THE QUEEN OF CRIME DRAMA
By Z. J. Czupor
This living, award-winning, and bestselling author is a true example of a rogue writer, who never let adversity stand in the way of her dreams.
Eilidh Martina Cole was born on March 30, 1959, the youngest of five children to a poor, Irish Catholic family in Essex, England, an area infamous for its world of petty crime, sketchy women, and violent men. Her mother was a psychiatric nurse in County Dublin and her father was a merchant seaman.
At the age of 14, Martina Cole wrote her first novel (unpublished). At 15, she was expelled from convent school after allegedly caught reading The Carpetbaggers, Harold Robbins’ (1916-1997) explosive 1961 novel which featured sex and violence. When she left school, she was told she would never amount to anything. Cole said, the one subject she most loved was English. Her English teacher told her if she put her mind to it, she had a future in writing.
At 16, she married. At 17, she divorced and wrote her second novel (also unpublished). At 18, she became pregnant with her son, Chris. She reconciled the birth with her parents, but then her son’s father suddenly died. Two days later, when she was 21, both of her parents died in their sleep. Cole said it was devastating. “But the thing about having children is, when you’ve got no support, you just have to get up and get on with it.”
As a single mom, Cole lived in a hostel, found employment as a cleaner, agency nurse, supermarket shelf-stocker and wine waitress, where she took her young son with her to work. Then late in the evening, she would stuff leaflets into magazines until four in the morning to earn extra cash. After her daughter was born, a cancerous tumor appeared in her leg, which was operated on.
After her parents’ deaths, she began writing crime fiction. She often wrote romance novels for her neighbors in exchange for cigarettes. She first earned money writing when the BBC accepted a script. She started her third novel at the age of 21 and put it away without finishing. When she turned 30, she decided to become a serious writer. She retrieved her novel-in-progress and completed it in eighteen months. She sent the manuscript to two publishers and was promptly rejected. Then, she chose an agent out of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and sent her work out on a Thursday. By Monday, agent Darley Anderson called her and said, “You are going to be a star.” That manuscript became Martina Cole’s debut novel, Dangerous Lady (Headline, 1992).
Dangerous Lady is a gripping thriller about a seventeen-year-old girl who takes on a tough London gangland.
The agent sold her first two books for a then record 150,000 pounds. Life for her and her son changed in an instant.
Today, Martina Cole is recognized as one of England’s most renowned mystery and thriller authors. She’s written more than 25 novels, seventeen of which were #1 bestsellers with total sales north of 17 million copies, making her Britain’s bestselling female crime writer and the first British female adult novelist to break the 50-million-pound sales mark. Her books have been translated into 31 languages and adapted for multiple stage plays and television series. Ironically, she says her books in the UK are the most stolen books from bookshops.
Cole said she’s never stopped being grateful for that beginning. “I try to have a nice day every day. I try as hard as I can. Because there was a long time when I didn’t have very many nice days at all. It was just all work and graft and paying bills.” (The Guardian, May 30, 2009).
Now 62, Cole is still a vibrant blonde with a gravelly voice. Her friends describe her as warm, welcoming, and without affectation, which is surprising since she often writes such violent scenes in which a man maims his father with garden trowels, while at the same time, the man’s wife is giving birth to his son; or that the same character will later rape his best friend’s wife. While her novels are peppered with violence, they always promote a moral core.
Her novels typically feature tough and gritty female protagonists and the dark side of London’s criminal underworld. Her characters, even the bad guys, are likeable with humanity. “I like to write from the point of view of the criminal and find out why they’d done that, why there were like that, not just get them caught.” She cautions, however, that “the bad people never really prosper in my books.”
Cole said, she “always wanted a writer’s life after watching a documentary on Jackie Collins (1937-2015) on the TV and envying her walk-in wardrobes.” She writes mostly late at night in longhand. Once she has a character developed, she feels the book writes itself. “I have a vivid imagination and write from an emotional standpoint,” she said.
Cole says she never plans anything in her life. As far as her novels, “I have the beginning, middle and end and the characters, and I usually write two-four drafts, and each time it all changes. I am always thinking of new ideas for future books, which is why I always keep notebooks all around my house to write down any new ideas.”
British TV star and author Denise Welch, writing in the Foreword to Dangerous Lady (2016) said, “Martina is a wonderful storyteller. She transports her readers to the dark underbelly of a world most of us know very little about, and yet she knows intimately. It’s the world of the London criminal—frightening, brutal, violent and often glamorous, for which she makes no apology.”
Cole has achieved multi-millionaire status and lives in a 15th century mansion in Kent, England, where a ghost haunts her library. She also owns a speedboat, an organic vegetable patch, and chickens. She continues to write and at the same time stays centered. In her spare time, she teaches writing classes in prisons and is an ambassador for a literacy program to inspire and encourage less-confident readers to improving their reading skills. She also supports a charity for single-parent families and another which supports survivors of domestic abuse.
When it comes to teaching prisoners, she once said to her classes, “There’s one thing you’ve got that all writers want—time.”
In 2009, Cole filmed and narrated a documentary, Martina Cole—Girls in Gangs: Los Angeles for Sky Television (now British Sky Broadcasting). The film focused on the role of girls in gangs which were responsible for crimes ranging from drug dealing, car theft, robbery, and murder. The entire film can be seen on the link above.
In addition to her writing career, she co-owns a film and television production company, “2 Queens;” a record label, “Hostage Music;” and two bookstores in Northern Cyprus, “Best Seller Books.”
In February, Cole was awarded the 2021 Crime Writers Association’s “Diamond Dagger,” the highest honor in British crime writing. The award recognized her accomplishments and puts her in the same league with such past winners as Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Ian Rankin, PD James (1920-2014), Peter Lovesey, and John Le Carré (1931-2020).
“Writing is something I wanted to do all my life, and it’s given me such a great life…every day I appreciate how lucky I am to be able to do what I do…I’ve loved my job, and I’m not ashamed to say that. I’ve absolutely loved my job,” Cole said.
Her latest thriller, Loyalty, (Headline), is available for pre-order and scheduled for publication on August 1, 2022.
- Cole’s first name “Eilidh” is Gaelic and means “light.”
- In her haunted library, Cole has a collection of approximately 800 books and often collects first editions. She owns a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird and Grapes of Wrath.
- When she’s writing, she reads a book a week. When she’s not writing, she reads a book a day.
- She names each of her chickens. One is “Tom Cruise.”
- Before she became wealthy, she slept on the kitchen floor of her hostel flat so that her son could have the only bed.
- Cole owns a second home in Cyprus and spends several months of the year living there.
- Cole’s net worth, in 2021, was estimated to be $45 million. (Net Worth Inspector).