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From Cowboy Books to Crime Novelist – John Mc Allister

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | Crime Scene

Louise Phillips

One of my favourite parts of the Crime Scene blog at writing.ie is getting to know authors, especially Debut Irish Crime Authors – a writing breed thankfully on the increase!

So I’m delighted to introduce JOHN MC ALLISTER, whose novel THE STATION SERGEANT was published last week by Portnoy Publishing.

John will tell us about his writing journey from cowboy books to crime writing – and I hope you agree, it’s a very interesting one!


But first a little bit about the THE STATION SERGEANT and the AUTHOR 

Station Sergeant


John McAllister, who was born in Ballymena, sets his novel THE STATION SERGEANT in his home town in late 1959 and early 1960. Here the reader gets introduced to John Barlow, the Station Sergeant.

When unpopular farmer Stoop Taylor is found dead in a field, Station Sergeant Barlow has the sinking feeling his comfortable life is about to be turned upside down.

While local hoods, the Dunlops, are stealing cattle to order, a traumatised German soldier escapes and roams the countryside.

Barlow’s personal problems multiply as well. He falls in love with another woman, his schizophrenic wife turns violent, his daughter is growing up too fast and a new Inspector wants him demoted.

The Station Sergeant faces a battle to find a killer and save his career, as one murder after another rocks the small Irish town.


John’s previous publications include, ‘The Fly Pool and Other Stories’ (Black Mountain Press, 2003) and a novel, ‘Line of Flight’ (Bluechrome Publishing, 2006). He is the editor of ‘Hometown’ (ABC Publications, 2003) and co-editor of ‘Breaking the Skin’ (Black Mountain Press: 2002), a double anthology of prose and verse for the twenty-first century. John also contributed to the widely acclaimed anthology ‘Requiems for the Departed’.


John Mc Allister

“I wanted to write cowboy books. And I did, ‘Kid Carbine’, it stayed in the stable. The next novel, ‘I Suddenly’, was a love story (don’t ask) between a headmaster and his secretary. It got serialised in a magazine. And I definitely, definitely, was not going to write poems. I’ve three dozen published, some in prestigious magazines. After that I took to writing short stories and somehow in the middle of it all I wrote a novel, ‘Line of Flight’, which got published.

My collection of short stories, ‘The Fly Pool, was the usual beginner’s scattergun of themes. After that I found that my stories only worked if they had as their theme some unfairness to individuals that I wanted to highlight. Looking back, that was why ‘Line of Flight’ worked where other efforts hadn’t.

As an accountant in practice I had spent years hearing clients’ stories of how the terrorists on both sides colluded to screw protection money out of the ordinary workers. It is too strong a word to say that ‘Line of Flight’ was a cry against this, even so the local papers refused to review the book. To do so would be to admit openly that, peace process or not, the protection rackets still flourish in Northern Ireland.

After that came a lot more stories and a couple of crime novels that didn’t please me, let alone others and one novel that did even though I couldn’t find a buyer.

All the time – even this very week – people would contact me and talk about the short story collection. And always they wanted to talk about the ‘Sergeant Barlow’ stories. At the same time a friend of mine kept nagging for another ‘Barlow’ story because he loved him so much. This from a card-carrying “Sticky”, a man who forms his fingers into the shape of the cross to ward off evil spirits if I even mention the RUC.

To please my friend I went back to an unfinished Barlow story. The first attempt at what turned out to be a novel was little more than a rehash of the original stories. But having written myself back into the character and the period (1960s Ireland) I spent an hour a day, every day for a month, typing many more questions than solutions into my journal.

As a youth I was ultra conservative, but by the time I retired I was still a conservative but very much pro-union. In my business as an accountant I had seen how intractable and bloody-minded even the best employer could become on occasion.

Because of this, what gradually emerged from the journal was not so much the plot of the novel as the theme around which the plot is built: the absolute control that people of rank and substance have over the ordinary working man. It’s there in the book and you’ll be aware of it now only because I told you to look out for it. And look out for it you’ll have to. I don’t thump desks and I don’t bang big drums.

In Line of Flight, I had taken the Clonovon area of Ballymena and dumped it at the junction of the Shankhill and the Ligoniel Roads, and this became the Belfast of my book.

With THE STATION SERGEANT I had the whole of my hometown to play with. Even better, I could celebrate characters of my youth. Families who had a ‘bad name’ also on occasion showed great chivalry and I was able to demonstrate that in my family of ne’r-do-wells, the Dunlops. Also, other people of my youth were deemed ‘good’ because circumstances and fortune had favoured them. What if they had to make choices under pressure, and made the wrong ones?  All that gave me my characters, my crimes and my conflicts. And that was the easy part.

Don’t kid yourself, writing is hard work. It’s a bit like banging your head off a brick wall, lovely when you stop. But when the writing has gone well you walk away from the computer with a feeling of euphoria that no drug can give you. It might be free, but it’s even more addictive.”


You can order your copy of THE STATION SERGEANT HERE

Finally some images from the launch of THE STATION SERGEANT at No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast last week.

Station Sergeant Launch 1

The Station Sergeant Launch 2

The Station Sergeant Launch 3


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