Well, after what seemed the longest January on record, February has flown past and we were suddenly back at First Monday Crime last night. Jake Kerridge was in charge for the evening and likened the guests to the recent mini heatwave – a lovely surprise but also made us fear for the future of our planet. The authors bringing us dark and devious tales were C.J. Tudor, Fiona Barton, M.J. Arlidge and Laura Shepherd-Robinson.
C.J. Tudor has been described as a ‘British female Stephen King’ due to the supernatural elements of her books. For her though, The Chalk Man was a mystery resolved in reality. However, her new book – The Taking of Annie Thorne – is more supernatural and ambiguous in nature. Joe Thorne (not the world’s best teacher) has gone back to the isolated village he grew up. His sister went missing for 48 hours when she was a child but wasn’t the same when she came back. C.J. Tudor explained that it’s often easier for readers to accept supernatural elements if the story is rooted in reality – weird things happening to ordinary people. Another similarity to Stephen King is writing characters as both a child and an adult. C.J. Tudor has done this in both her books, showing how the child is still there even though the character is now an adult.
Fiona Barton’s protagonist is journalist, Kate Waters. Her new book is The Suspect and is set in Thailand. Two eighteen-year-old girls have gone missing on their gap year. As her son is out there, Kate takes to opportunity to visit him as well as investigate the disappearance of the girls. Fiona drew on her own experience of when her son went travelling several years ago in the time before social media. It was hard to keep in touch and he rarely sent any postcards. Fiona had no idea if he was ok or dying in a ditch. She channelled that fear into the book. She also tapped into her teenage years and thought about the things she had done she wouldn’t want her mother to know. So the guilt and worry that Mum would find out was another driving force for the story. Although Fiona is a former journalist, Kate Waters is not based on her but more an amalgamation of all the journalists she’s met over the years. The advantage of having a journalist as the investigator is that Kate doesn’t get caught up in police red tape.
M.J. Arlidge is the author of the DI Helen Grace series but his new book, A Gift For Dying, is a standalone set in the US written in American English. The premise is – if someone could tell you when you’re going to die, would you want to know? Set in Chicago, a beautiful but extremely violent setting, a serial killer is on the loose. Cassie, an American girl with a Polish background, is a survivor who can see death and tries to forewarn people. To prove this to the police detective, she crosses an eight lane highway, blindfolded. In the past it’s been difficult to include the supernatural in stories (as C.J. Tudor has found) so it’s supernatural with a small ‘s’ or as M.J. Arlidge put it – a serial killer thriller with a twist.
Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s debut novel is Blood & Sugar. It’s set in Deptford in the 1780s at the height of the slave trade. Laura had to do a lot of research for this book. She’s always been interested in the 18th century as the flowering of the Enlightenment but it was also a brutal time with capital punishment, blood sports and slavery. As Jake pointed out, abolishment of slavery seemed impossible in 1780 but there was a huge shift over the next thirty years. And Laura wanted to capture how difficult it was to change people’s minds, especially as there was a powerful lobby in favour of slavery. Her protagonist is Captain Harry Corsham, a war hero with a good society marriage and political ambitions. But all this changes when an old but estranged friend goes missing and Harry’s asked to investigate.
Jake wondered if the authors’ previous jobs had helped at all with their writing careers.
M.J.Arlidge was a storyline editor on EastEnders for two years. It was hard work creating thirty minutes of drama three or four times a week, ensuring you ended with a cliff-hanger. This has helped with writing his books – keeping up the relentless pace and having an ending for each chapter that fits the EastEnders drumbeat!
Laura Shepherd-Robinson used to work in politics where she saw how power was exercised. For her, in crime books the main protagonist is often struggling with ambition and principles. She pointed out that those who clung to principles didn’t always achieve much. Compromise is needed.
As a journalist, Fiona Barton used to attend court cases and this inspired her first novel, The Widow, as she observed the families caught up in the proceedings. Nothing is held back in court and for some, it might be the first time they’ve heard the evidence against a loved one. Although she’s used to writing to deadlines, she hadn’t written anything longer that 2.5k words before writing a novel.
C.J. Tudor has had lots of different jobs! Writing adverts for radio helped her to focus on dialogue. She’s also had a dog walking business that allowed her to do a lot of thinking and plotting, especially if she’d taken the dogs to the woods, looking for a good place to hide or find a body!
Jake asked the authors about the setting for their novels.
In the 1780s, Deptford wasn’t really part of London and was most definitely on the outskirts. It was a pretty seedy area with brothels and drug dens but there was also an affluent side, creating a contrast that Laura could use.
M.J. Arlidge visited Chicago to get a really good feel for it. As well as seeing the city, he also met with a forensic psychologist who took him to the prison. It’s the second biggest in the country and is underground. Gang culture is evident in Chicago and even children in kindergarten colour Mickey Mouse in gang colours. There’s no safety net for the mentally ill who can’t afford health insurance. It’s an incredibly violent city. When Matt was there, a man had been shot dead. So his son went out and killed four people in revenge. It was item six on the news.
Fiona Barton lived in Sri Lanka for two years so had some idea of life in South East Asia but she had never visited Bangkok before. She went for three days and made sure she visited the areas that the missing girls went to, including a very dodgy hotel. She decided not to spend the night there.
No exotic locations for C.J. Tudor! She was born in Salisbury and that was the influence for Anderbury in The Chalk Man. Her family moved to Nottinghamshire and she went to secondary school in a pit village at the time of the Miners’ strike so she was very aware of how the communities coped, or didn’t cope, at that time. Some recovered but others became very deprived. This was the inspiration for Arnhill in The Taking of Annie Thorne.
There were some great questions from the audience but my hand had given up by then (scrawling quickly is tiring!) so I sat back and listened instead. Jake also mentioned the line-up for next month. I’m sure First Monday Crime will be confirming that on Twitter very soon but it’s good, very good! Plus, April is birthday month for First Monday Crime so you know what that means, don’t you? Cookies for everyone! So make sure you reserve your seat for April by clicking here.
To find out more about the authors and buy their books, click on their names: