Steve Cavanagh: The Lisburn lawyer-turned-crime writer on latest novel Fifty-Fifty

Jenny Lee chats to Lisburn crime writer Steve Cavanagh about his latest courtroom thriller and about his decision to give up his job as a lawyer to become a full-time writer

Northern Ireland crime writer Steve Cavanagh

CRIME writer Steve Cavanagh’s books have an air of authenticity to them. That’s not surprising as, up until last summer, he was a full-time practising lawyer. But after six successful books and two prestigious awards ­­– the CWA Gold Dagger for Crime Novel of the year 2018 for The Liar, and the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award 2019 for Thirteen – Cavanagh took the decision to give up the day job and concentrate on writing. ?

“I was working full-time and then coming home to two young kids. I wasn’t sitting at the keyboard until about 10 at night. I was then doing three or four hours of writing every night and after eight years it took its toll," the 43-year-old recalls.

“After winning the Theakston award and Thirteen doing so well in America, I thought maybe this was a sign that writing was what I'm supposed to be doing."

A successful solicitor, real name Stephen Mearns (he uses his mother’s maiden name, Cavanagh, for his writing pseudonym), he made legal history in 2010. He represented an immigrant factory worker who was discriminated against in the workplace and won the highest-ever damages in a case of its kind in Northern Ireland.

Although he worked mainly in civil rights, Cavanagh also worked in criminal law and has worked on murder cases in the past. However, he always made a conscious decision never to let reality blur with fiction and set his books in New York.

“I do lots of research into the US legal system online and through books. I guess one of the skills I bring as a lawyer to my writing is that I know where to look to find out the law and I understand how to interpret it.

“They have a two-tiered system of federal and state laws, with different rules for each states, including some who use lie detectors.”

Cavanagh translates this knowledge into his writing, while ensuring, "I don't write "anything that is dry or procedural.”

His latest book, Fifty-Fifty, revolves around the brutal murder of Frank Avellino. The book starts with a 911 call transcript from Alexandra Avellino, saying she has just found her father's mutilated body and that she believes her sister, Sofia, killed him.

Less than a minute later another 911 call comes in from the same house from Sofia Avellino saying she just found her father's mutilated body and that she believe her sister, Alexandra, who is still in the house, killed him.

But one of these women is lying; one of them is a murderer. What follows is a joint murder trial in front of one jury and the return of Cavanagh’s hero, lawyer and ex-conman Eddie Flynn.

Lisburn man Cavanagh’s last book, Twisted, was a standalone non-courtroom drama – a book he consciously decided to write in order to keep his creative juices flowing.

“Some writers can keep doing series books, but sometimes you just need a little break to try something different," he says.

“I am inspired by authors like Michael Connelly, Mark Billingham and Patricia Hind Smith who all have a series, but would also often go and do standalone books, try something different and then come back to the series fresh from having a little break.”

He credits a chat between himself and his wife as being the inspiration for Fifty-Fifty.

“We both came up with the idea of two sisters blaming each other for a murder. It made me think of what that relationship would be like, and why they would be doing it.”

The result is a book filled with twists, turns, tension, fractured family relationships and courtroom action.

Cavanagh admits the plot posed him an “interesting challenge”. “In a murder mystery book there are usually half a dozen suspects. My challenge was to sustain the suspense with just two suspects and to keep the readers guessing. Hopefully I have pulled that off.”

He organises the book into parts, as well as chapters. I ask him if he sits down and plans his books' structure before writing?

“I make it all up as I go along,” he laughs. “I just have a plan of how it would start – I don't know how it will end or what happens in the middle. After the first draft I go back, tidy up and change things.

“This book works better in parts because it takes place over a longer time period and there are breaks in time.”

Part two of Fifty-Fifty is entitled The Game Begins. In the book Cavanagh writes: "For a lawyer, every case is a game. In criminal law, it begins with an arrest and it ends with a verdict. At the start of the game you have no control over what happens, then you develop a strategy and you make some moves. At the end you get to stand in front of the jury, alone."

This concept of a game and the fragility of the justice system is something he acknowledge he has grappled with as a lawyer himself.

“Obviously there's real people involved, so it's a massive responsibility. But the idea of justice that exists depends on lots of things. It's an imperfect system with imperfect people running it and quite often it does turn into a game. And games, as you know, can be unfair.”

Before his legal career, Cavanagh tried his hand at being a screenwriter. I ask him if his life is going to go full circle and if he has received any offers for his books to be optioned for film or TV?

“I'm not allowed to talk about that unfortunately. All I can say is lots of things have to go right for a successful adaptation of a book,” he says coyly.

And how about writing a new Northern Ireland-based crime series, in the vein of The Fall?

“I have a couple of ideas for things. Whenever I get my head lifted from novels that is definitely something I am going to try,” adds Cavanagh, who is currently “trying to” write a new novel.

“I'm at home with the kids, aged 13 and nine, who are doing home schooling. I'm still able to write a bit, but it’s very distracting when the world is collapsing around you.”

And his advice to budding crime writers?

“Just do it and try to avoid doom scrolling about the coronavirus.”

:: Fifty-Fifty is published by Orion and is out now.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access