In July 2015, a car veered off the road near Stirling in Scotland. The driver was killed on impact; his passenger, a young woman, was trapped in the car, badly injured, for three days. She died in hospital shortly after police, finally, found the vehicle. It’s a dreadful story, one that remained with me for a long time. We expect, on our relatively small island, that when we need them, emergency services will be there. On this occasion, something went badly wrong.
Books often begin with a simple, if disturbing, idea and trying to imagine what the poor woman went through as she waited for help to arrive was the start of The Fake Wife. In my story, Olive Anderson, dining alone in a north-eastern hotel shortly before Christmas, is surprised by the arrival of a glamorous stranger who joins her, pretending to be her wife. What starts as an alluring game quickly turns dangerous and Olive is forced to leave the hotel with the stranger, driving into a heavy snowstorm. A split-second’s loss of concentration and the car leaves the road; both women are hurt and snow quickly covers their tracks.
I like to think of The Fake Wife as my Russian Dolls book: each mystery unfolds to reveal another, deeper puzzle and only as we learn more about the characters at its heart – Olive, her MP husband Michael, the Stranger, Michael’s first wife Eloise, and the elusive and mysterious Maddy, do we start to glimpse the deadly game these people are playing.
Well, that’s how the book should have panned out. Pretty soon, though, something else kicked in…
The Fake Wife was conceived as a thriller packed full of puzzles, psychological, but with plenty of pacy action along the way. What it wasn’t supposed to be was a police procedural. And yet, as all writers will know, sometimes characters grab a hold of a story and make it their own. As The Fake Wife took shape, gaining flesh on its bones, it became apparent that a character I hadn’t intended to play any sort of leading role was finding himself, increasingly, in the limelight.
Garry Mizon, a nondescript traffic cop in his mid-thirties, who hates his job and is bored with his life, was supposed to be nothing more than a factotum: a means of getting my narrative from a to b. Garry was there to fill in the gaps, to let my real main characters – Olive, Michael, Eloise and Maddy – shine through.
And yet, almost from the first chapter, Garry took charge. His personality – awkward, painfully shy but, ultimately, true as steel – shone through. In his clumsy, unassuming, anxious way, he began to dominate the page. He became the character I felt most invested in, the one I loved above all others. Full disclosure now: the team at Orion weren’t sure at first; wasn’t he a bit too – incompetent? Too much of a bozo? I toned him down a bit but clung on to what made this man essentially Garry and as the first proofs went out, I was vindicated. The most frequent feedback comment we got back was, “I love Garry!” Far from merely serving the narrative’s purpose, Garry became the book’s star. (As I write this, proofs are going out to key influencers along with a Garry Mizon winter survival pack and his ‘driving in winter conditions’ Spotify playlist.)
Frankly, I should have known this would happen. After all, The Fake Wife is not my first rodeo. I should have remembered that when you pack a book with twisty, unsavoury characters, the readers need someone firmly in their corner. Garry is the story’s Everyman, the character with no interesting secrets, shady past or burning ambition. He isn’t particularly good at anything, especially not being a police officer. He has no superpower, no great skill (actually, he has a couple, but being Garry, he discounts both.) In Garry, I guess, we see ourselves, the ordinary man or woman caught up in something extraordinary. Garry’s doubts are our doubts, his insecurities and lack of confidence reflect our own.
I lost track of this as I set out on the story that became The Fake Wife, concentrating far too much on the ‘glamourous’, much less likeable characters. Had I succeeded, the story would probably have failed. But the muse took charge and the book sorted itself out.
How does this happen? The truth is, I don’t know. I’m just glad it does.
The Fake Wife by Sharon Bolton is published by Orion on 9th November 2023.
You're not who you say you are. But neither is she. Olive Anderson has accepted that tonight she'll be dining alone, without her husband. So when a beautiful stranger appears at Olive's dinner table, telling the waiter she's her wife, Olive is immediately unsettled. But the stranger wants to talk, and isn't this what Olive wants on this lonely winter night? To vent to a perfect stranger? She's too ashamed to tell her real friends the truth - six months into the marriage they all warned her against, her life is a living nightmare. Perhaps Olive should have asked the fake wife who she's really married to. Perhaps she should have known this chance encounter had something to do with her secretive husband. Because there is a string of missing women connected to Mr Anderson, and by the morning, Olive will be the latest...