M.J.Ford explains why he set his latest thriller in Oxford

When it came to writing a series of crime books, Oxford was an obvious choice. Not only because I know the city well, but because it’s a place like no other.

Culture, class, modern and ancient, town and gown, they all intersect in Oxford.

It often seems like two cities yoked uncomfortably together, co-existing side-by-side.

But we all stand equal before the law, and crime touches everyone at some point – privilege and wealth offer some protection, but not immunity.

I first came to Oxford in 1998, as a student at Worcester College, reading English and Classics.

The Oxford Times:

Looking back, it was a strange existence, living, eating and working for much of the time within the walls of the college.

Certainly, I ventured out to attend lectures or visit the faculty libraries, but the majority of my time was spent at my own college, and on my limited mental map the city was defined by the institutions of the university (and pubs, of course – I could probably name more of those off the top of my head than colleges).

Most of my close friends went into careers like law or banking upon graduating, but I was at something of a loss, so I first went abroad to teach English as foreign language in Greece. I had a vague notion of wanting to be a writer at that stage, but with little discernible skill in that regard, I had to find another job of some sort.

Like a lot of English graduates, I drifted into publishing, and held a variety of editorial roles over the years, working mostly on children’s books. Immersion in that world eventually gave me enough confidence to pursue writing as a part-time enterprise.

I began in my mid-20s, writing non-fiction about Ancient Greece, but gradually shifted into fiction for children.

Over the next dozen years, I wrote about 60 books for children, from short chapter adventure books to long fantasy novels.

It took a long time before I felt ready to write adult fiction – or at least until I realised there’s really no difference.

In my first novel, Hold My Hand, I barely featured the colleges or the Oxford I knew intimately from my time there. It was a conscious decision not to rely too heavily on my own experiences, as I didn’t want to write a novel about that cloistered life.

Students feature in my books, but I’m more interested in the peripheral characters who link the colleges to the outside world – the cleaners, the gardeners, the catering staff; all those who build and maintain the postcard façade for which the city is best known.

The main character in my adult fiction is Sergeant Josie Masters, who works as a detective out of St Aldates Police Station, having transferred from Avon & Somerset. She was raised in Oxford, so the books bring her home.

Her situation feels a bit like mine, returning to a place where I did quite a lot of growing up too.

Unlike me, Jo’s always viewed the university from the outsider’s perspective.

She has little time for some of the more archaic traditions, and when her work brings her into contact with college authorities more worried about reputational damage than the victims of crime, Jo has little patience.

One of the most famous literary sons of Oxford is obviously Colin Dexter, whose crime fiction has had a profound impact on me.

Our similarities are few in style, skill, or fame, but I think my preference to focus on real people with ‘normal’ lives, on the surface at least, owes something to his Morse stories.

There’s a heavy dose of outlandish psychopathy in both my novels to date, but in the background are the slings and arrows that are all too common – the problems of thwarted love, addiction in it various guises, poverty and lack of education and psychological trauma, which all combine to lead to poor decision-making and crime, both petty and significant.

Unlike Detective Masters, I’m not really interested in catching the criminal, so much as understanding how seemingly regular people can behave abominably, and exploring the impacts the investigations have on Jo herself.

The colleges are more central to Keep Her Close. Crime fiction often revolves around secrets and the abuse of power, and the college system has the potential for both. In Keep Her Close, young women are going missing from the colleges, and the police start off believing that someone is brazenly preying on female students.

But when the real connection is revealed, it’s a lot more chilling for Jo personally, and ultimately driven by all-too-human motive.

The Oxford Times:

Keep Her Close is published today by Harper Collins, priced £7.99