His series of critically acclaimed crime novels had flopped commercially and the Belfast-born writer was broke. Six weeks earlier, having been evicted with his young family from their home, Adrian announced in an online blog that he was putting down his pen to retrain as a teacher. Now he was working in a bar and driving an Uber taxi as the family tried to get their finances in shape. Frankly, the last thing he wanted to talk about after another long, troubling day was a book. But the call from US super-agent and film producer Shane Salerno led to an astonishing reversal of fortune.
“I’d had a terrible day and I don’t think Shane knew what time it was. He called me at midnight,” recalls Adrian. “He was so American on the phone, he rubbed me up the wrong way. I just said, ‘Mate, I can’t deal with this now. No offence but I’m knackered and I’m going to bed’, and I hung up.”
Fortunately, Salerno persevered and, on his third attempt at calling that night, managed to talk the disillusioned author into writing The Chain, a gripping thriller championed by the Daily Express.
That book has since secured Adrian, 52, a seven-figure movie deal, with a script by Jane Goldman, screenwriter of a host of hit films including Stardust and the Kingsman and X-Men movies. Last night, some two years after being persuaded to quit Uber and start writing again, Adrian was crowned winner of the highly coveted Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award.
“It’s a mercy for my Uber customers,” he laughs. “I had one of the lowest ratings ever for Uber. I’m a bit of a nervous driver; I never killed anyone but I’m not the world’s fastest or most confident driver either.”
The Chain: Adrian McKinty was driving an Uber to make money before his career skyrocketed
The world-famous Harrogate crime writing festival is digital only this year because of the Covid-19 lockdown but its flagship award, supported by the Daily Express, was as hotly contested as ever.
Sadly, with the physical festival on hold until 2021, Adrian was not able to celebrate his win as is traditional over drinks at its home, the Old Swan Hotel, crime queen Agatha Christie’s former Harrogate haunt. And, because of Covid-19, he is yet to meet Hollywood-based Salerno in person. But his win has been overwhelming nonetheless.
“I was not expecting this. I’m over the moon. I’m really just in some kind of alternative reality,” he says. “The past two years really have been the most extraordinary of my professional life.”
It is a story of triumph over adversity as gripping as any book. The son of a secretary and shipworker at iconic Titanic builders Harland & Wolff, Adrian grew up on a Carrickfergus council estate in County Antrim before winning a scholarship to Oxford University. He met his US-born wife Leah in the city’s Eagle and Child pub where Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien used to meet Narnia creator CS Lewis to read aloud to one another from their books.
“One night my wife-to-be wandered in knowing nothing about The Lord Of The Rings and I tried that chat-up line, ‘Are you in here because of Tolkien?’ She looked at me in horror. Her eyes were going, ‘Oh my God, get this creepy guy away from me’,” he laughs. Despite that, the pair ended up marrying – later naming their eldest daughter Arwynn after Tolkien’s elf queen, though Leah still hadn’t read the book – and travelled to America in the early 1990s.
The Harrogate crime writing festival is digital only this year due to COVID-19
Adrian’s first novel was published in 2003. Later, he won acclaim for the Sean Duffy series, six books featuring a Royal Ulster Constabulary detective working in Belfast during the Troubles.
“I thought it was a good idea,” he continues. “An ordinary cop trying to solve ordinary crimes against the extraordinary backdrop of civil war. But it must’ve been a very hard sell – I couldn’t even get people in Belfast to buy it. There was Icelandic noir and Swedish crime but no crime fiction set
in Northern Ireland, at all. That’s when I should’ve realised the writing was on the wall for Sean Duffy.”
Five acclaimed but low-selling books later Adrian, Leah, a history professor, Arwynn, 17, and Sophie, 14, were evicted from their home in Melbourne, Australia, when their landlord sold it from under them.
Adrian was coming to terms with not being a writer when he had an unexpected call from US crime writing legend Don Winslow.
“Frankly I was surprised anyone had read the Sean Duffy books, let alone Don. But he called me up and said, ‘These are good, the problem is with the marketing. Would you be interested in switching to my agent Shane Salerno?’ I didn’t have an agent… so that wasn’t a problem!” But four weeks passed with no word until, having finished a long night cleaning sick from his car and feeling “fed up with the world”, Adrian got the fateful call from Salerno.
“I just said, ‘I’m done with writing, call me back in a couple of years.’ I’d started the ball rolling to get my teacher’s certification. I was driving, working in a pub and this bloke’s telling me to quit all that and trust him.”
Finally, on his third attempt, Adrian let the American finish.
Salerno asked if he had a US or British-based story? In fact, an idea had been bubbling in Adrian’s head for a couple of years, based on the so-called Trolley Problem, a moral philosophy quandary devised in the late ’60s: you see a runaway tram car about to hit five people unless you pull a lever to divert it – killing one person instead.
Adrian explains: “I was obsessed with that idea – could you take an innocent bystander and put them in moral jeopardy by making them do something terrible?”
The Chain: Fans enjoy the famous Harrogate crime-writing festival
He also included the idea of chain letters, common from his boyhood in 1970s Northern Ireland.
“The final element was something I remembered from primary school and Greek myth. The goddess Demeter’s daughter Persephone is kidnapped and Demeter literally goes into hell to save her from the abyss. That’s so badass.”
These three elements came together toinspire The Chain: a woman driving to cancer therapy in Boston gets a call saying her daughter has been kidnapped and, to get her back, she has to pay a ransom and then kidnap someone else’s child to take her daughter’s place on the chain. Adrian continues: “Shane just said, ‘That’s the book you’ll write. Send me what you’ve got.’ But I didn’t have anything. Then he said the most amazing thing, ‘I can see money’s a big issue.’ That made me so angry. I replied, ‘I think you’ll find that, outside of Hollywood, money is a big issue for most people’.”
Salerno offered Adrian $10,000 to take a month off work and write the first chapter. “That’s when I realised he wasn’t a bulls*** artist. He told me, ‘Open your laptop now and write the first chapter’.” Adrian wrote 30 pages there and then and emailed them off. “Then I went upstairs to my wife and she asked what the hell was going on. Apparently I’d been shouting. I tried to explain but she thought I’d given someone $10,000 – she thought I’d been scammed. In the middle of this argument, Shane calls up and says, ‘We’ve got something here, go to sleep, you’ve got a book to write’.”
The Chain has subsequently been published in more than 40 countries and, as well as the lucrative film deal, has become a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. Today Adrian pays fulsome tribute to Salerno and Don Winslow.
“Don’s been so supportive. He’s just fearless. He was a private investigator for five years in New York. He’s led safaris through Kenya and Zimbabwe. He’s a surfer and he’s got all these crazy stories. I’m pretty sure he’d have been furious if I’d told Shane to **** off.” Adrian and his family are now living in New York, where lockdown, curfews and the recent Black Lives Matter protests have lent a strange sense of déjà-vu.
“One day I walked about 60 blocks south with the smell of tear gas in the air from the night before, and broken windows everywhere. It gave me a strange sense of nostalgia for west Belfast in 1984.”
He has a new US publisher who, in a major vote of confidence, has commissioned three new Sean Duffy books.
“I’m still waiting to wake up! I’m 70 per cent convinced it’s reality and 30 per cent convinced I’m dreaming,” he says.
“When I heard my book was a bestseller I was literally cheering. I was so happy: my God, people are out there buying my book – it’s available, unlike the Duffy books which can’t be got for love nor money.”
Adrian adds: “I read the other five books on the shortlist and loved them all. British and Irish crime fiction has taken over the world. It’s where thrillers and literary fiction cross paths and the Theakston Old Peculier Award and festival has done so much to generate interest.
“This and Liverpool winning the championship has really made my summer.”
The Chain by Adrian McKinty (Orion, £8.99) is out now. Order via Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or expressbookshop.co.uk
UK Delivery is £2.95, orders over £12.99 free. Visit harrogateinternationalfestivals.com for more details of the digital festival