Tony Kent: ‘I’m both Irish and English’

Tony Kent

Colin Gannon

Hailing from a working-class Irish family, with over 100 first cousins, Tony Kent’s life achievements read as inimitable. Briefly, Kent, fresh out of his teens, flirted with the notion of becoming a professional boxer; he then earned a law degree, trained as a barrister, and, naturally enough, found himself a career in the arena of crime fiction writing.

Born and raised to parents from Dublin in a council estate in west London, Kent considers his identity to be sacred.

“I was raised in about as Irish a manner as can be for England,” he says. “If someone asks, ‘are you English or Irish’, the answer is both.”

He even warns me that, during the course of our conversation, his voice may accidentally arch into an Irish lilt, offering assurances that this is not mimicry; merely a habit from being ensconced in family homes where the accent flows freely.

Statistically speaking, having such a large family, Kent tells me, means that some have had skirmishes with the legal system. He first dreamt of studying the law after becoming spellbound by a barrister during his brother’s trial.

It was this moment, he says, that became the germ for his legal career. Admittedly, he had other goals, ones that his Irish parents were less than excited about.

“Another ambition when I was younger was to join the army. My mother, being a Dublin woman, would not allow that to happen,” he says, his voice perking up guardedly as if his mother was in the room beside him. “I was going to join the Paras and my mother made the point that if I went to Dublin, it would be the end of any trips there.”

Kent, having had some successful years as an amateur boxer, chose to study law at Dundee University simply because of the prominence of the boxing club on the college’s pamphlets. He was soon disappointed, discovering almost immediately that the club was barely operational, with little to no committed members.

He took the club over and, testament to some characteristic grit, they became university champions across a variety of weight divisions in the space of two years.

After qualifying, he set off to the Inns of Court School of Law. He stopped attending at Christmas, however, opting to teach himself and simultaneously work with his father to pay for the course fees of £12,500.

Old Bailey Court, London. (Photo: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie)

Later on, aged just 22, after stubbornly paying his way through college, an off-hand remark from a friend — who sarcastically sniped that he was a budding barrister from a “family of villains” — gave him inspiration for a book idea.

While doing his pupilage, he started writing a book, scraping together four chapters initially.

Kent got himself into one of the leading chambers in the country and stayed there for over 12 years, meaning he was forced to leave the book aside for a full decade.

Then, one year, he was assigned a trial in the Old Bailey that gave him ample free time. He wrote was to be his debut book in 3 or 4 months, he says, but spent years tinkering with it, taking it apart, revisiting and revising certain sections.

“I made the decision: I want to pursue this,” he remembers. “I couldn’t do it while in the chambers so I set up, essentially, my own law firm with a solicitor friend.”

The central character of Killer Intent, his 2018 debut, is Michael Devlin — an Irish-born criminal law barrister who originates from a family of villains — is inextricably based on his own life.

Although he is wary of leaning into the autobiographical, he has appropriated much of his writing thus far from real experiences and people he personally knows, including family members.

“I made the character slimmer,” Kent says sheepishly, laughing, “and better looking. I do want to keep as much separation as possible. Ultimately, you don’t want to write about yourself. It’s indulgent and, frankly, boring.”

Tony Kent

Devlin, the character which his latest book, Marked For Death, also follows, is named after an uncle of Kent’s called Michael Devlin.

“People say write what you know. It occurred to me that being a criminal barrister of Irish descent, I should write about a criminal barrister of Irish descent,” he explains.

Kent splits his time between writing and the criminal bar. A taxing life, the multi-hyphenate concedes, one he would relinquish if writing allowed him to become financially independent.
He practises at his own chambers, Christian-Wyatt Law, and specialises in serious crime. Most notably, Kent worked on the case of boxing heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, clearing him of a drug offence prior to his Olympic successes.

Regrettably, Kent says he doesn’t read as much as he would like due to obvious time constraints. Juggling legal work and writing, he points out, is as energy-sapping as it sounds.

Recently, it emerged that Killer Intent was to be adapted into a TV series, overseen by renowned director Duncan Jones. Jack Reacher creator, Lee Child, is a major literary influence on Kent, and he intended to follow in his footsteps by taking his writing to the widescreen.

“My ethos is: I want to create a film in someone’s head. I want someone to be on a beach and just read this book as if watching a movie,” he says.

Given the continued popularity of television series — bolstered by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime — in an era known disparagingly as ‘Peak TV’, this adaption makes sense and, Kent says, is more fulfilling than film in 2019.

“A few years ago, I would have been distraught for it to not be a movie. But the way things have gone with TV — with production values and everything — it’s almost a better way to tell a story,” he says, adding that TV provides for greater expansive freedom.

Marked For Death, a follow-up to his well-received debut, is rooted in the innermost fears of a certain generation of British barristers, Kent explains.

One particular unnamed defendant during the ‘80s made barristers genuinely frightened — in spite of, he says, their hardened professional shells. Although before his time, a story told amongst barristers who had encounters with the man, is that he once hospitalised 6 riot-gear police after escaping a prison cell.

As a matter of fact, Kent’s pupil-master defended him. The man was due to be released, but after searching his cell, police found a kill-list of everyone — judges, barristers, police — involved in his case. People reportedly got paid protection despite his reincarceration. Almost instinctively, Kent picked this out as a stranger-than-fiction plot line.

“I remember thinking: what if hadn’t gotten out? What if they hadn’t found the list? He would free today. Would he have tried to carry out the killings? That’s Marked For Death.”

The character of Michael Devlin is more well-rounded and familiar in Marked For Death, Kent recounts of recent critical reviews, and he feels this is because it mirrors him and his family life more closely.

“My own Irishness and my time in Dublin and Belfast,” Kent admits, “really does inform the character.”

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