My story started on April Fool’s Day 1957. I was born in the Victoria Maternity Hospital, Barnet, Hertfordshire, thus becoming the only member of my family to come into the world outside London. (By about a mile) My father was a detective in the ‘Met’ – London’s elite metropolitan police force. (Chief Det. Inspector Brian B Kelly), and a former Army Commando, who had served in the Second World War. My mother’s father was a JP (Justice of the Peace) and a special constable. Too old for the First World War, let alone the second, he had, however, seen action under Winston Churchill – as a constable at the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911, the ill-fated mass call-up of London’s police and the Scots Guards to deal with anarchists who had planned to blow up the king. Churchill, then Home Secretary, was widely seen as having over-reacted, and certainly looked a fool. So; my father was a detective, and my maternal grandfather a policeman and a magistrate. I was fascinated by their lives, and the times in which they’d served – the basis for a lifetime’s fascination with history and crime.
I went to Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School, and Finchley Catholic Grammar School. We moved from a flat overlooking the North Circular to the leafy fields of Barnet in 1963. An obsession with books began in Barnet Library (just behind the church) and at the nearby W H Smith’s – where I would stand reading books as there was no money to buy them. No one seemed to mind. I had plenty of time to read, my two older brothers having left home, leaving me with an only child’s childhood for most of the seventies’. I also began a life-time’s love affair with Barnet Football Club – then one of the great names in amateur football: a club likely to score three, while letting in four. I could see from my bedroom the floodlights at the wonderfully named Underhill Stadium – a place surely conjured out of Bilbo Baggins’s Shire. My two elder brothers had both gone North to university – Bob – emigrating to Canada after a degree at Sheffield – and John, to Leeds.
In 1975 I followed to Sheffield. I had always wanted to write – despite a spirited attempt by the career’s officer who visited the school to get me to join the fire brigade. At Sheffield I joined the staff of Darts, the university newspaper. During my time in Sheffield the paper took up more of my time than it should have done. I loved the city – then on the brink of a catastrophic economic decline which it kicked against stubbornly throughout the next decade, emerging in better shape than many of its sister industrial cities in the North. Compared to the bland, soft, suburbs of London “Steel City” offered a brutal but awesome landscape – dominated by the moors, and the factories of the Don Valley, which would occasionally catch your eye in the distance as furnace doors were opened and a blaze of fire broke up the grimy grey cityscape. Then there were the hills, a 1,000 foot-high ring west of the city centre, and the deep wooded valleys which spilt their fast-running streams into the Don – the original source of the city’s power. It was the start of a lifetime’s fascination with landscape. On getting my degree – in geography – I tried – but narrowly failed – to get a job on the Sheffield Star.
I spent a year looking for a way into newspapers – hampered by the national, provincial newspaper journalists’ strikes. To earn money I worked at Stanley Tools, as a labourer and degreaser, an experience so memorably bad that I often recall it to cheer myself up – although it did give me an insight into what life had been like for the millions who had worked in Britain’s gloomy factories in the decades since the war. After a few months on the shop floor there was no such thing – in later years – as a bad day at the office. In 1979 I finally got that all important first job; on the Bedfordshire Times, where I spent five years as a local reporter – a fine preparation for writing thrillers and crime novels. Five years on a local ‘rag’ is a rich introduction to how Britain works – and to every variety of story from – my favourite – a set of stolen false teeth, to the ugly copy-cat riots of the summer of 1983, which broke out after serious mob violence in Brixton and Toxteth. After qualifying with the NCTJ – the National Council for the Training of Journalists – I landed my reward, a job on The Yorkshire Evening Press, in York. I left as Deputy News Editor five years later having spent most of my time writing a column about local politics and social policy – mainly planning – entitled Kelly’s Eye. I also covered the British Army, and travelled to West Germany and Berlin. In 1985 I took four months off work to go to Wolfson College, Cambridge, as a Press Fellow, writing a booklet on the new law designed to introduce freedom of information into local government, later published by the oil company BP, my sponsors.
It was a wrench to leave York, but it had to be done, otherwise I’d still be there. But I did leave with a vivid sense of what it was like to live in a Medieval city. York, within its walls, is breath-taking, with so many intricate layers of history laid one on another. It was living in the past, and I loved it. I later tried to write a crime mystery novel based in the city with a forensic archaeologist as sleuth: it was pretty much a disaster, not for its flawed portrayal of York, but for its unconvincing recreation of the life and work of a real ‘history man’ – a failure which helped convince me that I should write about what I knew – i.e. being a local newspaper reporter. But I enjoyed writing a book that had its roots so obviously in the past – a thread which would figure strongly in all my books.
But I had to leave. I was 30 – an age where traditionally journalists think their last chance of making Fleet Street is upon them. ‘Fleet Street’ – that mythical club of national papers grouped around Ludgate and Holborn between the City of London and the West End – was slipping away for me. Then, in 1988 I got the chance to move to the Financial Times – then a paper owned by the same company which owned the Evening Press. I went South to be a sub-editor on the FT’s growing International Edition. The FT’s offices were right opposite St Paul’s. I moved on to reporting for the London paper, travelling in Europe and the US, finishing up as education correspondent. By this point I was married, and had a young daughter, so the job, covering schools, universities, and the politics of both, had a thrilling relevance.
In 1995 we decided to leave London. It was a complicated decision, but one which has paid handsome rewards. I’d been talking about writing a book for years. Midge Gillies, my wife, had begun her own career as an historian and writer after leaving financial journalism. My problem was getting started. Finally, I did the right thing – I started writing a book based on what I knew – the life and work of a local newspaper journalist. Now all I needed was the all-important place – not just a backdrop, but a landscape that would help power the characters, action and plot. I needed to look no further than out of the window. One of the influences which had brought us to the Fens was the books of Dorothy L Sayers – especially The Nine Tailors. I had the landscape I needed right on my doorstep – the dank, mysterious wilderness which is the “Black Fens”.
I also had somewhere to write – the 6.45 out of King’s Cross every night. The big upside was that I always got a seat. I bought a laptop and started the book that would become The Water Clock – the first of the Philip Dryden mysteries. As I always like to point out – it was very nice of WAGN Railways to make sure I had so much time to write the books. It was after the Hatfield train crash and even the express services weren’t breaking 30mph. Penguin books published The Water Clock in 2001. A few years later I won a ‘dagger’ – the crime world’s Oscars – for the Dryden series. I left the FT – with good memories, and in high spirits. Midge had by that time written two biographies – of Marie Lloyd, the Music Hall star, and then Amy Johnson, the pioneer aviator – and Penguin were happy to build a series of crime novels. Our house, in the centre of the medieval cathedral city, was divided between ‘his and her’ offices on the top floor, out of which we would emerge at set times – like figures on a German Town Hall clock – to drink coffee or have lunch.
But writing at home became claustrophobic so – Midge’s brilliant idea – I got an allotment and set up a decent shed, with heating, and windows, as the ideal “remote” office. I moved on from Dryden to create two more series – the Shaw & Valentine books based on the north Norfolk coast, and the Eden Brooke series set in wartime Cambridge. After Penguin I moved to Severn House, and then Allison & Busby. Several books have been translated into German, Dutch, Norwegian, Italian, and Japanese – and the books have been read widely in US editions. In 2011 I won the New Angle Prize for literature – an award for works based in, or linked to, East Anglia.
All of my books have been launched at Toppings – the wonderful independent bookshop in Ely, just a few hundred yards from my front door. Each year I give a talk, illustrated with images, explaining the origins of the plots and stories. I’m a regular speaker at libraries – which have leant out my books nearly half a million times since 2000. I also visit festivals and bookshops to talk about my work, and often speak on the BBC, and local radio stations, to mark the arrival of new work. I was also a Royal Literary Fund fellow for four years at Essex University, helping students write. I was later an RLF ‘lector’ – creating my own reading group for whom I which I chose a short story and a poem each week for discussion. The group continued after the RLF scheme ended, and is still running. It is called KellyReaders. I enjoy taking pictures related to my books, especially featuring historic sites and events, and I have more than 1,000 followers on Twitter. In 1985 I spent a term at Cambridge University, as a Press Fellow at Wolfson College. I produced a booklet on changes to UK law concerning Freedom of Information. I’m also a patron of EARTH – a local charity which provides horticultural activities for disadvantaged young people.
My crime novels were written under the name Jim Kelly. In 2021 I signed a new book deal with Hodder & Stoughton, writing as J.G.Kelly.
In 2021 I signed a new book deal with Hodder & Stoughton. This year sees publication of The Silent Child, an historical mystery thriller. It is the beginning of a new phase in my writing life. I hope you enjoy all the books – but especially those still to come.
- Favourite film: The Right Stuff, based on the book by Tom Wolfe.
- Favourite book: Le Grand Meaunes by Alain Henri-Fournier.
- Favourite history book: The End, by Ian Kershaw.
- Favourite journey: John O Groats to Land’s End by bicycle.
- Favourtie meal: anything on the beach at Wells-Next-The-Sea.
- Favourite TV series: The West Wing.
- Favourite item of clothing: fingerless gloves.
- Favourite website: FT.com.
Jim Kelly is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association.