Friday 21 June 2024

A.A. Chaudhuri on the importance of strong characterisation in the Psychological Thriller genre

There are many reasons why I love the psychological thriller genre. An iconic twist, spine-tingling tension, the classic unreliable narrator, and sinister mind games are just some of its timeless traits that make it such an enthralling, memorable and addictive genre.

But for me, in order for those attributes to flourish and really resonate with readers, it is vital to get the characterisation right. First and foremost, it’s the characters who are driving the plot forward and everything they do and say has an immense bearing on other important aspects like tension and suspense, or even whether a twist is believable. If, as an author, I have not developed my characters enough to make them feel real and believable, then it is unlikely that my readers will be invested in the story. After all, the clue is in the name: ‘psychological’ thriller. Fundamentally, this means that as an author I must step into the shoes of my characters, penetrating their psyches as deeply as possible, and really get to grips with what makes them tick as people. This can either be done through the first- or third-person narrative – I prefer the first person because I find it more effective, but it’s very much the author’s choice. If I have not infiltrated my character’s mindset, then it is unlikely everything else that makes this genre so compelling will fall into place. For example, if my unreliable narrator is bland and one-dimensional, they will not be so intriguing or believable because I have not shown the reader what drives and haunts them, thereby making them unreliable. Likewise, if I have not dropped in subtle clues and insights into my character’s nature or behaviour in the meat of the book, a final twist related to that particular character might not make as much sense, leaving the reader feeling at best deflated, at worst cheated.

Strong characterisation has a knock-on effect on everything we deem essential in a good psychological thriller. Unlike in a straight thriller, where there is often a fair amount of physical conflict, in the psychological thriller we focus on the characters’ inner conflict, their mental mind games with each other, also played out through dialogue. A reader needs to ‘feel’ a character’s tension, to ‘hear’ the fear in their voices, to understand by essentially ‘penetrating’ their brains what is motivating them to behave in the way they do, for all the other core characteristics of the genre to work. It is the characters’ experiences, thoughts, hang-ups, emotions, and actions that are driving the story, rather than physical action, and so the tension we expect from this genre will come from getting inside those characters’ heads and understanding what is at stake for them.

In my new psychological thriller, Under Her Roof, struggling writer – Sebastian - rents a room in the palatial Hampstead mansion of beautiful mysterious widow, Adriana. The rent is ridiculously cheap and despite his misgivings which centre around Adriana’s strange rules and the fact that the previous lodger died under tragic circumstances, Sebastian cannot resist taking her up on her offer. Things soon take an ominous turn for Sebastian when he realises that both he and his landlady are being watched, and that the terrifying situation he finds himself in may be linked to Adriana’s troubled past.

From very early on, the reader is made aware that both landlady and tenant are hiding dark secrets; secrets that haunt and inspire all sorts of negative feelings in them – guilt, fear, shame, to name but a few. We do not know what those secrets are initially, of course, but we know from the negative emotions they feel and from how tormented they are, that they cannot be good. In this way, the tension accelerates and we, the readers, have no idea if we can trust Seb and Adriana who clearly have something to hide and are harbouring such dark emotions. Yet, at the same time, we want to empathise with them because it is clear they have suffered serious injustices in the past and are by no means bad people. In this way, through my characterisation I have hopefully induced both suspicion and empathy on the reader’s part for my characters, making them more intriguing as unreliable narrators. Seb and Adriana do not just share an artistic connection, they are drawn to one another by their mutual loss and grief. Both perfect examples of what we all are as human beings – fallible. Two people with troubled pasts and terrible secrets that haunt and ensnare them in a never-ending cycle of sadness, guilt and fear, but who find themselves at the mercy of another whose intentions remain unclear, but who appears to delight in their inner turmoil, thereby ramping up that sense of dread and tension that makes this genre so addictive!

My books tend to be quite complex, but people are often surprised to hear I am not a meticulous plotter. What I do spend a lot of time on before I start writing, however, is drafting detailed character profiles. For me this is crucial, so that my readers feel able to connect with a character and understand what is driving them. To this end, for me a character’s appearance is the least important consideration. It’s the way they conduct themselves and speak to others, the inner turmoil in their heads, the way something in their childhood impacts them in adulthood, what they might love or fear, excel or perform poorly at, and finally the dark secrets they may be keeping from others and which have a bearing on their behaviour in the present. All these factors have an impact on how a character is perceived in the book, on the reader being able to connect with them, and in driving up that impending sense of dread and nerve-wracking tension we expect from the genre.

In summary, we all love an unreliable narrator, high tension, mind games and a killer twist in our psychological thrillers, but great characterisation is key to these beloved traits falling into place.

Under Her Roof by A A Chaudhuri (Hera/Canelo) Out Now.

It seems too good to be true… When struggling writer Sebastian finds a room to let in a palatial Hampstead residence he cannot believe his luck. The rent is ridiculously cheap, and he immediately feels a connection with his beautiful, widowed landlady, Adriana. It is. Things take a dark turn when he finds out what happened to the last lodger. Could this be why the house is a fortress of security, and why Adriana seems so fragile? Adriana doesn’t want to talk about the death and sadness that seem to follow her wherever she goes, and Sebastian has secrets of his own. Now someone is watching their every move and there is nowhere to hide. This house of light becomes a dark nightmare as the threat ramps up - what does the watcher want? And how far will they go to get it?

More information about A A Chaudhuri can be found on her website.  You can also follow her on “X” @AAChaudhuri and on Facebook and Instagram @aachaudhuri



Thursday 20 June 2024

Climate change comes to crime by Martin Walker

 The international bestseller explores how the backdrop of climate change in France has become important to Bruno’s story in his latest Dordogne Mystery.

Sherlock Holmes had his fogs. Hercule Poirot had ‘the chill of an early autumn morning.’ Maigret had those magical April days in Paris ‘when the sun bounced off the Seine.’ And Raymond Chandler had those hot dry Santa Anas ‘that come down through the mountain passes...On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks.’

We get climate change. Last summer the surface of the seas around the French and British coasts warmed by as much as five degrees, sending vast shoals of fish fleeing north to cooler waters. Evaporation soared and the westerly winds that carried the sodden air began to dump it as rain once as they reached high ground. And in France, that meant the Massif Central, the ancient volcanoes and sub-Alpine pastures that are the source of every French river from the Loire down to the Spanish border.

So, not for the first time, we had floods. Indeed, we now get them every year, cutting us off from the main road west to Bergerac and the vineyards. We cannot say we weren’t warned. Carved into the stone gateway at Limeuil, a town whose prosperity was built from the trade that boomed where the river Vezere met the much larger Dordogne, are the high points of floods in 1944, 1922 and 1898. They show us that the rivers were forty feet and higher than usual.

The last eighty years saw nothing like that, mainly because of the recurrent dams that have been built all the way up to the Massif, providing us with cheap electricity. But now, year after year, the dams are having to open the sluices to prevent overflows, so we get floods. We’ve had to remove the streetlamps along the quayside, and even evacuate the town’s famous aquarium.

And we get more and more forest fires, more and more days when you can smell them before you see the smoke and you keep an ear tuned to the radio for warnings. It’s almost too hot to stay outside and the water in the swimming pool starts to feel like a bath. Last year, it reached 43 Centigrade (108 degrees Fahrenheit) in my garden in the shade.

We also get hailstorms, so dense that within an hour the table in the courtyard is eight inches deep in hailstone the size of my thumb. We used to get them in late autumn, sometimes early enough to threaten the wine harvest. Now we get them in April and early May, viciously timed to devastate the young grapes on the vines. I have winemaker friends who lost two-thirds of their crop this spring. In the vineyards they say they used to reckon on one bad year in five, but in the last five years we had only one good vintage.

So more and more these days the weather has become a regular feature of my books, almost a character, just as the Perigord itself has become much more than a backdrop for the lives of Bruno, the chief of police of the small town of St Denis. I was hugely fortunate to stumble on this region, home to more prehistoric cave paintings and engravings than anywhere else on earth. Picasso came out of the 18,000-year-old art gallery of the Lascaux cave, saying, ‘We have learned nothing in all these thousands of years.’

The history never stopped. Julius Caesar’s legions fought the Gaul's here and captured a hilltop fort which then became a Roman oppidum, and then one of the guard posts Charlemagne built against Viking raids, and then the English and French battled over the castle for three hundred years. And then the French Catholics took up arms against the Protestants for another bloody century.

On top of all that, the region has become famous as one of the true heartlands of French cuisine, home to foie gras and the sublime black truffles, the confit de canard and the seven different types of strawberries, each protected by an Indication Géographique Protégée. ‘Great food and fine wines, this place is paradise on earth,’ said King Henri IV, the only French monarch to have given his name to a classic dish.

Naturally, therefore, Bruno is as much a cook as a policeman, and these days helps the volunteer firemen to control forest fires and organize evacuations from low ground and protect the town bridges from the floods. He’s not sure yet what he can do about the hailstorms but he’s working on it.

A Grave in the Woods by Martin Walker (Quercus Books) Out Now)

The long arm of history reaches into the present in Bruno's latest case when three sets of bones are discovered, buried deep in the woods outside the Dordogne town of St Denis. It appears that the remains have lain there since World War 2. Bruno must investigate who the bones belong to and whether their burial amounts to a war crime. Bruno has other concerns too. After weeks of heavy autumn rain, the normally tranquil Dordogne River has risen to record levels, compromising the upriver dams that control the Vezere that flows through St Denis, bringing the threat of a devastating flood. As ever, Bruno must rely on his wits, tenacity, and people skills to ensure that past wrongs do not result in present violence, and to keep his little town and its inhabitants safe from harm.

You can find Martin Walker on Facebook.

Notes from an Accidental Crime Writer by Isobel Shirlaw

I didn’t realise, when I set out to write a novel, that the sort of story I was trying to tell would one day be classified as crime fiction – just one of the reasons, perhaps, that that particular novel (a mash up of violence, family secrets and the supernatural) didn’t get published…. With the next one, I got closer. I was told by an agent that it needed to be ‘crimier.’ Again, I hadn’t spotted that it would be perceived as crime fiction at all, seeing it as a sort of semi-violent, coming of age, YA-slash-adult tragi-comic psychological thriller. Hard to pitch? Impossible to sell.

One thing I did realise was that I was writing about families – all sorts of different families but all with their own secrets and problems. These were stories with a darkness at their heart. And it seemed that whatever I wrote, the crimes kept creeping in.

Part of the problem was that I didn’t feel qualified as a crime reader. I love writers that put me at immediate unease – Patricia Highsmith, Mariana Enriquez, John Fowles, Donna Tartt. And I wanted to instil a sense of dread in my readers. But it still didn’t feel like proper crime fiction. But by book number three or four or five – my so-called ‘debut’, A Proper Mother, I had started to embrace the crimes at the heart of the family. I knew I had found the right story and the right genre.

A Proper Mother is the story of a frightened single mother, Frankie, a survivor of domestic violence, negotiating an often hostile world, terrified that her youngest son Michael will turn out violent like his father. An early review of the book, on the crime fiction pages, observed that it is not a conventional crime novel. I found myself nodding along.

But why? 

Has it got crimes in it? Yes. Police? Yes again. Court cases? Dead bodies? No comment.

I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. Some of the first other writers I have met have been crime writers. At this year’s CrimeFest in Bristol I was surprised to hear at least two other writers say, almost apologetically, that their book wasn’t necessarily crime fiction or that they didn’t see themselves as crime writers. It has made me think more deeply about this whole area. For if even the people who write it are not sure that it is crime fiction, then what exactly is crime fiction?

Perhaps it depends on another question: what is crime? And that particular question has been at the centre of my professional career for a long time. I have worked for many years for domestic violence charities in various capacities – supporting victims, developing services, fundraising, working with the criminal justice system; often trying to persuade the police, other professionals and wider society to take crimes perpetrated by people’s partners and ex-partners as seriously as those perpetrated by strangers.

A major problem with crimes relating to domestic violence is a perception in many parts of society that they are not as serious as other sorts of crime. Of course for those who work in the field of domestic violence, it is widely understood to be more dangerous. As Refuge (where I worked for many years) and the NSPCC often remind us: two women are killed every week by a partner or ex-partner. And the people at highest risk of homicide are babies, killed, usually by a parent or step-parent in a context of domestic abuse. 

I remember once calling the police to report my front door having been kicked in by a stranger one evening while I was out. Fortunately no-one succeeded in getting into the house; nothing was taken; no-one hurt. But the police response was extraordinary. A team arrived within moments. They took fingerprints, sought witness statements, returned the next day for further checks and sent countless leaflets offering support. That same week I had been talking to a woman whose ex-partner had climbed in her window and threatened to kill her with a clawhammer. She was carrying her toddler. When she called the police, no-one came. She was lucky to survive. And she managed to get to a refuge. But many women in the same position are not so lucky.

In my novel I wanted to put the reader in the shoes of the survivor. Frankie’s experiences are fictional but not uncommon. I hope they resonate. Having accidentally written a crime novel I hope it helps, in some way, to change our collective perception of domestic violence and recognise it as serious crime.


A Proper Mother by Isobel Shirlaw (Oneworld Publications) Out Now 

Ever since an ominous palm-reading on her honeymoon, Frankie has suspected that her youngest son, Michael, is different. From an early age he sees things no one else can. As he grows up – academically gifted, a musical prodigy and with an unshakeable religious faith – his mother can no longer deny there is something strange about him, or that it frightens her.  It is only when Frankie learns Michael is sliding into drugs and violence that she realises she can't keep ignoring the past. But by confronting her destructive marriage and her own responsibility for all that has gone wrong, she begins to see there is something darker at play.

You can follow her on "X" @isobelshirwal

D V Bishop on keeping an ongoing series fresh

How does a writer keep an ongoing series of novels fresh when their publisher is eager for a new book each year? I’ve been pondering this lately, despite the fact it’s early in my crime writing career to fret about such challenges. After all, the latest Cesare Aldo novel A Divine Fury (out June 20th) is only the fourth in my series of Renaissance Florence thrillers.

Compare that to other authors and you’ll see I am just getting started. Ian Rankin publishes his twenty-fifth Rebus novel later this year, while Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti mysteries set in Venice now number more than thirty. And then there are the many, many Maigret tales by the masterful Georges Simenon...

Nonetheless, when A Divine Fury comes out, I’ll be finishing a draft of my fifth Aldo noel, and be thinking ahead to number six. Publish a new book every year and they soon mount up, regardless of whether that book emerges in spring [the season for debuts and those building a readership], sets forth in summer [holiday reads and mid-list favourites], or arrives in autumn [home to bestsellers and old favourites].

Like many crime writers, I have a morbid dread of repeating myself. [I also have an abiding fear that my latest book will not be the equal of my last, but I suspect this is true of almost every author, regardless of genre.] There are only so many ways to solve a murder in 1539 when facial recognition, DNA, CCTV and fingerprints are still centuries in the future.

Still, a fear of repetition didn’t stop me from wanting to write a crime series. Why? Because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. You could blame a childhood devouring the Famous Five, the Hardy Boys and other mysteries for younger readers. But I suspect the real culprit is the US cop drama Hill Street Blues which I grew up watching it in New Zealand.

I loved the show’s ongoing, character-led storylines and its then-unconventional approach to the police procedural. UK shows such as Bergerac and The Gentle Touch were no match for that. Even muscular series like The Professionals focused on standalone tales, whereas Hill Street Blues was far more novelistic.

That struck a chord with me, and inspired much of my own writing ever since. For example, I write a Warhammer fantasy novel called A Murder in Marienburg that was a thinly disguised homage to Hill Street Blues. Yes, the occasional elf wandered past in the background, but it was still a police procedural, albeit with spells and swords. 

Even when I was writing for the BBC medical drama series Doctors, I was still telling mystery stories, except they were solved by physicians rather than police. Finally, in 2017 I realised the stories I really wanted to tell were about crimes, the people who investigated them, and the consequences of transgressions against the law.

Keeping my Cesare Aldo historical thrillers fresh wasn’t a problem for the initial books; if anything, I worried about them being too varied. The first, City of Vengeance, is a conspiracy thriller in which all of Florence is under threat. By comparison, my second novel The Darkest Sin is a closed circle mystery set in a convent, making it a smaller scale story.

Happily, the story swerve didn’t alienate reader and The Darkest Sin went on to the CWA’s Historical Dagger. After that I decided each new Aldo novel should focus on a different kind of crime or employ a fresh sub-genre to keep myself and my readers on our toes. So, the third book, Ritual of Fire, features vendetta killings with each victim being burned alive.

Aldo book four, A Divine Fury, introduces a serial killer. Of course, nobody calls the killer that because such a description belongs to the 20th Century, not 1539. A Divine Fury also has exorcists, causing a dangerous collision of faith and fatalities. As Aldo tells his colleague Carlo Strocchi, investigating a murder that involves the church never ends well in Florence.

Looking ahead, next year’s book is an Ocean’s Eleven-esque caper in Renaissance Venice. After that Aldo is likely to face a Gothic mystery in book six. Sales shall determine whether he gets a seventh outing, but I’m open to suggestions for new sub-genres…

A Divine Fury by D V Bishop. (Pan Macmillian) Out Now

Florence. Autumn, 1539. A religious serial killer is haunting Florence and only Cesare Aldo can stop them. Cesare Aldo was once an officer for the city’s most feared criminal court. Following a period of exile, he is back – but demoted to night patrol, when only the drunk and the dangerous roam the streets. Chasing a suspect in the rain, Aldo discovers a horrifying scene beneath Michelangelo’s statue of David. Lifeless eyes gaze from the face of a man whose body has been posed as if crucified. It’s clear the killer had religious motives. When more bodies appear, Aldo believes an unholy murderer is stalking the citizens of Florence. Watching. Hunting. Waiting for the perfect moment to strike again . . .

Find out more about D. V. Bishop at his website: 

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Wednesday 19 June 2024

Mary Horlock on The Safest Place in the World.

There was something magical about an island—the mere word suggested fantasy. You lost touch with the world—an island was a world of its own. A world, perhaps, from which you might never return.

So thought Dr. Armstrong, one of the characters in Agatha Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None. The story is now familiar: a group of strangers are invited to a mysterious island where they are then stranded and killed off one by one. It’s a kind of locked-room mystery, but by using the setting of on an island, cut off from the rest of the world, Christie increases her characters’ isolation, ramping up the atmosphere of fear and paranoia. 

To re-read the novel now it’s surprisingly dark, but islands can be dark, and I think I’m allowed to say that since I’ve lived on two. They are these fragments of land adrift from the wider world, always a little out of step with it. Whether it’s a tropical haven or a windswept stretch of rock, an island is a border, exposed to the sea on all sides. To be able to see your limits should be reassuring and novels set on islands, particularly crime novels, have that comforting lure. The natural boundaries of cliff and shore shape and contain the narrative. We have a set number of people and places. It is like a puzzle or a game, and also, like a smaller version of our own world. We can put it under the microscope, poke it and prod it and pull it apart. 

But the limits are a danger, too. The island is at the mercy of the elements and can throw up all kinds of surprises: a bad storm, something strange on the beach. In And Then There Were None, just like in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or more recently Alex Garland’s The Beach, our characters find themselves on an island that is not their home, and with life’s normal rules suspended, things quickly fall apart. 

Inevitably perhaps, I’m interested in islanders as much as islands. Islanders often feel like outsiders. By choice or birth, they live on the fringes. This makes them good observers and also, narrators. My father’s family were from the Isle of Wight, and my grandmother, who lived in house looking out over the Solent, would regale me with stories of wreckers and smugglers who were apparently my ancestors. 

When I was seven we moved to Guernsey, an even smaller island in the English Channel. ‘There’s no crime on Guernsey,’ my mother would say (which is often what someone says in a crime novel just before they die). But she’d then point out - quite rightly, I should add - that on a tiny island where everyone knows everyone else, why bother to commit a crime when you’d be swiftly caught? To me, that sounded rather like an invitation. 

My new novel, The Stranger’s Companion, is based on a true crime, a real-life mystery that happened on the island of Sark in 1933. Now Sark, to those who don’t know, is an island even smaller than Guernsey. It measures three and half miles long and has no cars or streetlights to this day. In 1933 it had a population of 500, two telephones and only three wireless sets on the whole island. Unsurprisingly, it had become a haven for shell-shocked veterans of the last War, and was regularly advertised as the perfect place to escape the more ‘disturbing elements of modern civilisation.’ Then the clothes of a man and woman were found on a cliff edge, with no sign of their owners. Despite days-long searches over the cliffs and coves, nobody was found and nobody was reported missing. It caused quite a sensation in the press precisely because it seemed so unlikely. Sark was ‘the Island Where Nothing Ever Happens’ and yet something obviously had. 

The story and the way it caught everyone’s attention points to the truth at the heart of island mysteries - whether real or invented. We think we are on safe ground, but we’re not. Bad things happen everywhere, sometimes in places where we least expect them to happen. All we can do is create the frame to contain and make sense of them.

The Stranger's Companion by Mary Horlock (John Murray/Baskerville) Out Now.

October 1933. With a population of five hundred souls, isolated Sark has a reputation for being 'the island where nothing ever happens'. Until, one day, the neatly folded clothes of an unknown man and woman are discovered abandoned at a coastal beauty spot. As the search for the missing couple catches the attention of first the local and then national newspapers, Sark finds itself front-page news. When young islander Phyllis Carey returns to Sark from England she throws herself into solving the mystery. As Phyll digs through swirls of gossip, ghost stories and dark rumours in search of the truth, she crosses paths with Everard Hyde, a surprise visitor from her past. As press coverage builds to fever pitch, long-suppressed secrets from Phyll's and Everard's shared, shadowy history begin to surface.

More information may be found on her website

Sunday 16 June 2024

Joanna Dodd on The Long Shadows cast by Old Sins

Long before I started writing my debut psychological thriller The Summer Dare, I was fascinated by the tricks memory can play on us and by what goes through the heads of people who commit a crime a long time ago and think, for decades sometimes, that they’ve got away with it. What story do they tell other people about what happened? Even more interestingly, what story do they tell themselves and, over time, do they actually start to believe that story? 

For me, these questions become even more acute when the person who’s done something wrong is a child at the time. When I was at school, I used to have a recurring nightmare where I’d wake up convinced I’d caused someone’s death. For a few fuzzy-headed moments it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again, and then reality would take over and I’d realise that what I had in fact done was tape over my dad’s recording of the rugby before he’d had a chance to watch it. Such a relief! 

But supposing you were a child and you woke up with that feeling and it was true. Maybe you didn’t mean to do whatever it was, but you can’t be sure that people will believe that, so you make up a story about what happened, and you tell it to other people, and you try to tell it to yourself too. And gradually over the years, the lines between what actually happened and what you tell yourself happened become blurred. 

After all, memory is notoriously unreliable. Many works of fiction explore this concept brilliantly. One of my favourites is Iain Pears’s incomparable An Instance of the Fingerpost, which tells the same story of a murder in 17th century Oxford from four different points of view—all of them unreliable narrators. 

In real life, we’ve all been in a situation where friends or family tell a version of the past that doesn’t accord with our own. We’re all our own unreliable narrators. I’ve definitely been mid-argument with my brother, and longed to be able to rewind and play a perfectly accurate version of whatever we’re bickering about. But the point is I can’t; no one ever can. Mostly the differences in our memories are trivial, and you could argue that when the stakes are high, because some kind of terrible incident has occurred, people might hold onto a more accurate version of events. But I think the opposite could sometimes be true: when the stakes are high, everyone has an interest in creating their own version of the past and they might not even know they’ve done it. There’s a reason why so many of the great works of fiction exploring the unreliability of memory centre around crime.

And if you were a child who did a terrible thing, when justice finally caught up with you, could you conceivably argue that you were a different person now—an adult? Are you always culpable for the sins of your younger self, or does it depend what, and how serious, those sins are? If we’re talking about criminal acts, the legal position is clear. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the age of criminal responsibility is 10, and in Scotland it’s 12. As a society, we recognise that children are less morally culpable than adults, and a different sentencing regime applies, but it’s not uncommon for people to be sentenced when they are adults for crimes they committed as children, and the courts have grappled with how best to handle these cases. And behaviour doesn’t have to be criminal to have life-altering implications. 

For The Summer Dare I had the idea of a group of old school friends, who are now adults and are bound together by something that happened to them 25 years ago that they can no longer even talk about. At the time, they tell the grown-ups around them a version of what happened and their decision to withhold the truth has awful consequences. But as adults themselves, they all have slightly different memories of the long-ago summer night that changed all their lives for ever, and somewhere between the gaps in these multiple versions is the truth.

The Summer Dare involves three different timelines: the present, when my characters’ lives are starting to unravel in frightening ways; 1999, when they were school friends and took part in a dare that changed all their lives for ever; and the 1920s, when a legendary star of the silent screen is accused of murder after a glitzy showbiz party. All three strands explore the tricks memory plays and the difficulty of definitively establishing what happened many years earlier. 

The Summer Dare by Joanna Dodd (Hera Books) Out now

Six weeks of friendship. A lifetime paying for it. They were the cool girls. Two years older, oozing glamour. She could prove herself worthy of their friendship. She could do the dare. Twenty-five years later, Lucy has a perfect life. She is still friends with the cool girls. All except one. Maddie. The one they never saw again after the dare. They don't talk about her. They don’t think about her. It is as though she never existed until… Lucy gets a text from an unknown number. Why didn't you tell them where I was? The past hurtles into the present and secrets push their way to the surface. Who is the message from? Is Maddie back? Or is someone else set on exposing the truth and seeking revenge?

Find out more about Joanna on her website You can also find her on X @jkdwriter

Friday 14 June 2024

Bloody Scotland Sneak Peek

 Bloody Scotland 2024 Programme Sneaky Peak

Authors released as part of the festival’s inaugural ‘sneaky peek’ include:

Richard Armitage – Headlining the opening night on Friday 13th September, one of the UK’s most popular actors will be at The Albert Halls in Stirling to talk about his debut thriller, Geneva. His string of acting credits include The Hobbit, North and South, Into the Storm and Spooks.

Ann Cleeves – The creator of three outstanding crime series, two much-loved television dramas in Vera and Shetland and 26 novels translated into over 20 languages will be in conversation with one of the co-founders of Bloody Scotland, Lin Anderson. Her event will be on the afternoon of Saturday 14th.

Peter May – Launching the much-anticipated fourth book in the Lewis series, one of Scotland’s favourite crime writers will be back on the Stirling stage for the first time since 2014 in conversation with one of the founding directors of the festival, local author, Craig Robertson. He will be at the Albert Halls on Saturday evening.

Louise Minchin –  The BBC Breakfast TV presenter will be in Stirling at noon on Sunday 15th September to talk about her debut novel, Isolation Island. The book draws heavily on her TV experience.

Ruth Ware – The international bestselling crime writer – hot from being the guest programmer at Harrogate - will be in conversation with Louise discussing her new blockbuster, One Perfect Couple, chaired by TV and radio presenter, Bryan Burnett.

Tickets for all of these events are now on sale! See here.

Thursday 13 June 2024

The Wrong Child and the Writer's Room

Writing is a lonely business. Despite feverish bouts of activity during literary festivals and inspiring one-to-one chats with readers at bookshop events, novel writing is essentially a solitary pursuit, the writer spending endless hours alone wrestling with the rigours of plot, character, theme and pay-off. But what if it wasn’t? What if you could lighten the load and banish the loneliness by teaming up with another writer, sharing and exploring all the major decisions about your new story together? Why not draw on the experience, inspiration and narrative nous of a pair of writers, fulfilling the maxim that two heads are better than one?

That was the thinking behind a major new Writers Room style initiative dreamt up by myself and publisher Sam Eades at Orion Fiction, which will see five co-written novels released over the next eighteen months, the first of which – The Wrong Child  - has just launched on Kindle, Amazon and in Waterstones. The genesis of the project was simple. We would take the kernel of an idea I’d had, then find an inspirational, story-savvy crime writer to climb inside it, then watch it blossom into something new and surprising. It was risky for sure – what if we didn’t get on, what if the ideas didn’t “take” – but the results have been exhilarating. Three novels are already in the bag, two more are on the way, and The Wrong Child, co-written with the amazing Julia Crouch, is already getting rave reviews on Good Reads, Amazon and beyond.

So why did we decide to do embark on this co-writing experiment? Partly it was to vanquish a common writer’s fear that good ideas will simply wither and die if left untouched and ignored in our computer files. But it was also a chance for me to explore new and exciting genres. I’m principally known for the DI Helen Grace series and for high concept, serial killer thrillers in general. The Writers Room initiative allowed me to explore unfamiliar worlds, taking bold steps into domestic noir, suburban suspense, twisty procedurals and nail-biting abduction thrillers. There is truly something for everyone in this collection of compelling, innovative mysteries and I loved exploring new worlds, new characters and new approaches to story-telling.

Once we’d decided on our top five ideas, our first job was to identify our crack team of co-writers. Aided by Leodora Darlington at Orion, we set about our task in earnest, spending many happy hours reading the very best of modern crime fiction. Before long, we had our five authors. Julia Crouch, the queen of domestic noir, Steph Broadribb, ex-bounty hunter and international best-seller, Andy Maslen, the prolific, hugely popular creator of the Gabriel Wolfe series, Lisa Hall, the undisputed master of jaw-dropping psychological thrillers and Alex Khan, a nailed-on star of the future, whose DS Mumtaz Ali thrillers had me teetering on the edge of my seat.

So how would this collaboration work? Friends and colleagues were immediately curious. Who would shape the story? Who would create the characters? Would we write one chapter each, firing them back and forth to each other in a blizzard of bodies, betrayals and bloodshed? Drawing on my background in television, I took on the role of producer and show runner, locking myself in a room with my fellow collaborators for an extended bout of “story bashing”, to use the official TV term. Hunkered down in the basement of Carmelite House, Orion’s HQ on the Thames, we set off on a gruelling but exhilarating series of one-to-one ideas sessions, during which we defined, shaped and mapped out our new novel.

The approach was similar on each, starting with a session designed to define the unique selling point of our story – the killer concept – before moving on to bespoke sessions exploring character, setting, plot and pay-off. An exhaustive – and occasionally exhausting – process for sure, but the endless pacing and “What ifs?’ allowed us to dig deeper, to go further in our pursuit of original ideas and surprising narratives. The instant response in the room – be it a big thumbs up or a quizzical “maybe” – is incredibly useful when shaping a new story, allowing you to junk unpromising notions, running instead with those angles and insights that inspire both of you. Writing is often a question of confidence and in the Writers Room a shared idea that electrifies both writers is a sure sign of good things to come.

Of course, the real benefit of co-authorship was revealed when we moved on from the planning stage to the hard graft of crafting chapters of tightly coiled prose. Time and again I was thrilled by the originality, personality, wit and personal experience that my co-writers brought to the table, taking an initial idea and bringing it to life in ways I would never – could never – have thought of. I could cite endless examples of this, but here I’d like to highlight Julia Crouch’s writing in The Wrong Child. A sinister tale of child abduction and dark family secrets, it introduces us to Sarah, a mother of three who’s struggling to bond with her new baby, following a difficult birth. Julia, with her eye for detail and trademark mordant humour, was able to capture the physical, emotional and psychological rigours of childbirth with an honesty, piquancy and wicked wit that would have been way beyond me. Happily, and appropriately, The Wrong Child is dedicated to Julia’s first grandchild, Frank, who arrived safely during the writing of the novel.

There are many more such stories I could tell, but instead I will let the new novels speak for themselves. Don’t miss out on The Wrong Child and brace yourself for Steph Broadribb’s chilling thriller, The Reunion, which will be released on September 5th 2024. Please enjoy them responsibly though, as they are seriously addictive…

 The Wrong Child by M J Arlidge and Julia Crouch (Out Now) Orion Publishing.

When 3-month-old Max is abducted, his parents are plunged into their worst nightmare. Devastated mum Sarah only took her eyes off him for a second, but that doesn't stop her guilt. Even husband Jake can't hide his anger that their little boy went missing on her watch. By contrast there are smiles and celebration at a caravan park in Lincolnshire, as baby Blaze is introduced to the Star family. Jenna and Gary are delighted with the new addition to their family. He is their fourth child and a real object of delight to their eldest - fifteen-year-old Willow - who once again will raise the child. But trouble is brewing for the Star family. Willow is concerned by the desperate online appeals from Sarah and Jake, baby Max has neonatal diabetes and without regular treatment will die. As baby "Blaze" becomes seriously ill, Willow makes a shocking discovery. What is the truth about her family? And how far will they go to hide their deadly secret?



Theakston's Old Peculair and McDermid Debut Award Shortlists revealed




Festival Dates: 18 – 21 July 2024       

#TheakstonsAwards #TheakstonsCrime

Harrogate International Festivals has announced the shortlists for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2024, the UK and Ireland’s most prestigious crime fiction award, and the inaugural McDermid Debut Award for new writers. The winners of both awards will be revealed on the opening night of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Thursday 18 July. 

The six books shortlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, now in its twentieth year, take readers on a roller-coaster ride from serial-killer stalked fairgrounds and Blackpool backstreets to the Houses of Parliament, as established bestsellers compete with talented newcomers for the coveted awards. Crime fiction fans are now invited to vote for their favourite book to win at

 Two former winners in contention for the award are 2022 champion Mick Herron, the author behind Apple TV’s hit series ‘Slow Horses,’ who is nominated for his mesmerising stand-alone spy thriller The Secret Hours and two times winner Mark Billingham, shortlisted for the first time in eight years with The Last Dance, the first novel in the captivating new Detective Declan Miller series set in Blackpool.

They face stiff competition from two rising stars of the genre who are shortlisted for the first time: William Hussey with Killing Jericho where Traveller detective Scott Jericho must unpick a deadly mystery at a fairground before he becomes a killer’s next victim, and Jo Callaghan for her stunningly original debut In the Blink of An Eye, where DCS Kat Frank is partnered with an AI colleague as human experience combines with logic to solve a complex missing persons case. Jo was selected for the prestigious ‘New Blood’ panel celebrating outstanding debut talent at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in 2023.

Two bestselling authors hoping to add the Award to their trophy cabinets are recent British Book Award Winner Lisa Jewell, shortlisted for her addictive domestic noir None of This is True, about a podcaster under threat from her ‘birthday twin’; and four-times Irish Book Award winner Liz Nugent, nominated for Strange Sally Diamond, a darkly humorous character-driven murder mystery set in rural Ireland.

The full Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2024 shortlist (in alphabetical order by surname) is: 

The Last Dance by Mark Billingham (Sphere; Little, Brown Book Group) 

In the Blink of an Eye by Jo Callaghan (Simon & Schuster UK) 

The Secret Hours by Mick Herron (Baskerville; John Murray Press) 

Killing Jericho by William Hussey (Zaffre, Bonnier) 

None of This is True by Lisa Jewell (Century; Cornerstone) 

Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent (Sandycove; Penguin Ireland) 

The shortlist for the inaugural McDermid Debut Award, named in recognition of world-famous crime writer Val McDermid, showcases six outstanding new voices writing across a broad range of subgenres from thrillers to cosy crime, locked room mysteries and historical crime.

Food writer, broadcaster and Master Chef star Orlando Murrin is shortlisted for Knife Skills for Beginners, a delicious mystery set in an exclusive residential cookery school in Belgravia. Another shortlisted novel with a culinary twist, Mrs Sidhu’s Dead and Scone by Suk Pannu introduces a mystery solving Indian caterer who is Slough’s answer to Miss Marple. Suk Pannu has written for much-loved TV comedy shows ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ and ‘The Kumars at No.42.’

Suzy Aspley, a former journalist who lives in Scotland, is nominated for Crow Moon, a chilling thriller centred around a mysterious disappearance, the first novel in the Martha Strangeways series. Daniel Aubrey, who also lives in Scotland, is shortlisted for Dark Island, a thriller about a neurodivergent reporter who uncovers a disturbing conspiracy after human remains are discovered on Orkney’s coast.

Manchester based Kuchenga Shenjé’s gripping historical crime novel The Library Thief explores identity and belonging as book binder’s daughter Florence sets out to uncover the dark mystery at the heart of a gothic mansion. A similarly unforgettable amateur sleuth features in Marie Tierney’s thriller Deadly Animals where a roadkill obsessed teenager embarks on a daring quest to unravel the truth behind the string of chilling deaths plaguing her Birmingham community.

Honouring internationally bestselling crime writer, Val McDermid, who helped to co-found the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in 2003 and whose dedication to fostering new voices in crime fiction through the New Blood panel is legendary, this new Award seeks to continue her legacy, celebrating and platforming the best debut crime writers in the UK. The Shortlist was selected by an academy of established crime and thriller authors and the Winner will be chosen by a panel of industry experts, without a public vote. All shortlisted authors receive a full weekend pass to the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and the Winner will receive a £500 cash prize.

Val McDermid said: ‘Curating the New Blood panel over twenty years exposed me to an extraordinary range of crime fiction I might otherwise have missed. I’m hoping that this new award will do the same for the army of avid readers out there looking for new talent.

The full McDermid Debut Award 2024 shortlist (in alphabetical order by surname) is: 

Crow Moon by Suzy Aspley (Orenda Books) 

Dark Island by Daniel Aubrey (Harper Collins) 

Knife Skills for Beginners by Orlando Murrin (Bantam, Transworld) 

Mrs Sidhu’s Dead and Scone by Suk Pannu (Harper Collins) 

The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé (Sphere, Little Brown) 

Deadly Animals by Marie Tierney (Bonnier Books) 

Commenting on the shortlist for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2024, Simon Theakston, Chairman of T&R Theakston, said: “Congratulations to all of the exceptional writers shortlisted for this year’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. This year’s list is particularly exciting, with big names at the top of their game competing against impressive newcomers. I can’t wait to see who the public and the judges vote for and look forward to awarding the coveted beer cask trophy to the winner at the opening night ceremony.

Commenting on the shortlist for the McDermid Debut Award, Sharon Canavar, Chief Executive of Harrogate International Festivals, said: “Awards night is always a special way to open the Festival but this year it promises to be more exciting than ever with the new McDermid Debut Award being presented alongside our other awards. The shortlisted books are all so original and introduce some compelling new voices. We are looking forward to welcoming the talented shortlisted authors to the Festival and finding out which of these stars of the future will carry off the Award.

The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2024 is presented by Harrogate International Festivals and sponsored by T&R Theakston Ltd, in partnership with Waterstones and the Daily Express, and is open to full-length crime novels published in paperback between 1 May 2023 and 30 April 2024.  The winner will receive £3,000 and a handmade, engraved beer barrel provided by T&R Theakston Ltd. 

The Winners of both Awards will be revealed on the opening night of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Thursday 18 July.  


Wednesday 12 June 2024

Reading and Escapism! - By Dr Luke Deckard

Raymond Chandler criticised Dorothy L Sayers in his essay The Simple Art of Murder (1950) for commenting that crime fiction wasn’t a serious type of literature but one of escapism. She’s not the only one to snub the genre that was an author’s bread and butter. Before Sayers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously hated Sherlock Holmes! He didn’t want to be remembered solely for that character because he felt they were silly, unimportant stories. 

I can imagine Raymond Chandler sitting at his desk, reading these quotes while swishing a glass of whisky, pausing to look at his cat and huff. Chandler’s rebuttal to Sayers was simple: all pleasurable reading is a form of escapism. If that meant your jam was mathematics, philosophy, or Western or romance, that was fine. Chandler disagreed with Sayers’s implication that escapist literature is essentially dumb and unimportant literature. 

Nevertheless, this attitude persists today. I once read a press release for a book described as a “frothy thriller” That baffled me! A book without substance! I would be devastated if my work was described as frothy! I instantly felt bad for the author. My reaction couldn’t have been unlike Chandler’s when reading Sayers’s comments. But it’s not uncommon to see people on social media describe a film or a book as ‘turn your brain off fun’ or ‘you don’t have to think about it.’

This attitude of disposable, empty, forgettable storytelling is far too common. And is often used to excuse poorly told stories. 

When I started to write bad Blood, it was for my PhD at Kingston University. One of the most challenging aspects at the start was battling with the idea of how to make this book meaningful and live up to the quality of what a PhD novel should be. I was dead set on writing a historical noir. I wanted gangsters, femme fatales, and a tough-talking yet charming PI. I wanted it to be thrilling, fun, and sexy. 

But is that literary? Is that good enough? Hard-boiled fiction was birthed out of pulp magazines printed on cheap disposable paper. Were the tricks and tropes just as disposable today? Was there any literary appeal left? I wrestled with these questions. 

In the same essay, Raymond Chandler says that form doesn’t matter; it’s style that counts. What he meant was you can write any ole genre, but it is the author’s flare that makes it pop and stand out. Then, Chandler’s criticism of Sayers and his comments on style all clicked. I knew what I needed to do: escape into the genre. I needed to embrace the form shamelessly and respectfully while making it my own.

That’s what Chandler was getting at—there is no literature of escape in a derogatory sense. Meaning no single genre is less than simply because of its formula.

The filmmaker Robert Meyer Burnett once phrased what audiences are genuinely after: they want good stories told well. Genre is irrelevant. The form isn’t the it thing that makes something work. It’s all about style! The execution. That’s why you can read two books in the same genre and love one but hate the other. Audiences don’t seek out bad, forgettable, disposable art. So, we writers shouldn’t treat stories as such. When we’re hungry, we don’t go into a restaurant and say, ‘Give me the worst thing on the menu, please!’ We want something delicious. 

When I think about the book described as a frothy thriller, what the headline was trying to say was it’s a fun ride. The word choice of frothy was a mistake. The value of fiction doesn’t come from the seriousness of its content or ‘realism’, but from the joy the readers have with a well-executed story. That’s what Burnett means by a good story told well.

And that’s what I attempted to do with Bad Blood. It wasn’t about ‘writing literature’ or trying to make something more out of it. The form is the form. So I wrote it for the people who love noir fiction, who love historical fiction, who love Edinburgh, and tough and gritty atmospheres. There was no shame in embracing the tropes and trying to subvert a few along the way! If someone escapes into my book, that’s a beautiful achievement! 

So readers, feel free to escape into fiction! It’s not a bad thing. But do keep your brains switched on!

Bad Blood by Luke Deckard (Sharpe Books) Out Now

London 1922. American ex-pat Logan Bishop, suffering from shell-shock and an addiction to morphine, is working as a Private Investigator. When Logan’s father, Reverend Daniel Bishop, arrives from Chicago, desperate to see his son, Logan wants nothing to do with him. That is, until his father is brutally attacked. Daniel begs his son to find Greta Matas, a Bolshevik woman with an unknown connection to his father, in Edinburgh before she is murdered. Before Logan can learn more, his father slips into a coma. Logan takes the first train to Edinburgh. The journey proves far from routine, however, and two mysterious men follow the investigator out of Waverley Station. Logan soon discovers that Greta is missing and her son, Peter, is wanted for murder. The case begins to take a darker and deadlier turn than he ever imagined. As Edinburgh police suspect Logan of keeping information from them, the pressure to find Greta and her son increases. Secrets and lies are exposed as Logan clashes with Chicago gangsters, the authorities, and Edinburgh’s elite to expose the truth behind the woman's disappearance.

You can find Bad Blood on Amazon UK and Amazon US

More information about Dr Luke Deckard can be found on his website. You ca also find him on X @LukeWritesCrime. You can also find him on Facebook.

Thursday 6 June 2024

Elliot Sweeny on A Killing in Paradise and surviving evil acts

 These are cruel men you’re after, Kasper. You’ll need to be cruel back to survive.’

Walk into the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, and it won’t take long to encounter brilliant reproductions of violence, murderous, grotesque, raptly enjoyed by visitors. Dickens’ 1849 account of the public hanging in Southwark, and the odious glee on faces in the circus crowd as the ropes fall captured a similar glee. More recently, a 2019 Netflix documentary entitled Don’t F*** With Cats about Luka Magnotta, a cat and human killer who filmed and uploaded his work onto the internet, caused a viral shebang amongst viewers, and was an unprecedented hit.

The lure to watch suffering is ubiquitous, and nothing new. But what does seem new, and what disturbs me, is this intersection between these sadistic interests, and the age of digital commoditization in which we live. When fights erupt in public places, rather than intervene or flee, members of the public reach for their phones, and hit record. A few hours later, these shaky videos appear on the circuit, clickbait for YouTube, Insta-likes, ‘content’; they generate thumbs-up emojis on WhatsApp groups and Facebook, the gore seeming comic-book, desensitized, allowing consumers to snigger at the pain of others with impunity. As disturbing as the double murders of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry in 2021 was the discovery that two attending police officers charged with protecting the sisters’ bodies had in fact photographed them, and then shared the images amongst friends for their amusement and self-promotion. Why?

The second in the Dylan Kasper series, A Killing in Paradise, aims to explore this phenomenon: what is behind the draw to capturing and circulating brutality against the defenceless and vulnerable? Is evil of this sort inherent? Or a biproduct of the times we live in? The book, of course, is dark as hell.

The story picks up six months after the close of Book One, The Next to Die. Out-of-work PI and full-time misanthrope Dylan Kasper is commissioned to investigate the stabbing of a teenager from the notorious Paradise Estate where he was raised. The Met have made assumptions about the victim, based on socioeconomics and race; but Kasper uncovers the truth: he was killed because of something he stole, an art-snuff movie showing a prostitute being butchered.

Kasper is sickened by of the barbarity on this film and compelled to thwart the makers. He discovers that the victim on this snuff was only the latest, murdered by a nefarious organisation stretching into the higher echelons of society. Red Rose Productions cater to a buoyant market united by a love for exploitation and torture-porn. And when the ringleaders target Kasper, he must ask how far he is he willing to go to combat evil.

At times, writing this book felt like self-harm. In my day job I’m a mental health nurse, and regularly support the victims of abuse, violence, and extreme coercion; at times, it can have a gruelling, vicarious impact on my own state of mind. To then come home to these characters and themes felt harsh. 

But I persevered. In the same way a loose scab needs picking, once the story had set root, I couldn’t leave it until it was grown. For not only was this a vehicle in which I could write about the violence I see through my work; it was also a way to develop my protagonist’s own uncomfortable capacity for, and pull towards, the violence that has shaped him, and which he perpetrates and revels in.

Kasper – the name a fusion of the kids’ friendly ghost character but spelled with a ‘kicking-K’ for impact – is a protagonist of contradictions. A solipsistic, self-destructive pugilist, a heavy drinker, bereaved father, and self-imposed bachelor, he is nonetheless a man with a firm moral backbone, albeit hidden beneath a coating of boxing brawn and beer fat.

I am drawn to central characters like this – flawed, melancholic, reckless; yet ultimately good. No matter how dangerous Kasper’s adversary is – and in A Killing in Paradise, I’ve really gone to town with the bad guys – we know that the biggest villain will always be him, and his attempts to make the cruel world he inhabits a little less cruel is a way to placate, but never extinguish, the shadows that lurk in the recesses of his soul, and which will ultimately be his undoing.   

 A Killing in Paradise by Elliot Sweeney (Headline Publishing) Out Now.

A young man has been murdered on the notorious Paradise estate in London. The police have their assumptions; out-of-work private investigator Dylan Kasper, more than familiar with the neighbourhood, has his own. Kasper takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of the killing. He soon discovers the reason the boy was killed that the police will never find - or want to find. A highly incriminating piece of evidence tying an illegal production company to the government and police alike. But this is just the beginning. Kasper has made a name for himself getting under the skin of the most brutal killers in the capital. When those dearest to Kasper are suddenly thrust into view, he will have to make an impossible choice. Will the inhabitants of Paradise feel safe at last, if the price must be paid in blood?

More information about Elliott Sweeney and his writing can be found on his website. You can also follow him on "X" @ellywelly1