Friday, 26 June 2020

Patricia Highsmith: Preying on Our Minds

This started life as part of the paper I delivered for St Hilda's Crime Fiction Weekend in August 2019, but has been brought up to date for a feature in CrimeReads.

Patricia Highsmith: Preying on Our Minds


Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Never Be Broken up for CrimeFest's eDunnit Award

Nice news to wake up to this morning: Never Be Broken has been shortlisted for CrimeFest's eDunnit Award 2020, alongside some of my favourite writers.

You can buy the ebook of Never Be Broken here (Kindle) or here (Kobo).

The full list of Awards with their shortlists is here.



Winners to be announced online 7 July.

Congratulations to all!




Thursday, 7 May 2020

Crawl Space welcomes Paddy Magrane and Red Desert

Happy Publication Day to Paddy Magrane whose Red Desert is published by Audible today. It's terrifically gripping, dropping you down into the hostile desert territory of Southern Iraq where therapist Tom witnesses a brutal sequence of deaths that can't possibly be coincidence.

Welcome to Crawl Space, Paddy!

SH: You live in a rural idyll near the Devon coast. What made you want to write about a desert warzone, which you do brilliantly, by the way; I could feel the heat and taste the dust.

PM: A local friend has spent years working for an oil company in the arid south of Iraq. In addition to being one of the world’s largest untapped reserves of oil, the desert is also littered with lethal unexploded ordnance from both Gulf wars – mines left by the Iraqis and cluster bombs the Allies dropped that failed to detonate. I remember him saying that it would take all the de-mining teams in the world an eternity to clear the desert. As a result, his team have adopted a mitigation policy – removing mines and cluster bombs if an area needs to be surveyed or drilled, but otherwise plotting their exact location, and working around them using GPS. The more he talked about his work there and the extraordinary risks he and his colleagues were willing to tolerate, the more I thought the setting would be perfect for a thriller. Throw in a killer and some unexplained deaths and I knew I had the makings of a really exciting story.

SH: Your hero, Tom, is a therapist with a tortured past. How well did you knew Tom before you began writing, and which came first - your hero or your plot?

PM: I’ve written a couple of thrillers featuring a character who shares some of Tom’s characteristics so a version of him has definitely been in my mind for years. But I’m also a therapist myself (albeit one without a tortured past) so Tom is definitely an example of an author writing what they know. I think a shrink makes a really interesting protagonist in a thriller, a genre in which the hero is normally defined by his physical skillset. Tom, it’s fair to say, is not great with his fists but he is good at seeing the world through a therapeutic lens and, when cornered, using his therapeutic insight to find a solution.

SH: How did it feel, listening to your book being narrated? I always find it such a unique experience, almost as if it's a story I don't know with characters I've never met.

PM: Prior to publication, I’d read Red Desert dozens of times checking the flow and looking for typos. As every writer knows, it’s a largely mechanical process that can sap the soul. By the time I delivered the final manuscript to Audible, I wasn’t exactly itching to hear it again. But with Joe Jameson, the book feels completely fresh and it’s so exciting to hear it brought to life. In addition to the wonderful character and cadence of his voice, he’s also managed to achieve something miraculous in my mind, distinguishing each character – whether it’s an Iraqi boy, a French doctor or a traumatised British therapist – with delicate shades of intonation.

SH: The story is superbly unsettling and claustrophobic. I found this especially striking given these strange days we're living through. All too easy to feel Tom's unease and paranoia. How are you finding lockdown - any tips or tricks for us?

PM: I reached a point about three weeks into the lockdown when I thought I had my coping mechanism sorted. I ran most days, dramatically cut back on my news addiction so I didn’t unnecessarily trigger anxiety, stayed in contact with old friends to ensure I didn’t get lonely, and carved aside a little time each morning to outline a new novel in the hope of building some future momentum. But of course, what I hadn’t anticipated was that although nothing about the lockdown had changed, the way I felt about it was slowly shifting beneath the surface. I was still processing the new reality, even if only on an unconscious level. At around week six, I hit a wall. I was too tired to run, couldn’t be bothered to talk to anyone and felt deeply unmotivated. The lesson for me is that it’s great if you find ways to cope, but it’s also OK to feel crap. This is an emotional marathon, impacting on us all in different ways. There’s no correct way to get through it. Do what works for you and don’t beat yourself up when you have tough days. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help – whether from a trusted friend or a professional – if life becomes overwhelming. Being able to do that is a strength, not a weakness.

SH: Absolutely. Before lockdown, you were gearing up for Lyme Crime, a brand-new festival by the sea. What can we expect in June 2021 when the festival finally opens its doors?

PM: June 2021 cannot come soon enough! I have hopefully persuaded my existing line-up to return next year. So we’ve got Erin Kelly discussing We Know You Know, her sublime thriller about mental health and motherhood; Luke Jennings chatting to you about Killing Eve; psychological thriller titans CL Taylor and Mark Edwards in conversation; spy novelist Mick Herron speaking to Jason Goodwin, and many more treats besides. And, mindful of the fact we will by then have possibly been starved of crime festivals for a year, I’ve added another day of events. I hope to welcome Ann Cleeves, Fiona Cummins, CJ Tudor, Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Roz Watkins, Cathi Unsworth and Syd Moore to the festivities.

SH: I can't wait! What's next for you on the writing front? Can we expect to hear from Tom again?

PM: I’m very fond of Tom and already have the outline of a new thriller – one involving refugees and dark establishment figures. But for now, I’m concentrating on a crime thriller set in Essex in 1953, when a storm surge overcame the east coast. The parallels between then and now – of nature hitting with terrible force and a renewed sense of collaboration and community emerging – have been striking.

SH: That sounds exciting - great news for thriller fans! Thanks, Paddy.


You can buy Red Desert here. Paddy is on Twitter so do ask him questions of your own. And pencil in the last weekend of June 2021 for Lyme Crime.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Luke Jennings, Killing Eve, Big Book Weekend

I'm thrilled to have interviewed Luke Jennings about Die For Me and Killing Eve for the Big Book Weekend, co-founded by Kit de Waal and Molly Flatt and supported by the BBC and Arts Council England.

Luke and I were scheduled to have this chat at Lyme Crime (the brainchild of Paddy Magrane), and we very much hope to be there in June 2021 but in the meantime, you can catch us online 8-10 May 2020. Details here.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Fragile is coming in 2021

I'm thrilled to be sharing the news that my new standalone thriller, Fragile, is being published by Pan Macmillan in spring 2021.

The idea for the book grew out of my love of Rebecca, and The Handmaid's Tale, and follows the story of Nell Ballard, a young woman who finds herself working for an eccentric recluse whose former wife is a force to be reckoned with.

You can read more about the new book here.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Crawl Space welcomes Lucy Atkins and Magpie Lane

Happy Publication Day to Lucy Atkins whose new book, Magpie Lane (Quercus), is one of my favourite recent reads. It's tense, warm, chilling and funny; you will fall for her fabulous cast of characters, and the setting (Oxford) will make you swoon.

Welcome to Crawl Space, Lucy!

SH: You live in Oxford and teach at a university there, was it inevitable you would write a novel about the secret lives of Oxford academics, and are you now banned from college gatherings?

LA: An Oxford friend who has just read Magpie Lane said to me the other day, ‘You’re so brave - everyone’s going to be talking about this!’ and I was actually surprised. The funny thing about writing a novel is that, perhaps inevitably, your views are conflated with those of your characters. My nanny, Dee, and her oddball historian friend Linklater have one foot in the University, but they are also outsiders and misfits, on the fringes, and are seeing the absolute worst of it because of the family Dee lives with (the Master of a College, his glamorous wife and their neglected little girl). There are actually tons of good things about Oxford, and some of my best friends are perfectly sane Oxford academics, but of course, they wouldn’t make such interesting material. I do think that it probably was inevitable that I should write about it though, eventually. The characters you meet in the cloisters and libraries here are just too interesting to ignore. And you only have to look at, say, the recent machinations in Christ Church College to know that it can be a nest of vipers!

SH: I absolutely loved Dee and Linklater. Do you have a favourite character in the story, or one who sat at your shoulder as you wrote?

LA: Linklater, the house historian and ghost-tour guide, is a character who emerged fully formed onto the page. This might be because I once wrote a story about him, and he has been lurking around in my subconscious for a quarter of a century. My husband has always said to me ‘you have to put him in a book’ and somehow, this time, he just inserted himself. I’m very fond of him, as you can tell.

SH: I defy anyone not to fall for Linklater. Magpie Lane once had another name ..? 

LA: The lane does have a rather colourful history. Nowadays it’s a picturesque little lane leading from meadow to High Street, with College accommodation on it, but it was once a rather more dangerous, insalubrious place where stabbings, robbings and other unsavoury activities took place – which is why in the thirteenth century it was called Gropecunt Lane. In the seventeenth century, decorum won out, and they renamed it Magpie Lane after the pub that used to be there. But even the pub was dodgy, so the Victorians changed it to Grove Street. It went back to Magpie Lane in 1927 and I’m very much hoping someone will revert to the thirteenth century soon. The tourists would love it, surely.

SH: There has to be an organisation that campaigns for the restoration of old street names ... Who or what helped you when you were writing this book? Who or what hindered you?

LA: I was helped enormously by four individuals – who for obvious reasons want to stay anonymous – who have lived, or do live now, in the Master’s Lodging of Oxbridge Colleges. They gave me all the details – one or two things they told me were so jaw-dropping I couldn’t use them, as they would seem too unbelievable. It’s very frustrating not to be able to thank these kind people publically but they know who they are. I was hindered mainly by my own self-doubt. This was, by far, the hardest of my books to write. I don’t know why but perhaps it’s because it’s the closest to the bone and I was trying to do something a bit different.

SH: If this was a launch in a bookshop and we each had a glass of wine to hand, who would you toast and why?

LA: My launch has just been cancelled, and so this is a nice question! I’d give a heartfelt thanks to my agent and my editor, and all the people at Quercus of course, and my family. But I’d also thank the people I’ve just mentioned, who opened their doors (literally) and talked to me so honestly, and openly, about what life is like behind them. It was fascinating, and they were so generous with their time. I honestly had no idea whether Magpie Lane was okay or a disaster, and having such enthusiasm from other writers has been massive, too. Other writers are what keep us sane I think – and I’m really grateful to friends who read early versions and talked about the plot and gave invaluable editorial suggestions. I’d also thank generous and kind writers like you, who are championing the book. That’s huge. We really do need each other more than ever. So: thank you, Sarah!

SH: And thank you, for coming here to chat with me. I hope Magpie Lane soars - and I'm recommending everyone buys 'two for joy'.

You can buy as many copies as you like from Waterstones or Blackwells or Amazon.

Lucy is on Twitter so do get in touch to let her know what you thought of the book. I loved it and think you will, too.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Killer Women : Fresh Blood : Trevor Wood

Please welcome the fourth and final Killer Women Fresh Blood panellist, Trevor Wood. Trevor is a playwright turned crime writer who started his working life in the Royal Navy. The Man On The Street (Quercus) is his first novel. Lee Child called it, ‘Fresh, original, authentic and gritty,’ while Mari Hannah said, ‘What more do you want from a debut than a unique protagonist and a cracking plot-line?’

SH: Trevor, you’re involved in working or volunteering with homeless people. And you served in the Royal Navy for 16 years. How did that influence your hero’s story?

TW: The Navy background was the initial influence. When I first came up with the idea of a homeless man seeing a murder my initial research told me that ex-servicemen constitute around 10 per cent of the homeless population. I knew that this gave me a way in to my protagonist – I may not have known a lot about being homeless but I knew how ex-servicemen thought and behaved. Whilst writing the story I went to visit the People’s Kitchen in Newcastle which provides hot meals for over 100 people every day. It’s staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers but at the time they had a waiting list for helping there – which says a lot about the city I think. I kept my eye on the lists and when a vacancy came up I grabbed it so now spend one afternoon a week working in a hot kitchen making supersize versions of the meals I would cook at home. Mixing with the volunteers and the ‘friends’ as we call our clients gave me the impetus to focus more on the homeless experience than the ex-serviceman experience, not just on the shameful way we treat people, or the pitiful lack of affordable housing,  but on the idea that these people were, and still can be, resourceful, capable, members of society and, in many cases, are more honourable than those who are supposed to be role models.

SH: You’re a hugely successful playwright who decided to turn to crime (novels). What would you call the biggest difference between the two disciplines?

TW: The first, most glaring, difference is the sheer number of words. A standard, full-length play probably comes in around 15,000 words while you’re looking at a minimum of 80k for a crime novel – and I had a co-writer for the plays so, theoretically, only had to come up with around half of the words! So sheer volume of work is a big difference. The second thing is the nature of the writing. Plays, by definition, are almost entirely dialogue. There are a few stage directions but actors don’t much like being told what to do by writers so these are usually kept to a minimum. So, when I started to try and write my first crime novel I was confident that I could handle the dialogue but had to learn how to do everything else. I did a couple of local writing courses and joined a local writing group and gradually managed to get a grip on what to do in between the dialogue! My editing, even now, often consists of trimming out dialogue and adding a little more description.

If I’m allowed a third thing… because I co-wrote the plays we planned everything from the get-go. The whole play would be mapped out and then we would divide up the scenes, head back to our own territory, write our own bit and then swop them around. Once we’d got a rough draft we’d sit together to edit. For my crime novels it’s the complete opposite. I don’t plan at all. I start with an opening chapter and go from there. Maybe it’s a reaction to the previous over-planning but it feels more organic to me and almost as if it’s happening in real time – as it would for any actual investigator, my protagonist can follow hunches but has no sure idea what might happen next. I have this crazy idea that if I don’t know what’s happening next it will be pretty hard for the reader to guess. It does mean that I have to do a lot of editing, retro-fitting the plot to make it all work, but if it’s good enough for Lee Child ...

SH: Can you expand on your road to publication?

TW: My first attempt at a crime novel is sitting on my laptop waiting for the world to change. One of the problems was that I stayed in my comfort zone. I wrote it in first person – falling back on the idea that dialogue was my strength (see above). Also, the tone was comedic, again doing what I knew I could do, most of our plays were out-and-out comedies. It got me an agent but stalled there. It was only later that I discovered the publishing world doesn’t really know what to do with comic crime. Editors have enough trouble judging whether a book is good or not, if they then have to judge whether it’s funny that’s two difficult, risky decisions. The knockout blow is that they then have to decide whether other people will think it’s funny. I’m hoping that Mick Herron’s success may mean I can resurrect the book one day.

I decided to throw that all away and try instead to write the kind of book I like to read, gritty, socially aware, realistic crime, think Dennis Lehane, Eva Dolan and, um, Sarah Hilary. This meant completely stripping down my natural style and starting again. So I did another course. The inaugural MA in Crime Writing at UEA – the best decision I could have made. A great course, based hugely on peer-to-peer feedback and I had the help of ten other hugely committed wannabe crime writers and visiting speakers like Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and Lee Child. Of the eleven who started the course, five now have book deals, including Harriet Tyce, of Blood Orange fame, and three others have agents and books on the way. The final deliverable of the course was an 80k-word crime novel and that was the book that became The Man on the Street. After that the journey was a story of long gaps with sudden bursts of joy. I had got rid of my first agent (long story, but basically I could never get him to meet me) and I had nearly a year of rejections before the wonderful Oli Munson at AM Heath read the book in a day and offered me representation within two days of me sending out my initial enquiry. We then had a second long wait as rejections, some hugely encouraging but rejections nonetheless, crept in. Eventually we had strong interest from one editor but subject to a significant rewrite. We took the plunge. Several months of hard work later that was rejected too. HOWEVER… the new version went out to a handful of editors and the offers came in almost immediately, including one from the estimable Jane Wood at Quercus. I nearly bit her hand off.

SH: What's next for you?

TW: I wrote The Man on the Street under the distinct impression I was writing a standalone novel. To my surprise everyone else thought it was a series so I’ve been working on book 2, provisionally entitled One Way Street and the second draft is in my editor’s hands as I type this. Like the first book it’s currently planned to be given a soft launch, in e-book and audio, in October this year before full publication in hardback in March 2021. The other big thing is that The Man on the Street has been optioned for TV and film by World Productions, the makers of Line of Duty and Bodyguard. I try very hard to keep things on an even keel – I know that not everything that gets optioned ends up on screen - but I’m finding it tricky not to get ridiculously excited about this.

Thanks, Trevor!

You can buy The Man on the Street here (supporting your local indie bookshop). Do join the discussion on Twitter where Trevor can be found here.