Martina Cole is famous, and quite pleased about it. Her books are notorious for being the most requested in the prison libraries in the UK, and she is consistently referred to as England’s bestselling adult fiction writer. “When I wrote Dangerous Lady, the first book,” she says in a voice that is as full of grit and glamour as her epic six-hundred-page crime dramas, “I never thought it would become as big as it did. I just wanted to see my name on the cover of a book! I didn’t realize it would be on millions of books, you know.” Millions, indeed—Cole has published fifteen novels since 1992, including 2006 BCA Crime Thriller of the Year Best Novel winner The Take and her most recent British publication, The Business: “It’s about a big Irish family in East London, and one of the daughters succumbs to drugs and prostitution and [it’s about] how the family cope with that, really. I feel like it’s sort of a blow-by-blow account of what happens to people when you get into that world. I never pick nice subjects, unfortunately.” She laughs, but she isn’t joking—Cole’s books are filled with the dark details of London’s criminal underworld, interwoven with her tender and authentic analysis of each character’s essential humanity, from the likeable mob leaders to their long-suffering wives, manipulative mistresses, and innocent (but certainly not naive) children. “I think it gives people an insight into why they are like they are. Most things you read about crime are, sort of—there’s a policeman and they solve the crime. For me it made sense to write from the point of view of the criminal and find out why they’d done that, why they were like that, not just get them caught. And also, unfortunately, an awful lot of big criminals are very nice people. It’s a means to an end for a lot of people, isn’t it?” Still, she wants it made clear that she isn’t glorifying the things she writes about. “These are cautionary tales. I don’t say, ‘Oh, well, this is the way to live.’ The bad people never really prosper in my books.”
There’s a lot of background noise on the other end; I’m speaking to Cole on her cell phone across the ocean as she wraps up another of her recent projects in England. “We’ve just finished filming a series, so we’re all just sitting here drinking champagne.” She’s talking about Lady Killers, released in October 2008 in the UK and the latest of several screen adaptations of her work. Cole’s career has brought her a Cinderella-story sort of success that she has no qualms about embracing. “Writing is something I wanted to do all my life, and it’s given me such a great life . . . every day I appreciate how lucky I am to be able to do what I do. I was an unwed mother and, you know, as a good Catholic girl, which I am, I do appreciate that my life changed dramatically because I was given the opportunity to express myself and enjoy every second of it. I’ve loved my job, and I’m not ashamed to say that. I’ve absolutely loved my job.”
Cole’s website pegs her as “the person who tells it like it really is,” and she takes seriously her charge to depict the stories of lives lived invisibly, underground, in another world. “I write about the pitfalls of living in that world. I point out how hard it is to live in that world and what can happen to you if you do live in it and you do something wrong. Also, I think I write from the point of view of the women whose sons and husbands and lovers are in that kind of world, and how that affects you, really. Lots of women—especially the mothers—accept it, don’t they? I write about how devastating it can be when you realize that the person you love more than anyone else in the world is actually a violent thug.”
In Close, which will become available in its paperback edition in America by the end of May, this is certainly the case. Following the intergenerational saga of the Brodie family as they rise and fall and rise again in London’s organized crime network, the novel centers on Lily Diamond and spans forty years of her life, from her marriage to the dangerous but fiercely loving Patrick Brodie at sixteen to her complex deathbed relationships with her many children (Patrick Jr., who takes after his father in more than name; Lance, who Lily has never been able to love despite her best attempts; and troubled twins Kathleen and Eileen, to name a few). “I try at times as well to make people realize that whatever we might think of them, they’re still someone’s son or someone’s daughter. There’s still someone who loves them, you know. I believe it’s very hard for parents to believe at times that their children can be that bad. I’m a mother myself, and you love your children very, very much—it’s a very Irish thing, as well, isn’t it?”
You don’t have to read much of Cole’s writing to find the deep connection that she has to all of her characters; intimacy and compassion underlie the graphic violence and emotional trauma on every page. Much of this undoubtedly comes from the parallels that can be drawn between Cole’s protagonists and her personal history: as an Irish girl growing up in a rough part of Essex, Cole was married for the first time at sixteen and alone with a baby (her first child, Christopher, now 31) by nineteen. “I think in many ways it was like growing up in the Bowery in New York. You write about what you know, and how you grow up shapes your environment and your thinking . . . it was part of your life, it was part of where you lived and it was part of what you learned. So you write about what you know, and that’s unfortunately what I knew.”
Cole does know what she’s talking about, and it shows. The length of her books allows for the reading of them to be an exercise in immersion; you have to be willing to be enveloped by the world that she creates. This isn’t light reading, and it’s not drugstore fiction; on the contrary, ten pages into Close I was surprised I hadn’t bought it wrapped in plastic based on the explicitness of the language and the disquieting content. But it also isn’t silly, or romanticized, or gratuitous, and four hundred pages later I knew and loved Lil Brodie to some extent in the way that Cole patently does. While not as directly plot-driven as some of her earlier works, Close is a character study in the most interesting sense because of the time that it stretches across: we watch Lily be dealt blow after blow and put herself back together again, and Cole capably guides Lily’s persona to evolve and develop based on her relationships, encounters, adversities, and feats of triumph throughout the novel.
Despite Cole’s ability to handle moral ambiguity and incorporate opposing narratives in her writing, she defines her own values in a way that’s staunchly traditional. “I grew up in a very big Irish Catholic family and I’m still a practicing Catholic to this day. I brought both my children up as practicing Catholics. Three years ago my son married a very beautiful Polish girl in Poland and when I found out she was Catholic I was absolutely thrilled. I thought, yeah, fantastic. And I know that sounds terrible in this day and age, but I think you do tend to gravitate towards your own, don’t you?” Cole attributes many of her characters’ loyalties and strengths to their Irishness, as well as her own. “I think that’s the great thing with the Irish; we’re very family-minded, and I think that comes across in my books. [My characters] try to protect the people closest to them. I think most of my books do portray that, you know: you’re trying to protect your own. I think any mother is guilty of that, don’t you? I think it’s what makes mothers mothers, isn’t it?”
Martina Cole has sold over eight million copies of her novels. She has roots in Dublin on her mother’s side and in Cork, where she maintains a home, on her father’s. Her cousin, Denis Cregan, was the Lord Mayor of Cork in 2003. Close is currently available in hardcover in the U.S. and will be released in paperback May 26, 2009. Cole’s novel Faces will be released in the U.S. this July.