PD James said ‘All fiction is largely autobiographical.’ I don’t think that’s true, but I do think first novels sometimes contain an element of this – often in the similarities between the author and their protagonist.
My debut novel, All In Her Head (and there are spoilers here, so don’t read on unless you’ve read it!) focuses on a woman suffering from post-partum psychosis. I didn’t suffer from this particular condition or consciously choose the subject because of my own experience, but after I’d finished writing it, I realised the fictional story about a woman who suffers from this condition was probably subconsciously a way of working through some of the trauma I went through after giving birth.
I had my second daughter in 2007, over ten years ago. She was an unexpectedly large baby at 9lb 9oz (I’m only 5ft 3) and I ended up in intensive care for several days after being rushed into theatre – I’d haemorrhaged as a result of an undiagnosed placenta accreta and lost over three litres of blood and needed several blood transfusions. I’d had a retained placenta after having my first daughter a couple of years earlier and that should really have highlighted that I was at higher risk for another, but for whatever reason, it was never picked up.
At the time, I didn’t appreciate the mental trauma I’d suffered as I was too busy trying to recover physically in order to look after a new baby also my toddler who was just turning two. I attempted to carry on as if everything was normal and present an image to everyone else that I was fine, but actually I felt very tearful most of the time and certainly didn’t feel that instantaneous overwhelming sense of love for my daughter that other seemed to feel (and that I’d had with my first child). I suffered from flashbacks and difficulty sleeping, but still insisted I was fine. I was lucky; over the following months I healed; I began to sleep better, bond with my daughter and had fewer flashbacks.
When I started writing the novel that eventually became my published debut, and began to think about my characters and plot, I read some articles on post-partum psychosis and became fascinated with the subject. I was shocked this condition affects 1 in 1000 women when they give birth and many people are still completely unaware of it. I also found it terrifying that the process of having a baby, something that we consider to be natural and normal, can change a woman’s mental state so fundamentally that they are unable to comprehend what is reality and what isn’t; a situation that can on occasion, sadly, end in horrendous tragedy.
Most people have heard of women such as Andrea Yates who drowned her five children in the bath, but it should be stressed that such tragic outcomes are rare, and also preventable if they are identified in time. In all the cases that I researched, no mother ever intended to hurt her baby – in fact the exact opposite was true – the mother’s over-riding desire was to protect their child, but the delusions they were suffering from meant it was how they went about trying to do this that resulted in tragedy.
Although I didn’t suffer from post-partum psychosis, some of the feelings Alison has in the book made her, for me, an easy character to write. I think subconsciously she’d been in my head for a long time – hence the idea for the title of the book. Writing about a fictional character gave me a chance to work through some of the more upsetting aspects that haunted me after giving birth – the lack of control over the birthing process, the horror of a traumatic birth, the feelings of isolation that I had afterwards, separated from close family by physical distances.
When writing All In Her Head I wanted to highlight not only this extreme condition, but the fact that in the UK (and other countries in the developed world), women are often shielded from the dangers of giving birth. ‘Natural births’ are encouraged, and many women feel like a failure if they don’t achieve a birth without pain-relief, if they can’t breastfeed, if they end up with a cesarean. No one likes talking about the potential dangers that can result from having a baby that many women are unaware of. In the UK, 67 women died in 2018 childbirth or as a result of complications arising from pregnancy. Women over forty are three times more likely to die compared to someone in their twenties. Less serious, but still incredibly traumatic are the consequences of living with long term conditions largely caused by pregnancy or childbirth such as urinary incontinence (affecting up to 1 in 3 women) and pelvic organ prolapse (reported by 1 in 12 women). And these are just the physical issues. Mental trauma is even more prevalent. 1 in 10 women will suffer from some form of post-natal depression; I’m sure I did, but it was undiagnosed, probably because I insisted that everything was ‘fine’ when it wasn’t; ticking the ‘right’ boxes on a form I was given by a visiting midwife because I didn’t want to make a fuss. I hope by writing the book, it will make people more aware of these issues surrounding childbirth.
My second novel, Look What You Made Me Do is published in April (lockdown launch II for me – I’m beginning to feel like a pro!!) and I don’t think I have anything in common with the characters in this one – but it will be interesting to see what readers think – perhaps there is a small part of the author somewhere in every book they write.
Tony Hutchinson is a retired Detective Superintendent who was involved in over 40 murder investigations throughout his career.
Now the author of the Dark Tides thrillers, Tony joined us on Bay Tales Live #2 along with Steve Cavanagh (an ex-lawyer) and Neil Broadfoot (in his pre-writing career a journalist) and the three talked about how their previous careers have affected their writing.
Tony’s comments on what factual details crime fiction novels and TV programmes get wrong proved to be of particular interest.
So if you’re looking to ‘write right’ or just a reader wondering how accurate your favourite books are, here are three short videos from Tony pointing out some common mistakes.
If you like what you see let us know via our contact page. You can send us an email with the subject line ‘Crime Questions’ and we’ll see if we can persuade Tony to give us some more ‘inside views’.
Who owns my story? Legally I’ve asserted my right to be identified as the author of Blackwatertown in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and patent Act 1988. Another way of looking at it is that as soon as a reader picks up a copy or opens it on their e-reader, the story belongs to them, to enjoy (or not) and interpret how and at a pace they choose. (Audiobooks may be a little different, as the voice in your head has to compete with that of the narrator – in my case, actor Patrick Moy.)
I’m thinking more of the moral right of ownership – the right to be the exclusive teller of a story.
My book, Blackwatertown, is fiction. I made it up. I wrote it. So no problem there, is there?
But Blackwatertown is set on the Irish border in the 1950s, so if you know me, you’ll know that I wasn’t around back then. It draws upon stories handed down within my family – dark, dangerous and funny events experienced by people who have gone before me.
The central character of Blackwatertown is Jolly Macken, a demoted Catholic member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the then overwhelmingly Protestant police force in Northern Ireland. As a Catholic, he’s automatically viewed with suspicion by fellow RUC men. As an RUC man, he’s distanced from the Catholic nationalist community in which he grew up. His loyalties are questioned by those around him and, in this case, he is not sure where his loyalties lie either. It makes for awkward and interesting situations and dilemmas.
Jolly Macken is a fictional character, but I was informed by the experiences of previous generations of my own family and their friends, who served as Catholic members of the mainly Protestant RUC. They did not have it easy. They put their lives on the line by wearing the uniform, but to some colleagues their Catholicism was an indelible stain – impossible to be washed out, even by blood. And being Catholics was no protection against bullets fired by those trying to overthrow the state. Long before the more well known “Troubles” of the late 1960s onwards, there were sporadic flare-ups of insurrection in Northern Ireland. Blackwatertown is set during the 1950’s IRA border campaign.
It wasn’t all mutual suspicion. There was camaraderie within the police too. Shared danger can cut through religious barriers. And there were opportunities to shine.
That’s my great uncle Mike in the old photograph – District Inspector Michael Murphy, escorting the then Princess Elizabeth in Belfast in 1949. There was no shortage of gunmen back in the day, but trained swordsmen were rarer. Michael Murphy learned his sword skills in the Irish Guards. He also escorted King George VI, in life and death, and was involved in all sorts of derring-do.
But it wasn’t all hobnobbing with royalty. What about the others whose experiences were on the dodgier side – unofficial invasions of the Irish Republic, faked ambushes, assassination attempts, cock ups, conspiracies and ordinary decent and unusual crime? Is it fair that I draw upon any of this in my own writing? They’re raw material or inspiration for me, but other people’s real lives.
You may be familiar with the Northern Ireland saying, “Whatever you say, say nothing.” Good advice in suspicious times or while under interrogation, but it doesn’t get you far as a writer. The advice I received was that it would be better not to write anything at all. Not to conserve the forests, but to avoid dredging up old enmities or activating old, sometimes very old, threats.
Do I have the right to appropriate these stories? Or the pain suffered by others? To ignore the warnings?
You’re reading this, so you know what decision I’ve taken. I’ve chosen to step into the grey area, but I try not to cross an invisible chronological line. I can’t say for sure that the 1950s is a safe distance away. I’ve been told it’s not. But there must come a point surely where you’re allowed to stop looking over your shoulder all the time.
And these stories from the past are what made me and set the parameters of my life into adulthood. I think that gives me a claim on them too.
The ‘50s feel like a forgotten time in Northern Ireland, before the noise and horror of the decades that followed. I’ve admired the writing of Eoin McNamee and Maurice Leitch, who pick their way through the dreamworld before The Troubles. I want to tell other stories from then that are too good to let be forgotten.
My first published fiction was a short story. ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’ won a competition at a seminar organised by a writers’ circle, and was duly published in a national magazine, and then in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the US. After that, there was no stopping me. Although my next published work was my debut novel, All the Lonely People, I’ve kept writing short stories, as well as editing anthologies of short crime fiction. I don’t keep count, but the tally at the moment is about seventy stories and forty collections, so you could certainly say that I’m as committed to the short form as I am to the novel.
Where did this love of the short story come from? It goes back a long way, that’s for sure. I can remember asking for, and being given as a Christmas present, a Crime Writers’ Association anthology when I was about thirteen. That book contained stories by great names of the genre such as John Dickson Carr and Edmund Crispin, and it fired my imagination. So did an anthology of ‘tales of terror’ edited by Crispin, which includes one of my all-time favourite short stories, the wonderfully haunting and enigmatic ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Later, as I began to write fiction for publication, I found the short story liberating. You can do almost anything with it. ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’ was an unorthodox type of mystery, and from time to time I’ve tried further experiments with the form. So ‘An Index’ is a crime story which takes the form of a short extract from an index to a book. ‘Acknowledgments’, which won the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham Prize, is a skit on those sections in books where the author acknowledges help received. Recently, for an American anthology, I wrote ‘The Observance of Trifles’, a story in the form of a blog post, and accompanying comments.
Even if you’re not in the mood to push the boundaries in structural terms, the short form offers endless possibilities of subject, theme, and mood. There are ideas which, to my mind, suit a short story but not a novel. One day I went for a test drive in a car. The chatter of the showroom salesman gave me the idea for a story, but it was clear from the outset that it would only make a short piece, rather than a novel. The result was ‘Test Drive’, which was shortlisted for the CWA Short Story Dagger. Occasionally, I read novels which seem to me to be just expanded short stories; an example I came across the other day is Miles Tripp’s A Man Without Friends, published in 1970, which contains a brilliant central idea connected with the vagaries of justice, but not quite enough (in my opinion, anyway) for a truly satisfactory full-length book.
A particular setting often inspires me to write a short story. Typically, a trip on holiday or to a festival (in pre-pandemic days, of course!) might introduce me to an interesting location that I’d like to write about. Not knowing the place in depth, I wouldn’t want to produce a novel with that setting. Maintaining authenticity for, say, five thousand words is much easier than in a book of ninety thousand words. So I’ve written stories set in places as varied as Hartlepool (‘Lucky Liam’) and Hawaii (‘Catch of the Day’). Wandering the darkened streets of Venice one night, I lingered in front of a shop window and a rather macabre thought sprang to mind. The upshot was a story called ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’, which won the CWA Short Story Dagger, and represented a real breakthrough in my crime writing career. And when I was hired to give a series of lectures about crime fiction to passengers on the Queen Mary 2, I read about the history of the ship while on board. This gave me the idea of writing a story set on the original Queen Mary: the eventual result was ‘The Locked Cabin’.
‘The Locked Cabin’ has recently been chosen for inclusion in a prominent American anthology, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, but it wasn’t an easy story to write. I began with the idea of a crime taking place on the ship, but couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I left it for a while, and then started thinking about the possibility of writing a short ‘locked room mystery’. The two ideas coalesced, and I was able to start work on it in earnest.
Something of the same kind happened after I visited Bletchley Park. I had an idea for a story about war-time code breakers, but somehow it didn’t come to life, so again I left it to simmer. Months later, I visited Jersey to give some talks about writing. Whilst on the island, I visited Gorey on a lovely sunny day, and thought that I’d like to use the resort as a setting. I came up with a way of combining this backdrop with the code breaking story. The result was ‘The Sound of Secrecy’.
I particularly like to write short stories in between novels. They represent a welcome break, a change of pace, and a chance to do something different. My early novels and short stories had urban settings, but my experience in writing a story about rural life, ‘Melusine’ (set against the horrors of the foot and mouth outbreak), gave me the confidence to accept an editor’s challenge to start a new series of novels based in the countryside. Thus the Lake District Mysteries were born. That was about eighteen years ago, and a new novel, the eighth in the series, is due to be published later this year. Similarly, to have written stories set in various different historical periods was very helpful when I came to write my first full-length book set in the past, a novel about the misadventures of Dr Crippen called Dancing with the Hangman.
There’s something else you can do with a short story. You can treat it as a professional exercise. When I first dreamed up the idea for the novel that became Gallows Court, I was very taken with it. The concept involved an extremely ruthless and fabulously rich young woman called Rachel Savernake, who arrives in London in 1930, and becomes involved in a series of bizarre murder mysteries. My thinking was that I’d try something fresh as a novelist, writing a book very different from my other work: an attempt to ‘break out’, so to speak. It was bound to be a gamble, especially given that I didn’t know how the novel would develop. So I decided to write a short story featuring Rachel, to see if I enjoyed writing about her and if I felt I could ‘soak’ myself in this rather unusual character for a year or two. I wrote the story, and found that I loved writing about Rachel. This encouraged me to crack on with the novel. One thing led to another, and the Rachel books have become my most successful novels. I never tried to publish the short story – it was simple a trial run, a way of acclimatising myself to a new type of crime writing. But I have recently written a story which features Jacob Flint, another key character in the series, although Rachel does not appear.
Around the time Mortmain Hall, the follow-up to Gallows Court, was published, I was commissioned to write a short story with a ‘Golden Age’ setting for a national magazine, with a view to promoting the book. The story needed to be very short. I decided that the specified word count didn’t give me enough room to write about Rachel, or Jacob for that matter. Their cases tend to be dark and byzantine, and demand plenty of space to develop and then unfold.
So I created a fresh character, Miriam Ackroyd, who seemed suited to a story with a tone that wasn’t quite as dark as the novels. This was ‘Respect and Respectability’. Even then, the magazine editor did ask me to ‘soften’ the ending a little, as she felt their readers didn’t want too many sleepless nights! I’m hoping the original version will be published before long, as I still like it…
I’ve read countless anthologies over the years, and back in the early 1990s, I suggested to fellow members of the northern chapter of the CWA that we might produce a collection of our short fiction. They agreed – provided I organised the book. The result was Northern Blood, which featured the likes of Reginald Hill, Robert Barnard, and Ann Cleeves. The book was a lot of fun to put together, and I was soon asked to compile further anthologies. In 1995, the CWA asked me to take over their annual anthology, and the first book under my editorship, Perfectly Criminal, appeared the following year. I’ve been producing CWA anthologies ever since.
To be the first person to see a terrific story by a terrific author is a source of great joy. It justifies all the work involved in editing an anthology. To give just one example, in Perfectly Criminal I was determined to include a story by a young writer whom I greatly admired, but who – at that time – hadn’t received the recognition I thought he deserved. In a short preface to his story, I expressed my enthusiasm for his work. That story, ‘Herbert in Motion’, won the CWA Short Story Dagger. The author was a chap called Ian Rankin. Whatever happened to him?
For me, an anthology should be about variety. I like there to be a connecting theme, but I also hope that the collection will showcase a range of different styles of storytelling. I don’t think one should expect readers to like every story equally. Reactions will vary. What I aim for is to introduce people to stories and authors they might not otherwise bother with – and be tempted to read more.
This approach holds good for the British Library Crime Classics anthologies which I edit, as well as for the contemporary collections. From a commercial perspective, it’s usually important to try to include some ‘bankable names’, but it’s just as desirable to give space to authors who are relatively little-known. I’m proud that some of the earliest work of gifted – but, at the time, unsung – writers like Sarah Hillary, Frank Tallis, and Mick Herron, appeared in anthologies I edited.
As a reader, I love a short story that has something special about it. Preferably an ingredient that would be difficult or impossible to replicate in a novel. So my favourite short story is Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. In the crime genre, you can’t go far wrong with the likes of the Jackson’s fellow American Fredric Brown or, in Britain, three authors who contributed to several of my anthologies: Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill, and Peter Lovesey. Among younger writers, the American writer Art Taylor has won many awards and is a master of the form.
I’ve often been told by people that they don’t enjoy short stories. It’s a matter of personal taste, of course, but I don’t see any good reason to harbour prejudice against a literary form that offers such riches. These days, we’re also frequently told that we live in an age of shortening attention spans. If that is true, then it’s one more good reason to relish short stories. They may not take long to read, but the best examples give lasting pleasure.
We asked some of the authors who read at Virtual Noir at the Bar or have appeared on Bay Tales what their favourite books of the year were. Here are twenty responses…some short and pithy, others more detailed…but all great books and, for members of Friends of the Bay, pretty much all of the available to buy from Forum Books with your member discount if you want to treat yourself to a post-Christmas read (and that includes our pickers’ own works!)
Here’s hoping 2021 brings as many great books to read as 2020 has.
Linwood Barclay, author of Elevator Pitch
A collective: The Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr — I somehow had missed these, having read only one or two over the years. But during the pandemic I found, and consumed, them all. Just wow. Could that man write. A standout for me was The Lady from Zagreb, but they’re all terrific.
Kia Abdullah, author of Truth be Told
My choice of 2020 is the heist novel Blacktop Wasteland. Author S. A. Cosby serves up an explosive mix of racial tension, small-town deprivation and destructive masculinity interspersed with blistering action scenes and cinematic car chases, perfect for the big screen.
James Ellson, author of The Trail
My favourite book of the year was Roseanna (he first book in the classic Martin Beck detective series) Horribly addictive, atmospheric and very tight (240 pages). And if you like it, there are nine more in the series!
Angela Clarke, author of On My Life
My favourite book this year was The Push by Claire McGowan – because: oh my God, it’s so tense!
Margaret Murphy, author of Don’t Scream
My favourite book of the year is John le Carré’s memoir,The Pigeon Tunnel, which is as thrilling as his wonderful fiction! I had to stop myself from constantly reading bits out to my husband while he was focusing on his crossword, or watching TV, or – you know – trying to sleep . . . Le Carré pulls no punches over what went on post-WW2 between the British, US and German governments – and the lengths he went to in order to provide authentic background for his stories is really quite terrifying. He doesn’t go easy on himself, either, in recounting his fascinating tales, and he uses his own gaffs to brilliant comic effect.
Rachel Sargeant, author of The Roommates
My favourite book of the year is Can You See Her? By S.E. Lynes.
When I heard Susie read at VNatB, I knew the book was something different and special. I bought and read a copy within a week of the show. Not only is it unusual for featuring a fifty-something female protagonist, the book differs from the norm in terms of structure and tone. For a dark thriller, it ain’t half funny. But the laughs are bittersweet and eventually fall away to reveal raw emotion and tears. I chuckled, I punched the air and then I blubbed.
Allie Reynolds, author of Shiver
It’s so hard to recommend just one favourite book that I read this year. I’m going to say Erica Ferencik’s The River at Night. Four female friends take a white-water rafting trip down a remote Maine River. This thriller is such an intense read, full of twists and tension, with such a strong sense of place. I rarely reread books, but I loved this book a few years ago and I enjoyed it just as much second time round.
Robin Morgan Bentley, author of The Wreckage
My favourite book of 2020 was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. The novel stands so confidently between thriller and literary fiction. It’s gripping and poetic, at times gentle and elsewhere deeply challenging. I loved the detailed setting descriptions and still, months after reading, the characters feel like they’re with me, on my shoulder, in my ear, as I read other books.
Catherine Cooper, author of The Chalet
I really enjoyed The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean – tense, claustrophobic and terrifying – also I don’t think I’ve read a female character written so well by a man since Madame Bovary.
Susan Lynes, author of Can You See Her
My best crime read this year was You and Me, a psychological thriller by Nicola Rayner, which combined literary writing with a great plot, twists and turns, and heart.
Alison Belsham, author of The Embalmer
One of the best books I read this year was City of Vengeance by David Bishop. I saw his winning pitch at Bloody Scotland’s 2018 Pitch Perfect competition and had been waiting to get my hands on it since then. Set in Medici-era Florence, court investigator Aldo Cesare is given four days to solve a murder and in so doing uncovers a conspiracy that threatens to topple the city itself. It’s a fast-paced page-turner with plenty of thrills, so be sure to grab it when it comes out in February.
Nicola Martin, author of Dead Ringer
My top read of 2020 is a couple of years old…The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. The Fact of a Body is part true crime, part memoir, part meditation on the nature of writing. Most of all, it seethes with emotion. It’s deeply evocative, deeply disturbing. The little white house at the edge of the woods will stay with me for a long time.
Alison Bruce, author of I Did It For Us
For my book of the year, I am torn between two very different titles. Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, and The Curator by MW Craven. One is a beautifully drawn murder mystery set in India, the other is a breathtaking race against time. I can’t help but suggest reading both!
Alex James Hawley, crime blogger and podcaster
Here is my nomination for book of the year, Stu Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water. My reason why is simple, fully rounded characters, a great use of the historical period and a dose of the occult too.
Roxie Key, book blogger and author
My book of the year is Jane Casey’s The Cutting Place. It’s the latest instalment in my favourite ever police procedural series (the one that inspired me to write crime), and it just keeps getting better and better.
Karen Murdarasi, author of The Sarcophagus Scroll
The book I would like to recommend is The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker. It was a surprising book that threw together two different cultures, and two very different protagonists, in a way that really worked. A bit like a the BBC series Being Human, but set in circa 1900 New York.
Cath Staincliffe, author of Quiet Acts of Violence
I’m sure I won’t be alone in raving about We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker. A noir story steeped in the legacy of violence but full of humanity and soul. It moved me to tears and the unique characters are still with me months later.
Jane Corry, author of I Made a Mistake
Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club. I was sent a proof in March and it really cheered up the first lockdown. It was quirky, funny and unexpected. A crime novel which also made me laugh. We need more ‘senior citizen’ heroes and heroines !
As we’ve had the pleasure of welcoming over 250 authors to our other project, Virtual Noir at the Bar, throughout the year, we thought we’d share some of our favourites of 2020
The Master: Lawrence Block – Dead Girl Blues. One of the most shocking and visceral readings we had at VNatB, DGB was the outstanding book of the year for me. This book considered a murderer in the most thought provoking manner since Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.
The Debut: Eve Smith – The Waiting Rooms. With great research but, more importantly, fantastic writing, The Waiting Rooms was the book we might not want to have been quite so prescient this year…
The New Discovery:Zoe Sharp – Bones in the River. Zoe Sharp’s latest (and a new series for me), seemed to me to be the closest successor to Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. It wasn’t just the Yorkshire setting. It was the deft handling of multiple plots, strong protagonist descriptions and some nice twists on the police procedural.
The One for Fans:Joe R Lansdale – Of Mice and Minestrone. As a fan of the Hap and Leonard series for more years than I care to think about, this collection of shorts revealing some of the back story and ‘missing bits’ from the duo’s history was a goldmine. If you haven’t read any of the pair’s adventures, you’ll want to start straight away.
The Ongoing Action Series:Gregg Hurwitz – Into the Fire. The latest in the Orphan X chronicles which, in my humble opinion, is the best action thriller series around. There can be a risk of action protagonists becoming ‘invincible’… but what if you’re one of the world’s best assassins and happen to have suffered a major head injury? That’s what Evan Smoak is fighting against in Into the Fire (and lots of bad guys too…) Now I’m just looking forward to the new one when the Nowhere Man is back to full strength…
The Debut: If I Can’t Have You – Charlotte Levin – Levin balances real drama and dark misdeeds with a dry sense of humour, her writing fizzes on the page and I didn’t want my encounter with Constance to end. I repeatedly experienced the stings of shame as Constance tried to navigate grief, love and identity. She is the most compelling, realistic character I think I have ever read.
The Complete Package:Three Hours – Rosamund Lupton – Elegantly written with strong imagery, Three Hours encapsulates the feelings of a range of characters, including a teenage refugee, a wounded headteacher, a mum and a young boy trying to escape a gunman. Thanks to Lupton’s insightful prose, I was utterly invested in the outcome of this novel and I’m not ashamed to say I cried several times while reading Three Hours.
The Heartbreaker: We Begin at the End – Chris Whitaker – A magnificent read full of heart. All of the characters are written with a level of care and affection that you can’t help but get caught up in this book. The small-town setting is intricate and lends another dimension to the novel but the main draw of this book has to be Duchess, the best young narrator since Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. The love she has for her brother is enduring and will stay with me forever.
The Audiobook: Far from the Tree – Rob Parker – This Audible Original is narrated by Warren Brown who is absolutely perfect for this fast-paced, twisty police procedural set in Warrington. Parker has captured an oft-forgotten town in between Liverpool and Manchester perfectly, using Warrington’s piggy-in-the-middle characteristics to create tension. Parker transports the audience to a new location – full of dirty deeds and complex family relationships. Parker sets up a complex family whose divided loyalties cause all manner of upsets throughout the story. Parker’s descriptions left me with vivid mental images – he has a real knack for creating atmosphere through his choice of language.
One for 2021: The Push – Ashley Audrain – A dark, compelling tale of motherhood told through four generations. Audrain’s writing is poetic and manages to convey the nuance experienced by every mother. The Push is a beautifully written story that will have you holding your breath and wondering if what you’re reading is to be believed. Totally terrifying and utterly addictive
Got a favourite of your own you’d like to share? Drop your book of the year into the comments below!
If Edinburgh didn’t exist, you have to wonder if crime writers would find it necessary to invent it; there are few cities more perfectly suited to exploring the dark facets of human nature. And there are few writers more perfectly suited to re-imagining one of the city’s most chilling fictional inhabitants than Craig Russell.
Quite simply, “Hyde” is a stunning piece of work. On one level, it’s a gothic masterpiece, using all Russell’s considerable skill to paint disturbing images of a dark and brooding city in our minds. As you’d expect from an international bestseller and McIlvanney prize-winner, it’s also an intricately plotted and expertly crafted crime novel.
Russell’s “Hyde” is the superintendent of police, an ex-Army officer haunted – perhaps literally – by his role in the British army in India. Suffering from lengthy blackouts and what appear to be hallucinations, he has so far managed to conceal his condition from everyone but his physician. But when he’s tasked with investigating a series of gruesome murders with links to ancient Celtic blood rituals, the walls between his ‘otherworld’ and reality start to crumble.
The disappearance in broad daylight of a young woman from Edinburgh’s upper classes adds to the growing pressure on Hyde from all sides. And when his condition is revealed, his presence at one of the crime scenes places him under suspicion. Is he simply a man tormented by the decisions of a traumatic past, or are his blackouts a symptom of something more monstrous at play?
The book’s finale is a disturbing journey through bloody myth and twisted psychology that acknowledges the darkness at humanity’s heart but somehow still finds its way towards hope.
And honestly? This feels like a very brief summary of an incredibly complex and multi-layered novel. There is gothic detail aplenty here, there is a compelling crime plot set in a Victorian Edinburgh that feels undeniably authentic, a painstaking, near-forensic examination of the duality of human nature in general and some aspects of the Scottish condition in particular, all delivered in Russells’ confidently fluid prose.
Look, I’m running out of superlatives here and my own prose is getting dangerously overblown. TL:DR? It’s a great book. Go buy.
“Hyde” is published by Constable (Little Brown/Hachette) in February 2021.
So what’s a nice guy like you doing writing violent stuff like this?
Putting aside the debate on whether or not I’m a nice guy (hint, best not call my fellow Bloke In Search of a Plot Douglas Skelton as a character witness), it’s a question I get asked quite a lot, and something that reviewers pick up on.
Since I was first published back in 2014, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation for writing books with a certain, ah, visceral edge. In all honesty, it’s not something I’ve thought much about. But then last week, on a Zoom call with a fellow writer (which, in the Time Before would translate as going to the pub for a pint and a chat), he asked me how I was finding writing during this current insanity, and if my work had turned darker due to the world we’re living in.
Looking back on my latest book, ‘The Point of No Return’, and the plans for where Connor is going in my next, ‘No Quarter Given’, I had to admit that yes, I am writing darker material these days.
An admission. Writing violence can be fun. Working out a fight scene or an execution or a murder, then writing it as honestly and unflinchingly as you can, can be a cathartic experience and, as a writer, it’s a challenge you should never shy away from.
That said, there is a balancing act. I’m always aware that these scenes have to serve the plot. There is a fine line between being honest and being schlocky – when what you’re writing stops serving the plot and starts serving a base, salacious desire for violent titillation. And that line is finer than ever given the world we find ourselves in at the moment, where the urge to vent our frustrations on our characters is stronger than ever and the prism we reflect the world through grows darker as politicians distort reality and nepotism and incompetence take a fatal toll worse than any plot twist I or my fellow writers could come up with.
For me, violence is a means to an end, an implement to get across a point to the reader and further the plot. But if I’m writing it just for the sake of it, or to make myself feel better, then I’ve crossed the line and I’m failing in my duty to the book and the reader.
Stuart MacBride said that, if you want to understand a certain period in history, read the contemporary crime fiction of the day. Crime writers reflect the world they live in, so it’s only natural the work being produced now will be darker than normal. But look closer, past the bullets and the uppercuts and you’ll find something else. Hope. The concept that actions have consequences and justice can be served. Hold onto those, have a few drinks with your pals in the Zoom Arms and we’’ll get through all this.
And until then, I’ll keep killing folk (fictionally of course!) in the most inventive ways I can.
There’s something sinister, bleak and dark that lies at the heart of close cousins Tartan and Scandi Noir, isn’t there? I’ve taken part in several author panels at crime writing events, where people have asked for thoughts on why this might be. I always wished I had a clever answer at the time, and have often pondered over it.
More recently, I’ve begun work on a non-fiction book on a history of literature as illustrated by postage stamps (bear with me here), and my research for it has given me what I think might be at least part of the answer to the Noir question. Let me explain…
In researching the history of literature, I’ve become fascinated by the very earliest recorded storytelling, such as the great Greek epics that many of us will be familiar with even today (think Cyclops, the Trojan horse, and all that). These accounts of the Trojan War were written into Homer’s epic poems Iliad and Odyssey around 700 BCE, although the tales had existed for several centuries before that. In these, and in epics that came before it or that followed, the stories featured larger than life heroes who embarked on superhuman daring and adventure, pitting their strength and wits against the gods.
About the gods. The early mythologies (and all cultures had them) were ways of attempting to understand and explain big questions such as the nature of the stars, the purpose of human life, why the seasons changed, and so on. They were also ways of trying to understand human motivation (for example, ‘Cupid made me do it’ might be a handy excuse for all sorts of errant behaviour).
Looking a little deeper, I soon discovered some fairly fundamental differences between Greek and Roman mythologies, say, and Nordic mythology. These differences are nicely illustrated in many sets of stamps for around the world. Take these two examples – I think they do the job quite well.
Here are two stamps from a rather lovely set of five produced by Greece in 2009.
We can see the heroic, almost glamorous view of the early Greeks and perhaps how they came to explain the things they observed in a warm and pleasant environment. Their heroes were valiant and victorious.
As for the Nordic mythologies? Look at the difference in these stamps produced by Sweden in 2008.
It’s clear their heroes were living in a much harsher climate, and the resulting tales are of hardship and endless battle against demons and monsters that can never be tamed or overcome. Dark tales indeed.
And it is this, the stories that were developed in these cultures thousands of years before our own – stories that helped explain the sunlight or the darkness that people lived in – which I believe endures in our literary consciousness today and lies at least partly at the heart of why Tartan and Scandi Noir are so dark.
The superpower of psychological thrillers is heightened emotion. The reader should feel every tremor, every chill, every tragedy.
But what if your scenes are coming across as flat? You’ve imagined the emotion as earth-shaking, but the feedback you’re getting from readers is that the story is unengaging.
People tend to think emotion naturally flows onto the page. In my view, writers need to construct emotion with the same diligence that you build a plot.
It took many drafts and a down-to-the-bones rewrite before I captured the emotions of the dual protagonists (who are doppelgangers, but different in every other way) in my psychological thriller, Dead Ringer.
Here are five things I’ve learned about crafting emotional stories:
1. Get inside your characters’ heads
Emotion starts with character. In order to deepen emotion, you need to get to know your characters better. Forget window-dressing like their job and appearance. What are their desires, preoccupations, fears?
I find the simplest way to get inside my characters’ heads is through first-person free-writing. I’ll open a blank Word document or a new notebook page and pour out words, writing as if I were that character.
Most of this free-writing ends up on the figurative landfill, but there are always a few character-nuggets I uncover, which make it into the final draft.
2. Treat every character as the hero of their own story
While you’re grappling with the desires/fears of your main character, it’s easy to forget that the other characters have rich inner lives, too. Neglect these inner lives and your scenes will come across as hollow.
In order to deepen the emotional resonance of a story, I recommend an exercise:
Reimagine the novel from the perspective of each supporting character.
Write down the major milestones of the novel and then, in first person, note down the supporting character’s thoughts and feelings in reaction to what’s happened. There’s no need to write reams; the whole exercise doesn’t need to be more than a page or two.
I did this exercise with The Boyfriend in my psychological thriller Dead Ringer and it instantly unravelled a plot problem for me and deepened the emotion of a break-up scene.
I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what your non-POV characters have to say about what’s going on. This, in turn, will inform their dialogue and actions, making the scenes richer and more emotional.
3. Reduce the psychic distance
‘Psychic distance’ is one of those pretentious creative writing terms that makes my brain fill with white noise. But it’s an important concept to grasp. Put simply, it denotes how far inside the main character’s mind we the reader are allowed to go.
In a first-person narrative, (in theory,) we become the narrator, seeing, hearing, feeling everything they do. The psychic distance is nil. In an omniscient third-person narrative, where the protagonist is described as if by a God-like figure, the psychic distance is vast.
The tighter the psychic distance, the greater the emotion. In theory, this means first-person narratives are innately more emotional.
In practice, it’s a little more complicated. Ever read a first-person novel where the protagonist seems … bland? It’s probably a psychic distance issue. The author might be using “I”, but they’re writing more like an omniscient narrator, describing everything at arm’s length.
When psychic distance is reduced, everything around the narrator is described in terms of their personality and experiences. A crotchety ex-con hears birdsong and thinks it’s taunting him, while a naïve young schoolteacher gazes out the window to catch a glimpse of the lark.
No matter which style you’re writing in, make an effort to reduce psychic distance in order to boost emotional resonance. Even while writing in omniscient third-person, it’s possible to “zoom in” on a character’s thoughts and feelings. Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall is a great example of this.
4. Show emotional displays, both large and small
If you’re writing a story that’s densely plotted, it’s easy to forget to give your characters a chance to emotionally react to what’s happening. This is especially the case in thrillers, where it’s the job of the author to throw grenades in the protagonist’s path. The character dodges the grenade and they’re on to the next plot point.
If the character doesn’t express emotion, the reader will quickly disconnect.
Incorporate the character’s physiological reactions into your scenes: beating heart, flushed face, squirming stomach, jittery feet, dry mouth, prickling scalp, and more.
Pay attention to your own (and others’) physical reactions during emotional highs and lows. There are also useful books to use as a reference. Joe Navarro’s What Every Body Is Saying is an FBI profiler’s take on body language, while Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman’s The Emotion Thesaurus provides a handy cheat-sheet for emotional beats.
One word of warning: don’t overdo it with beating hearts and prickling scalps. Physiological reactions should be balanced with dialogue, description, and internal monologue.
5. Slow down and speed up scenes
The old saying goes, “time flies when you’re having fun.” By the same token, when you’re scared, a minute can feel like an hour.
The perception of time is intrinsically tied to emotion.
This means an effective way to amplify emotion is to speed up and slow down your scenes, according to how the main character is feeling.
When the protagonist’s well balanced and events are going as expected, shift to summary narrative. The reader doesn’t need to be bored with incidental details.
However, when things spiral out of control, it’s a good idea to slow down and describe the action second by sickening second.
Readers of psychological thrillers, in particular, want to immerse themselves in the dread of advancing footsteps on a deserted street at night. Using internal monologue in these types of slow-motion interludes is particularly effective.
Oh, sh__. Is he following me? I’m just imagining it. Or am I?
This erases psychic distance and transports the reader into the frightened protagonist’s head.
In conclusion: never underestimate the power of emotion. A plot that puts a killer on the protagonist’s trail may hook a reader initially, but it’s delving deep into the characters’ emotional lives that will keep them gripped.
As a child, I adored books. The first one I remember owning as my own is still on my bookshelf to this day, and it was called “Magnus Mouse and the Treasure Chest”. In the book, the titular rodent, whilst out digging one day, uncovers a huge wooden trunk, firmly locked with a solid brass padlock.
His discovery of the box, the gathering of all the animals in his village and their communal puzzling over what it might contain and how to open it make up most of the text and, when the casket is finally opened…
Well to disclose that would be to rob some of you of the pleasure that awaits, but suffice it to say that the end of the book was the first ‘twist’ I’d ever read, and I was hooked. So when I started writing fiction myself as a child, the fact that I would write mystery fiction was never in doubt, and when I discovered Agatha Christie (‘Poirot’s early cases,’ aged 9 while stuck at home sick) quickly followed by Chandler Hammett and Edgar Wallace, the stage was set.
But there was something missing from all the crime novels I read: people like me. Oh, there were plenty short white people; there were even some Irish characters (though they tended to be a bit, ahem, ‘punchier’, than I was). But there were no gay characters or, if there were, they were pansies or deviants; there for comedy relief or for beating up to get a confession from.
And another thing that sort of soaked into my thoughts : People like me – working-class people – might read books and tell stories but we didn’t become authors.
Of course I realised as I grew and researched the lives of my favourite authors that many of them had been as working class as I was, and that encouraged me to keep writing. But even though I enjoyed the act of writing I found, always, that I was missing an intanigible spark.
I kept reading voraciously and, because I had a passion for ancient history, became addicted to the works of Steven Saylor and Lindsay Davis, both of whom wrote sprawling series that not only had wonderful plotting but always had brilliantly drawn relationships and slowly developing communities. And, particularly in the case of Davis, tons of humour, snark, cynicism and sarcasm.
I took a short course at City Lit and not only made some friends who are still huge parts of my world today but, through one of them, was introduced to the work of Lawrence Block, who, along with (in particular) Lindsay Davis, taught me what the phrase ‘find your voice’ really meant.
Then for my fortieth birthday some friends bought me an online crime-writing course at Gotham writers, and my husband got me Maggie Hamand’s Complete Creative writing course at The Groucho Club in London. So, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t just writing; I was thinking about writing. Thinking of what I wanted to say, what I wanted to write about, and of who I wanted to write about. Of how I was going to execute my work to achieve my desired effect.
And on one of the exercises at The Groucho Club, Danny Bird was born.
It was straightforward enough: Create a character. One you can interrogate and understand. Then – having found out what the worst thing in the world is to this character – make it happen. Destroy their world and then observe the aftermath.
Why? Because character is wonderful, and story ideas are wonderful, but plot is what happens when they collide. Great fiction isn’t just amazingly drawn characters sitting around talking about themselves (Note to self: I will not make a dig at Literary writers here) or increasing degrees of vague peril, craziness, murder incompetence and horror (Note to self: do not mention Donald Trump here).
No, in order for fiction to work, there have to be characters you believe in faced with situations that push them beyond what you – as the writer and, by extension, as the reader – have determined to be their comfort zone.
So I created a young urban working-class man with a boring job as a mail-room guy in a big magazine house, but who – because he’s in a relationship with a hot-shot middle-class city lawyer – lives in a big house in Suburbia.
And I then had him go to work, get fired, come home, find his lover in bed with the window cleaner and – deciding that his pride mattered more to him than any financial comforts on offer – walk away from the house in Suburbia with not a penny to his name.
And I parked the character.
Exercise done. What’s next?
Except people kept asking me what was next for the (at that point) unnamed boy who walked away from his life. And I had no idea.
I wanted to write historical mysteries. I wanted to write Sidney Sheldon-style romps with glamorous people dying of mysterious insulin overdoses in places like Gstaad or Boulder Colorado.
I ended up, a few months later, writing about the world’s shittest gay bar (paint colour: sclerotic lung) being run by the newly named Danny Bird with his cute but permanently shirtless nephews Ray & Dash (shoutout to Chandler & Hammett) behind the bar along with the world’s least suitable barmaid, Ali (Sample quotes: “People are filth” “The human race deserves extinction. With a hot poker.”). And all of this was overseen by Danny’s best mate, the aristocratic, fabulous, but financially strained Lady Caroline Victoria Genevieve Jane De Montford (Lady Caz).
I had no plans to write the book that became ‘Death of a Diva’, but people kept on telling me they loved what they’d seen of Danny that first day in The Groucho, and I couldn’t shake the nagging sense that they were right and there was a story there begging to be told.
So for fun, I tried an opening scene to a mystery novel in Danny’s voice and what came out – snarky, campy, trying to be hard-bitten but with a bleeding heart inside, and utterly, utterly comfortable in his skin – felt so authentic, so natural that I was both taken aback and incredibly touched.
I made this, I thought. For the first time in my life, I’ve written something that’s not just technically good, but something that feels real, passionate. Joyful.
And Danny Bird was born.
I have often, since, looked back at the birth and development of Danny Bird and I’m going to be honest with you: like most real people, he was not born and developed in a vacuum. He’s the product of his ancestors. Danny’s parents are characters in some of the books themselves, but when I refer here to his ancestors I’m talking of Agatha Christie and her creation Hercule Poirot, whose wonderfully structured plots and whose love of order and method – aligned, in both creator and character, with a romantic heart – formed part of the Danny world and Danny himself.
And then there are Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler whose Spade and Marlowe – lacking, at times, in depth beyond their absolute adherence to a mythic, almost chivalric code – gave me the start of what’s been described as Danny’s Messiah complex, which can be summed up roughly in this exchange: “It’s not your job to fix the world, Danny. That’s someone else’s gig.”
“I know, but I like to fill in when he’s on his day off.” And then there’s Ross Macdonald. Macdonald’s humour makes me laugh at some very inappropriate moments in the books, and his Lew Archer – a detective who starts off feeling like a carbon copy of the Upright Cops that Hammett and Chandler wrote, but whose deep sadness at the tragedy of life makes him something more than a cipher.
And I’m talking of both Edward Holmes who wrote the afore mentioned “Magnus mouse” and Robert Arthur and Virginia Carey who wrote a series of kids’ novels billed as “The Three Investigators,” and who – along with Davis and Saylor – introduced me to the value of secondary characters making the world their protagonists live in feel richer, just as the secondary characters in the Danny Bird Mysteries mean Danny is part of a bigger story – a story about London and Britain and the world we live in today.
Danny’s a gay man in a hugely diverse world and he’s unafraid of his feelings but also – thanks to some childhood lessons intended to combat school bullies – able to box his way out of trouble if needs be. He’s a son, a friend, an uncle, an employer and, if the wind is in the right direction and there’s a recently homicided corpse to be investigated, an amateur detective.
His sexuality is part of who he is, but the stories – as in life – are so much more complex than just that one thing. And because of this I finally have a series of books featuring people like me, and written by, well, written by someone like me (i.e. me), and I couldn’t be happier.
There’s a long story to be told one day about the journey to publication; about the agent who suggested I ‘Cut the camp, dump the gay protagonist – they just don’t sell – and rewrite the book in third person with the Aristo sidekick as the main protagonist. Oh, and give her a love interest’. About the perfect storm that got me my publishing deal and of the bittersweet feelings when the worst year of my life – my mother died, my life fell apart and I wondered if I would ever find joy again – transformed into one of the best.
I’ve now written four Danny Bird Novels – Death of a Diva, Death of a Nobody, Death of a Devil, Death of an Angel and a novella, Death of a Sinner. The fifth novel (which has a title I’m barred from disclosing right now) is due with the publisher in December and will be out in 2021.
I’m about to start another very different series (though still not featuring people called Anton La Chaise being offed by a massive insulin injection up the Matterhorn) and I grow prouder, every year, of Danny Bird, and more grateful than it’s possible to imagine of the readers who come back to him and who have become as much a part of his story – as much a part of his community – as Caz and Ali and Ray and Dash and Nick and all the other denizens of The Marquess of Queensbury public house, London SE1.