Can I write a crime novel? For years, my answer to that question was a flat ‘No’. Some writers do long, some short, I would say, planting myself firmly in the latter category. I devoured crime novels – especially of the Nordic Noir variety – but somehow, when it came to my own work, I preferred stories distilled down to a single chilling epiphany. Preferably one involving little old homicidal Danish ladies.
Until lockdown happened and I sat down to write. And kept writing. And writing. And writing. Stuck for months in my London flat with nowhere to go, except daily walks, and an enormous TBR pile which had curiously lost its appeal, I soon found myself with a finished draft for my debut novel, ‘My Name is Jensen’.
What happened? After all, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried before. I began jotting down notes for the book in 2018 after publishing ‘Last Train to Helsingør’, my collection of Danish twilight tales for Radio 4, and, like all short story writers, I had been asked a thousand times when I was going to write a novel. But every time I had sat down to it, I had ended up writing something short, giving into what I had started to think of as a guilty pleasure.
Nor is it down to the shorter form being in any way faster. With very few exceptions, most of my short stories were written over periods of two or three years: after spending a few weeks drafting, I would put them away to stew for ages, before rewriting, rewriting and rewriting. You get the picture.
Yet, while living through the early days of the coronavirus horror show, that all changed for me. I badly missed the city of my birth, and my loved ones back home, so writing a novel set in Copenhagen, with the city very much centre stage, was pure escapism.
And then my characters began to turn up, demanding to have their stories told. The journalist Jensen who (like me), was a London Correspondent for years, and who (unlike me) has returned home to Denmark. Gustav, the teenage delinquent, whom Jensen is forced to take on as a journalist apprentice. And DI Henrik Jungersen, her on-off married lover who guiltily feeds her titbits from the police investigation.
I always knew that my novel was going to begin in Magstræde, one of Copenhagen’s oldest streets, a twisted lane with red and yellow townhouses leaning over the cobbles. A lumpy mound in the freshly fallen snow turns out to be the body of a young man. From that point on, during those early months of the first lockdown, the plot spiralled, sometimes to an extent where the only way I could regain control was through a complicated mosaic of flash cards laid out all over my dining table – a different colour for each story arc, and neon stickers for the timeline.
It is a method I have reused for Book 2 in the Jensen Thriller series, written during spring this year as I went for my first COVID vaccination and then the second, followed by my first visit to Copenhagen in 18 months. The first thing I did after hugging my family was to visit all my favourite haunts – the canals, the leafy suburb where my late parents met as youngsters, the Lakes and the harbour.
I never used flash cards for my short fiction, admittedly, but I did write out story arcs in my notebooks. Always. A novel, it turns out, is not so different after all. Writing in the Guardian, George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, put it perfectly when describing how he made the leap: “It was as if, over the years, I’d become adept at setting up tents and then a very large tent showed up: bigger frame, more fabric, same procedure.”
You might still be able to tell that I am started out writing short stories. My chapters are brief and numerous. Treating each like a little tale in its own right made them so, as did my years of trimming away words to fit the radio format. But the end result is the same: a setting, a group of characters and a series of dark events that utterly change them.
A story is a story is a story, after all.
My Name is Jensen by Heidi Amsinck is published by Muswell Press on 31 August at £14.99
Guilty. One word on a beggar’s cardboard sign. And now he is dead, stabbed in a wintry Copenhagen street, the second homeless victim in as many weeks. Dagbladet reporter Jensen, stumbling across the body on her way to work, calls the only person she can think of – DI Henrik Jungersen, her married ex-lover. The front page is an open goal, but nothing feels right…When a third body turns up, it seems certain that a serial killer is on the loose. But why pick on the homeless? And is the link to an old murder case just a coincidence? With her teenage apprentice Gustav, Jensen soon finds herself putting everything on the line to discover exactly who is guilty.