Sunday, 9 October 2016

A tale of two Lucys - and both are shockers

I’m offering a big thank you this week to everyone who’s bought my new girl-cop novel, STRANGERS, because thus far at least, in the 18 days since publication, it’s been a runaway success. We’re sticking with lady detectives in the review section this week as well, as I’ll also be talking about Nicola Upson’s rather marvellous THE DEATH OF LUCY KYTE, (though on this occasion it’s a very different kind of female investigator). As usual, if you’re impatient to get there, you’ll find a full review and discussion of that fine novel at the lower end of today’s column.

In the meantime, thanks again to everyone who forked out to buy a copy of STRANGERS. We’ve had some rather spiffing reviews, and as you can probably see from the above image, sales have been so good that in the third week of publication, we made the Sunday Times Top Ten best-sellers list. It’s also been flying in the ebook charts, and is currently sitting somewhere just outside the top 20 (you can get it for only 99p on Kindle as part of the Amazon autumn promotion, though I think that deal runs out at the end of October).

STRANGERS has been an amazing journey for me thus far. I may have mentioned in previous blogposts that I originally evolved the character, Detective Constable Lucy Clayburn, way back in 1993 for a TV series that never was, and resurrected her only last year when my publishers, Avon Books (HarperCollins) asked me to interrupt my Heck series with a new police character, this time a woman.

There’s quite a bit more back-story to it than that, of course, some of which I’ve recently given in more detail in several radio interviews. The first was with the lovely Becky Want (right) at BBC Radio Manchester (Lucy’s cases are all set in my native Greater Manchester). I don’t know how long they keep interviews on the BBC site, but if you act reasonably quickly, you can listen to it HERE (you'll find my bit at around 2.34pm-ish). The second was with the equally lovely Hannah Murray at The Book Show on Talk Radio Europe, which you can access HERE (from 7pm onwards).

You may also be interested in a HarperCollins podcast I recently did with fellow author and ex-cop ASH CAMERON. One of the big challenges to writing STRANGERS came with having to relate the day-to-day experiences of a policewoman working undercover as a Manchester prostitute in order to catch a serial murderer of men. Even though I’m ex-job myself, this was a role I never played, though Ash did it on a number of occasions and several times was put through hell in her efforts to nail the bad guys.

If you tune in HERE, you can catch the podcast, which she and I did together and in which we discuss these experiences of hers and relate them to my new novel. 

I was also very happy to make the Book of the Month in The Sun. I've posted that snippet just below.

Sorry if all this seems like excessive self-pimpery, but I’m on Cloud 9 at the present with regard to the book and where it’s currently sitting. I promise I’ll start behaving in a more grown-up fashion as the year moves on and work commences on my next project, which at this moment in time may well – could be, who knows? – a horror novel / movie tie-in, though I genuinely can’t say any more about that at present. Let’s just see how things pan out.

(PS: If that latter disappoints you because you were hoping to hear about the next Heck, never fear. the manuscript for ASHES TO ASHES, formerly THE BURNING MAN, formerly RIGHTEOUS FIRE, has now been delivered to my publishers and we ought to be starting work on those edits very soon, with a view to seeing it on the shelves in March next year).  


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Nicola Upson (2013)

The year is 1936, the place Polestead in Suffolk, where successful Scottish writer, Josephine Tey, has inherited rundown Red Barn Cottage from her deceased godmother, Hester Larkspur, a one-time glamorous actress who, towards the end of her life, came to live as a recluse and was inexplicably shunned by most of her neighbours. One of the conditions in the will is that Josephine, who barely knew Hester, must take possession of the house herself, along with all it contains, but in concert with another benefactor, a certain Lucy Kyte, of whom there is no physical trace and whom no-one locally seems to know anything about. 

However, this is only one of many mysteries that enshroud Josephine’s inheritance. The age-old cottage is crammed with curious artefacts, while one upper room in particular, which has a terrible atmosphere, is marked with disturbing and perplexing graffiti. An infamous atrocity, the Murder in the Red Barn – when, back in 1827, village beauty Maria Marten was butchered by her handsome lover, William Corder – occurred only a few dozen yards away, while an eerie ghost story connected to this crime still seems to haunt the village. Enquiries about Hester’s own death indicate that the elderly lady was hiding from someone or something when she expired from natural causes.

Seemingly, there has been much unpleasantness in and around this melancholy house, though no-one now will speak of it.

Isolated, and increasingly threatened by a nebulous but persistent presence, Josephine attempts to unravel the various puzzles, researching the details of the original crime and at the same time establishing the final movements of her godmother, whose death she is progressively more certain was hastened by foul play.

Josephine is a gentle person rather than a fighter. This makes her an unlikely hero, but she is intellectually superior to almost everyone she meets, and this gives her a big advantage, which is something she’s going to need – because even with the Red Barn a distant memory and Polestead now an idyllic summertime hamlet, there is a constant undercurrent of menace here. No one is really happy in this place. The hostility from certain neighbours is palpable, especially when Josephine starts asking questions, and even some of those who initially appear friendly possess an air of alarming superficiality.

Scratch this benign surface deep enough, it seems, and something very nasty may emerge from underneath …

My initial thought on The Death of Lucy Kyte was that it wouldn’t be for me. It had the overall aura of what used to, somewhat condescendingly, be referred to as a ‘woman’s book’. But very quickly I was seduced by Nicola Upson’s expert control of mood, not to mention her exquisite writing. The characters, both living and dead, are vividly drawn, their intricate and complex relationships deftly handled. Hester Larkspur in particular is a wonder. Given that she never appears in the book, we get astonishingly close to her through her property and diaries, and through Josephine’s fond ruminations on her melodramatic life in the Edwardian-era theatre.

But it is Josephine herself, for whom this is the fifth adventure to be novelised, who’s the real star of the show. Based on the Inverness-born mystery writer, Elizabeth Mackintosh, she is a very reserved person, almost to the point of being stuffy, primarily happy when in her own company or with Marta, her upper class lover, and yet easily frightened and affected emotionally by grief and solitude. And yet this apparent vulnerability is deceptive – Josephine has hidden depths of resilience, not least her absolute determination to get justice for Hester.

The investigation this leads to is fascinating.

To start with, there are actually two narratives interwoven here, both of them sprinkled with clues. The secondary thread, the tale of Maria Marten’s death and the execution of her killer by hanging and dissection, is enthralling, its gruesomeness and the general hardship of that age richly evoked by the author and contrasted sharply with the pastoral landscape of the Suffolk Weald in the 1930s. The ‘current’ narrative meanwhile, has an ambience all of its own, and lightens the dark mystery with some nice touches of gentle comedy, including guest appearances by none other than Tod Slaughter, the famous British star of Grand Guignol cinema, King Edward VIII and even Wallis Simpson.

I won’t go as far as to say that I was blown away by The Death of Lucy Kyte – there are times when it felt a little as if it was meandering, but despite its leisurely pace, it is increasingly fraught with danger and finally culminates in the unmasking of one of the most narcissistically nasty villains I’ve ever come across on the written page.

Overall, this is a high quality psychological/supernatural thriller, very much in the style of one of the slower-burn Hitchcocks. Maybe I’d have liked a slightly more conclusive pay-off, but ultimately it isn’t that kind of novel. Besides, the Josephine Tey story-arc is now five books in and counting, so lots of pay-offs, I suspect, are still easily possible.

As always – just for a laugh – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Death of Lucy Kyte ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (though if it ever does, the series would have to start with An Expert in Murder, which is Josephine Tey #1):

Josephine Tey – Ruth Connell
Jane Peck – Lindsay Duncan
Maria Marten – Rosamund Pike
William Corder – Tom Weston-Jones
Lucy Kyte – Daisy Ridley
Marta Fox – Kate Winslet
Tod Slaughter – Brad Dourif (Controversial choice? Naaah … I think he’d be exceptional)

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