Death in the East End? It’s time to call for Barley Ruth’s very modern heroine

Ruth Wade with her book

Ruth Wade with her book - Credit: Archant

Ruth Wade takes her time to respond when asked if she’d be offended by someone describing her new book as ‘Silent Witness Meets Call The Midwife.’

It’s clear she wasn’t intending that Foul Trade could be so pigeon-holed into such a Sunday night TV-friendly pitch, but it’s also clear that she wouldn’t mind at all if her heroine - east London coroner’s officer May Keaps – was picked up by the costume drama crew and turned into a household name.

Foul Trade, published under the non-gender nom-de-plume of BK Duncan, has been making something of a stir in publishing circles since it first appeared.

For Ruth, who has published a string of other novels under her own name which also show her fascination with the period just after the First World War, the success is something to savour after years honing her craft.

And it certainly helps confirm her credentials with the writing students she tutors – having started at North Herts College she now works with one group in Aston and other budding authors in Cambridge.

But the business of marketing her work, which has included a signing session at Letchworth’s David’s Bookshop, takes valuable time away from the planned second adventure in the series, and her painstaking research to make sure that every little detail in her narrative is just so.

When we meet she’s just back from an Aston class, has a literary party in Cambridge later on the same day and is then off to a book festival in Yorkshire.

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But that’s part of the price of being in the running for awards. Foul Trade has been nominated for The People’s Book Prize, and voting is open until the end of August – search for The People’s Book Prize and Foul Trade on Google, then choose from the list of options.

Comments left by other readers on the voting site are certainly enthusiastic: One said: “It opened up a world I knew nothing about. Thank goodness for women like May, I can’t wait to meet her again. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, well researched and written to take the reader back in time.”

Such praise is always welcome, but Ruth would far rather be deep inside her chocolate-box flint cottage in the shadow of Barley’s parish church, checking and double-checking her 1920s references and conjuring up a page-turning story that offers insights along the way.

Her chosen period is not unlike the times we are going through now, she says – economic boom and bust, megarich celebs hogging headlines for no good reason, and beneath the glitter a real struggle to survive for many.

But it’s fertile ground for fiction, with a strong central female character, East End villains and dodgy dealings galore, and the threat of death around every corner.

Ruth speaks matter-of-factly about working around the clock when the words are flowing, and doesn’t pull any punches about the craft being hard graft, with only a handful of authors ever making a living from their work.

For those who want to follow her example, the steps are simple, but may seem daunting: “There are two main components – your motivation has to be rooted in wanting to create, and you have to put pen to paper somewhere along the line.

“It helps if you have something to say because it is essentially a sharing activity.”

That’s why a sounding board - a like-minded spirit, an editor, other writers - is essential early on.

“Techniques need to be learned and the craft honed and polished and there are no shortcuts,” she warns. “Books abound on the subject of how to write but try to avoid the ones that make it sound quick, easy and painless. It’s not.”

Before you write, you should read, read, read – and when you start writing, you shouldn’t stop until the tale is told.

For May Keaps, the story continues. Ruth is hard at work on the next book in the series, Found Drowned, and there are more adventures in store.

She said: “Introducing a new character is a bit like taking a best friend to a party and hoping that everyone there will understand what it is I see in them.

“She will grow over the length of the series as her experiences change and mature her.”

And if she turns up as the star of a Sunday evening TV series, so much the better.