Crime writer Barry Maitland dabbles in painting

Another talent: Barry Maitland with one of his paintings based on Glenrock Lagoon. Some of his artwork will be shown at Maitland Regional Art Gallery in April.BARRYMaitland, by his own admission, could use abreak.


Internationally acknowledged as one of the world’s leading crimenovelists, the Maitland writer has just sent off a manuscript to his publisher, thefinalinstalment of his Harry Belltreetrilogy.

It completed his contract to supply three books in three years which,in writing terms, is going like theclappers.

Time to put the feet up? Yeah, right.

He has somehow managed to agree for an exhibition of his artwork – his other great passion – to be hung at Maitland Regional Art Gallery and is frantically putting the finishing touches to it.

“They’re mostly oil, with a forest floor theme,” he explains.

At a time in life when most people are slowing down, Barry Maitland just hasn’t picked up the knack.

I arrive at the door of his central Maitland 1888 pre-Federation home to be greeted by his two dogs, Dodger the Labrador and Layla the collie rough, tails frantically wagging, clearly not the shy and retiring types.

After a tricky piece of manoeuvring, the man himself manages to slip past them – no easy feat – and shakes my hand.

It is a spacious, split-level home with parquetry floor, wide arched hallway with artworks along both sides – some his, others not, with Aboriginal dot paintings making an appearance as well.

His office is upstairs at the back, equal part author’s den – two long desks, books, thesaurus, computer, manuscript paper – and artist’s studio – colour tubes, brushes, his old architect’s bench, an easel and pieces of artworked stacked against the wall, ready to be exhibited.

He can see what I’m thinking.

“It’s usually worse,” he says.

Maitland is a humble man, not one to blow his own trumpet, so let’s get things in perspective.

He has written 12 best selling crime novels in the Brock-Kolla series – a male-female team in London Central Metropolitan police – as well as a stand-alone book based in Australia, Bright Air, and now the Harry Belltree trilogy, which is even closer to home with a storyline that takes in Newcastle and the Hunter – in ­particular Ash Island, the name of the second novel.

In his crime genre, he is one of the world’s best, no doubt.

“A master of mysteries”, according to the LA Times Book Review.

“More please Mr Maitland,” says the Washington Times.

There are plenty more, but you get the idea.

As an artist he’s not on the same standing, but he’s most certainly very talented.

Kim Blunt, Maitland Regional Art Gallerycurator, is a fan.“His work has evolved and become more abstract,” she says. “I really like it. He’s here on the quality of his work, not just because he’s Barry Maitland. We’ve hung his works before and have been following him for a while.”

But it’s his writing that has led me to him today.

Ironically his journey fromsuccessful architect to crime writer started indirectly with the Newcastle earthquake of 1989.

“I’d moved from London to Newcastle in 1984 and was working as Professor of Architecture at Newcastle University when theearthquake struck,” he recalled.

“I got a call to say that the chimney and roof had fallen in at home in Laman Street and that my wife Margaret had been very lucky to escape. It was a surreal, topsy-turvy time. Normal life stopped, the army sealed off streets, our house waslooted … It got me thinking about crime, and one thing led to another.

“We decided to buy another house, spotted this one in Maitland which we loved straight away, and we’ve been here ever since.

“As for writing, I had dabbled in it and decided to make the jump and go to full time crime writing.

“All these books later and here we are.”

He assures me that after this art exhibition, he will have a rest.

At this stage he doesn’t even know if he’ll return to London with his ­highly popular Brock-Kolla team, or head in a new direction.

“I recently opened my website up to readers’ comments, and there’s been quite a bit of feedback asking me to keep Brock and Kolla going, which is nice,” he said.

Every writer seeks his own inspiration, and in Maitland’s world, it comes from the location. Get that right and the rest will follow.

So it means that, for Brock and Kolla for example, he’ll head to adifferent part of London for each story, soak the place up … talk to the locals, go to the pub, eat in the corner cafe, and let the inspiration come.

I ask for an example.

“In Raven’s Eye, I went to London and spotted these narrow boats at Paddington on the canal. I saw a woman get out and start heading to work, so I caught up with her and asked her about living on a boat. She had a normal office job, but lived in one of the prime residential districts of London. Ringo Starr lived just up the road for heaven’s sake, but she lived on a boat. I found that fascinating, so I did some research on the narrow boats and canals of London and I had my setting.

“It was a similar thing in Spider Trap. I was interested in the West Indian migration to South London, so I went to Brixton for a while and found a Jamaican immigrant, immersed myself in his neighbourhood, heard how they speak and interact … and it started from there.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking the rest comes easy though.

Maitland will typically research for three to six months before he starts writing. Unlike Patricia Cornwell for example, who he has heard has a whole staff to help with research, Maitland does virtually all the hard graft himself.

Then, even after he starts writing, the story and characters will invariably evolve.

“Sometimes a character won’t be as interesting as I’d hoped, and I need to change things, or maybe something in the storyline doesn’t feel right,” he says.

“And other times I’ll see the ­possibilities of taking things in a new direction … it could be any number of things. It often means going back to an earlier part of the book and rewriting it to bring it all together.”

Maitland doesn’t set himself a word limit to write each day and finds he works best when he builds momentum with his writing.

“I might start off with, say, 500 words on the first day and build from there. I’m probably happy when I’m averaging about 1000 words a day.

“But some days it just isn’t working and you need to get away from it for a day or two.”

When he has the momentum he hates to be distracted.

“Often you have other commitments, and I hate it when I have that momentum and things are really flowing and then I have to stop. Often I’ll get back to writing and I’ve lost the pace of it … the feel isn’t there and it takes time for me to find it again.”

When he’s finished, before hiseditors or publishers see a word, first draft invariably goes to his wife Margaret who is an avid reader, for feedback.

So, it she a harsh critic?

“I respect her opinion,” he says, with all the verbal dexterity of a man who has been married for years.

What sort of things does she criticise, I ask?

“She always says I do the sex badly,” he says.

There’s a momentary pause.

“Hang on, let me explain . . .” he says, breaking into a laugh.

Barry Maitland’s exhibition at Maitland Regional Art Gallery will run from April 9 to June 5.