Jessie Keane, ‘Queen of the Underworld’, on her gritty past and writing success
Jessie Keane, bestselling crime writer, tells all about her difficult past and how her dreams of being a published author became a reality.
A Sunday Times bestselling author and dubbed ‘Queen of the Underworld’, Jessie Keane is known far and wide as the authentic voice of gangland crime fiction. Having written fourteen novels and sold over a million copies worldwide, here she tells us about her turbulent upbringing, her introduction to the London underworld which now inspires her books, and her journey to writing success.
Romany by birth, I was born in a gypsy caravan in the middle of a rural Hampshire field. Growing up was tough. I grew up in fear of my brothers who bullied me and stole, bankrupting the family business and hurrying my father into an early grave.
Traumatised, I ran away aged 15 to Soho, where I grew to love London life and then to meet the characters who would later inspire my crime novels. After changing my identity and working in a series of dead-end jobs, I hit rock bottom. Freezing cold because I couldn’t afford to have central heating installed, I was living in an empty council flat and dreaming of one day becoming a published writer. It seemed a ridiculous dream though; I’d been writing since childhood and sending out completed novels to agents and publishers who so far had shown zero interest.
Twice divorced, I sold my wedding dress and bought first a typewriter and then a computer, then waited for inspiration to strike. It did – finally – when I was huddled under a duvet watching a video about the Kray twins. I started to imagine a woman there among the big organised gangs of the nineteen sixties; a fearless, feisty woman.
So Annie Carter was born, and the first Annie Carter novel Dirty Game was completed in just three months.
I read the tarot before sending the novel out and got a double death result - which meant huge change. But I was sceptical. Still expecting nothing to come of it, I sent the book out to six agents. Two replied immediately and the first told me to make changes to the novel – and to number the pages this time!
I made the changes and sent the manuscript back to the agent. I was told that there might be someone interested in it, but not to get too excited. So I didn’t. Success had eluded me for so long that I was sanguine about it, even fatalistic. If the tarot was right, I would succeed. If not, then I was just going to have to get a Proper Job once again.
But I never did get that Proper Job. Within days the agent phoned back. ‘Are you sitting down?’ she asked.
I was – on the tired old sofa, which was almost the only furniture in the flat. Then the agent broke the news. A major publisher had picked up Dirty Game and liked it. On the strength of that, he was now offering a three-book deal.
So my dream of becoming a published writer came true at last. Now, I’ve written fourteen novels. Six of those are Annie Carter tales – Dirty Game, Black Widow, Scarlet Women, Playing Dead, Ruthless and Stay Dead. Annie seems to ring a lot of bells among my fans. They took her to their hearts straight away, seeing themselves in her and going along for each new ride. She’s a real gritty modern woman, passionate and tough; I love her, love writing her, and I think that shines through. Three of my books are focused on a new character, mixed-race heroine Ruby Darke, those are Nameless, Lawless and The Edge. I have a special place in my heart for Ruby, being of an ethnic minority myself. She’s a tough gal, a survivor, and I really admire that. The rest of my books are big thumping blockbuster stand-alones, all of them bestsellers like Jail Bird, The Make and Dangerous.
I’m at last living the dream, dividing my time between Hampshire and London and have fallen in love with my neighbour, who has moved in and is now mentioned in the dedications of all my novels as ‘Him Indoors’. It all seems magical and unbelievable but it’s true. From humble beginnings, from tragedy and trouble, I followed my dream and made it reality.