Vicky Newham

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Q & A with Kati Hiekkapelto – publication of The Defenceless

Kati Hiekkapelto is a best-selling, award winning writer, a punk singer and a performance artist.  She lives on the island of Hailuoto in the north of Finland.

Photo credit: Aki Roukala.

I’m thrilled to be closing the official blog tour for The Defenceless.

Kati’s first novel, The Hummingbird, was published in the UK in September 2014. Her second novel, The Defenceless, was published in translation in the UK on August 1st 2015 (e-book) and early September in paperback.

I asked Kati if she would like to do a Q & A on some of the themes in her writing and what her life in Finland is like, including her punk singing and experiences of immigration. Reviews of both books are linked at the bottom of this blogpost.

Defenceless Blog Tour

Kati, lovely to have you on the blog. I see you are currently in Serbia, doing some research for subsequent Anna Fekete books.


Q & A

1. Your second novel, The Defenceless, is published in English on August 1st. It has won an award in Finland and been a bestseller there. What inspired the plot for the book and how did you do your research?

The plot for The Defenceless had two inspiring incidents. Both happened when I was still writing The Hummingbird. I was having a couple of days writing retreat at my mum’s apartment in Oulu (the nearest town on the mainland) and I went to bed after a long day. I was really tired but I could not sleep because someone in a neighbouring flat was having a party and the music was so loud that it was hurting my ears and making the bed shake. I got really, really angry and decided to go to the flat and tell them to switch off the music. I jumped out of bed and was almost in the corridor when I suddenly got scared. What if they were on drugs? What if they killed me? And at that moment I realized that this would be the beginning of the next novel.

The other thing happened a bit later. I was hiding a Pakistani family from the police on Hailuoto. After years of waiting in refugee centres they did not get permission for asylum in Finland. If the police had found them they would have been sent back to Pakistan. It was a Christian family, mother, father and two little kids, the youngest of whom was born in Finland. They had lost everything in Pakistan and the father was sure he would be killed if he was sent back. Their case made me to do some research into the situation of the Christian minority in Pakistan. It is not a pleasant situation. This is how one of the main characters in The Defenceless, Sammy, was born.


2. Both your novels, The Hummingbird and The Defenceless, have immigrants as key characters. What interests you about this group of people?

When I was studying special education at university, I wrote my Masters thesis on racist bullying in Finnish schools. I used to work as a teacher for immigrant/refugee children. My ex-husband is a minority Hungarian from the former Yugoslavia (like Anna Fekete) and he came to Finland as an asylum seeker. So I have plenty of professional and personal knowledge on this theme. Multi-culturalism has been my everyday life for about 20 years. When I wrote The Hummingbird, I was re-reading my Masters thesis. In it I quoted research from the 90s which found that in Finland we don’t ‘hear’ the voice of immigrants. Like all minority groups, they are treated as a target of ‘our’ actions; almost all public discussion about immigration has the voice of majority. Little has changed since. And it will never change if we, the majority, don’t do anything about it.


3. As a Finn who lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia, how was your own experience of immigration?

Even though I was living on my own with three children in Serbia (my ex-husband was working in Bosnia then) I was a very privileged immigrant. I had money and I had a network of my ex-husband’s family and friends. We lived in a big house and I quickly learned to speak Hungarian. And maybe the most important thing: I had an EU passport. I was free to come and go across the EU border to Hungary. Locals needed a visa. So I can never compare myself to those who have nothing and who are in danger, dependent on smugglers or on people’s good will. And even though I had everything, it was not easy to live in foreign country. I was often lonely, the system was different, I could not understand everything people said. Especially in the beginning, it was really frustrating. I can just imagine, how hard it can be if you have nothing!


Kati, signing for me at CrimeFest, 2015.


4. My fantasy of life on a small island is that it is like a Greek island in August all year round. Tell us about the reality of life on Hailuoto through the seasons.

A Greek island! This made me laugh. We have long, cold winters with lots of snow and then we have short, cold summers but with less snow. In winter we have an icy road from the mainland to the island, which is 10km long. The ferry runs all year round and it breaks up the ice. Last winter was the first time that we did not have ice on the road. The sea was frozen, but not enough for it to be a proper road. Global warming is having its effect here too. Winters are not as freezing as they used to be and storms are much more common. The island is covered by darkness and silence. It is actually quite beautiful. Spring is here when the sun shines again and then the weather is perfect for cross country skiing. The Defenceless is set in spring. I wanted to describe how the light gets stronger each day, how the backbone of winter is slowly broken away. Summer is short but intense. It is so light that you don’t want to sleep at all. We have a couple of cool festivals here and lots of mosquitoes. We swim in the sea and enjoy the sun. Autumn is my favourite season. The forests are full of berries and mushrooms then and these are free for everyone to pick. I also go hunting during this period. It gradually gets colder and darker, migrant birds fly away, and it feels like nature is going to sleep.


5. Where I live, local people are concerned about where newcomers have moved from. At a national level, do you think that we will ever reach a point in society where it doesn’t matter whether people are immigrants or non-immigrants?

I really hope so, but to be honest I don’t believe this will ever happen. Human beings are cruel animals.


6. What do you think drives our human obsession with difference? Why do we need to classify people as ‘us’ and ‘them’?

Feelings of superiority, power, security and control. And the fear of losing these things.


7. In the UK we have immigrants from various countries and cultures, and have done for decades. In your experience, do you think that some groups cope with the ‘immigrant experience’ better than others? If so, why do you think this is?

In general the closer your country, culture and language of origin is to the country you go to live in, the easier it is to adapt and integrate. But we have to keep in mind that in all groups there are individuals who cope very well and also individuals who don’t. I think it could be very useful to study why some immigrants cope well, what their personal histories and skills are, if any coincidences happened, how their surroundings treated them when they arrived etc. Instead of looking at bad examples we should learn from the good ones. I believe that school and work opportunities are key factors here.


8. You are clearly very creative. Is there any overlap between singing in a punk band, performance art and creative writing? What sort of performance art do you do? And do you write song lyrics?

Yes, there is an overlap. Everything springs from the need for self-expression. I have been a punk since I was young. I write most of my band’s song lyrics and I’m the lead singer. I have always been a rebel and I always will be. Punk is about having a DIY attitude, freedom of creativity and anger towards the rotten, money oriented system. In punk I can be angry and crazy. When performing I can be just crazy. I have an alter-ego called ‘Ginger Cunt’. She wears my wedding dress and goes to forests and the seashore and swamps, or sometimes shopping. My performances have an eco-feminist aspect and they are not meant to be performed before audience. Sometimes I shoot a video and sometimes I do things with my friend who wears a wedding dress bought from a flea market. Like punk, performance art is a good way to poke fun at oneself. We all want to look so intelligent and be taken seriously, I want to laugh at myself (and others like me). Also the idea of a piece of art, which is not performed in front of an audience and which is never repeated, really fascinates me. It is so different from, for example, a book which can basically last hundreds of years, or a gig, where the same songs you have practised and performed hundreds of times are played over and over.

Photo credit: Aki Roukala


9. Having read both your novels, identity is a theme which runs through them. Was this a conscious choice? What is it about identity which interests you?

Identity wasn’t a conscious choice but it came naturally with the themes of immigration. My main interest is the connection between language and identity. How do we construct our self-image – and that of others – through language? What happens if language cannot develop normally, if you lose your mother tongue, or lose people, books, education, and the media etc? Do people perceive themselves and the world around them differently depending on the language they use? How has it affected to Anna that she has lived most of her life in Finnish speaking surroundings?


10. To what extent do you think that culture and geography contribute to identity?

Culture is based on communication, transactions and language within groups of individuals. Culture is the sum of the actions and reflections of different identities. It is not fixed thing. It is continually moving, waving, developing and changing. And also the other way round: identities are formed by their surrounding cultures. Geography is like a frame. It defines certain basic elements of our everyday lives and therefore contributes to culture and identity.


11. Part of the experience of moving to another country involves cultural dislocation. What does ‘culture’ mean to you, and how easy is it to take your own culture with you when you move to another culture? How easy it is to adapt to a new culture?

Ease of adaptation depends on society’s flexibility. If society is stuck stubbornly in the ways of the past, it is really hard for newcomers to adapt no matter how they want or try.


12. It is interesting to reflect on why people respond differently to moving country. Can you explain why you think Anna has learnt Finnish (amongst other languages) and developed her career whereas her brother has struggled to settle, hasn’t learnt Finnish, and has found it hard to find employment?

Anna was the perfect age when she and her family came to Finland. She was almost 10 years, old enough to have learnt her mother tongue, Hungarian, properly and young enough to adapt to her new school and learn a new language. Studies show that children aged 7-10 years are in the optimal phase of development of their mother tongue to learn new languages. If you are younger your own language is not strong enough to act as a base for a new language, and if you are older, it is harder to study because the language used in school is more complex. So, yet again, the important thing is the language. Anna’s brother, Ákos, was a young man when they arrived. His education in Yugoslavia was interrupted. He could not study in Finland because he didn’t speak Finnish and so he could not get a job. I think Ákos feels that he is worthless, that he’s a failure. Maybe he compares himself to his sister who has done so well, and feels ashamed.

Kati telling us about her detective, Anna Fakete, at CrimeFest in Bristol, May 2015.


13. Another strong theme in your writing is belonging. Maslow places this in the centre of his hierarchy of needs. What does ‘belonging’ mean to you, and how important do you think it is to people?

I believe all human beings have things in common despite their culture, religion or whatever. One of these things is the need for a sense of belonging. We all want to belong to something: family, a group of friends, a book club or a football team. We need other people. We are pack animals. This need can be exploited too. I don’t believe we need to belong to a nation or country. If we think and feel that way, it is due to a couple hundred years of brain washing. Leaders, lords and money makers benefit if we act like sheep.


14. You have untranslated Hungarian phrases in both your novels. The meaning of some of these can be guessed from their context but not all. Was this a deliberate choice on your part and, if so, what effect did you want the phrases to have?

I wanted to give the reader a taste of how it feels when you don’t understand everything. That’s how it was for Anna when she came to Finland and how it still is for her brother. Nothing particularly important is untranslated. If you want to learn to swear in Hungarian or Serbian, read my books!


15. I really enjoy the descriptions of landscape, weather and nature which you incorporate into your writing. Do you include these to be in keeping with Nordic-Noir tradition or are they important to you personally?

Landscape is important to me personally. I live ‘in nature’. I don’t just observe it, I am part of it. It’s a very non-verbal connection and therefore I find it challenging and interesting to try to describe it. Perhaps in Nordic countries we are still so close to nature that landscape descriptions seem like a Noir tradition but actually they are every writer’s experience.


16. I have referred to your writing as ‘social realism’ as your novels have plots which stem from issues in contemporary society. Which comes first for you, the issues or the stories?

Story. It is the soil where I develop my characters and themes. Often I don’t even think about issues or themes before that. These form during the writing process. But actually it is the same with a story too. I don’t plan it in detail. Writing is the best way to think and plan both the story and any issues. In the beginning I have a rough idea for a plot and it doesn’t develop if I don’t write. It’s like walking into darkness with a faint hope of finding a route to the light again. It’s a very intuitive process, one which is hard to explain.


17. Many of the topics and themes you cover in your novels are potentially sensitive. Some authors are nervous to discuss immigration and culture and prejudice. What are your thoughts about writing about sensitive subjects? Are there any rules that you have?

I write about subjects that interest me and I want to be on the side of people who feel ‘small’ and rejected. I want to be honest in my art, honest with myself. Maybe these are my rules.


18. I really like your detective, Anna Fekete. She is capable and determined but also vulnerable. What do you like about her and does anything frustrate you about her?

I think Anna is not a typical female heroine and that is what I like about her. For example, she is not always verbally super-witty and sometimes she can be annoyingly unconfident. What is best about her is that she has the courage to do the right thing even if it’s against the rules. She is a complex person and this fascinates me. Her morals may differ from mine but I let her do what she wants or needs to do. Her unsteadiness can surprise me.


19. After The Defenceless, what is next for you?

I’m working on the third Anna Fekete novel. It should come out in Finland next spring.


20. Please can we have a photo from you of anything which has meaning for you?

A self portrait with a cigarette, 2006, in Serbia.


Thank you so much, Kati, for going into such depth with your answers.

The cover for Kati’s second novel.

My review of The Defenceless is here:

My review of The Hummingbird is here:

Kati’s website is here:


Vicky Newham © 2015


Q & A with Sarah Hilary and review of No Other Darkness – special feature

The mass market paperback cover – released today.

To coincide with the mass market paperback publication of No Other Darkness, and its release in the US, I am thrilled to interview crime writer, Sarah Hilary. This is the first feature in my ‘Author on the Couch’ series.

At the The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate recently, Sarah’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the award for Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. When the news spread, I remembered how much of a buzz there was about Sarah’s debut just two years ago at Harrogate when proofs of the novel were given out in goodie bags.

Now that Sarah has finally come out about her ‘dark mind’ (see the Guardian piece, the day after the award ceremony, here) I can ask her all sorts of psychological questions about her second novel and her writing in general. Except the ones which involve spoilers, of course.

Sarah, congratulations on your award at Harrogate. Tell us what it means to you.


Thanks, Vicky. It means a huge amount — to win such a major prize and for my debut novel — it’s genuinely humbling, especially when the shortlist was so strong. I’m massively grateful to the judges, and to everyone who supported me during the public vote.


One of the proofs given out at Harrogate 2013 (not with the dog!)

One of the buzz-creating proofs given out at Harrogate 2013


Q & A


1) I don’t look at reviews of books before I read them. When I started No Other Darkness I thought, ah, okay, children in an underground bunker. What you then reveal is so much more disturbing than that. Where did you get the idea for the plot?

The heart of the story came from a first-person account in a newspaper. It stayed in my head for such a long time that I knew I’d have to try and ‘write it out’. I always like my books to be surprising—for the stories to feel familiar at first glance and then to take the reader in unexpected directions. The idea at the heart of No Other Darkness seemed ideally suited to that.


2) I felt that Marnie had changed a bit since Someone Else’s Skin. Did you? If so, was it intentional?

Definitely. She should be changing all the time. I want to pull her in different directions—towards the past, and away from it, for example. That’s the nature of heroic struggle, to be always fighting. Not just the bad guys but her past, and herself. In book two, she’s starting to open up to Noah, and to Ed. But her journey won’t always be upwards; I can see her falling, too.


3) Throughout the novel, I kept thinking about forgiveness and how hard it can be, not just to forgive, whatever that means, but to let go and move on from a traumatic incident. We see it with Marnie and her foster brother, Stephen, and key characters in No Other Darkness. To what extent is the novel about forgiveness and making peace with the past?

To a huge extent. The whole series is about this, in fact. And it’s about redemption, and remorse. One of the characters in No Other Darkness tells Marnie that remorse can be a weapon. That’s going to resonate in book three.


4) Some authors opt for having their detectives at loggerheads. Marnie and Noah have an extremely good working relationship. I particularly like Noah’s caring attitude to his boss. Was this a conscious choice on your part and if so why? Do you envisage their relationship changing?

In Someone Else’s Skin, Marnie and Noah both suffer as a consequence of not working more closely together, and they’re smart people so they learnt a lesson from that and now they’re a better team. In book three, Tastes like Fear, Noah has just revealed to me that he’s been keeping a secret from Marnie which might threaten their teamwork. We’ll see. (In other words, yes, I can see things changing. Because it makes for exciting writing, and reading.)


6)I admire Marnie’s courage and bravery. What characteristics do you like about her and what frustrates you? Do you think her traits are as a result of nature or nurture?

Her courage, absolutely. It’s not bravado, and it’s not noisy. She doesn’t take silly risks, but she’s not afraid to fail or to admit when she’s got it wrong. That, for me, is real bravery. To fall and get back up again—not to be afraid of another fall. Nature versus nurture is a great question, because a lot of Marnie’s native spikiness is what keeps her going but it’s also what drove her away from her family which is something she’s struggling to forgive in herself.


7) In No Other Darkness, the children’s mother has had a difficult time. As a mother, human being and a writer, how sympathetic did you feel towards her?

Extremely sympathetic. I was terrified for her. The idea of losing your mind, or part of your mind  — of losing yourself — terrifies me. I hope that comes across in the reading—how scared I was when I was writing those scenes.


8) The case makes it hard for Marnie and Noah to avoid their own family situations. This can be a trope of crime fiction (investigations touching on the personal issues of the detectives) but I see it as being true to life: we all experience things which bring up our ‘stuff’. What is your take on this?

There’s no question that it’s true to life. I’d go further and say that our ‘stuff’ colours everything. We see the whole world through its filter, for better or worse. This was the idea at the heart of Someone Else’s Skin, and it’s at the heart of the whole series.


9) Tell us about Ed. He seems to be a really good ‘fit’ for Marnie. What about him appeals to Marnie and what does Ed like about Marnie?

Ed is the steady point in Marnie’s spinning world. He’s deeply honest, one of the few people who isn’t hiding anything. It makes him vulnerable, but he’s not afraid of being vulnerable. I think that’s the quality that Marnie most admires in Ed. And he sees the vulnerability in her because he’s intuitive and empathetic. He sees the chinks in her armour, but he would never exploit them.


10) Both your novels make me reflect on responsibility and blame. Stephen Keele’s actions are obviously awful. Being devil’s advocate here, given his upbringing, to what extent is he responsible for what he did? If he has deluded thoughts as a result of that upbringing, is that his fault?

I’m not yet sure of the details of Stephen’s upbringing, so I can’t quite answer this. Nor would I want to, as I prefer to keep the doors open for surprises. Stephen has secrets he’s not telling yet. Ask me again after book four..!


11) Other than Marnie and Noah, which of your characters did you enjoy writing? Any you have a soft spot for? (I adore bad boy Adam Fletcher)

I absolutely love writing Adam. He has so many of the best lines, and I love the snark (and the spark) between him and Marnie. I love writing Welland, too. And Noah and Dan, especially when they’re enjoying their downtime.


12) In both your books people do (often very) ‘unpleasant things’ to others. Do you think that when people are on the receiving end of these sorts of actions that they stop loving the person dishing them out? Does it make a difference what the perceived and real motivation is? I am thinking about Archie and Fred, Matt.

In the case of Archie and Fred, I want to believe that they didn’t stop loving the person responsible for their suffering, because losing that love could only have added to their suffering. That said, I don’t believe in love as a palliative. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s the cause of a huge amount of distress and cruelty in the world. Far too many people endure terrible things because they cannot stop loving the wrong people. I’m not sure that answers your question — sorry!


13) How was the process of writing No Other Darkness and Someone Else’s Skin similar and different?

Someone Else’s Skin was written for myself (and then rewritten). No Other Darkness was written for everyone else, including the art department at my publishers and all those with a vested interest in the series. I had to make space inside my head for lots of other voices and opinions, but it was all good and it definitely resulted in a stronger book. Book three has been different again. I hope I’ll always be surprised by the way the process works, always find some alchemy in the writing process.


14) What research did you have to do for No Other Darkness and how did you do it?

First-person accounts are always my starting point. I try to absorb as much real experience as possible of the things I’m writing about. Then I stop researching and tell the story, allowing myself to be guided by its fictional characters and its own momentum. Afterwards, I go back and check key facts.


15) You refer in articles to your own happy upbringing. Where does this dark mind come from then?

I wish I knew. But I don’t question it too much—it’s a terrific asset for a crime writer and I’m very grateful for it.



No Other Darkness – my thoughts


The cover for the trade paperback.


Sarah, signing my copy of No Other Darkness at CrimeFest 2015












Part police procedural, part psychological thriller, No Other Darkness is the second novel in the DI Marnie Rome series. The plot is self-contained. The author gives readers who are new to the series a couple of useful backstory pointers and these are unobtrusive for those who have read the first book, Someone Else’s Skin.

When the bodies of two boys are found, ‘curled together’, in a bunker in the garden of a house, twelve feet underground, DI Marnie Rome is tasked with finding out what happened. Rome is determined to bring to justice whoever is responsible for their suffering. As she and DS Noah Jake tease out strands of the mystery, they quickly realise that they are dealing with a crime which is as disturbing as it is morally complex. Sinister discoveries, involving foster children and ruthless property developers, pull Rome further into the maze-like investigation, and yet again she is forced to reflect on the reasons why people commit awful acts and whether it is possible to forgive them when they do.

It is difficult to comment on the plot developments much more than this without spoiling it for readers. The novel opens with a prologue which flashes back to five years ago, before the two boys died. Written from the viewpoint of the older boy, it is deeply affecting and I quickly questioned whether this was going to be a standard story about children in a bunker or cellar. The author is Sarah Hilary. She is highly adept at making you think that one thing is the case when actually there is more to it or it isn’t the case at all. In No Other Darkness, there is no explicit misdirection or manipulation of reader assumptions but the boys’ story is more complicated and devastating than might be imagined.

And this is something else which I think Hilary handles extremely well: nuance. She peels back the layers of how the boys came to be in the bunker and shows us everything through the eyes of Rome, Jake and another key character. From their reactions and comments we gradually learn what occurred and some of the reasons why each person did what they did. Hilary carefully allows the reader to create her own meanings and to navigate her way through the morality of the case.

This is a harrowing tale – as much of crime fiction is. Many of the characters have suffered deeply and still are suffering. However, the story is one which can, and does, happen in real life. For me, I was reading a fictional exploration of various common and uncommon psychological phenomena and I was simultaneously enthralled and devastated. The story is told in such a way that the reader cannot help feeling both sympathy and empathy for all those involved. I noticed in Someone Else’s Skin, and it is the case here too, that the author is extremely good at showing the reader how characters are reacting and feeling. Sometimes she maintains the emotional intensity; others she makes tiny adjustments to the emotional barometer within each scene but without descriptions becoming melodramatic.

For me, it is partly the emotional intelligence which threads through Hilary’s writing which marks her out. The other thing is the writing itself. What I particularly like about it is the way that she uses fresh ways to describe gestures, expressions and behaviour. ‘High overhead, the sky squatted,’ she tell us. And, ‘Rust whispered under her gloved touch, like feathers.’ Some critics argue that if imagery and metaphors are too unusual they can pull the reader out of the story. I’m not sure that this is particularly helpful: what is unusual to one reader might not be to another. Personally, part of the enjoyment of reading is when a phrase or word stops me and makes me think. When a writer takes the time and effort to describe things in ways which make me see the world differently, I’m purring.

In No Other Darkness, Rome continues to sift through the events of her past. As much as she tries to keep her personal traumas and childhood ghosts separate from the ones at the heart of the investigation, she is unable to. I think that this works well as it is what happens in life. Much of developmental psychology and psychoanalytic theory examines how we are often compelled to keep re-visiting – and often repeating – events with which we have not come to terms. Rome is haunted by why her foster brother, Stephen, could have done what he did. A troubled teenager, Clancy, who has been fostered by the family whose garden the bunker is in, reminds her of Stephen. As a result the investigation forces Rome – and the reader – to reflect on whether it makes a difference if someone truly believes that something awful that they’ve done was the right thing, and if their perceptions of ‘danger’ and ‘help’ vary from common ones. For Rome, forgiveness, letting go and moving on are extremely hard. Forgiveness of others and oneself. As they are for many people in No Other Darkness – and in real life.

Throughout the case Rome becomes more emotionally involved than DS Noah Jake, even to the point of putting herself at risk. I really like the relationship between Rome and Jake. In life, relationships and people change, often in an interactive way, and Rome and Jake have overcome some of the tensions which were evident in Someone Else’s Skin. They now have a strong working relationship and genuinely seem to care about each other. Jake, particularly, has his boss’ back in this book on a number of occasions and it reminded me of an intuitive brotherly relationship. Although less overtly than Rome, he is affected by the case, and this prompts him to consider his relationship with his brother.

Another strength of this book is its pacing. There is plenty at stake to keep the plot ticking along, and Hilary ratchets up the tension at regular intervals. Just as the reader thinks things are going to be okay, she chucks a curve ball and the whole game changes. And while the overall goal remains, to find out what happened to the two boys, the author builds in other sub-goals. I was completely gripped by the boys’ plight. And I kept wondering how it was all going to end.

With so many detective partnerships in crime fiction, it can be hard to create characters who are ‘fresh’. And sometimes, in trying to make them different, writers can create a collection of ‘tics’, neuroses and interests. In my view, Rome and Jake work well as individuals and as a cop team. They have issues, as we all do, but they come across as normal people who are getting on with the business of being imperfect human beings in a complicated world. I sense that there is plenty more mileage in this duo, and I am pleased. I am looking forward to finding out more about Jake. Other characters I think work well are Ed, Rome’s boyfriend, and bad boy Adam Fletcher (who, in my mind, is actor, James D’Arcy). Ed and Rome are such a good psychological fit but I love how she is drawn to Fletcher, like an ex-addict is to his fix – yet manages to walk away just in time.

In sum, if you’re looking for an emotionally intelligent, beautifully written crime novel, which will whip the carpet from underneath you, I highly recommend No Other Darkness.

My copy of the book was bought at CrimeFest, and I also bought a kindle version too (coz I like to read in bed!).

US cover – loving the super creepy doll.


Sarah’s website and blog are here:

On Twitter she can be found here: @sarah_hilary


Vicky Newham © 2015



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Are You Watching Me? by Sinéad Crowley – a review

This is a lively police procedural set in Dublin, with an intriguing and contemporary plot. It is the second to feature DS Claire Boyle.

After a few challenging years, Liz Cafferky’s life is looking up in the form of a new job doing something which she enjoys and is good at. Rescued from the problems of her past by Tom Carthy, the owner of a drop-in centre for homeless and lonely men, called Tir na nOg, Liz soon finds herself the charity’s public face. She runs its publicity and social media and after a television interview  ‘goes viral’, she becomes the overnight focus of the Dublin media.

Then one of the centre’s clients, James Mannion, is found dead in his house, not through natural causes or suicide, but brutally murdered. This man is very different from many of the centre’s clientele.

It is easy to understand how, amidst her busy job and newfound attention, Liz doesn’t pay much attention to a letter she receives saying, ‘I’ve been watching you’. She tries to dismiss it as harmless, an over-enthusiastic fan, but deep down she finds it unsettling and is freaked out. When Liz receives another, more threatening note, she is reluctant to go to the police as she is worried that the secrets of her past will be revealed and her new-found stability and respectability will crumble.

Initially there are no leads, and DS Claire Boyle is unsure how she can protect Liz. But when she and Flynn start to look into James Mannion’s life, things take a sinister turn. The murders create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion at the centre, as the clients worry about who they can trust.

I really liked the premise of this novel. Something menacing happens to someone who has secrets which she wants to keep hidden. There is conflict and jeopardy galore in the set-up.

Crowley introduced DS Boyle in Can Anybody Help Me? In Are You Watching Me? Boyle has just returned to work off maternity leave, and after two weeks doing nothing but filing, she is gagging to get stuck into an investigation alongside work partner Philip Flynn. I warmed to DS Boyle. She is a bit hard at times, but is juggling motherhood, a career, a home life and a husband, and there is some subtle and valid social commentary here on the challenges of working mothers.

Crowley provides chapters written from the viewpoint of the stalker come letter writer. These are fascinating as we learn what motivates him/her, what he/she’s thinking and what has gone on in his/her past. She intersperses these sections with chapters which focus on Liz and those which deal with the investigation. Crowley also uses Irish dialect in dialogue and, although this can back-fire, I thought it worked really well in this novel. It made for authentic exchanges and interactions, and gave the narrative a lively character.

The stalker element introduces menace and the themes of obsession and fear. There are plenty of plot twists as DS Boyle and her partner solve the crimes. Overall, this was an enjoyable read, not too violent and with a contemporary, believable plot.

Thanks to the publisher and author for my review copy via NetGalley.


Vicky Newham © 2015


In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward – Q&A and review

Sarah’s debut novel will be published next week and I was lucky enough to read a NetGalley review copy. I caught up with Sarah this week and sent her a few questions about the book and about her writing.

The Amazon blurb tells us this …

‘Bampton, Derbyshire, January 1978. Two girls go missing: Rachel Jones returns, Sophie Jenkins is never found. Thirty years later: Sophie Jenkins’s mother commits suicide.

Rachel Jones has tried to put the past behind her and move on with her life. But news of the suicide re-opens old wounds and Rachel realises that the only way she can have a future is to finally discover what really happened all those years ago.

This is a story about loss and family secrets, and how often the very darkest secrets are those that are closest to you.’

So, Sarah. Over to you.

1. What made you want to write a novel?

I’ve read crime novels all my life. From Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven when I was a child, Agatha Christie as a teenager and lots of other authors throughout my twenties and thirties. I’d always wanted to write my own book but I needed space and time. I got this when I moved to Greece and started teaching part time.

2. Was it always going to be in the crime genre?

It was always going to be a crime novel. I’ve never really wanted to write anything else although I do think I have one supernatural/ghost story in me that I’d like to try one day.

3. I understand you’ve done professional writing previously. Can you tell us about that?

 I wrote professionally in public sector police for a number of years. Mainly briefings and speeches for senior figures. I’ve also been writing online crime fiction reviews for about ten years. But writing fiction is much more fun. Even if it isn’t easy.

4. Do you find writing fiction is different from writing book reviews and doing professional writing?

Definitely. I tend to know what I’m going to write when I write non-fiction. With my novel, I have no idea where the book is head. I like the mystery that I set out at the start of the novel to gradually unravel in my own head and on the page as I write.

5. How did you come up with the plot for In Bitter Chill?

I started with the basic premise that two girls are abducted and only one is later found alive. The other remains perpetually missing. I wanted to explore the effects of this on a small community and how the girl who ‘came back’ might cope as an adult.

6. One of the key themes of the book is ‘secrets’ – can you tell us what interests you about them?

I’m completely fascinated by secrets in general and, in particular, those contained within families. Some people are more secretive than others and they ramifications of keeping something hidden can be huge. And when you hide something, the potential for it to be revealed is great. And if it damages someone, the you have the makings of a crime novel.

7. What was it like writing a book set in Derbyshire when you were living in Greece?

It worked well, writing in the Athenian heat. I was slightly homesick for the English countryside anyway and was imagining myself there. However, for my second book I’ve been living in Derbyshire and that’s also been good, experiencing the season that I’m writing about.

8. How is the second novel going, and can you tell us a little about it?

It’s working title is A Fragile Spring which I like. It has the same detectives as In Bitter Chill but a new central protagonist and a new mystery at its heart.

9. What are your views on the crime fiction genre at present? (Is it changing? For better/worse/neither? New developments? Themes? Issues?)

Good question. I like the idea of a renaissance in British crime fiction (not that it ever went away). There are some excellent British crime authors writing at the moment and lots of exciting books to read at the moment. I personally would like to see more Mediterranean crime novels translated into English.

10. What are your plans for future writing and reading projects?

I’d like to complete a quartet of novels set in my fictional town of Bampton in Derbyshire focusing around the seasons. So summer and autumn novels to follow.

– – – – – – – – –

My thoughts on the book

In Bitter Chill is a police procedural set in Derbyshire.

In 1978 when two girls go missing in Bampton, Derbyshire, on their walk to school only one of them returns. Rachel Jones is discovered on the road near Truscott Woods but Sophie Jenkins is never found. Fast forward thirty years, and Sophie’s mother is found dead in a hotel, having committed suicide.

Rachel can only remember certain parts of the abduction and has tried to put the traumatic episode behind her. She and her mother moved soon after the incident. Now in her thirties, Rachel works as a genealogist and seems well adjusted and happy. At first she doesn’t want to accept that the tragic death of her friend’s mother is anything to do with her but, at the back of her mind, she starts wondering. As questions surface about the kidnapping, she realises that she needs to find out what happened all those years ago and gradually becomes obsessed with doing so. The more she investigates, the more she remembers.

DI Francis Sadler takes charge of the investigation with DC Connie Childs and DS Damian Palmer on his team.  When the police start to investigate the suicide, they discover aspects of the original kidnap which bother them. As subsequent events unfold, equally sinister in nature, they question whether the present day crime links back to what happened with Rachel and Sophie. Can the police persuade those involved to give up their secrets or will Rachel get there first and find herself in danger?

I really enjoyed the themes of In Bitter Chill. It is a poignant story about secrets in families and how they can be passed on from one person to another – and one generation to another – and somehow be accepted as the ‘truth’. It reminded me of social crypto-amnesia in social psychology in which people forget who told them what but are nevertheless influenced. What then happens is that people live their lives around the version of the truth they’ve been told. Of course, when they learn that what they’ve believed is false, the architecture of their life is shaken.

The events in the plot invite the reader to consider whether there are different types of secrets and whether it matters. For example, does it make a difference what the motivation is for keeping the secret? The context? Or are all secrets wrong? This is such a fascinating topic as most families have secrets, as do many couples and individuals. Are secrets, then, part of being human?

With the suicide of Sophie’s mother the reader is invited to consider what it might take to push a person to take their life and this is about what happens when secrets are discovered, regardless of whether they are true or not; it’s about the shock of learning something previously not known and of reconciling it. To me, then, In Bitter Chill is an unsettling examination of why people keep secrets, how the secret affects others, what people do to keep them buried, and what happens when they come out.

In Bitter Chill is also about the ways that people cope with tragedy and loss. It is no coincidence that Rachel has become a genealogist, earning her living helping people to trace their ancestors and draw their family trees. As the novel progresses the reader learns about Rachel’s life and family dynamics. The congruence between past and present made me wonder if Rachel’s unconscious mind was at work, piecing together the jigsaw of her life.

I particularly enjoyed the novel’s plot and the very psychological themes mentioned above. I had various ideas about what had happened to Rachel and Sophie, and if and how this might link to the present day crimes. The narrative is well-paced and I was compelled to read on to find out what happened. Not wishing to include spoilers, what I can say is that I thought the explanations and motivations worked well and seemed fitting. The author included a number of twists and revelations which kept changing how things seemed.

I liked the Derbyshire setting and the author’s vivid descriptions brought it to life. The setting, together with the part-70s based plot, give the novel an old fashioned charm. As Rachel and the police set about trying to find out what happened, the solution is achieved by leg-work and solid research. It’s very much a British crime novel in my opinion.

Something else which I think worked well is the juxtaposition of the two time frames. The author gives the reader a lens through which to view life, community, relationships and gender in the 1970s and how these things may have changed over the decades.

I look forward to Sarah’s second novel, and to finding out what happens next for her detectives.


Vicky Newham © 2015

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Evil Games by Angela Marsons – a review

I really enjoyed the first book in the DI Kim Stone series, Silent Scream, and this book is the follow-up. In Evil Games, Stone heads up a particularly disturbing and chilling investigation. Like the first book, it is a police procedural but I felt that this one had more ‘thriller’ elements, for example, with aspects of the case being personal to Stone, and an urgent need to stop events from happening.

The novel opens at whiplash pace with a dawn raid to rescue two children from the cellar of a paedophile’s house where ‘evil games’ are being played. I was drawn into the story from the first page and the thrilling pace is maintained throughout the book via a series of exciting twists and turns. Stone is unable to forget about the two children, and how their lives will be affected, and is determined to bring to justice all those involved.

When a rapist is found mutilated in a brutal stabbing, Stone and her team discover further sinister events. However, leads are spaghetti-like, and Stone is frustrated by the lack of initial progress: as one suspect is ruled out, another comes into the frame and then recedes again.

The reader meets psychiatrist, Dr Alexandra Thorne, early on and with chapters written from her point of view, learns what she is up to. When Stone encounters Thorne, we follow Stone’s investigation and deductive processes. I loved the character of the psychiatrist. I cannot really expand on why without spoilers, but I thought her character was cleverly constructed and her involvement in the plot brought in some quite controversial and fascinating psychology.

The book blurb states how this investigation becomes personal for Stone, and it really does. In Evil Games, the reader learns more about Stone’s backstory and how it has moulded her personality and lifestyle. Due to her childhood experiences, Stone shows significant empathy towards the two girls from the cellar, and to the victims of subsequent crimes. For me, this caring quality makes her a sympathetic character while also being extremely capable and courageous. In this investigation, Stone finds herself in a battle of wits with a dangerous sociopath, who also delights in evil games. The interactions between them bounce Stone into having to confront her own past. I thought this worked well as it meant that Stone’s backstory is revealed through events in the story. It is also how people in real life are forced to come to terms with their pasts, as a result of things which happen around them which re-activate traumas.

Some authors have their detectives in conflict, which makes for exciting reading. Here, I love the enabling rapport between Stone and her sergeant, Bryant.  Although she is younger than him, he respects her authority and decisions but at the same time the bond and trust between them mean that he is able to tease and joke with her on a personal level, and challenge her, in a way that no-one else is. Bryant also genuinely cares about her and likes her, and this brings out the best in her.

This is an addictive read with dark themes of abuse, corruption and exploitation. I was relieved to find plenty of caring, undamaged characters to balance things out and make the plot believable. The story, and the numerous shocking revelations, prompt consideration of debates which remain unanswered in psychology, for example whether evil, and disorders such as sociopathy and psychosis, are biologically or environmentally determined. Furthermore, the novel raises the question of whether it is possible to recover from trauma and abuse, another hotly debated issue in clinical and developmental psychology. While reading, I was wondering how the novel would end and I felt this was handled well. There were quite a few plot strands to tie up and explain, and sometimes this can make an ending feel rushed even though it can be difficult to avoid with a complex plot.

Although we have learnt more about Stone in Evil Games, I sense that there is a lot more to know about her. And I think Marsons has hit character gold in DI Kim Stone. She is also an extremely good story teller with a knack for pace.

My review copy was obtained from NetGalley. With thanks to the author and publisher.


Vicky Newham © 2015

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The Truth Will Out by Jane Isaac – a review

I wanted to read this book before embarking on the author’s new one, Before It’s Too Late.

The Truth Will Out is the second novel in the DCI Helen Lavery series. It is a welcome addition to a sub-genre of novels by female authors, featuring a strong female protagonist. I really warmed to Lavery. She comes across as capable, caring and human, someone who a lot of women will relate to. She’s a single mum, and is recently back at work from maternity leave. Bored with being given unimportant tasks for two weeks, she can’t wait to get stuck into a proper investigation when her boss assigns her to a new case.

Eva witnesses an attack on her friend, Naomi, while on a skype call. Scared for her safety, Eva calls an ambulance and flees. Lavery heads up the investigation. Unfortunately, with no witnesses except Eva and no signs of forced entry, the lack of leads results in slow progress at first. Via a series of flashbacks the reader is drip fed information about what might have happened, and the past re-emerges for all the characters, including Lavery, in the form of DI Dean Patrick. Things become tense when it appears that someone is out to get Eva … and also Helen.

I liked the imaginative and contemporary nature of the plot. The use of technology as the means through which a crime is witnessed gives the book an up-to-date feel, and it reminded me of a Sophie Hannah plot (in a good way, I mean, not an actual SH book). It deals with some interesting themes: police corruption, personal responsibility, abuse, work-life balance.

What I particularly enjoy about Isaac’s writing style is that it is tight while at the same time taking the reader by the hand and leading him/her through the story in a delightful way. I don’t mean to suggest by this that the book is ‘cosy’. It isn’t. It deals with some hard-hitting themes and doesn’t shy away from representing the violence of the crimes. What I found was that chapters whizzed by and I quickly realised that I had read half the book. The pacing is excellent. The twists and turns in the plot worked well, and I cared about the characters and how things would end. In addition, the book comes across as well researched. There is just enough detail on procedures to make it a thoroughly believable police procedural without getting bogged down in irrelevant minutiae.  I enjoyed the way that scenes are dramatised so you can visualise and imagine the characters in your mind. Isaac does this very effectively.

I hope that Lavery returns. I understand Isaac introduces a new detective in Before It’s Too Late. It is courageous to leave a successful character and is indicative of an author who is prepared to take risks and challenge herself. And I have to confess – I’ve already started the next one.


Vicky Newham © 2015