CLAIRE MCGOWAN has a recurring nightmare and it has nothing to do with the grisly crimes she writes about.
She’s in an office, fused to the desk, following rules, fighting the clock and fretting over cleaning rosters in the staff kitchen.
Hardly the stuff of heart-stopping terror, but for McGowan it’s the equivalent of being chased down a dark alley with a brick wall at the end.
“I really don’t want to work in an office,” she almost pleads. “It’s too structured and there’s too many people and too much routine and stress over the staff fridge being too full — I hate it.”
It’s just as well then that the writing business is working out for her, with three novels published in three years and a fourth in its final draft.
Not bad for a 32-year-old who wanted to be a writer from the age of nine but never imagined she could do it for a living and so filled her days teaching, travelling and developing officephobia while working in various non-profit organisations.
Then came The Fall in 2012, her first published novel about two women from very different backgrounds connected by a murder, and suddenly she only had her own fridge to worry about.
The Fall earned much praise for McGowan who was declared the next big thing in crime fiction — a prediction that both gratified and bemused her as she never set out to write in the genre.
“I was clueless. I wrote what I thought was women’s fiction. I never saw myself as a crime writer,” she says.
She found the label fitted comfortably though and what happened next suggests it was made to measure.
She created Dr Paula Maguire, a forensic psychologist who is supposed to help the police with their investigations but has a habit of turning detective herself — much to the exasperation of her superiors.
“Rule-breakers are the most interesting people,” says McGowan, explaining why she doesn’t confine her heroine to desk duties. “I want my characters to be believable and I have spoken to some police and asked could this happen or would somebody do that and sometimes they say, no that’s very unlikely, but if it could at all possibly happen, I’m going to put it in my book.”
McGowan’s new novel, The Dead Ground, is Maguire’s second outing and there is a third almost complete with ideas for a further three churning around in the author’s head.
The books have won high praise from the likes of the venerated crime author Lee Child, creator of the massively successful Jack Reacher series, which is ironic given the criticisms McGowan sometimes faces that she isn’t a purist crime writer.
For now that she’s consciously writing crime novels, she sometimes gets comments that her books stray too far into the realm of women’s fiction.
McGowan shrugs and smiles. “I do get criticisms that I’m not crimey enough or too chick-litty which I just think is sort of funny because I’m not writing to a recipe.
“And the same critics usually say they really like the book but if I made it more crimey, then it would be a different book .”
It would also mean a different Maguire as it’s her complicated personal life as much as her forensic abilities that make her a compelling character.
She’s smart, self-contained and streetwise with a healthy appetite for men, although her outward strength masks a painful past and her confidence is far from bullet-proof.
In her first outing, last year’s The Lost, she’s living in London and fresh from success in tracking down a missing teenager when she reluctantly agrees to what is meant to be a brief stint back in her home town in Northern Ireland to assist with the disappearance of two local girls.
By The Dead Ground she’s become an integral part of the Missing Persons Review Unit based in the town — a fictional cross-border unit newly set up to re-examine cold case disappearances while also juggling the new cases that keep cropping up.
The fictional town of Ballyterrin substitutes neatly for Newry which McGowan knows well. She grew up a few miles away in Rostrevor, the oldest of four children of a doctor mother and school teacher father.
The peace process was already well established by the time McGowan, now 32, finished school but the Troubles formed the backdrop to her childhood and the memory and legacy lingers on in the Ballyterrin that Maguire returns to.
“It’s a bit of a gift to write about,” says McGowan of having Northern Ireland as the complex landscape on which to plot her stories.
“There’s so much to say. The history and religion and divisions and superstitions. I just find it endlessly interesting.”
The Dead Ground begins with a flashback to the early 1990s and the abduction of a man and savage beating of his heavily pregnant wife who is left to perform her own caesarean on the kitchen floor.
It’s a grim and gruesome opener that begs the question just how much horror the young McGowan was exposed to growing up.
“Actually, very little,” she says. “I heard of things going on but I was quite sheltered. My mum in particular was really strict about what we watched on TV. I wasn’t even allowed to watch Neighbours until I was 15.”
What she did have, however, was unlimited access to books and therein lay the loophole in her mother’s logic.
“I was always in the library and I could read 10 books a week, so I read everything. I was reading Stephen King at ten.”
A high achiever at school, she was expected to go on to Queen’s University in Belfast but took a notion about applying to Oxford and ended up studying French and English there.
She has based herself in London ever since, although she’s comes home regularly to see family, research her books and enjoy not having to explain her various Irishisms. “Nobody in London knows what a hot press is,” she laughs.
Maybe not, but they’re beginning to know who Claire McGowan is and the recognition factor could grow rapidly as the BBC has optioned the Dr Maguire stories and there is talk of a TV series.
“It might never happen,” cautions McGowan. But how would she feel about seeing her work on the screen? “I’d have to get a tv first,” she says, explaining how she left it behind at her last address when her marriage broke up last year.
Currently going through a divorce, she says she is grateful for the outlet writing gives her in tough times, although she thought the opposite would be true and actually put it aside for much of last year and returned to office work which she believed would be a better way of dealing with things.
It wasn’t. “I’ve never really had a plan in life but I have one now — my main aim is never to work in an office again. So I better make my writing work.”