My interest in crime started with a TV series about the famous criminal defence barrister Edward Marshall Hall, who was known for his theatrics in court and for managing to get acquittals in cases where it seemed obvious the accused had committed the murder. This sparked a fascination with true crime stories – Crippen, the Camden Town murder, the Brides in the Bath, the Croydon poisoning case, Maybrick, Edith Thompson – all the classics of British crime. I’m intrigued by motives for murder, the set of circumstances that tip someone over the edge, and as a writer I’m always asking ‘What’s the motive? Would this person really kill for that reason?’ It’s easy to fall back on lust, love, revenge, and greed as motives, but in Holy Blood I explore a different motive: faith.
The challenge when writing crime fiction is to find a method of murder that’s credible but also a little bit devious. Dorothy L Sayers was good at this, using clever misdirection to lead the reader up the garden path. For example, in Have His Carcase, the plot revolves around establishing the alibis of a host of people suspected of slitting a man’s throat. Later we discover the victim’s haemophilia has distorted the assumed time of death, and suddenly everyone’s a suspect again.
From the Golden Age of crime fiction I moved on to tart noir – gritty crime thrillers featuring tough female protagonists who are determined, can hold their own in a fight, beat the bad guy, solve the case, and do it all wearing high heels. I loved Stella Duffy’s Saz Martin and Lauren Henderson’s Sam Jones – both heroines are gutsy yet vulnerable. The queen of tart noir though is Sara Paretsky and her Chicago-based private investigator VI Warshowski. She can tote a gun, pick a lock and throw a punch. These plucky yet feminine characters inspired Eden Grey, my private investigator in Holy Blood. When I started creating Eden, I knew I wanted her to be independent, strong, brave and capable, but I also wanted her to be a normal woman, with worries and failings and things she was scared of. So I gave her a backstory of working undercover and it all going horribly wrong. The fallout of that mistake haunts her new life and new identity.
I always write time-slip – each of my books has a present day story line and a historical story line, and by the end of the book we see how the two converge. I always think of time as a palimpsest – the past is never fully over, it intrudes on and influences the present. I was thrilled to discover Kate Ellis’s Wesley Peterson novels, which feature a police investigation alongside an archaeological investigation, again with converging past and present story lines. Her novels have great pace, wonderful characters, and at times are really scary – The Merchant’s House frightened the life out of me.
Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series also features an archaeologist who has a habit of solving crimes. Her books are set in the Norfolk marshes, where land and sea dissolve into one, adding an eerie, other-worldly creepiness. I love all of them, but my favourite is The Crossing Places – the writing is fresh, compelling, and original. After reading her books I was inspired to write about real locations, scratching beneath the surface to show layers of misdeeds.
What I love about all the writers I’ve mentioned is that when I open one of their books, I always feel a sense of anticipation and excitement. I know I’m in for a good read and hours of entertainment. And that, after all, is what writing’s about.