Today’s guest blog is by debut author Sarah Ward who is also an online crime fiction reviewer at Crimepieces. She is also a judge for the Petrona Award for translated Scandinavian crime fiction. Her debut novel is entitled In Bitter Chill.
People write crime novels for a myriad of reasons. Former detectives who want to put their experiences down on paper, writers from other genres who fancy trying their hand at a murder story or those who feel that genre fiction is the area they’re most likely to get published in. But I suspect the vast majority of us who pen our first crime novel do it simply because we wanted to write what we’ve been reading over the years. I became a writer because I was a reader.
It’s hard to date the first crime novel that I read. How do you categorise crime fiction? If there needs to be a policeman then I’m going to plump for one of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven stories with the sensible Inspector who advises the group. It’s from these books that I first memorised the hierarchy of ranks in the police force. From Blyton I moved on to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew stories. I’ve still got the books. Battered and slightly mildewed from age, I’ve liked ever since the idea of an amateur detective. Of course, they’re hopelessly unrealistic. Has anyone ever met a PI in real life? In England? But when I was writing my debut, In Bitter Chill, I wanted to incorporate a police investigation alongside a protagonist who is also trying to uncover the mystery. In my novel, she’s a genealogist who is discovering the secrets of her own past.
The first adult crime novels I read were those of Agatha Christie. She remains my favourite
writer to this day. I can (and do) reread them on a regular basis. It’s ultimately, I think, for the plotting. I like the twists and turns and the sense of the unexpected. From Christie I moved on to the other Golden Age writers and then, in my late teens, to the books of Ruth Rendell and PD James. These two Grande Dames of British crime fiction, both of whom sadly died recently, are also firmly entrenched in my reading psyche. I loved the idea of both the fictional town (Rendell’s Kingsmarkham) and the slow revealing of a plot that James so favoured. It inspired me to create my own Derbyshire town, Bampton, and to take time to gradually uncover secrets that span generations.
In my twenties it was the turn of the American women private eyes. Sarah Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller are the writers I loved. I remember eagerly awaiting each new book in the series that was, maddeningly, always published first in the States. The idea of a strong woman protagonist was appealing. Women may be victimised but they don’t necessarily have to be passive observers of their own traumas. Women can and do take control of their lives after a shocking experience.
Finally, it was the rise in popularity in Scandinavian crime fiction where I saw how the gap between genre and literary fiction could be bridged. Henning Mankell was an early love, closely followed by Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason. The quality of crime novels coming from Scandinavian region has been phenomenal and it remains an inspiration to my own writing. It’s not enough to have a decent plot and well rounded characters. You need to strive for the best writing you can. Speaking to the translators of some of these excellent writers’ works has also been an inspiration. The attention to detail and resonance of each word remains something entrenched in my writing day.
This has been a brief overview of some of the authors and their works who I’ve been inspired by over the years. I was never going to write anything other than a crime novel. It’s a genre that I absolutely love. And throughout the writing process I’ve been conscious that I’m following in the footsteps of some truly great writers. I feel honoured to have joined the crime writing community.
In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward is published on 2nd July by Faber and Faber (£12.99)