Summer is definitely over. The rain poured down last night so anyone who made it to First Monday Crime was worthy of a medal. Especially Nicci French – Nicci Gerrard and Sean French – as they cycled! Thankfully we were warm and dry inside City University. Our guests were Peter Robinson, Nicci French and Marnie Riches and Claire McGowan was our moderator.
First of all, what are the new books all about?
Marnie Riches has started a new series with Bev Saunders. She’s a divorcee living in Hale, Cheshire. She’s a disgraced marketing executive and her ex-husband has taken her to the cleaners. She’s also addicted to sex and origami. (Marnie was keen to point out that although she’s also a divorcee living in Hale, she’s not addicted to sex and origami). Living in her friend’s grungy basement, Bev becomes a private investigator and is persuaded by her friend (who’s after the rent money) to take on the case of Angela Fitzwilliam, an abused wife. The complication is that Angela’s husband is an MP and Shadow Cabinet Minister for Science. He’s also a very nasty man. Marnie wanted to write Tightrope in response to #MeToo and about men who won’t take no for an answer.
Many Rivers To Cross is a DCI Banks novel from Peter Robinson and is part two in a trilogy. A boy’s body is found in a wheelie bin in a (fictional) small town in Yorkshire. It’s connected to County Lines where vulnerable people are dragged into the drugs world. The overall story covering the three books is about Zelda who was abducted and sex trafficked.
Nicci French get their ideas for their books in different ways. They started with an ordinary wife and mother getting breakfast ready and shooing everyone off to school and work. She then changes her clothes into something smarter, gets on her bike and heads to Covent Garden to meet her lover at his flat. When she arrives, she finds her lover dead, clearly murdered. She’s about to call the police when she realises that her secret affair will become public. So instead of dialling 999, she begins to clean the flat and remove all traces of herself and in turn, compromises the crime scene. Neve makes a cascade of choices which lead to more and more lies. At the same time she has to maintain normal life by making the packed lunches, doing the laundry and feeding the guinea pig.
Claire asked if there any set themes that the authors like to return to?
Nicci Gerrard said that she loves reading police procedurals but she and Sean like to write about ordinary people who don’t even know they’ve been set in a thriller. There’s always a woman at the centre who makes a mistake or does something accidently. It’s normally something easily identifiable to the reader and then they ratchet it up. Sean French quoted Raymond Chandler who wanted to take crime away from the ordinary people and give to the bad ones. They (Sean and Nicci) want to do the reverse and take crime away from the bad and give it to the ordinary.
Marnie has looked at organised crime with her three different series. In her The Girl Who series she focused on trafficking whether it was drugs or people. Then she looked at gangs and crime families with her Manchester based series featuring Sheila O’Brien. And now Bev Saunders rubs up against organised crime as powerful men order prostitutes like you would pizza. Marnie loves to have kick-ass heroines and big nasty criminals. She also uses her locations like another character. George McKenzie was based in SE London and Amsterdam, Sheila O’Brien in Manchester and Bev Saunders in Hale.
Peter has written a few standalones but most of his books are about DCI Banks. Although set in Yorkshire, he deliberately created a fictional town and dale that would allow him to write urban and rural crime. As Peter said, no one can hear you scream in the Dales – it can be that deserted. You could walk for a day and not see anyone. He likes to play around with the geography and even though it’s fictional, he still gets messages from people telling him he’s got it wrong! He’s gone back to the trafficking theme after first writing about it twenty years ago.
Claire felt that all three books were saying something about women and their place in society.
Nicci and Sean thought that Neve was sick of doing everything. She’s a good wife, a good mother, a good employee and a good friend. Everyone looks to her. She’s hemmed in by the choices she’s made and has an affair to get away from it all. She has friends but they all have secrets. Every family has problems. As Sean said, if you see a family that you think has everything together, you don’t know them well enough. Nicci felt that you could remove the thriller aspect of The Lying Room and be left with a portrait of a marriage.
There’s a lot of sex in Tightrope. So there’s quite a dirty chapter in her book and Marnie told her daughter to skip that bit when she read it. Marnie knows some people who have done some eye-watering things that *may* have made it into the story. She’s happy to write sex scenes as they can be character development. Bev is forthright about her sexual needs in comparison to her client, Angela Fitzwilliam, who’s being abused by her husband. Marnie thinks we shouldn’t shy away from sex.
Peter doesn’t think any crime writer has ever won the Bad Sex Scene Award so thinks maybe he should give it a go! However, DCI Banks isn’t getting much at the moment. That might change due to the chemistry between him and Annie. Peter’s unlikely to ever kill off Banks but if he wanted to finish the series then he might promote Banks to Chief Constable and marry him off to Annie. With writing Zelda, he didn’t worry about what he’s allowed to write. He started off with the idea that we’re all human beings. Zelda is trying to live in peace in the Yorkshire Dales but her past is catching up with her. Peter didn’t find it difficult to find her voice. He had her grow up in an orphanage that had English children’s books so that gave her some Englishness.
Claire then had what she called ‘obvious questions’ for the panel. For Nicci and Sean – how do they write books together?
They still find it weird that they can write and live together. Having said that, they don’t write in the same room. Sean has a shed in the garden and Nicci writes in the house as far away as possible! As former journalists, they had often thought about working together but it was only when they had their idea for their first book, The Memory Game, that they tried it. They did try to write the final chapter together but never again! They plan the books until they’re sure of their plot, their characters and the voice. When everything is in their heads, then they write. They email chapters back and forth and edit and cut. There’s no battle of voices and style and they prod each other to write.
Peter’s obvious question was to do with the TV series for DCI Banks. Did it change the way he wrote? No. Peter had nothing to do with the casting or the filming. So he stopped worrying about it and separated himself from it. Especially as they messed up the books. He did have a small cameo and it was fascinating to be on set. He doesn’t see Stephen Tompkinson as DCI Banks.
Marnie’s question – have you ever been told to tone down the sex? No, in fact her editor told her to turn it up and add more! They’re some of the most fun scenes to write. But Marnie is also trying to address questions of consent etc. She’s exploring class as Bev is working class, just like Marnie.
Final question from Claire – are there any Crime tropes they’re sick of?
Peter’s sick of police procedure. Not the characters but the actual investigations and all the things the officers have to do.
Marnie is sick of simpering passive women and alpha (albeit damaged) males. She wants a woman with punk spirit and see more heroines earning their status.
Nicci is sick of the difference that social media and technology has made to writing. Quite tempting to write something historical to avoid all that.
Sean is sick of the maverick detective who breaks all the rules and only has 24 hours to fix things.
I (Joy) got a chance to ask the panel a question. As both Marnie and Peter have taken part in Simon Toyne’s TV programme, Written In Blood, I wondered if they would ever want to write about true crime.
Peter enjoyed doing the programme but he wouldn’t want to write about a true crime. He felt it would be too invasive and he wouldn’t want to intrude on the family and their suffering.
Marnie had similar thoughts about the invasiveness but if she were to write one, she’d look at Fred and Rosemary West.
Nicci actually reported on the Fred and Rosemary West trial when she was a journalist. She was there every day and it marked her. There were lots of things that came out at the trial that were not reported in the papers as they were too awful. She was also present at the trials of Ian Huntley (Soham) and Harold Shipman. Sean felt it was one thing to write about things you imagined and quite another to write about actual crimes.
Claire is currently writing about a true crime and finding it a bit difficult.
On that merry note we finished (I know how to lower the tone) and went to the Dame Alice Owen pub (formerly The Blacksmith and Toffee Maker) for a well-earned drink. If you’d like to buy any of the books from the panellists then please click on their names. We’ll be back on Monday 4th November and will be announcing the panel very soon!