On a windswept, wintry beach overlooking Bamburgh Castle a dog walker makes a grizzly find – a body, dressed in old-style clothing, buried in a shallow grave beneath the sands.
It represents a macabre puzzle for Detective Chief Inspector Kate Daniels and her murder investigation team.
All of which seems a world away from the cozy Corbridge kitchen in which I find author Mari Hannah on a sunny November morning.
It’s been something of a whirlwind 18 months for Northumberland’s newest mistress of murder fiction, with four books – The Murder Wall, Settled Blood, Deadly Deceit and now Monument to Murder, which brings darkness to the doorstep one of Northumberland’s most recognisable landmarks – released in only a short space of time, along with awards success and even a seemingly successful crack at America.
“The last two years have been amazing but totally exhausting,” said Mari, whose first novel last week picked up the Polari First Book Prize – an award for poetry, prose, fiction or non-fiction published in the UK in English that explores the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) experience.
Yet to pigeonhole the Kate Daniels novels as simply being about a lesbian detective working for Northumbria Police would do something of a disservice to what is fast becoming one of the most popular series set in the region.
A conflicted individual torn between professional ambition and a relationship with an ex-partner with whom she’s still very much in love, the character’s sexuality is just a background note to the meat of the books – the film-like crime plots and the wonderful locations drawn from Newcastle and the surrounding area which are hooking readers both at home and abroad. “People who’ve read them tend to stick with the series and I’m getting a bit of a name now for being the person who most depicts this area,” said Mari, who is about to submit her fifth book to publisher Pan Macmillan and is already 40,000 words into writing her sixth – Blood Legend.
“This area gives writers such a lot of inspiration and it means I can ring the changes and go to different locations with each book.
“Monument to Murder is on the coast, while Deadly Deceit was predominantly in the city, and it means that readers don’t get bored of seeing the same locations time and again.
“I know people look down on writers who write in a ‘touristy’ way, but I think having a large area is all the better.
“People are lovely because I try and get out and visit places and see them and talk to people in shops and pubs and really get a feel for the places I’m writing about.
“There’s no substitute for first-hand experience because you see and hear and smell it.
“I’ve just spent a week at Dunstanburgh with its castle and the Ship Inn at Low Newton nearby. It’s stunning and there’s nobody there.
“Every time I go to Low Newton it’s stunning. It’s a real joy to visit because it’s just 100 yards from the car park, across the golf course and then you can just head off.”
I put it to Mari that there’s more than a little of herself in her main protagonist, with Monument to Murder echoing similar sentiments about the virtues of the Northumberland coast.
“I suppose Kate is loosely based on Mo (Mari’s civil partner and a former murder squad detective), and I suppose Jo (Kate’s love interest) is loosely based around me. I had that kind of psychology/law background in the probation service.
“Many people ask who I’d want to see playing Kate and I think I could see Jill Halfpenny really fitting the bill. I’d like it to be a local actress if it made it on to TV.”
That it’s possible to talk in terms of a transition to the screen so soon is a testament to how well the books have done.
“What I’m told is that people who maybe come in on the third book have gone back and, although they have read them the wrong way round, have been able to read all the books individually,” said Mari.
“I think people like a series that in every book give a little bit of the back story, as they are then curious about what went on before. And Kate and Jo’s story continues throughout.
“They’re a puzzle to solve but people really love them and I get lots of letters about them.
“The nice thing is that I also get letters from police and retired police and they say I’ve got things right.
“And more people keep coming out of the woodwork – including people I used to work with in the probation service who say ‘Are you that Mari Hannah?’.”
Such is the clamour for more of the series that, after a chance meeting with a Waterstones regional sales manager in a Hexham bookshop, the release of Monument to Murder was brought forward five months.
And a recent ebook release of the Murder Wall by publishing giant Harper Collins in America saw it peak at number 11 on the Barnes and Noble bestsellers list, with sales believed to be around 3,000 copies a week.
Settled Blood followed this month and Deadly Deceit will be out before Christmas.
Coupled with the Polari prize – a rather unexpected “outing” for the author, who had not even told her parents she was in a civil partnership – it all adds up to a remarkable achievement considering Mari almost gave up after numerous early rejections of her work.
“There’s a myth that I write quickly, but I don’t. It’s only that the books were available and I had to work hard editing them one after another,” she said.
“Eventually it will slow down to one a year because I can’t keep up the pressure.
“The last two years have been amazing but totally exhausting and I don’t want to burn myself out.
“I need time to sit back and regroup – otherwise where’s my inspiration going to come from?
“I still try to write every day. When I started out, as I’m a morning person, I thought I’d do my best work first thing. I’d wake up full of ideas – but now I’ve had to change.
“I still can’t write late in the day, and I do still like writing early in the morning, but I have to try not to look at emails and Twitter as I get sucked in.
“When I started out it was just me and the keyboard and my ideas and now it has become so much more.
“It’s lovely to be acknowledged but I could answer fan mail and tweets all day long.”
As the festive season approaches, Mari will be attending a number of events, including a Books on Tyne talk with Vera creator Ann Cleeves – whom she describes as “an inspiration” – at Newcastle City Library this Saturday at 11.30am and, with Hazel Osmond, a session called Love and Crime on the Tyne, at the library on Sunday at 12.30pm.
She’s also visiting Waterstones stores on a mini signing tour, taking in Newcastle, Morpeth, Hexham and Sunderland.
“I know I depict the area in a dark way but hopefully the brightness shines through,” she said.
“And I hope they read like a script. They’re out with various production companies and if there was a TV deal then that would be brilliant as it would bring a lot of jobs to the North East.
“I do try to ring the changes with the stories. The Murder Wall involved a serial killer, while Settled Blood was more one story about one guy. Deadly Deceit had two stories and then this one again – people know they’ll meet up somehow.”
But what of the future? Might it involve a break from Kate?
“I have an idea for another character that wouldn’t fit a Kate Daniels story, and that is kind of bubbling away.
“But I’ll write more of Kate – though I’ve no idea how long for. It all just depends on whether the public want me to continue.
“If I wasn’t a crime writer, though, I would love to write a children’s book. I couldn’t see myself doing anything like historical fiction as I like writing contemporary stuff, but children have a lot of imagination and they’re so full of quirky ideas .
“I’d love to tell them a story to make them laugh.”