The lane behind the house, she tells me gleefully, is where miscreants used to be led to the gallows in days gone by. That’s only a coincidence, of course. But it’s a happy one. Mari’s debut crime novel, The Murder Wall, features deeds most foul, opening with the discovery of a dead priest and a girl in a Corbridge church, the latter arranged “like a macabre sacrifice”.
One of the truly thrilling things about Mari’s thriller is that – with the exception of the church, fictionalised as the Catholic St Camillus because she thought choosing St Andrew’s, real-life and C of E, would be a step too far – she is not afraid to use real North East place names.
You can follow the route taken by her heroine, Detective Chief Inspector Kate Daniels, as she drives around Tyneside and the Tyne Valley. The pizzeria at the end of my street even gets a name check, as does the deli not far away.
The Murder Wall has already been a hit in Germany – as Sein Zorn komme über uns – and was snapped up by Pan Macmillan (who also publish established North East crime writer Ann Cleeves) for a big launch in the United Kingdom.
Mari, who signed a three-book deal, will also have Settled Blood to promote soon. But already she’s on to the fourth book featuring Kate, an interesting character who, in The Murder Wall, makes her debut as senior investigating officer on a case which challenges her professional detachment and stirs painful memories.
It goes along at a considerable lick, its 450-plus pages divided into short, snappy chapters. If it seems to have the restless pace of a TV serial or film, that’s not surprising because Mari strove to get her story on screen before finally settling on a novel.
But to start at the beginning, Mari says she was born in London into an army family. Her dad, who was in the Coldstream Guards, was posted to Fenham Barracks in Newcastle when she was 15 and she remained in the area.
After graduating from Teesside Polytechnic, where she was sponsored by the Home Office, she joined the probation service in 1984, getting the insight into the world of crime that would later serve her well as a writer.
“I actually wanted to join the police, if I’m honest. But I had young children at the time and I couldn’t have done the shifts. My partner saw an advert in a newspaper for the probation service and I applied and was successful.
“My first job was in Byker but I also worked in Castington Prison (near Amble) for about three years. It’s very satisfying, as a probation officer, to work in a prison. I think I did some of my best work inside.
“After that I worked in community service for a short while and it was while I was there that this injury happened to me.”
Rolling up her sleeve, Mari shows me an eight inch scar running up her arm, legacy of an assault by a male prisoner she was supervising. It’s a permanent reminder of the dangers faced by those in her line of duty.
Maris says philosophically: “It did bring me to where I am now.”