To celebrate the eBook release of his new breathtaking police procedural Dead Man’s Grave, Neil Lancaster shares the story behind the novel and how one conversation inspired it.
Neil Lancaster on the inspiration behind Dead Man’s Grave
I really wanted to give you a sense of where Dead Man’s Grave, and the following books, came from. It’s an interesting story that proves the mantra that inspiration can come from anywhere, at any time.
It was Christmas 2019 and my wife Clare and son Ollie had travelled from our house in the Highlands to a large country pile in the depths of the countryside near Pitlochry. We had arranged to meet a group of friends for Boxing day. We turned up in the afternoon, mildly hungover (well not Ollie, that would be irresponsible, he’s only ten!). My wife’s best friend, Gail and her huge family had hired out this beautiful, massive house for a week and they had travelled from all over the world to be together for Christmas.
Gail’s sister and her family had also come over from Australia, and as one would expect, it was a fairly riotous evening with much food, wine, and of course, being Scotland, a dram or two.
It was over a dram of a very fine malt that I got talking to a guy called John Fisher.
Now John was as Scottish as it is as possible to be. His accent was deep, resonant and 100% West Coast Scottish, despite having lived in Australia and New Zealand for decades. John was a big consumer of crime fiction and a massive fan of Rankin, McDermid, MacBride, and (I was flattered to learn) me! He then hit me with the words that all writers must expect every now and again. ‘I have a book idea for you.’ Now I have to admit, dear reader, that most of us take a deep breath when these ideas are landed upon us, but I was feeling relaxed (not drunk, definitely not drunk) and John was a great bloke, so I listened and I remember his words as if it was yesterday.
‘I was researching my wife’s family history, decades ago. We went to a real remote burial ground, in the middle of a field in the wilds of Caithness. Now I didn’t find anything about her ancestors, but I did find something. I found a simple slab on the ground, that was covered in weeds and moss. I scraped it clear and was a bit shocked by what I found. It just said, ‘THIS GRAVE NEVER TO BE OPENED.’ That was it. Nothing else. No date, no name. Pretty weird, eh? Reckon there’s a story behind that?’
Well, I was, to put it mildly, a little blown away.
I mean, what an opener. What a way to grab a reader’s attention.
Opening graves is kind of frowned upon anyway, right. To go to the trouble of carving it into a piece of old granite seems a little overkill. So what secrets were buried with the unnamed grave?
Well, I seem to recall my reaction being, ‘That’s an amazing story, John. I’m gonna write it!’ We then decided to drink another dram and talk about something else.
Well, the next day, nursing a slightly ‘iffy’ head we travelled home to the Black Isle. We’d had a terrific Christmas, but something was bothering me.
It was the grave.
I just had to find out more.
So, I turned to the web and began to research the grave never to be opened in Caithness.
Well, dear reader. I found it.
It took a fair while, and there was precious little information out there, but I found it.
It was a tiny, barely recorded burial site in Ballachly. Close to a tiny hamlet in Caithness called Latheron, about two hours north from me.
At that time I was writing my third in my Novak series, Going Back. I had plenty of work to do on that and a deadline to meet, but I just couldn’t shake the image of this grave.
I simply had to see it for myself.
I spoke to a few writer friends and no one had heard of the Grave Never To Be Opened, and none had heard of it being used in a book, so I started writing.
Of course, such an eerie stone could be used in a historical novel, maybe supernatural, possibly even a pandemic story (perish the thought). Nah… I’m a crime and thriller writer.
So I started writing a police procedural. A contemporary tale of consequences that arose from a feud that dated back to 1830, and Dead Man’s Grave was born (although I called it Blood Feud). I say I started writing a procedural, but as often happens, it soon began to morph, and by the end of the book it was a full-on conspiracy thriller with bent cops, evil gangsters and a determined, hard-case of a good cop battling the odds. I had a book, I had a publisher and I was ready to go.
But I still hadn’t visited the graveyard.
Then restrictions were eased, and I had the opportunity. So I got in the car and drove almost three hours north to the Ballachly burial ground, close to Latheron and in the middle of the Munsary Peatlands.
And I was absolutely astounded. What a place, just so remote, so eerie, so overgrown in the middle of the vast Caithness landscape.
And here we are. The story is written. It’s out in e-book and audio (which has been magnificently narrated by Angus King). The hardback will be out on the 16th September, and the paperback will be out on the 20th January 2022.
Very sadly, John Fisher passed away on his 81st birthday, but he knew about the book, and he knew that it was dedicated to him. Without that mildly squiffy revelation of the graveyard in the wilds of Caithness, it wouldn’t exist.
I was really delighted to be able to send an early copy of the book to his son in Australia, my good friend Bruce Fisher, and his reaction to it meant as much to me as any of the wonderful comments I’ve received from early readers, including some of my writing heroes.
The book’s for you, John.
There’s also lots more planned. Max Craigie and the team will return next year with another book, the details of which I’ll tell you all about very soon. I’ve also just written ‘The End’ on the third Craigie book, which is just so exciting. I can’t wait for you all to read about The Grave Never To Be Opened!
More about the author…
Neil was born in Liverpool but grew up in Kent. He left at seventeen to serve for six years in the Military Police with the RAF. He left the Metropolitan Police in 2015 where he served for over twenty-five years, predominantly as a detective, leading and conducting investigations into some of the most serious criminals across the UK and beyond.
Neil acted as a surveillance and covert policing specialist. Using all types of techniques to arrest and prosecute drug dealers, human traffickers, fraudsters, and murderers. During his career, he successfully prosecuted several wealthy and corrupt members of the legal profession who were involved in organised immigration crime. These prosecutions led to jail sentences, multi-million-pound asset confiscations and disbarments.
Since retiring from the Metropolitan Police, Neil has relocated to the Scottish Highlands with his wife and son. He now writes crime thriller books, walks his dog, and looks out of the window at the view a little too much.