Edinburgh former lecturer takes a stab at winning coveted Crime Writers Association Daggers Award
Author Simpson Grears' new book, The Foot of the Walk Murders, is in the running for a Dagger, one of the most prestigious awards in the world of crime writing. For his first attempt at writing thrillers, Grears admits making the long-list for the coveted accolade has taken him completely by surprise.
Before we discuss that, however, there's another mystery that needs cleared up. Grears will no doubt appear familiar to the thousands of students he taught at Queen Margaret College in the days before it became a university and was based at its Corstorphine campus. They would have known him as Ian Spring, their lecturer in media studies.
The 66-year-old laughs as he explains, "My full name is Ian Simpson Grears Spring. That's the name I was born with, so I use Simpson Grears for the detective stories. Ian Spring is my academic name, for the history books I write. Most people have figured that out now, even though I tried to keep it a secret the truth will out."
The Foot of the Walk Murders, published at the start of the year, is a collection of short stories, 14 crime tales all set in the Capital and featuring detective Hamish McDavitt, a local historian and doyen of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
Grears says, "As an academic myself, I wanted to create a character who could use his scholarly skills to solve mysteries. The stories themselves are the antithesis of the popular tartan noir genre. They are old-fashioned Golden Age detective stories in the style of Agatha Christie."
He certainly seems to have hit on a winning formula, The Foot of the Walk Murders has been long-listed in the short story category at the Crime Writers Association's Daggers Awards, in which he finds himself up against best sellers JK Rowling and Ian Rankin.
"The ideas come from stories I have heard, often from Edinburgh I very much wanted the book to be about the city so a lot of it is based on my life in the Capital, the people I met and the places I went. There are real people in the stories, others who are thinly disguised, and there are elements of history, but it is fiction in the end. I just wanted to give it a real flavour of the Capital, to create a timeless Edinburgh not noticeably set in any particular period.”
The origins of The Foot of the Walk Murders lie in a story he first had the idea for a decade and a half ago.
"I've always read the classic detective stories, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and the like,” he says, “To an academic they are attractive because they have little puzzles to solve in them. Partly they are an exercise in logic, which particularly appeals to an academic frame of mind, so I've always preferred cerebral detective stories rather than the gumshoe-out-on-the-streets type of fiction.
"About 15 years ago, a friend, Craig Gibson, produced a free poetry and literature broadsheet called The One O'Clock Gun. At the time, I was working in creative writing and thought it would be good to have such a broadsheet for my students. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be good if you could write very short detective stories to put in it'.
"I called my detective The Wee Dram Detective, because he just needed a wee dram and his brain to solve a mystery. That never happened, however, it wasn't possible, the first story was longer than would have fitted in a broadsheet, and so the seeds of The Foot of the Walk Murders were sowed."
That said, a wee dram has remained a recurring theme in his tales, his characters partaking of the amber nectar as they solve their latest cases, which are published by Rymour Books, a publishing house formed by Grears and business partner Ruby McCann.
Now based in Perth but from Glasgow by birth, Grears came to Edinburgh at the age of 21 to do his PhD at Edinburgh University, living here until love took him to Perth.
He recalls, "When I first visited as a teenager I just loved the Capital. It was the antithesis of Glasgow. I wanted something different. I think a lot of it had to do with being in a city redolent in history with a lot of its past still around. It's very different to Glasgow, which has its own history. Edinburgh is sort of stuck in a nostalgic history. Glasgow always feels a bit dangerous because any building might be demolished at a minute's notice, it's constantly changing. I still like Glasgow but I decided to make Edinburgh my home and would still be there but for the fact that I met my second wife, who is from Perth, so I came to Perth."
Being long-listed for a CWA Dagger is "quite extraordinary" he admits.
"Of the 80 writers and books long-listed there are only two other Scottish ones," he says, adding, "People say that publishers don't want short stories, that they don't sell. I don't believe that. There is a niche for them, they are bite-sized, you can finish a whole story in bed before going to sleep.
"One of the reasons there aren't so many is that they are hard to write. For the 14 stories in this book I had to come up with 14 plots, which is quite demanding. In many ways it's easier to write a novel."
Which is exactly what the follow up to The Foot of the Walk Murders will be - The Munro Murders, a novel featuring the same characters and Scottish mountains. Before that, however, Grears has yet another book in the pipeline.
"It's an international and historical crime novel that takes place in the United States, London and Edinburgh, and hops between the 19th and 20th Century. It's a big book, about 600 pages, called The Counterfeit Detective and it's mostly finished. I hope it will be published by the end of the year," he reveals.
Right now though, everything depends on the success of The Foot of the Walk Murders, which features a painting of, not the foot of Leith Walk but Victoria Street on the cover.
"Michael McVey is an old friend of mine and has been an artist in Edinburgh ever since I first came to the city as a student. He's quite well known, before lockdown you could find him selling his prints from a plot on Rose Street. I've always loved his iconic images of the Capital and own some of his work. So I really wanted to use one of his paintings. He didn't have one of the foot of the Walk or I would have used that but I think the one I did use captures the atmosphere and the impression of the city very well."
Grears will find out on May 20 if he has made the Daggers' short-list and, if he does, could be the proud bearer of the award by July.
Modestly, he says, "I don’t think it's likely I will win but it would certainly be some accolade as I don't regard myself as a crime writer per se, I write various things, crime was just a little avenue I ventured into."
The Foot of the Walk Murders, by Simpson Grears, is available from www.rymour.co.uk, priced £9.99