World's leading thriller writers share inspirations behind their much-loved sleuths


Harrogate festival

Adrian McKinty’s The Chain was crowned crime novel of the year in 2020’s online Harrogate festival (Image: PR)


THE image came first before the character.A paragraph came into my head while I was staring at a blank computer screen: Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns.A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship.The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the afterlife.And all this through a lens of oleaginous Belfast rain. My next thought was who is watching this and when? I began to piece together the character of a jaded 30-year-old Catholic policeman in the largely Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary. I called him Sean Duffy and put him in the house where I was born and grew up: 113 Coronation Road, Carrickfergus, during the Hunger Strikes of 1981.The rest of his character was easy. I’d give him a personality that would generate the most friction with his neighbours.And thus he became a sarcastic, bohemian hipster, music-loving Catholic cop because I knew that would give me the most material in Protestant, Bible-mad Carrick. I knew he and his colleagues and neighbours could come to understand each other and that would be fun. 

  • Adrian McKinty’s The Chain was crowned crime novel of the year in 2020’s online Harrogate festival. He is currently working on his seventh Sean Duffy thriller, The Detective Up Late.


Saima Mir

Saima Mir’s debut thriller The Khan is out now (Image: NC)

WHILE Jia Khan is not a detective, she is the one to find her father’s killer in my book,The Khan.A controlled woman, with a mind like quicksilver, her foresight gives her an edge and her cool, calm exterior allows her to navigate the two cultures that she has straddled since birth.As a British woman of Pakistani heritage this is no mean feat, but one that she pulls off with style. She is an independentminded, Oxbridge-educated barrister, and the estranged daughter of criminal kingpin Akbar Khan.When he is killed, and her brother kidnapped, she finds herself drawn back into the underworld, having to answer to, and appease,The Jirga – her father’s men. She does this in order to save her sibling, and maintain the family business, and she manages to keep her head throughout. Jia is inspired by every brilliant, smart, and savvy woman I have ever met.Women who navigate the world of patriarchy, family, and loyalty and still manage to achieve everything men do and more.


Harper Collins

Karin Slaughter’s False Witness is out now via Harper Collins (Image: PA)

WHEN I first started thinking about my detective Will Trent, my main goal was to make him different from the men in my previous Grant County series. I needed him to be physically different, so I gave him sandy blonde hair, but I was worried a lot of men with lighter coloured hair end up losing it.Then I had breakfast with Lee Child and realised Lee still had a full head of hair so I figuredWill would be safe.As far asWill’s personality goes, he is only self-confident about one thing: his job.Will is a very good detective because he understands why criminals do bad things. Part of this understanding comes from the fact he was a criminal himself in his early life. Fortunately, he managed to pull himself away from that, but he uses those lessons when he’s tracking down bad guys.A lot of readers findWill very sexy. And that is usually because I gave him a superpower. At his very core,WillTrent is a man who listens to, and respects, women.


Vaseem Khan

Vaseem Khan’s new thriller The Dying Day is published by Hodder (Image: NC)

CRIME fiction can transport us to new worlds, teaching us something about the society we live in. My character Persis Wadia, operating in 1950s Bombay, is India’s first female police detective. Tenacious, intelligent, and ruthlessly single-minded, I created her to give voice to women in an intensely patriarchal society at a time when Indian women were expected to be demure and obliging. Persis is neither.As the lone woman on the Bombay force, she’s consigned to the city’s smallest station, Malabar House, with a gang of fellow “undesirables”. India in 1950 is still reeling from independence, Gandhi’s assassination, and the horrors of Partition.Yet Bombay remains cosmopolitan, India’s city of dreams, where nightmares take root. In Midnight at Malabar House, Persis took on a murder case and tested the limits of her position. In The Dying Day, as she tackles cryptic codes and Nazis, we see her come into her own. 

  • Vaseem Khan’s new PersisWadia thriller, The Dying Day, is published by Hodder today


Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves’ new Matthew Venn novel the Heron’s Cry is published by Pan Macmillan (Image: Kirsty O’Connor)

VERA Stanhope grew out of late summer walks through the Northumberland countryside. My books often develop this way. Vera reminds me of the formidable spinsters I knew when I was a child. I was born in the mid-fifties and there were women who’d been given roles and responsibilities during the war, which would have seemed impossible a decade earlier.They went on to be authority figures: teachers, childcare workers, hospital matrons. They’d decided they’d rather be single than housewives. I didn’t see Brenda Blethyn, who has played her on screen since 2011, in my head during those walks. My Vera was bigger, odder to look at, less appealing. She still is, though it is Brenda’s voice in my head when I’m writing and she captures the essence of my detective chief inspector in the fictional Northumberland and City Police.TheTV series happened by chance. My first Vera book, The Crow Trap, was published in 1999 and I still needed a day job to survive. Then a copy was picked up for a holiday read from a north London Oxfam shop by a woman heading off to Spain. Nothing unusual about that, except Elaine Collins was an executive for ITV Studios and looking for a series with a strong female lead to adapt for the popular Sunday night drama slot. She went on to produce both Vera and my Shetland series and I still think of her as my fairy godmother.

  • Ann Cleeves will be interviewed by Steph McGovern on July 23 at the Theakston Old Peculier CrimeWriting Festival. Her new MatthewVenn novel The Heron’s Cry is published on September 2 by Pan Macmillan.


The Great Silence

Doug Johnstone’s new Skelfs book is called The Great Silence (Image: Roberto Ricciuti)

THE Skelfs are three generations of women who take over a funeral director’s and a private investigator’s business in Edinburgh when the patriarch of the family dies. Now the head of the family, matriarch Dorothy, 70, is trying to find a way forward through her grief. She was raised in California but has lived in Edinburgh for 50 years, plays drums and has a hippy outlook on the world. Her daughter Jenny is 45, divorced and jobless and she moves back into the family home. She’s jaded and cynical, but gradually grows closer to her mum. Her daughter Hannah, 20, studies physics and struggles with her mental health.They look out for each other, bury the dead, care for the bereaved and solve mysteries that crop up. Starting from book one,A Dark Matter, I’ve thrown loads of my own experience into the three women, from Dorothy’s drumming to Hannah’s physics to Jenny’s Gen X attitude. I was also writer in residence at a funeral director’s, which was partly my inspiration. But really the Skelfs books are about how we relate across generations and how we connect to each other.

  • Doug Johnstone’s new Skelfs book, The Great Silence, is published by Orenda on August 19


The Last Thing To Burn

Will Dean’s standalone novel, The Last Thing To Burn, is out now (Image: NC)

TUVA Moodyson is funnier than I am.Tougher. Braver. She came to me like a thunderbolt back in 2015. In my mind’s eye I saw her driving a big pick-up truck through a Swedish elk forest. She was wearing hearing aids. Through writing my debut, Dark Pines, I came to understand her as an outsider.A deaf, naturefearing, outspoken, fiercely-loyal journalist.Tuva’s private life is complex, and she’s guarded. She finds comfort and support in her work, tirelessly writing the stories of victims, and the people they leave behind.The trouble with small town

Gavrik – the Nordic equivalent of Twin Peaks – is that danger is everywhere. Wolves, bears, hunters, blizzards, but also isolated communities and eccentric characters. In my next book, Bad Apples, Tuva finds herself at the centre of a cultish hilltop community during Halloween. I managed to scare even myself writing this one. Be warned.

Will Dean’s standalone novel, The Last Thing To Burn, is out now. Will’s new Tuva Moodyson thriller Bad Apples is due in the autumn


Ian Rankin

A Song For The Dark Times by Ian Rankin is out now in paperback (Image: Roberto Ricciuti / Getty )

I’M NOT sure where Detective Inspector John Rebus came from.Well, he came from inside my head. I was 25 years old and studying literature at the University of Edinburgh. I wanted to write a contemporary gothic story, something that would connect the world of Jekyll and Hyde (a book I was obsessed with) to the current day. I also wanted to write about my home city, and I realised that a detective meant I could include all the different layers of society, from those at the top to those at the bottom of the pile.As a cop, Rebus would deal with all of them. His name means “puzzle” and he would solve crimes in order to stop him thinking too much about the puzzles and failures in his personal life. He was only meant to exist for the span of a single book, Knots and Crosses, but he burrowed deep into my brain.We’ve been together now for more than 30 years – he’s been played on television by John Hannah and Ken Stott – and he still intrigues and surprises me. I enjoy watching him explore the landscape of retirement and trying to make himself useful in the hope he still has a role to play and mysteries to unravel.

A Song For The Dark Times by Ian Rankin is out now in paperback. Ian curates the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate from July 22

The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival takes place from July 22 to 25 at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, with special guests including Mark Billingham, Elly Griffiths, Richard Osman and Mick Herron. For more information and bookings, visit


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