Local author, Derek Smith's locally-based crime novel series

Friday 2 February 2024

Last month we featured local author, Derek Smith's memories of Benjamin Zephaniah, when he lived in the area. Derek, himself is an author and we asked him to share a little about his 14-book crime novel series, Jack of All Trades, set in Forest Gate. Derek, below, explains the background and themes of the books, a little about himself and finally provides a note on where you can acquire the titles.

Local author, Derek Smith

Jack of All Trades

Jack of All Trades is my Forest Gate crime series, written under the pen name D H Smith. My full name is Derek Howard Smith. There are 14 in the series as of 2024, mostly set in Forest Gate. The main character is Jack Bell, a builder as well as a sleuth. The books don’t have to be read in order as each is a separate tale. There’s one exception. In Jack of Spades some bodies are buried in Epping Forest. Several years later, I wrote a sequel, Jack Recalled, when the bodies are found.

I came to Newham in 1976 as the playwright in residence for Soapbox Theatre. For three years I wrote plays for the company and directed some of them. I have had plays on radio, TV and theatre.  I left Soapbox in 1979 to set up a bookshop at The Whole Thing in West Ham Lane, Stratford, with Gill Hay, where, surrounded by books, I began writing fiction. It took me some time to get away from playwriting and to get the hang of novels. But, under the name Derek Smith, I have had three young adult tales published by Faber.

In 2013, I decided to write a crime series, which became the Jack of All Trades series. I thought a series would pick up more readers as they got hooked into the tales. I didn’t want a cop as a main character. Across the world, there are too many bad police forces. In a democracy, they can be kept in check, but even then our police force was breaking up the miners strike in Thatcher’s Britain, and in the Stephen Lawrence enquiry, they were adjudged ‘institutionally racist’. Not for me then.

A private eye was a possibility, but it didn’t attract me. So I needed my main character to have a job where he would work in different settings. I did some research on this, and came up with a builder. My father was in the building trade for part of his working life, and I have known a number of builders, so that inevitably affected my final decision. A builder must have work skills, people skills, and the ability to solve problems on the job. Jack Bell left school as soon as he could with with no qualifications, and picked up building skills on the sites. I thought at first he might be a ‘cowboy builder’ but rejected this as his bad workmanship would take over the plot. So in the main, he does a good job, though at least one person gets killed at each place of work. By necessity, there’s a sort of amnesia from book to book, or no one would employ him.

Jack has a daughter, Mia, who is 10 in the first book and 17 in the last, and he often reads her school books to make up for his neglected education. I am keen on astronomy, so I gave him this hobby. Jack often goes out on Wanstead Flats late at night with his telescope, though too often the nights are cloudy. He has a series of girl friends. Some get murdered, some are murderers, and some just don’t work out.

When I had written the first three books, I got an agent. For several years, she sent the first book to publishers, without having any luck. When she got to a publishing company that would have sold the books at £19.99, I thought that’s impossible; I would sell so few at that price. So I said goodbye to the agent and decided to self publish. This has become so much easier with the advent of the ebook and print-on-demand which means you don’t have to print thousands of copies of a book, but as few as you need.

All the books are called Jack something or other. The first three are Jack of All Trades, Jack of Spades, and Jack o’Lantern. Jack Bell is a self employed builder, working mostly on his own, with Jack of All Trades printed on his van. When he is told that he is master of none, he has the rejoinder: at least you’ll remember me.

Jack lives on Earlham Grove, Forest Gate. In the first book, he is working in Chigwell, in the second on Ham Park Road by West Ham Park, but in the third he is out in Essex. It was then that I decided to set all further books in Forest Gate. Well, there’s little competition for Forest Gate crime writers. Some settings are: Manor Park cemetery, Wanstead Flats, the Wanstead Tap, a hotel on the Romford Road, houses on Claremont Road, Clova Road and Hampton Road.

About four years ago, I want to a party at Hazel Goldman’s guest house on Earlham Grove. Talking to some of her guests and to Hazel, I thought this would make an ideal setting for a tale. And out of those thoughts came Jack at the Lodge. I wondered if Hazel might be put out at me writing a novel about a guest house on Earlham Grove somewhat like hers, but no, she has bought a couple of books.

I am a volunteer for Forest Gate Community Garden, and sure enough, that has become a setting for Jack in the Garden. I don’t use real people, certainly bits of people, but no actual person fits. Though, I gave myself a cameo in Jack in the Garden, like Alfred Hitchcock in his movies.

My daughter, Lia Rees, does the book design: the internal layouts and the covers. She is also my proof reader. Although self published, our aim is that the books mustn’t look amateurish, but be able to stand along with traditionally published books. All of the books are in Newham Libraries, across the borough, with six of the series in Forest Gate Library. The latest, Jack in Clink, was launched there in November 2023.

The ebooks of the series are available on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo and Google Play. The paperbacks are available on Amazon, and at No 8, The Emporium (top of Sebert Road).

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