Vicky Newham


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THE INTRUSIONS by Stav Sherez – a review

When you pick up a Stav Sherez novel, you know you’re in for something different. He weaves intricate layers into his stories, and cleverly transports the reader into mental landscapes beyond their imagining and into their worst nightmares. I tried to read The Intrusions slowly. It was my afternoon treat, and I wanted to savour the prose and mull the ideas over. I managed that for a third of the book, and then bolted through the rest, so desperate was I to find out what was going on at the (brilliantly named) Milgram hostel. I mean, with a name like that, you know something dodgy’s bound to happen, right?

The story begins with a girl in a dark alley, stumbling, and under the influence of a psycho-active substance or several. Then another girl arrives at Carrigan and Miller’s police station, saying her friend’s been abducted by a man who’s threatened to come back for her. From there, the reader is very quickly in the Hades-like world of the internet, faced with the stark reality of how much technology has changed all our lives – and continues to every minute of the day.

‘… what technology gives with one hand it takes away with the other,’ observes one character.

It’s fair to say that neither Carrigan nor Miller are on good emotional form in this book. Carrigan, in particular, I felt sorry for. He’s been through the wringer on the personal front and in this book we see his mother in hospital. His team are undergoing an audit which is allegedly about investigation expenditure but is really about rapping Carrigan’s knuckles over misdemeanours on a previous case. Life and time are slipping through Carrigan’s hands, and I was rooting for some reprieve to come his way, for a few feathers of hope for him to latch onto. Various aspects of Carrigan’s journey in this book had me stabbing at my kindle to gobble up the pages. I found the whole plot utterly addictive and completely terrifying. Sherez deftly uses technology to bring themes alive, and as part of the plot itself. The police, too, have had to change the way they investigate to keep up with developments. We experience events through Carrigan and Miller’s eyes, and as they reel through shock and horror, so does the reader.

CCTV prowled public spaces, Carrigan reflects, but the job pulled you into darker provinces where neither God nor cameras could penetrate.

In my opinion, it’s not possible to pigeon hole a Sherez book into a particular sub-genre. The Intrusions has identifiable elements of West London urban noir, serial killer thriller, techno-thriller, social realism and more. And then there’s Bali. Which I’ve now scrubbed off my bucket list!

‘You’ll never be alone again,’ one of the perpetrators tells the police. ‘If you use a phone or a computer or a TV, I’ll be there watching you.

As dénouements go, I found this one both electrifying and poignant.

‘Even if you catch me,’ says one of the suspects, ‘there’s hundreds of thousands just like me all over the word, looking for prey, and it’s only going to get a whole lot worse.’

Highly recommended and definitely one of my books of the year so far.

 

Vicky Newham ©2017

 


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SIRENS by Joseph Knox – a review

I’ve read this book twice now and both times it’s made me feel very strange for a while afterwards, the way a dream can possess and linger. I love books which do this. In the main, I don’t read for escapism or entertainment; I like books which make me think about life in a different way, books which make me feel. And I guarantee you will never feel the same again once you’ve read Sirens.

What drew me to the novel was the setting. I am fascinated by contemporary urban life and psycho-geography, and Manchester isn’t a city I’ve been to or know anything about. Once I was into the first page, though, it was the novel’s characters which intrigued me. It might be easy to think their lifestyles aren’t common but, having lived in London for years, and worked at night while I was studying, I know how realistic the author’s depiction is. I wonder whether cities necessarily create nocturnal characters who creep around in the shadows; perhaps it’s the complexity of modern life which so often results in the alienation and sense of being adrift which Sirens evokes? Large cities then attract and enable people to slide into a faceless cloak of anonymity, and lurk. ‘In spite of social media, CCTV and the state,’ DC Aidan Waits observes at the start of the book, ‘we still live in a world where you can disappear if you want to. Or even if you don’t.’ And Waits’ adopted world is one of seedy nightclubs and trafficked sex workers, gangs and drugs, canals and underground car parks. It’s a world of power, corruption and exploitation, where derelict building sites cosy up to penthouse apartment blocks and Hilton hotels.

With three strikes against him, Waits is sent undercover to check up on the seventeen-year-old daughter of local MP, David Rossiter. The girl, Isabelle, like her mother, has a history of depression and has run away and hooked up with drug dealer, Zain Carver. Waits’ boss wants to know which police officers are on Carver’s payroll. Waits observes and infiltrates Carver’s entourage. Rather than eat and sleep, he takes speed. The secrets which you know are there, gradually reveal themselves. It’s not a cheery world. It’s a powerful story of human alienation and suffering, and of the things people do to numb their pain and escape what they cannot face.

To me, the sirens of the title aren’t just the girls who collect Carver’s drug money. They’re our own self-destructiveness; the dangerous allure of the drugs and the lifestyle, of the lights which seem brighter at night. They’re a reminder of the rocks of Greek mythology, which can smash us all to death regardless of any vigilance we may possess.

The story in Sirens is devastating, but it isn’t all dark. I cared about Waits. His life trajectory – from the glimpses we get – shows how easy it is to take a wrong turn, then another, and find yourself completely lost. But he’s not a bastard or a psychopath. He cares about others, especially Isabelle and Catherine, perhaps more than he does himself, and genuinely wants to help them.

I see the author spent around ten years on the book. It’s difficult to believe that it’s a debut novel, mainly because the writing is so vivid and affecting. At times it’s staccato and sparse, at others it’s brutal and graphic and detailed. The whole narrative is steeped in ‘noir’ and many of the characteristics of US crime novels. Perfect.

Intense, visceral and raw, Sirens is a stand-out novel for me.

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Vicky Newham ©2016


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Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello – a review

 

I’ve been looking forward to reading Paris Mon Amour for months because I knew it was set in Paris, and because Isabel Costello and I both did language degrees and share a love of language. I had a feeling her debut novel would be something special and it really is. When a novel opens with, ‘The first time I caused terrible harm to those I love was an accident. The second is the reason I’m here’, it has my attention. The mysteries which these statements set up permeate the narrative as Alexandra recounts what has happened in the distant and recent past. As the plot progresses, the sense of impending disaster builds and you know it isn’t going to end well. However, while there are deaths in this book, and violence and crimes of a kind, Paris Mon Amour isn’t crime fiction.

When Alexandra learns her husband, Philippe, is having an affair she is plunged into a bewildering mental landscape. It fascinated me that it’s her mother who tells her, as this makes the revelation all the more confusing for Alexandra. I couldn’t help wondering what the mother’s motivation was for passing this information on, particularly in view of the way she does it. What did she expect her daughter to do with this bombshell?

Told in the first person, from Alexandra’s viewpoint, the reader is privy to her reactions and actions. Alexandra is frank about being drawn to Jean-Luc, who is much younger than her, and is the son of friends. She shares her reflections in a way which shows enormous courage and insight, and I found these aspects extremely interesting. It’s a sophisticated book and I am so pleased Canelo gave it a serious (and gorgeous) cover. Costello handles the sexual scenes extremely well. She portrays the sex graphically and honestly, but it never feels pornographic or voyeuristic. It shows us what Alexandra is thinking and feeling, and is integral to the plot.

It’s clear from the outset that Alexandra’s relationship with her mother is fraught with a number of complex emotions, and I found this element fascinating. Both women have been affected by the tragic death of Alexandra’s brother, Christopher. From their reactions and interactions, the reader gets glimpses of how this tragedy was handled and what dynamics it set in motion for mother and daughter. From the narrative, it’s clear that these dynamics have framed their entire relationship, Alexandra’s upbringing and psychological development. As someone who’s fascinated by mother-daughter relationships, it prompted immense sympathy and empathy in me towards Alexandra. I wasn’t sure whether the affair with Jean-Luc was supposed to come across as an all-consuming passion. I felt that the knowledge of her husband’s affair unleashed repressed grief around her brother’s death, and also anger about the way the tragedy was dealt with by her mum. Jean-Luc, we learn, also has issues from the past, so their mutual attraction is understandable, if ill-fated.

In a publishing market where literary and genre fiction are seen very differently, it’s interesting to consider where Paris Mon Amour fits. Women’s fiction, chick lit and domestic noir have specific tropes and rules. Thematically, and in many ways, it reminded me of many of the things I loved about Hausfrau. I wouldn’t describe Paris Mon Amour as chick lit, and while it has an element of the ‘women behaving badly’ which we’ve seen in recent domestic noir, the tone and feel of the novel are different. Whatever genre it fits doesn’t really matter. The point is it’s an emotional read, and a highly compelling story.

With thanks to the author for a review copy.

You may also be interested in the character interview I carried out recently with Alexandra Folgate, protagonist of Paris Mon Amour. It is here.

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Vicky Newham © 2016.

 


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Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant – a review

 

Having enjoyed previous books by this author, and seen people tweeting about Lie With Me, I was eager to read it. Once I started, I binge read. Clever and sharp from the first page, it brings something fresh to the crime fiction genre, as Durrant’s novels always do.

The story revolves round writer, Paul Morris, who’s dined out – literally – on the success of his work in his early twenties. Now almost out of friends and on the verge of becoming homeless, he’s wondering how his life has taken the shape it has. And who he can hitch his next ride with. When Alice comes back into his life, she seems like his ticket to continued coasting, and possibly redemption. Except old habits die hard. As a liar, a user and a lazy toe-rag, Paul is a fabulous protagonist. Often, if I don’t like a main character I don’t care what happens to them, but the author covers this aspect of the novel brilliantly. I wasn’t rooting for him, but I definitely wanted to find out how his romance with Alice, and the holiday in Greece, worked out. Foreboding and menace crackle and spit their way through the narrative, and I was interested to see what choices Durrant would make about the ending.

What I admire about Sabine Durrant’s books is the energy of her writing. Lie With Me is written in the first person. Often this can become monotonous and exposition-prone. Not so here for one moment. Staccato sentences punctuate vivid descriptions and fast-paced dialogue. Paul’s reflections brim with information about his character, and his tone is sarcastic and informal – and very funny. It’s as though he’s telling you the story over a pint (or perhaps that would be an expensive glass of wine which he gets you to pay for).

The cast of characters are terrific. The tensions between Paul and Andrew are there from the start. I found Tina’s role and position intriguing, and Alice was a wonderful surprise.

A standout novel for me. And check out that cover!

With thanks to the publisher and author for the ARC.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016.


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In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings – a review

In Her Wake, the mesmerising new psychological thriller by Amanda Jennings, shudders with suspense from the opening pages. Bella is on her way home, with her controlling husband, David, to attend her mother’s funeral. She refers to her mother as Elaine and her father as Henry. Henry wants to tell Bella something but somehow cannot get the words out. Regrets and conflicting emotions leak out of every exchange between the three of them the way that blood oozes from a wound. Henry seems to be guilt-wracked about something. Bella is confused about her feelings towards Henry and ambivalent towards her husband. What on earth is going on?

What I really liked about this opening is that Jennings presents the reader with a bag of fat, wriggling worms from the outset. She shows how it is possible to take a popular theme – unearthing family secrets – and put a completely fresh spin on it. It is this universal theme which makes this novel one which people will relate to and adore. The thing about secrets, which unsettles most of us, is their reach: their seeds germinate in the past, grow in the present and cast a shadow into the future, and the betrayal they result in is one of the worst.

In Her Wake is a beautifully written novel, which covers dark and complex themes with subtlety and nuance. Jennings shows how complex emotional needs are, how they can become physical and all-consuming. She shows how paradoxical love can be: selfish and possessive and cruel but genuinely caring at times too. So, if it’s acquisitive and demanding and desperate, is it love at all? And are those whose wounds make them ruthless and narcissistic necessarily bad people?

The plot turns and twists, giving the novel a wonderful momentum and pace. I got 10% in and realised there were multiple, interlinking mysteries, historical ones, current ones … and then Jennings delivers her first cull. And just as you think that Bella is going to get to the bottom of her family background, the author chucks in a curve ball or two. This is Amanda Jennings’ third novel, and is my favourite of hers. She has deftly steered the novel away from becoming a family saga and has firmly placed it in the psychological thriller category.

Reflecting further on the novel thematically, what came through most strongly for me was that In Her Wake explores types of love, and the various factors which can threaten this most basic of emotions, for example, betrayal and control. It made me wonder whether betrayal necessarily cancels out all love that may have existed. And, whether all betrayals are equal. Does it make a difference what they may be motivated by and how they come about? Can their invisible stains ever be wiped clean, and, if so, what amends are acceptable and what insights help?

For those who love coastal scenery and the Cornwall lifestyle, Jennings clearly knows the landscape. I could visualise the cliff-top B&Bs, feel the sea air blast my face on the sands of Porthmeor beach, and could hear the squawking of the seagulls as they swoop on chip wrappers.

I loved Bella, and could relate to her mistakes and confusion, and the strength she didn’t realise she had. Throughout the novel, I really hoped that she would achieve acceptance. For the novel is also about hope. When what you think you know crumbles, what do you cling to, and how do you maintain hope that you will once again find your footing?

A wonderful read, which will drag your head and heart through the wringer, while all the time making you believe in mermaids and human redemption. Thank you.

With thanks to the author and publisher for the review copy.

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 

 


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My standout novels of 2015

This is a lovely way to reflect on what I’ve enjoyed reading this year, and why. I am hopeless at ranking things, and I’ve liked books for different reasons, so they are in no order.

 

A Devil Under the Skin by Anya Lipska

This is the third in Anya’s brilliant East London based series, featuring PI Janusz Kiszka and DC Natalie Kershaw. No sign of staleness here, these books just get better and better. I adore two things about Anya’s writing. Her style is unique. It is both clever and funny and this makes it a pleasure to read. For me, though, what marks out her style is that many of her phrases draw on multiple reference sources, and word choices are evocative and ‘on trend’. I loved the plot in this book. Janusz, Natalie and Oskar are caught up in, and have to respond to, events which show the many facets of their characters. The Polish context is handled with affection and honesty and humour. Some of the exchanges between Janusz and Oskar are comedy genius.

 

Huntress Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff

I often find that screenwriters write evocative prose, and dramatise events in their novels in ways which make you feel as though you are on a film set, not sitting on the couch with a paperback and box of Jaffa cakes. This is definitely the case with Alexandra Sokoloff’s writing. I found Huntress Moon gripping from the first sentence and deeply unsettling. Sokoloff’s language and writing are gorgeous. Descriptions of San Francisco and the other US locations are vivid and rich, and, in places, very unusual. Huntress Moon is the first in what is going to be a quintet of novels, with three already published.

For me, the ‘Huntress’ is the stand-out of the two main characters, but perhaps this is because female characters can be so hard to get right – in terms of gender stereotypes and clichés – and make ‘fresh’. This is a serial killer crime novel with several important differences. I adored the mythology and the way that the moon cycles influence behaviour. There was plenty of Psychology to get my teeth into, drawing on key aspects of Developmental and Forensic Psychology. Wonderful.

 

I Know Who Did It by Steve Mosby

Steve Mosby has become one of my favourite writers. His creative writing is different from his blog writing (as you would expect) but shimmers with the same intelligence. He explores unusual psychological terrain, and burrows into the rabbit holes of the human condition with empathy and nuance, including how morality adds additional considerations to the complexities of psychological processes. In this book, notions of heaven and hell, God and the Devil, right and wrong, good and bad, and what constitutes sin, are stirred in and create a heady mix. The book starts with a man named David Groves being driven into the woods. The atmosphere shudders with menace and intrigue. I had no idea what to expect. In a few brief chapters you have a woman who has come back from the dead and a man who’s receiving cards for his dead son. What I adored about this book was that I was continually having to check what I thought I knew. Mosby’s writing is a masterclass in the creation of suspense and atmosphere, and in manipulating reader assumptions in devilishly clever ways. In I Know Who Did It there are a number of game-changing plot twists which spin the reader three sixty degrees. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.

 

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau kept me spellbound for several days. It left me motionless on my bed when I finished it, thoughts swirling as I lay there, all sorts of emotions competing. In the book, Anna’s life is hurtling out of control. She is taking risks and not attending fully to areas of her life. It made me think about how much control we have over our lives, how easy it is for a person to change learned behaviours and responses, where responsibility and accountability lie, what unhappiness is … and a whole lot more. There are phrases, images and metaphors in Hausfrau which made me hold my breath. Having studied German at university, and long been interested in language and linguistics, I purred at the way Essbaum played with and explored language, and the relationship between language and thought.

 

The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty

The Abrupt Physics of Dying is absolutely not my usual kind of novel but reading it felt like savouring a long cocktail with bite while necking the occasional shot of tequila. It’s a tense, gritty eco-thriller set in Yemen in 1994. It has a gripping plot based on fictionalised versions of real events which the author experienced over many years. It opens with Claymore Straker (Clay), an oil company engineer, looking down the barrel of a Kalashnikov into the eyes of a ‘kid’ terrorist who has hijacked him. By the end of the first page the reader knows some key information about Clay: something BIG happened thirteen years ago, and he has killed. So many questions arise from this first page. Clever hooks and wonderful writing.

 

After the Fire by Jane Casey

I knew I was going to love Jane’s writing and I had a feeling it was going to be funny. Getting humour ‘right’ in crime novels isn’t always easy. There are a number of mysteries within After the Fire – and a couple of sub-plots – and each one adds a layer of intrigue to the investigation, and ramps up the tension. The reader is quickly drawn into the murky lives of the residents and visitors at the tower block where the fire occurs, some of whom are more sympathetic than others. What makes this novel is the two main characters, Kerrigan and Derwent, and the various facets of their relationship. Their sparring is very funny and clever, and they clearly care about each other and watch each other’s backs. While Derwent is the senior officer, he and Kerrigan pass the power baton back and forth. I love the way they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses – and need each other. We see Derwent through Kerrigan’s eyes, and Kerrigan (mainly) through her own. In addition, Jane Casey’s writing is a treat. Her dialogue is sharp, and the character observations are astute and funny.

 

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

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 determined to bring to justice whoever is responsible for their suffering. As she and DS Noah Jake tease out the strands of the mystery, they realise 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. From the reactions and comments of Rome, Jake and another key character we gradually learn what occurred. It is more devastating than you could ever imagine.

Sarah Hilary 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. When a writer describe things in ways which make me see the world differently, I’m in awe.

 

Untouchable by Ava Marsh

Amongst crowded book shelves, a novel with an unusual setting or protagonist stands out. The story at the heart of Untouchable is a universal one: someone makes a terrible mistake which has awful consequences, and finds it hard to come to terms with it all. It takes courage to write a book set in the sex industry as you run the risk of having your book labelled erotica. However, to dismiss this extremely well written Vice Noir novel as that is to miss something fresh. There are a number of types of crime in the book, raising the question of whether crime novels have to include murders. These add to the story layers and epitomise how complex life often is. I really liked Ava’s main character, Grace, and felt hugely sympathetic towards her. The guilt she was experiencing as a result of the mistake she made had pushed her into self-destructive and self-punishing behaviour. Gutsy, principled, flawed and vulnerable, she’s a brilliant female character.

 

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto

The Hummingbird is a fascinating and honest examination of what it can be like to be an immigrant in Finland. It delves into the thorny issues of prejudice and stereotypes, and belonging and identity. The protagonist detective, Anna Fekete, is a Hungarian from former Yugoslavia. On the first day of her new job, a female jogger is found dead and a Kurdish girl reported to be in danger.

The author has lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia and has taught immigrants in her role as a special needs teacher, so clearly knows her subject. Chapters are written from Anna’s point of view and that of one of the victims (the Kurdish girl), the combination of which provides useful insight to the forced marriage situation. I loved the way that Kati integrates landscape, weather and nature into the story of this novel, as it contributes to the tone and mood in a way which feels relevant rather than indulgent, and in a way which doesn’t pull the reader out of the story. For me, this is Finnish social realism at its bravest and best.

 

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

If there is a book which demonstrates how redundant genre classifications can be, it is The Death House. It has elements of several genres and is set in the future. However, at its most essential it is a story about how a group of children of various ages respond to being taken away from their homes in a van to an institution. This happens because they have something in their blood tests which makes them ‘defective’, and which means that sooner or later they will get sick and die. And this is what makes the book delightful: it shows, via beautifully written prose, how differently each of them responds to the same situation. Toby is an emotional and sensitive boy, also proud and scared and angry. When Clara arrives, the bond they develop, and her response to her prognosis, have a profound effect on him.

I enjoyed the scenes in the dorms with the boys bantering and jockeying for position. Toby’s fellow ‘inmates’ are characterised well, distinct and real. I loved how Clara arrives on the scene and shakes everything up, apparently confident but with her own vulnerabilities.  While they all wait for their symptoms to develop, and for the lift to come in the middle of the night to take them to the sanatorium, the emotions of the children are continually changing, and so are their friendships and the group dynamics. If any one of the children exemplifies the words of the strapline, ‘Everyone dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts’, it is Clara. But it could equally well apply to any of the inmates, as this is the dilemma they are faced with having received their prognoses. Perhaps it applies to the reader as well. If life is so impermanent, how are we to live our lives?

 

Normal by Graeme Cameron

In a busy sub-genre, this serial killer novel stands out from the crowd for me in a number of ways. Firstly, the concept and writing are extremely clever. The protagonist, the serial killer, is interesting, scarily likeable (if you didn’t know about some of his predilections and cooking habits), smart and funny. Forensic Psychology tells us that many serial killers and psychopaths can be charming, and Cameron’s protagonist both conforms with and departs from the stereotype in different ways. Told from the viewpoint of the killer, some of his observations made me scream with laughter, sometimes because of how funny they are but also out of shock at what I was reading. Some of the throwaway comments are so simultaneously clever and funny, I did a double take along the lines of ‘What the actual flip?’ Normal has some brilliant characters. Erica is a superb match for her captor and I really enjoyed their exchanges. It’s gory in places and requires the reader to suspend their sense of morality, and I absolutely loved it.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016


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Q&A with Steve Mosby for the publication of I Know Who Did It

stevemosby

Steve, welcome to the blog!

Congratulations on the new novel, I Know Who Did It, which is out today. I was lucky enough to read an early copy at the end of August. Having already reviewed the book (linked at the bottom of this post), I thought it would be interesting to ask you a few questions about your writing and some of its psychological themes.

So, over to you.

 

1. On your website you refer to I Know Who Did It as the book that’s been the hardest to write. Can you tell us a little about this and how you feel now?

It’s certainly taken the longest, from start to finish. I started it in 2012, immediately after finishing Dark Room, and actually wrote a full draft that year. At that point, the story was very different. It had the same central idea, and several of the secondary characters that are in the finished version, but it was centred on Groves; none of the characters from The 50/50 Killer appeared in it, and the ending was very different. And it was a bit of a mess, to be honest. Back then, I couldn’t quite figure out how to make the idea work.

So I talked it over with Orion, and we agreed to shelve it for the time being. I went away, despondent at having basically wasted a year’s work, and started something new, which eventually became The Nightmare Place. But I couldn’t let the original idea go, and I decided to go back to it. And with that distance, I figured out that by splitting up a couple of the storylines and giving it all a different focus, I could make it work.

It’s actually not so different from how I’ve written any of them, really. My first drafts are always a bit exploratory. But I Know Who Did It is the first where I’ve had to abandon it and write an entirely new book in the middle of the process. I really, really hope it’s the last. I usually get a bit closer with the first proper draft than I did there.

 

2. There’s no snoozing with your novels! At any point, almost anything can happen and this creates an exhilarating read. Readers often don’t like ‘too predictable’ or ‘too unexpected’. I think you get the balance just right but have no idea how you do it. How and where do you draw the line?

Thank you! I appreciate that. I don’t really know, except to say that any unexpected developments emerge organically – hopefully – from the story as it develops. But I do think quite a lot about how to undermine or subvert things. For example, I’m not a big fan of reading or writing huge action scenes, so I tend to cut them off and take the book in a different direction. The ending of I Know Who Did It could have been a lot longer and more action-packed, but I always figure: why bother? That’s not the point, so why not just get to the point instead? So I often find I’m building up to something that in a more normal crime novel would go one way, and I decide to take it another instead. What’s the most interesting and unexpected thing that could happen here? It’s a good question to ask yourself. You can go anywhere you want, so long as it feels natural and doesn’t come totally out of the blue.

 

3. The new book sees a return of Mark Nelson and John Mercer, both of whom appeared in The 50/50 Killer. Why did you want to write about these characters again? Do you plan to do this with any of your other characters?

I’ve never deliberately set out to avoid writing a series; it’s just that standalones tend to suit me and the way I work. Because it always starts with an idea or a basic theme for me – not a story but a subject. So with Still Bleeding, it was “oh, I’d quite like to write about this online culture of sharing images of death, and what that says about us”. Or with Black Flowers, it was “I’m interested in how real life influences fiction, and then fiction can influence real life”. It’s always vague ideas like that, and from there, I develop a story and the characters I need to make it work. And since I like everything to fit together thematically as tightly as possible, I want characters that reflect the story and the subject matter – people I can fully explore and empty out through the book – and it’s usually easier to build them from the ground up. A series character comes with his or her own baggage, and that might clash with the wallpaper, if you see what I mean.

With I Know Who Did It, when I came back to look at it, I just realised that the characters from The 50/50 Killer worked with the themes and the ideas, and that it might be fun to return to them. The first book is very contained, and I’d never been able to see where to take them after that. But although I Know Who Did It is very different in some ways, it’s about similar concepts and has the same tone, and when I put the characters into it they didn’t seem out of place.

Whether I’ll do it with any of the other characters – I don’t know. Certainly not for the sake of it. But if the right idea comes up, I’d happily go for it. I mean, I know writing a series brings its own set of challenges, but for me, with this one, it really did help to have the characters lined up already.

 

4. Many of your books show ‘horror’ influences. Is this deliberate on your part and do you think that crime and horror are natural bed fellows?

I always wanted to write horror. When I was growing up, I fell in love with Stephen King’s books, and it was a short step from there to Dean R Koontz, Richard Laymon, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, and so on. Those were the kinds of books I wanted to write. I think it was only as I got older and started to read more ‘slipstreamy’ stuff – people like Michael Marshall Smith, Graham Joyce, Jonathan Carroll etc – that I started to see what was possible and to blend different genres into my own writing. And I guess The Third Person could easily have been published as horror or SF, but the crime element stuck, and here I am. Which I like, because I find I can do whatever I want within the crime genre. It’s very flexible.

In general, I think crime and horror go together very well indeed. There’s a natural crossover there – to the point where books with a strong element of supernatural horror like John Connolly’s are published as crime, whereas you’ll find something like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door on the horror shelf. Certainly, a lot of novels published as crime – the serial killer stuff, especially – could be packaged as horror instead. At heart, they’re basically ‘beat the monster’ stories: the serial killer could just as easily be a vampire, or whatever, and the point of the story would be the same. And I guess with some noir there’s this sense of existential horror: this bleak idea that we’re alone in an uncaring universe, making mistakes, and everything doesn’t necessarily turn out the way you might want it to. Crime fiction generally goes from order to chaos to order again at the end, whereas horror is allowed to leave you in chaos, and I think some crime fiction can do that too, albeit in less obvious ways.

 

5. In many of your books you play with what the reader ‘knows’ and thinks he/she knows. To an extent this is a trope of crime fiction but you do it in a very psychological way which makes for a particularly ‘Steve Mosby’ read. Can you tell us about this? Why and how you do it, and if anything is off limits?

I think I just like twists! And I tend to rate twists by how much of what you’ve read or watched you’re forced to re-evaluate in light of it. And since I tend to focus on the psychological side of things rather than, say, intricate plot machinations or big confrontations, the twists I try for generally happen on that side of things. I wouldn’t say my books have unreliable narrators as such, but they’re first person narratives, and I think people often do hide things from themselves to an extent. With first person, you’re listening to someone telling a story, and the story they tell is inevitably going to be biased and incomplete. And of course, you’re doing that too as the writer. But a twist has to feel right. That’s the boring answer to what’s off-limits: absolutely nothing is, so long as it works. It has to make sense and I think it also has to feel organic and even necessary on some intuitive level. There has to be a point to it – a moment of “oh god, of course the story had to go there; I get what it’s all about now”. That’s one of the differences between a top-drawer twist and, say, a character waking up, and there’s another character in the shower, and it was all a dream.

 

6. ‘Justice’ is a theme which occurs in your novels. What aspects of this interest you and how do you think morality complicates it?

Well, I think justice and morality are intertwined concepts. When someone does something immoral, justice is about them being punished; when someone behaves well, they should be rewarded. It’s not quite as simple as that, but it’s close enough. So the concept of justice is kind of predicated on the concept of morality. And that’s fine, because for the most part we share a sense of morality: it varies through time and around the world, but most of us growing up in the same stew of religious and social influences are going to agree on some basic norms of good and bad behaviour that serve to maintain social cohesion. Many of those will be codified in law; others just frowned upon. And there will be disagreements. But I don’t think you can have a sense of justice outside of a moral perspective.

Now, in crime fiction, the immoral act is frequently a murder: the social cohesion is broken by a killing, then restored by the culprit being identified and taken into custody, and there you go: that’s justice. But put like that, that’s obviously really trivial and mundane. And so of course, most crime fiction goes well beyond that. All is never well again, for one thing – how important or comforting really is ‘justice’ to the people left behind? And it’s never sufficient to say “the murderer acted immorally” and leave it at that; it’s the equivalent of just saying “he did it because he was evil”, which is an intellectually lazy cop out. Good crime fiction addresses these different aspects, and I think the complicating factor isn’t morality, but empathy. Empathy for the victims and the survivors, of course. But also, perhaps perversely, empathy for the perpetrator, insofar as trying to understand not just the motive but the reasons behind the motive.

One of the characters in I Know Who Did It, Groves, is a policeman whose infant son has been abducted and murdered. He’s a man of faith and a fierce believer in the law. And at one point, he’s investigating a suspected pedophile, a man he should hate, and he forces himself to try to understand, to think about the man’s upbringing and the social conditions that formed him. Groves says that the story of everybody’s life is a book that was started before they were born. And it’s important to me as a writer to try always to consider that aspect – to try to have empathy. Everyone walks their own hard road, and all that.

 

7. In both The 50/50 Killer and I Know Who Did It people do are faced with decisions which require them to save themselves or a loved one. Can you tell us why this intrigues you?

I don’t know; it’s always been an interest. I suppose one of the things I’m keen on exploring is how and why people care about each other, and what can intervene to change that. And the kind of decision you mention is just an ultra-extreme version of that. In The 50/50 Killer, the killer challenges one of a couple to decide which of them will be tortured and killed over the course of a night – and they can change their mind at any point. Which just seemed to me to be an apt metaphor for a relationship in flux! You can claim you’ll love someone forever, and that you couldn’t live without them, and so on, all that stuff – but what happens when real life gets in the way? How much hurt do you put up with? How much are you prepared to hurt someone to get what you want? When do you give up on love – or do you? The scenario is really just a dramatisation of those concerns, and it’s those underlying questions that intrigue me.

 

8. Crime fiction is evolving all the time. Are there any developments which interest, please or bother you?

Not really. Crime fiction is a broad church, and that’s wonderful, and the key thing with evolution is natural selection, so we all know that trends will come and go, and what’s successful will stick around. As a writer, it’s the same as ever: all you can do is work on what interests you and hope for the best.

Negative stuff? I suppose you could point to things like increasingly explicit violence, but I don’t know if that’s actually a problem, and I think it’s a cultural thing across the board anyway, rather than particular to crime fiction. Violence against women – but again, that emerges from the wider culture; I suppose it’s good that we have that conversation every so often, even if it never gets resolved. I sometimes wish crime fiction would be more open to cross-genre stuff. It is in some ways, but there are books like (for example) Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass and China Mieville’s The City And The City, which were all published as SF but I think deserved to have gained more traction and recognition in the crime world. So it goes, though.

 

9. In what ways do you notice changes in your writing since The Third Person in 2003? Either in terms of what you write about or how you do it?

I hope it’s got considerably better! I’m proud of The Third Person and The Cutting Crew in their own separate ways, and for different reasons, but they both feel a world away from what I’m doing now, and I always cringe slightly when someone who’s enjoyed one of the later books picks one of those up next.

There’s this conventional wisdom that a writer spends their life writing their first book, and then has to write their second really quickly to a deadline. Difficult second album syndrome, and there’s truth in that. Val McDermid told me once that she was often far more interested in a writer’s third book, because by then they’re starting to figure themselves out and find their feet. That was 100% true for me. In many ways, The 50/50 Killer was a complete break away from the first two, and that was the point I began to feel like “right – this is my subject matter, this is my style”. It hasn’t made it any easier, of course. Each book gets harder to write.

 

10. Finally, what can we expect for the book after I Know Who Did It?

Another standalone. But it’s very early days in terms of writing it, so I don’t want to say too much about the storyline at this point – not least because it will probably change!

But in the meantime, thanks a lot for having me here, and for asking such interesting questions. Cheers!

 

And now for the book. My review of I Know Who Did It is here.

 


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Vicky Newham © 2015