From court to crime writing

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Derry solicitor Des Doherty stood in an Iraqi courtroom defending Saddam Hussein in 2005. He was one of the key legal players in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and was heavily involved in the inquiry into the Dublin Monaghan bombings. He runs his own law firm and is currently serving as a member of international courts such as the Special Tribunal for the Lebanon and the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia. None of those tasks faze the 48-year-old. Publishing his first novel though, was an entirely different matter.

“I definitely felt the fear,” says Des, in relaxed form in the comfort of his first floor Clarendon Street office during a quiet Tuesday lunchtime.

On Thursday he was surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues from the legal world in Derry’s City Hotel as his first venture into the publishing world was launched. Putting his own work out there, he concedes, has been the most scary personal challenge of all.

“In all the places I’ve been, cases I’ve been involved in I’ve always been acting on behalf of other people. When it comes to something you’ve done yourself you’re putting yourself out there personally. When you make an appeal to a High Court Judge, or during a tribunal when you lodge a written submission, if there’s a typo, you apologise and move on but the process of writing a book is totally different. In that sense, I have to praise Paul Hippsley at Guildhall Press and his team. “I’ve heard the horror stories about people getting doors slammed in the publishing world but I was lucky in the sense that I went to one publishing company, and they offered to publish it. Since then, throughout the whole process, they’ve been fantastic and I’m delighted that ‘Valberg’ has been produced by a local publishing company.”

‘Valberg’ is the first in a three part fiction series detailing the exploits of flawed PSNI detective Jon Valberg on the trail of a killer who is stalking the streets of Derry. The city is as much a character as anyone else in the novel from the dark opening scene at the Craigavon Bridge to the Foyle embankment and Creggan, just a few of the locations where the grisly story unfolds.

Des is writing what he knows and writing where he knows.

He grew up in Rinmore Drive and was a student at St Peter’s School and then St Columb’s College. He undertook his studies in law at university in Kent. Despite his varied international reputation over the years, the father of two has kept himself rooted here and Derry is still very much considered home.

With an office bursting with files and paperwork, it’s hard to believe the Derry lawyer would have time left over for anything else. But he does.

“I don’t sleep a lot,” he laughs.

With his own record label with lifelong friend Bill Vail taking care of his unwavering love of music, there was always going to be a need to find an outlet for his writing. The character of Jon Valberg has more than filled that gap, and hot on the heels of tense Northern Irish psychological thriller ‘The Fall’ Des believes the public appetite is hungry for more homegrown crime writing.

In Derry, he claims, we have the perfect setting to explore a gripping story.

“When I showed the book trailer to Michael Mansfield, who spent considerable time here during the Bloody Sunday inquiry, he couldn’t believe it actually was Derry that we’d filmed. He thought it had been filmed in Copenhagen. It’s not that typical panoramic view of Derry that we see so often. It gives a different insight, and that’s what I hope the book will achieve as well. Even in the opening scene, we have a body found at the Craigavon Bridge and it instantly shows the darkness that the book is all about. Valberg examines the darker side of justice.”

Justice is a term Des is more than familiar with.

He says he’s been asked numerous times to write directly about his experiences in courtrooms in Ireland and beyond, but has always declined.

“People have always encouraged me to write about the high profile cases I’ve worked on,” says Des.

“The truth is, I’m still too close to those cases. In cases like the Dublin Monaghan bombings and the case regarding the death of Derry girl Raychel Ferguson and the Hyponatraemia inquiry, I feel I’m too close to all of that to write about it.”

He admits however that in deciding to write from the removed point of view of the narrator of a dark piece of fiction, he has taken some elements of the countless individuals he’s encountered during his career in law.

“If I were to say there weren’t any elements of the work I’ve been involved in in the Valberg books, I wouldn’t be telling the truth. But that’s all it is. I’m writing what I know about here, but I think if I’d written from the point of view of a struggling lawyer or some similar narrative, it would have been too obvious. “That’s why I’ve written from the point of view of the detective, in this case Valberg, I think what the excellent tv drama ‘The Fall’ did was to show that it’s now ok to write crime thrillers around the PSNI. Up until then, the police had been seen in that one dimensional way. In the book, I take a look at the detective as a human being as much as anything else.”

Des is quick to point out that his troubled fictional cop is not modelled on any one detective he’s met in the confines of the Derry courthouse.

“It’s not based on any one policeman that I know but it’s probably fair to say that I’ve taken bits and pieces from a number of different personality types. I suppose in structuring this novel I’ve taken all the things I’ve picked up during a career of 20 years and in a way crystallised them in a novel. I think I’ve written the type of book I’d like to read, and I hope that resonates with the people who pick it up.”

As he puts the finishing touches to the third book in the Valberg series, Des returns to concentrate on his legal workload with the ongoing high profile Hyponatraemia Inquiry and is currently preparing work for the inquiry into the death of Tyrone teenager Arlene Arkinson which gets underway in April.

As for whether his writing urge will have been satisfied with the Valberg trilogy, it’s the kind of straigtforward answer you rarely hear in the courtroom.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think the writing will ever stop.”

VALBERG is published by Guildhall Press and will also be available in eBook form for Kindle.ISBN: 9781906271749. Paperback £7.95. 166 pages.