THERE’S a key scene in one of Lesley Kelly’s Health of Strangers crime novels, in which a Leith gallery owner escapes the attentions of some heavies by escaping through a secret trap door in the ceiling of his gallery in to the vacant flat above.
Standing on The Shore, the site that inspired that scene in the background, the gallery may now be a trendy wine bar, but you can’t help wondering about the trap door...
“I made it up,” laughs Lesley, 48, as she poses for “just one more photo” as the whole process of having a famous mum leaves her boys, Finlay (8) and Callum (11), decidedly underwhelmed.
Born and raised in Trinity, it’s perhaps unsurprising Lesley should choose to join the ranks of crime writers basing their characters in the Capital.
Unlike the city’s more famous fictional detectives, Rebus and Skinner, Lesley’s creations enjoy a unique twist: they work in an Edinburgh ravaged by a virus.
As Lesley puts it: “In this version of Edinburgh there has been a massive pandemic and the government has instituted a set of monthly health checks.
“They have also established Health Enforcement Teams (HETs), seconded from the police and health service, who come and track you down if you miss said health check.”
Next Wednesday, at Waterstones on Princes Street, the second novel in the Health of Strangers series will be launched.
Titled Songs By Dead Girls, it’s actually the third outing for her investigators (they also appear in a short story The Art of Not Being Dead), the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team, which is led by gruff former copper Paterson and staffed by the feisty Mona, timid Bernard, astringent Maitland, and homely Carole.
“I’m Bernard,” confides Lesley as we walk along The Shore.
“Bernard has found himself in a position he is completely unsuited to. He’s been sold this health promotion job, supporting people, but he’s not really doing that, he’s knocking on the doors of people with addiction issues who are going hit him or stab him. If I ended up in that situation I’d do my best, but I’d be really scared.”
Thinking for a minute, she adds, “Actually, there’s a bit of me in each of my main characters, I think I divided my flaws between them; Bernard is cowardly, Mona is a know it all and slightly self-righteous.”
She laughs. “I think I have an element of that as well.”
Laced with dark humour and a sense that the unfolding fiction could become a reality at any moment, it quickly becomes clear why Lesley captures the city and her characters so crisply – her mother, Euphemia, worked for a lawyer in the New Town while dad Jimmy was a police officer.
“My dad was a desk sergeant based at Leith police station and if all his stories were true... well, I’d be scared to use any of them just in case they turned out to be true.
“Unfortunately he died before any of my books came out, but I grew up with the police, so maybe that’s where my dark sense of humour comes from.”
While the underworld of criminals inhabiting her books may seem far removed from that of a self-confessed “posh girl who wanted to be a librarian and has never been in a fight in her life,” as we talk it becomes clear there’s more to Lesley than the description she gives of herself.
“I’m very aware there are dark corners in some places,” she says, recalling that after university she spent time with an organisation that worked with residents living in “hard-to-let housing estates”.
“We were setting up tenant associations and the like, so basically I did three years of knocking on council estate doors trying to get people to talk about their issues, which were always crime.
“Looking back, the risks were there, but at 24 you’re immortal so it didn’t really occur to me.”
It was an eye-opener, however. “At the time we talked about social inclusion, social justice... all euphemisms, we were dealing with people living in absolute poverty.
“The one thing poverty robs you of is control over your life, the other thing I learned is that wherever people are vulnerable, there are others who will prey on them.
“That was one of the starting points for the Health of Strangers series: if you suddenly had this great mass of people who were vulnerable because of the virus, who would come out of the woodwork?”
Lesley’s path into writing crime fiction came through a series of short stories.
“I got lucky and won a couple of competitions early doors, including The Scotsman short story writing competition,” she says.
The character in that story was called Stainsey, he went on to be the star of her debut novel, A Fine House In Trinity, which was published by Sanstone Press in 2016
“Until you’ve written a novel you don’t know how to write a novel,” she reflects, “So for a small publisher, every debut author is a risk and I’m very grateful to Sandstone, who have been hugely supportive.”
She continues: “That winning short story actually appears in its entirety about three-quarters of the way through the book, but the very first short story competition I won was at the Leith Festival, the same year I also did some stand-up workshops.”
Yes, for a brief period Lesley was a stand-up comedian.
“That was terrifying, but good,” she recalls. “I did The Stand here and in Glasgow, where I went on stage and said, ‘Hello, I’m Lesley, I’m from Edinburgh...’
“Well, let’s say, after you’ve been booed by 200 drunk Glaswegians, there’s no meeting at work that is ever going to be scary again.”
Talking of work, as if being the mother of two and an author isn’t enough, Lesley is also manager of Midlothian Voluntary Action and Volunteer Midlothian.
“I work for a what is called a Third Sector Interface, a charity, we represent the voluntary sector’s interests in community planning.”
Which begs the question, when does she find the time to write?
“I worked out that I had to write 400 words a night, every night.
“That’s about nine months to get a reasonable draft for the editor.
“Which is fine if you manage those 400 words, but then, when you don’t write for a couple of days because the kids have something on, or you have a meeting... suddenly you’ve got 2000 words to catch up on.”
Not that she minds, writing is relaxing she insists, the biggest challenge is coming up with new ways of killing victims and discovering new places where bodies can be found, especially in Edinburgh.
“It’s all been done. Inventing a virus made it a little bit different but basically, crime novels are what they are.
“You have to have somebody dying and there are only so many crimes you can have, but I do have nightmares about accidentally coming up with the exact same plot that has been in another novel or on TV and has lodged in your subconscious.”
Songs By Dead Girls Launch, Waterstones, Princes Street, April 25, 6.30pm, free. www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/book-launch-lesley-kelly-songs-by-dead-girls-tickets-44669406397