Stuart Macbeth talks to the crime writer Harry Bingham about his creative process

Crime writer Harry Bingham’s career in the City was cut short when his wife became seriously ill in 1996.

“There’s no neat explanation for her illness, which was a complex autoimmune response to an enteroviral condition.

“It meant she became functionally blind, and was too weak to go up and down the stairs. For a while we tried juggling care assistants,” he reflects. “But when that didn’t work, I gave up my job at JP Morgan to look after her.”

This difficult time also marked the beginning of Harry’s writing career: “I had always wanted to write. I’d had the idea in my head for some time. So I decided to sit down by my wife’s bed, and write my first novel. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might be difficult. I was 29 and naive. I had no idea.”

The Chipping Norton-based author has gone on to publish nine successful novels, beginning with The Money Makers in 2000 and four works of non-fiction.

His books have been adapted for television and translated for “every major market in the world”.

Now at 48, he also runs The Writer’s Workshop, the UK’s largest editorial agency.

“My first book was 180,000 words long and I re-wrote it multiple times,” he confesses. “When I came to look for an agent I wrote the worst covering letter of all time. Instead of sending them the first three chapters, I sent three completely random chapters. I didn’t get an agent, and was puzzled.

“I revised my approach and eventually got there. My experience shows that if the book is good enough, and your approach isn’t totally incompetent, you will get an agent,” he advises. “What matters most is the quality of the material.”

Harry’s ninth novel, This Thing of Darkness, was published by Orion in July. It’s the fourth in a series featuring Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, who the Sunday Times has called “the most startling protagonist in modern crime fiction”.

“The Fiona Griffiths series are the best books I’ve ever written,” he acknowledges, adding that Fiona stands apart from the conventional characters you might find in British crime novels.

“Usually you’ll have a tough, experienced, boozy male Detective Inspector. Or if it’s a female character she is still tough, and relatively important within the hierarchy. For the Fiona Griffiths books, I wanted someone female, young and small. Fiona is a marginal figure, but her intensity and intellect make her a powerful force.

“Fiona is in recovery from a genuine psychotic condition called Cotard’s syndrome. People with Cotard’s syndrome think they’re dead. They often exist in a depressed, psychotic state. Although Fiona has recovered, the shadow of Cotard’s syndrome hangs over her. She has empathy with corpses.”

Harry was born in the Notting Hill area of London but grew up near bookshop-rich Hay-on-Wye before reading PPE at Balliol College from 1985 to 1988: “I loved Oxford” he recalls, “who didn’t?”

“Back then you could learn for the sake of learning. The whole focus on careers came later, so there was less tension, more a sense of studying for the enjoyment of it.”

After Oxford, he spent two years working for JP Morgan in mergers and acquisitions before switching to the newly-founded European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He said: “At that time we were working towards the reconstruction of Eastern European nations, who were only just coming out from the shadow of the Soviet Union.

“Countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland faced economic challenges and also huge challenges to their mindsets. “I remember us being in a meeting with a Russian banker named Sergei who started thumping his fists on the table and getting angry with us. ‘Sergei, do you even know what banks are for?’ my boss asked. Sergei paused, looked at us puzzled, before shouting back ‘banks are there to supply money to the workers!’.”

Harry believes that today’s young Polish people would hardly recognise their own country, as he had found it, in the early 1990s.

“For one thing the ugliness was striking. The communists had built homes for the workers, but there was no pressure on them to make towns and cities attractive in any way. Urban, industrial Poland was really depressing.

“The people at the top of a lot of companies were only there because of their communist connections. The abilities they possessed were the opposite of those which were needed to turn their businesses around.

“I remember one particular company which had around 300 employees. They made their own lathes, but they couldn’t buy screws of sufficient quality. So they employed a guy whose job was to stand at a lathe, cutting all the screws by hand! These people had no instinct for managing change.”

After his time at the EBRD, Harry returned to JP Morgan “making upwards of 50 flights a year from one corporate office to the next”, before leaving to nurse his wife.

So how is she?

“She has got substantially better,” he says. “She’s still long-term disabled, but we now have kids and a better quality of life. Her disability doesn’t have to be at the centre of our world any more.”

As a result, Harry balances childcare with work, and writes in his back garden.

“Whenever I can, I write outside, from as early to as late as possible. Seven days a week.”

Having asserted that his years in banking were only a ‘diversion’, Harry concedes that he has also taken much from it to use in his novels.

“For all its faults, investment banking is a relentlessly hard-working, meritocratic industry,” he admits. “I apply all those principles to all my novels.

“Going from my peak as a banker to my low as an author meant a huge drop in income but I’ve never thought about going back, because I love to write.

“I’ve always loved storytelling. It’s the life chores, such as mowing the lawn, that feel like work to me. Writing never feels like work, it feels like playing.”