Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Rebecca Alexander on Transforming a ghost story into procedural crime

From the very beginning, A Baby’s Bones was a crime story. Burial rites were very important in the Elizabethan era. Being denied a regular burial was a punishment, and the dumping of two people down a well suggested they had been murdered. Someone was trying to conceal the crime. I loved writing fantasy elements like the suggestion that the house is haunted, but at its heart, the book was about a possible crime far in the past. I leave it to the reader’s imagination to decide whether Solomon Seabourne’s efforts at alchemy had any effects, in the past or present.

The contemporary strand did have to change. I think investigating such brutal events must affect people working on it, and Sage and her students are overshadowed by the bones emerging from the well. The place, the story of the bodies and the associated burial tell a story that affects the people around it, from the family living in the cottage to the villagers. I’m not one of those writers who can plan meticulously, so the moment I started writing a scene in the sixteenth century cottage the atmosphere started to affect the story. I think the jury is still out on whether the house is haunted and whether it affected the behaviour of the people around it – I shall leave it to the readers to decide for themselves. But some people are vulnerable to atmosphere and to the violent events they are excavating.

I’m a big fan of crime, mostly (but not exclusively) by female authors. I want to understand what intersection of thinking and emotions cause people to commit crimes. When I was working as a psychologist I found people were often planning acts they had seriously considered, like the mercy killing of a sick or demented relative, for example, or even getting revenge on someone. They rarely acted on these impulses, but the idea was there. I wanted to explore the motivations of the different characters, from the deceived wife to the lovelorn man to the rejected lover. Why do people lose it and try and kill someone? Sometimes even the person themselves can’t understand after the red mist has cleared.

Researching the forensic side was fascinating. Val McDermid’s Forensics was an inspiration here, as well as texts on the work of forensic archaeology. Sage’s systematic consideration of the evidence as it’s revealed is very like solving a crime. Archaeologists find artefacts and interpret them in the same way that we form a theory of how a crime was committed. We’re all, as writers and readers, building stories as Sage shows us the evidence. Writing, for me, is like reading in slow motion, I don’t know what’s going to happen next either.

A Baby’s Bones by Rebecca Alexander (Titan Books)
Archaeologist Sage Westfield has been called in to excavate a sixteenth-century well, and expects to find little more than soil and the odd piece of pottery. But the disturbing discovery of the bones of a woman and new born baby make it clear that she has stumbled onto an historical crime scene, one that is interwoven with an unsettling local legend of witchcraft and unrequited love. Yet there is more to the case than a four-hundred-year-old mystery. The owners of a nearby cottage are convinced that it is haunted, and the local vicar is being plagued with abusive phone calls. Then a tragic death makes it all too clear that a modern murderer is at work...

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