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Mine are the most stolen books in shops apparently, and the most requested in prisons.
Martina Cole is the doyenne of crime capers set in London’s gangland. Her books follow the trials and tribulations of individuals and families dying to live the high life, the good life, the live-fast-and-die-tragically-young kind of life.
Cole has an astonishing output of 21 books in 22 years. Her potty-mouthed fiction is brassy, unflinching and pulls no punches with its expletives and cold violence. “Well, I grew up on a huge council estate, and anyone who does has a kind of working knowledge of that kind of world”, the author explains.
Her books are female-led at their heart, and women pull many of the strings amongst these molls and gangsters. The crime potboilers ‘The Take’ and ‘The Runaway’ have reached even wider audiences via highly-praised adaptations on the small screen.
Luckily, you will find 5 more hard-hitting writers like Martina Cole right here.
Image Source: Goodreads
Her take on the East End is clever enough to make you believe she is Martina Cole’s little sister.
Kimberley Chambers is being hailed as “the new Martina Cole” with her council estate crime fiction.
Before becoming a writer, our first candidate spent 38 years working, carousing and revelling in London’s buzzing atmosphere. Chambers graduated from a not-too-wild child brought up in Dagenham, to grafting hard in the role of market trader, disc jockey and mini-cab driver.
Then, one day, a fortune-teller told her she was destined to write a book.
Placed right in the thick of it, Chambers had encountered the kind of people she would later beg and borrow elements from for her fictional characters. Her method is old-fashioned and her books hand-written, as the author never learned how to use a computer. As she reveals, “I left school with no qualifications and was lucky when I was 38 just to find something I was good at: a pen and paper has served me fine so far.”
It is this characteristically infectious and grounded passion that is mined in Chambers’ earthy work, plus a hard seam of realism. The author’s writing style is colourful, spiky and high-octane, with plenty of thrills and spills. What the writer really gets to is how all these unlawful activities will ultimately extort a massive human toll.
Recommended Book: ‘Billie Jo’ (2008)
Chambers wrote her rollercoaster debut while still working nights as a cabbie.
It stars with Billie Jo, whose father Terry wants to abandon his boozing wife and shack up with his pregnant secretary. Trouble is, Terry’s also been dabbling in the local crime circuit.
This book has been described as a wicked cocktail of “the Royle Family meets EastEnders, with a touch of Footballers’ Wives.”
This is the sort of competition Martina Cole could do without and if Keane does hit the No. 1 spot it could be handbags, or more likely knuckledusters, at dawn. – ‘The Northern Echo’
Jessie Keane’s step into writing crime fiction comes from the irresistible pull she feels to the London underworld.
The author knows all about swings and roundabouts in fortune, having been born rich but left poor when her family’s business went into liquidation because of some dodgy account-keeping. While Keane’s books are all about family, they were inspired by her own “toxic” upbringing. To escape it all, she ran Dick-Whittington-like to London for a while, to try and make her own fortune there.
The author then went through 20 years of her manuscripts being rejected before striking lucky with Harper Collins. Just goes to show: all that plucky determination can pay off. Since then, her work has sold more than 100,000 copies.
What Keane does is take a nutcracker to those familiar, Cole-like territories: mafia-like East End families, sparring gangs and tough people playing just plain dirty. They are fast-paced, and packed to the hilt with the dynamite concoction of the murder, infighting and treachery that will eventually blow up in their faces.
In the midst of this vipers’ pit are Keane’s vivid female characters, the strongest of whom has got to be recurring protagonist Annie Carter. Despite all these flashing daggers, vices and dangerous liaisons, Keane proves that her women are a tougher nut to crack.
Recommended Book: ‘Dirty Game’ (2008)
Keane’s debut is the rattling yarn that launched the fictional career of Annie Carter. Everybody knows that the gangs rule London – and this peacekeeper is stuck right in the middle of a feud worthy of Capulet versus Montague.
Keane certainly can’t promise a clean fight. ‘Dirty Game’ provides a first taste of the guts, glory and power-plays that her readers have come to expect.
Image Source: Amazon
While I don’t have much personal experience of crime, I certainly know about the consequences.
For our next author, the shady underworld portrayed in this fiction is rather closer to home.
That surname is no coincidence. Roberta Kray did indeed become entangled in the notorious life stories of that pair of London gangsters. She met Reggie Kray behind bars while working on the publicity for his film; a year later, they were wed.
After Reg’s death, Kray turned to writing for solace – sticking to that old adage for writing about what you know. As Kray explains, “I tend to write about women who stumble into unfamiliar territory, how they get dragged into things and how they cope with that”. Rather than glamorise the scene, she is a breath of fresh air by making her work edgy and uncomfortable to read, since “basically it’s just a really nasty, horrible world.”
To date, the author has produced 9 crime books. Snapping at the heels of Martina Cole’s, they are character-driven and chock-full of twists and turns – the result of showing how the butterfly effects of petty crimes lead to a hurricane of devastation.
Recommended Book: ‘The Debt’ (2006)
Johnny Frank has been banged up for years (hmm, sound familiar?) Then he’s released from jail with a burning vengeance in his heart: it’s payback time. But then he meets a woman called Simone, and the narrative unexpectedly divides into two points of view.
Kray’s debut novel welcomes you to the London underworld.
Want to find another author like Martina Cole?
My final two writers move the action outside of this London-centric crowd, to colonise further gang-dominated territories to the north and south via their criminally thrilling fiction.
Trademark mix of grit and glamour – perfect for fans of Martina Cole.
Mandasue Heller goes in all guns blazing with books written in the same vein as Martina Cole’s. Moving the action moves to the North West, Heller’s Mancunian characters are all trying to hit the big time, but are stuck living the small time.
The author was first spurred to write after a traumatic biographical incident. As she was sleeping, cradling her 10-week-old son, an intruder forced his way into her home and gave her a 5 inch wound with a claw-hammer as a leaving gift.
Writing became Heller’s cathartic means of coming to terms with this scarring event, and her books are packed with the same brand of psychological trauma as endured by her characters.
These gritty books are set in and around the infamously shoddy housing development Hulme Cresecents, which is where Heller herself lived for a decade. They present graphic snapshots of abuse, prostitution and drugs. The central female characters are beset by dangers in this dog-eat-dog world. What it all really comes down to is the survival of the fittest.
Recommended Book: ‘The Club’ (2007)
‘The Club’ follows Jenna Lorde, who takes the reins of managing a nightclub after her dad’s death. But it begs the question: has she bitten off more than she can chew?
As with many of Heller’s books, the dark scenes contained within are deeply unnerving.
A book to be read through-your-fingers.
The books are a way of making use of what happened to me and then bringing it full circle.
June Hampson’s books look as though they’re cut from the same cloth as all the rest. Their covers feature gimlet-eyed women entering fierce staring competitions with the reader.
With their publication, “I feel like all my dreams are coming true now”, the author beamed in a recent interview. After all, Hampson has endured her fair share of knocks and scrapes during her eventful life in Hampshire.
She was married at 16; her husband was imprisoned 12 months later for armed robbery. With two young mouths to feed, Hampson found herself in the desperate kind of situation where you have to steal from clothes lines and milk boxes, just to get by.
This makes the writing itself cathartic: “the books are a way of making use of what happened to me and then bringing it full circle so something good comes out of it.”
The author’s series are set in the not-so-sleepy ganglands of 1960’s Gosport and London. There is a heart of darkness at the core of these places, and in the people bring brutalised by their circumstances and choices. Hampson’s fiction, although less well-read, is atmospheric and evocative. It deserves an adult rating for the language, sex and violence within.
Recommended Book: ‘Trust Nobody’ (2006)
The book that began the Daisy Lane series was hailed as “a cracking story” by The Bookseller.
It is about three women sharing a house. Each of them has been in some way profoundly affected by men – men just like Eddie. Unfortunately, Eddie has taken a liking to Daisy, who just happens to be his brother’s wife. So begins this deadly and territorial game of one-upmanship, as the realisation slowly dawns on all that there are always bigger fish in the sea…
All of these writers are at the top of their game in this genre that has emerged strongly over the past decade.
What’s often so great about these stories is how the women come out on top. If their books ever seem too life-like or realistic, then it’s worth remembering that a lot of these writers have some personal experience of their not-so-fictional worlds.
Even Martina Cole left school at 15, without any qualifications to her name, to become a single mum on a council estate just three years later. These authors turn writing to their advantage, whether as a cathartic process for themselves, or to make a success of it.
If you want more guts, grit and gangs than you can shake a stick at, combined with emotional family loyalties, these are the authors for you.
Have any of these recommendations hit the target for the best gang thriller writer like Martina Cole?
Share your own favourites in the comments below!
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