Andy Barrett has spent 20 years with Leeds Crime Scene Investigation but he’s also selling fiction books by the thousand. Interview by Neil Hudson
Mention the words Crime Scene Investigation and most people will probably think of the popular TV show. The TV drama is epitomised by dark, gritty, often gruesome storylines and riddled with brash, larger than life characters but ask West Yorkshire-based CSI officer Andy Barrett what the reality is like and he’ll tell you it’s very different.
“It sounds a lot more glamorous than it is,” says the 50-year-old father-of-three and part time author. “Most of the time, you are on your own. When you turn up at a crime scene, you have to put emotions to the side and look at the facts, you’re there to do a job, to find clues, so you have to be methodical and dispassionate. You effectively follow the perpetrator around the crime scene, looking where they went, searching for the clues they left.”
Piecing together crimes, which can include everything from cannabis farms to murders, wasn’t his first calling in life.
The youngest of three and son of a seamstress and a transport manager, he grew up on the outskirts of Leeds and attended Royds School, Oulton, before going on to study electrical and mechanical engineering at Kitson College, Leeds, after which he found himself working as a contractor for a firm building engines, which took him overseas.
“I worked in Kuwait,” he recalls. “I was there after the first invasion, just prior to the second. I remember one time we were driving out to an oil well near the border with Iraq and we got lost and drove too far. There were a lot of military about at that time but when we suddenly realised we were not in Kuwait any more but Iraq, we had to do a swift U-turn. But at the time, in my 20s, nothing really phased me.”
I’m constantly shocked and stunned by it. You can spend a year writing a book, slaving over it, worrying about it, making sure it’s all ok and then some of them will read it in a single day.Author and CSI officer Andy Barrett
His passion for writing didn’t surface until the mid-1980s.
“I remember reading a novel and thinking how bad it was and how I could probably do better myself and so I had a go. I wrote a book called Lord and Master, a dystopian horror. It was terrible. It will never see the light of day. It wasn’t until I joined the police in 1996 that I found my niche.”
Uncertainty over the future of his engineering job saw him to apply for a position advertised by West Yorkshire Police.
“There were 1,100 people went for the four posts available, so I consider myself very fortunate.
“The beauty of this job is every day is different. You never know what you will be dealing with: burglary, cannabis farms, suicides, assaults. You are dancing on your toes all the time.
“It can be upsetting. It’s something that you learn to handle, otherwise you fold up. There is a form of gallows humour associated with the job and that’s nothing to do with the scene you are dealing with or the people but more a coping mechanism. It’s not nice walking into a room full of blood and bits of corpse, you have to have a way of dealing with it.”
The career change was the creative spark which Andy needed to refocus his writing and after years of trying to get his work published, he decided to take the plunge and go it alone. Now, having just launched his seventh crime novel (the last one shifted over 100,000 copies) and with his work regularly featuring in the top five of Amazon’s charts, he’s more than happy with the results.
“If someone came to me and offered me £15m then of course, I would take it but for me at the moment, I don’t think I would go with a publisher, because then you are under pressure to write so many books a year and at the moment I cannot do that. Also, you do not get the royalties you do from self-publishing and there’s also the creative control over things like the cover, the distribution and so on.
“Anyone wanting to become a self-published author today who thinks that just writing the book is the hard part has to think again.”
His latest, Ledston Luck, is a fast paced thriller which follows the trials of CSI Eddie Collins into a murky world of murder and booby-trapped corpses in a gripping who-done-it.
His first three books, A Long Time Dead, Stealing Elgar and No More Tears, feature Scenes of Crime Officer Roger Conniston and the latter has sold over 100,000 copies and almost sparked a TV series.
“Myself and a CSI friend called Graeme Bottomley wrote a series of scripts based on the lead character, Roger Conniston, and we got together with Keith Richardson, who was the head of drama at YTV at the time and he really liked it but that was the year when Michael Grade stepped in and scrapped the drama department. We were at the pre-production stage, we even had Ross Kemp and Neil Morrissey in mind to appear but things didn’t work out. A lot of people say my books would work well on TV and they almost did.”
His latest series began in 2004 with The Third Rule, which he describes as “a little bit dystopian in that it features the resurrection of the death penalty”. It was followed by Black by Rose in 2013 and Sword of Damocles (2015).
So, what does he make of his double life?
“In terms of sales, it used to amount to just coppers but hopefully it’s turning into a good second income and I am looking forward to the day when it’s my only income. I love writing, I love the process of having a scene in your head and an ending and then working out how you get from one to the other.
“I sometimes get bobbies acknowledging me when I go on jobs, they’ll tell me they’ve just read my latest. The police is an incredibly supportive network to be in but so is publishing. There are readers groups out there, my favourite being the UK Crime Book Club on Facebook, who are also so supportive and you get to know some of them, they’re great people. I’m constantly shocked and stunned by it. You can spend a year writing a book, slaving over it, worrying about it, making sure it’s all ok and then some of them will read it in a single day.”