It’s tough being a crime writer, particularly those of us whose central characters are police officers. We know what readers demand: a murder, an investigation, a couple of gory or violent moments, a decent twist and a satisfying ending.
That’s easily enough done, in theory, except that – Lordy me! – readers want variety. They want each book to feel different.
Now don’t get me wrong. Readers are right to demand a lot. I read plenty of crime fiction too, and I too get fed up if an author starts to feel too samey. But how to play tunes on such a familiar theme? Where does the variety come from?
I scout for ideas in familiar ways. I read crime reports. I subscribe to various police information services. I read other people’s fiction (always happy to nick a good idea when I see it – though if I do that, I mess around with it enough that you’d never be able to recognise the original). And I also read books and advice given by serving or former police officers.
And, in a book on police procedure by Michael Byrne, a former chief constable, I read this: ‘It is surprising how effective old techniques are, such as putting prisoners in adjoining cells and then listening in on their conversation, or putting another officer in a cell with their prisoner, posing as another prisoner.’
Wow! I loved that idea. Fiona Griffiths, my central character, is so intense, so unpredictable and inflammatory, that the idea of having her in a pressured situation (in jail, with a suspect, and information to extract) seemed wonderful. And what if she wasn’t simply in that situation overnight? What if she actually went undercover, not for days, but for weeks and months?
Fiona has some problems with her own identity (to put it mildly). What if that identity was put under the fiercest pressure conceivable?
I knew I had an idea that I loved, and the more I wrote of the book, the more confident I was that I had something special. But I had a problem. Fiona’s life in the book is really grim. Her undercover role drains her of money, respect, autonomy. She’s in constant danger. Her working hours are insane, and she knows that a single slip could easily lead to her being killed by the criminals she’s investigating.
Was the book tense? You bet it was. But I actually worried that it would prove too intense for readers. Not that it was particularly gory, or particularly violent – just, it was relentless. Like all twenty-four episodes of 24 watched back to back. I liked it, but what would others think?
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. People have loved that intensity – indeed, my editor urged me to ratchet it up, if anything. Strange Death isn’t a gentle read. It’s dark, strange and it never releases its grip. If you read it, I hope you love it – and keep the lights on when you do – and when you see a girl with her head down, cleaning an office, or a shop, or a public building, remember that you never quite know who that person really is.
For more great detective fiction, visit The Murder Room.