Thursday 6 June 2024

Lily Samson on : How Roald Dahl’s Switch Bitch inspired my debut thriller, The Switch

I remember being shocked when I first read it: The Great Switcheroo by Roald Dahl. I was thirteen years old at the time. I had grown up devouring Roald Dahl and his magical classics for children: Matilda, The Witches, Danny the Champion of the World. Discovering his twist-in-the-tale stories was a delicious shock. Though his children’s fiction involves waspish humour and caricature villains, they are also very tender books, in my opinion, often involving a sweet relationship between parent(figure) and child. But his short stories were darker, all nastiness and schemes and games and come-uppances, with added spice; whilst they were far more ‘adult’, sex was often a theme explored with a school-boyish glee.

I loved The Great Switcheroo. It’s about two men who live opposite each other, who decide to creep into each other’s houses and swap wives in secret, in the dark, without them knowing. Dahl always anchored his outrageous conceits with a forensic attention to practical detail – each man spends weeks practising creeping into each other’s house, paying attention to the creak on the stairs and so on. Dahl has been accused of misogyny – unsurprisingly given that the story was originally written for Playboy and subsequently included in a collection called Switch Bitch. However, the men do get a come-uppance; their actions have consequences. The end result of their manipulations is the discovery that their partners have been sexually unsatisfied in the past and the secret swap has brought them a fulfilment not known before. The men are humiliated. They realise that they have trapped themselves in their own game.

I decided to turn the story on its head and explore the female equivalent: what would happen if two women decided to swap their male partners without them knowing? What if they also paid attention to every detail, a la Dahl, to the perfume they wear, the underwear, their shampoo, to see if they could pull it off?

I set the story in Wimbledon village, the home of many a glamorous millionaire. When my heroine, Elena, gets a housesit to stay there with her partner, she meets a dazzling couple called Sophia and Finn. Sophia is like a Hitchcock star; Finn exudes Cary Grant charisma. Elena feels drawn to them and so when Sophia makes an indecent proposal – inspired by reading Dahl’s story in homage to him – to practise a swap, Elena is initially uncertain and shocked. Sophia’s logic is twisted and like all manipulators, she plays different cards to win her argument: one minute, she assures Elena that the swap, a ‘perfect crime’, requires attention to detail, and the next she airily justifies sex without consent by declaring that all men enjoy sex and wouldn’t mind the game. Soon Elena is sucked in despite her moral concerns and the games become an addiction that spirals out of control. They are uncertain, too, whether their male partners have sensed what is happening and are playing them in turn.

For Sophia has her own agenda, one that she doesn’t reveal to Elena at first – behind her game is another shadow game. I wanted The Switch to be a domestic thriller, one where the darkness and danger tiptoes it slowly and mounts on every page, until the ending escalates into darkness and terror, kidnapping and a conspiracy to murder.

Like Dahl, I was interested in the theme of class. Elena studied at Cambridge but is from a working-class background, which echoes my own experiences – I grew up in a house in benefits and was the first person in my family to end up at university. I know that when you switch class outwardly, something inside never quite catches up: you find yourself in a liminal space, never quite fitting in. Sophia senses this and plays on it, using it to subtly undermine Elena. Their female friendship is warm and sincere at first, but gradually becomes toxic. However, having grown enjoying thrillers such Fatal Attraction, I didn’t want Sophia to be a caricature female villain who is manipulative for the sake of it. She has suffered secret trauma, and troubles in her past which have shaped her misandrist actions in the present; she has come to see life as a game which she needs to control. I wanted everyone in the book to be behaving terribly, but not be entirely unsympathetic, to create a thriller that was a cocktail of sex, lies and deceit.

The Switch by Lily Samson (Cornerstone) Out Now

TWO COUPLES. Elena and Adam are housesitting in Wimbledon and are instantly seduced by their new upscale surroundings. Sophia and Finn are their beautiful, enigmatic neighbours who invite them into their world. ONE TWISTED GAME. When Sophia proposes a wicked game to Elena whereby, they will swap partners in secret, it's not long before Elena starts to experience a sexual awakening that blossoms into an illicit love affair. But Sophia's plans are far more complex and dangerous than Elena could ever have imagined... WHO WILL SURVIVE?

You can follow Lily Samson on “X” @LilySamsonbooks

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