Harry Bingham, an author, is meeting Fiona Griffiths, a young detective with the South Wales Police. Fiona Griffiths is – allegedly – fictional and exists (again, according to the allegations) only in the pages of Harry’s books. Today they meet face to face for the first time. Harry’s literary agent is sitting quietly in the corner keeping an eye on proceedings.
Harry Bingham: Hello. It’s really nice to meet you properly at last.
Fiona Griffiths: Hi.
HB: Hi? That’s all?
HB: I mean, I’m not expecting you to bow down or anything like that, but – I am your author.
HB: There’s a book with my name on it.
FG: And my name. In bigger type, as it happens.
[Literary agent casts warning glance in HB’s direction. He sees the glance and backs off a bit.]
HB: OK, look, forget all that. Can we just talk a bit about your experiences in The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths?
HB: You worked undercover.
HB: You do know what an interview consists of, don’t you? Like, I ask some questions, you give some answers. And answers that actually consist of a string of words, not just a series of shrugs?
FG: Yes, I’m well aware of what interviews are. Quite apart from anything else, I’m a trained interrogator, which you clearly are not.
HB: OK, good. So: in the case described in Strange Death, you worked undercover for eight months. You penetrated a highly organised, highly dangerous criminal gang and you did a lot to undermine and finally destroy their operation.
FG: That is all factually correct. Yes.
HB: And what was that like for you? I mean, you’re a fairly petite woman. The threat to your life wasn’t some one-off thing, it endured pretty much throughout that eight month period. You were being monitored and recorded just about the entire time. Not only by your side – the police team backing you up – but by the gangsters too. You couldn’t get undressed at night without knowing that someone, somewhere had the whole thing on video.
FG: What was it like for me? That was the question, yes? The answer is I liked it. I found it peaceful.
HB: Peaceful? You wore an ankle bracelet so that the chief gangster knew where you were every minute of every day. You were juggling three different identities – your real one, the one the police gave you, and the one the gangsters gave you. You knew that one false move, just one, and you might be executed. You knew that a couple of other people had already lost their lives in this case. And you found that peaceful?
FG: Look, what do you want me to say? I’m not like you. I find ordinary life quite difficult. I don’t find your world – Planet Normal, as I call it – all that easy to navigate. And those undercover months felt simpler for me. Mostly I lived in a hostel for the homeless or in this brilliantly horrible bedsit on the North Road. My best friends were people from the homeless shelter. There was this lovely woman, Amina, a Somali illegal who let me share her house for a while. I found those things easy. Relaxing.
HB: Can I come at this from another angle, maybe? During this period you worked full time as a payroll clerk. You also worked part-time as a cleaner, a commercial cleaner, doing offices and things like that. You also worked on your real job, as a police investigator. And again, you were in acute danger the whole time. There were periods of the case when you had two police marksmen pretty much permanently assigned to your protection.
FG: [shrugs] Yes, if you want.
HB: Yes? That’s meant to be an answer?
FG: Yes, you can come at this from another angle.
HB: [to literary agent] Look, is there any way you could . . .?
Agent: Fiona, you know, it would help us a lot if . . .
FG: If what? This guy – my “author” allegedly – takes a whole chunk of my life and stuffs it into a book, which I never asked him to write. Then this stupid interview, with stupid questions, and—
HB: OK, so let’s do this another way. What do you want? What are your goals in life?
FG: Oh for fuck’s sake!
HB: I know, I’m your author, so I do basically know these things, but—
FG: Your stupid interview, right? OK, then. My goals, one, two, three. One, I want to put some bad guys in jail. The guys behind the crime in The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, yes, but also the people in Love Story with Murders and this summer’s This Thing of Darkness. I believe those various crimes are related and I won’t rest until their perpetrators are dead or behind bars. Number two. I want to figure out who I am. I don’t know. I know who my adoptive parents are, but I know nothing of my true origin. I had this messed-up disease, Cotards, when I was a teenager—
HB: Cotards. That’s a true-life condition in which the sufferer believes themselves—
FG: —to be dead. Yes. Thanks for telling people that. I usually don’t by the way.
HB: OK, so you had this first mysterious two years of life, that you know nothing about. You had this terrible illness in your teens, and you want to figure out how that all hangs together, yes?
FG: Yes. I’m an investigator, OK? It’s the only thing I’m actually good at. I want to investigate my past. I want to understand why I am how I am.
HB: [gently] And the third thing?
FG: [suddenly vulnerable, perhaps for the first time. Shrugs. Moves her mouth. Says nothing.]
FG: [whispering] You know.
HB: Yes, I know, but this interview . . .?
[Some moments pass. The literary agent looks at HB wondering if he needs to intervene, but HB gestures for silence. Then—]
FG: Planet Normal.
HB: [Nodding] Go on.
FG: [still whispering] I want to live on Planet Normal. I want what other people have.
HB: Go on.
FG: I want to get married. I want friends. I don’t want to be scared of my own head. I want to be normal. That’s the third thing, my third goal. And it’s scary because I know I’m a good detective, exceptional even. I think that I’ll be able to get those bad guys in jail. It may take time, but I’ll do it. The second thing – well, that’ll be harder, yes, but I’ll get there too. I’ll figure out the riddles of my past. I’ll find my real parents. Understand what happened to me in those years.
HB: But . . .?
FG: But number three . . .
HB: . . . Planet Normal . . .
FG: I don’t know if I’ll ever truly be at home there. That third thing matters more to me than all the rest put together and I don’t know if I’ll ever make it.
[Fiona never cries, but there’s something fixed and shining in her face. HB and his literary agent exchange glances. They nod.]
HB: Fiona, thank you. Let’s end it there.
FG: [says nothing, face still shiny and fixed. Nods. Mouths “Thank you”.]
Harry Bingham is the author of the acclaimed Fiona Griffiths series, of which the most recent, This Thing of Darkness, is out now in paperback, ebook and audio. Find Harry on the web via HarryBingham.com (for author stuff), WritersWorkshop.co.uk (for writing courses and editorial help) and Agent Hunter (for all things agenty.) You can follow Harry on Twitter if you want, but we warn you: he’s a teeny bit Trappist.