I wasn’t, but later a scene closely based on that moment came to me - another woman, waking in the middle of the night on a ship, her heart thumping with adrenaline, certain that she’s heard a sound. Only in her case it wasn’t the thump of her drunk neighbour slamming his front door, but a splash. A loud splash. The kind of splash made by a body.
In my imagination the woman runs to the veranda of her cabin and peers over the balcony ledge to see what looks like a woman’s body disappearing beneath the waves. Is she correct? Why did she jump to the worst case scenario when she heard that sound? What will happen if she’s right and is trapped on the boat with a killer?
The questions forming in my head told me that this was a book I wanted to write - and in the process of answering them, I formed some of the bones of the plot. But the book also contains many other elements - news stories I had encountered, my frustration with the he said / she said cases that seemed to dominate the media in the year I was writing the book, my discovery of an odd quirk of law surrounding deaths at sea, and of course my fascination with Agatha Christie and her quirky, luxurious settings.
The Death of Mrs Westaway is similar - except that I don’t have an anecdote about when the
idea came to me, because I truthfully can’t remember when I began to imagine a dilapidated house on a Cornish peninsular, and a bitter old woman drafting a vengeful will. But what I can tell you is something about where the character of my protagonist, Hal, came from. The seed of the character who became Hal was sown when I began to plan book four, and realised that all three of my previous crime books centred on basically innocent women who had been swept up in events beyond their control. Sometimes they make questionable decisions, but at their core they are normal people who simply fall, though no fault of their own, into extraordinary situations.
For my fourth book I decided I wanted to do something different. I wanted to create a character who sets out to commit a crime, and in doing so, brings the extraordinary events of the plot down upon herself.
I began to think about the anti heroes and heroines in fiction that I loved. Tom Ripley, who lies and cheats and steals his way into a fortune. Richard Papin who spends a novel defending his decision to cover up a murder. Brat Farrar who sets out to claim an inheritance that isn’t his.
And I decided to create a character in that mould. Someone who lies and cheats and deceives their way through the book. And so I created Hal. Someone who sets out to commit a crime - claiming an inheritance she knows full well is not intended for her - and in doing so sets in motion all the events of the plot.
I wanted her to be someone comfortable about reading others, and about using her knowledge of them to decipher what they want to hear. So I decided to make her a tarot reader - but a cynical one, one who relies on not on the messages in the cards, but in her powers of observation and guesswork to claim a psychic insight she does not have.
But I found myself liking Hal rather too much. I began to make excuses for her. I made her very young - just 21 at the beginning of the book. I took away her friends and family in order to leave her as destitute as possible and I put her in physical danger from a loan shark. By the time I sat down to write, I knew that Hal was not going to be the heartless manipulator I had intended when I began to think about the book. But when I came to write the first chapter, I did something I was not intending on doing. I gave her a code of ethics - and in doing so I made the entire enterprise, Hal’s whole, complicated con scheme, immensely more complicated. For now Hal was not just in conflict with the dark, dysfunctional family she sets out to defraud, but with herself too.
Conflict, we are often told, is the root of a compelling scene. On that basis Mrs Westaway should be a very compelling book indeed, since Hal is at war with most of the characters in it, including herself. I won’t presume to judge on that score, but it was certainly great fun to write.