Follies and Nonsense

October 29, 2017

What a year!  

Today it’s been a whole year since the publication of my first novel, A Savage Art.

I know how much of a thrill publication is for every writer – but the last couple of years have been so difficult for me that it’s impossible to overstate how much I needed this, and how much I’ve appreciated everything about it.

From the first email response from the fabulous Chris McVeigh at Fahrenheit Press, the sheer delight of seeing the gorgeous cover design, the day of publication and then later holding an actual paperback copy in my hands, each new first was a joy.

Best of all, though, was the realisation that people were actually reading my novel and enjoying it.

(My darling Ryan is peering over my shoulder and pointing out that he’s a person, and I should mention that some people previously HAD to read it…)

People I know, and people I don’t know.


I keep pondering a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut – his first rule for writing fiction, in fact.

Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

I’m not much of a one for rules, but that’s one I hope I’ve not broken!

Thank you so much to everyone who has read the novel, and to everyone who has taken the time to review – on their blog, or on Amazon or Goodreads. It is very much appreciated. And thank you also to those who shared their responses with me and even their criticisms – that is also very much welcomed.

It’s a funny thing but I was actually quite well prepared for criticism – critiquing and being critiqued helps to develop a thick skin. What I wasn’t prepared for was  how I’d feel when readers loved my novel and said so. So strange a feeling – I come over all emotional every time.

The difficult things about this past year – I’ll spare you most of it, don’t fret – have been a series misadventures with my health. Turns out I’m not very good at having surgery. I have lupus – who could have guessed? The part I was most scared about – the anaesthetic (I like knowing what’s going on, me) – I sailed through with no problems. Only afterwards my poor body over-reacted and I ended up needing two more surgeries to deal with complications following the first – and I’m still not healed from the last one.

Well, you are crime readers – maybe you can take a little unnecessarily gory detail. If not, look away now.

After the second surgery to deal with an infection and a wound which was producing pints and pints of exudate, I was examined by a plastic surgeon…. He put both hands in the cavity in my tum and they disappeared up to the wrist…as if I were his glove puppet. Ryan made his much repeated joke about _that_ scene in Alien, and I was laughing so much (my sense of humour was the other thing that carried me through) that the poor surgeon thought he was hurting me and apologised.

I am beginning to feel much better now, even though there’s still plenty of healing to be done, but the hernia is fixed, the ovarian cyst gone and the wonderful doctors and nurses of our NHS have done a pretty good job of putting me back together.

And I’m back to my writing. I’ve written a short story. I’m working on editing my second novel – there are too many words in the current draft, and it needs structural work as well as a lot of spit and polish. I’m busy making notes for a sequel to A Savage Art,  that I plan to start in the new year when the current monstrosity is cut down to size and I’m ready to let go of it.

It’s been a very eventful time and I am very grateful to everyone who has helped me get through it.

And an extra special thank you to Chris McVeigh, Mr Fahrenheit himself, for making my dream come true – and for publishing some fabulous novels which have kept me entertained while I’ve not been up to much else. I am in such good company, it has to be said!


October 17, 2017

Why bother speaking up? #MeToo  

When silencing is a huge part of the problem, as it is in most abuse, then speaking up is always a part of the solution. Even if it makes people feel uncomfortable.

And I am pleased to see so many conversations on this issue have started. Or do I mean continued? We keep having to speak up. It’s not a one off.

I’ve seen far too many men, self identifying as good men, on our side, feminist even, raising issues with the hashtag.

Apparently it’s meaningless because it conflates too many things. Including disparagement with a sexualised or gendered element, including catcalling and groping as well as rape – they don’t understand why we’re doing that. They are just asking questions, of course. Trying to be helpful.

Yes, of course there’s a difference between a microaggression and a rape. But where do they think rape starts? Does a guy just decide one day it’s okay to put his dick where it isn’t wanted? We all know that’s not the case – not in the vast majority of cases. Aggressors start off by creeping women out – they get off on the power. Perhaps they use sexualised “banter” to silence women at work. Perhaps they walk too close to a woman on her own, at night.

And it’s not about flirting – flirting is consensual. If you really can’t tell when flirting is consensual then I suggest you don’t do it until you’ve developed a bit of common sense and empathy.

I’ve seen far more women say on their #metoo posts, I’ve been lucky, it was only a grope, or it was only attempted rape – other people have much worse experiences. I said that myself. It’s not like we aren’t fucking acknowledging the spectrum of experience, the spectrum of harm done.

I’ve seen men suggest that the casting couch is a two way thing, as if women going to meetings alone with powerful men because they want a part in a movie makes them equally to blame if they are raped… I’ve seen men suggest that men are exploited by women in pornography – which is a weird kind of understanding of what exploitation means and shows no understanding of where the money is – or was – in porn.

It’s a whole spectrum of behaviour and while some men never escalate, others do. And like it or not, it’s not possible for women to know which men are really dangerous. It’s just not.

The intention behind the #metoo campaign was to demonstrate how widespread this whole range of aggressive behaviour is. Bearing in mind that a good many people are not sharing their own experiences – and they have the right to privacy, the whole damn point is that it IS genuinely painful and that we are still shamed for our experiences in multiple ways – I think this has been amply demonstrated.

And as ever, it’s also demonstrated how even this kind of overwhelming evidence will be minimised and explained away and ignored by some, not all. I’ve even seen men say if you didn’t report it you have no right to mention it now!

No matter how many of us speak up, there is always this concerted attempt to put us in our place, to tell us this is anecdotal, it’s not evidence, to silence us.

Well, we’re not shutting up. Not any more.



This is a copy of a post I made on Facebook a couple of days ago.  My own, abbreviated history –

I had a Saturday job at a newsagents. I was seventeen. The owner, who was old enough to be my grandfather, cornered me in the break room and grabbed me, put his hand up my skirt. I told one of the other girls and she said, Oh we take care not to be alone with him, and don’t say anything because his wife is lovely. They hadn’t warned me because I went to the grammar school… I quit the job. I made an excuse to my family I needed time to revise for A Levels. There was no point in telling anyone – I knew I wouldn’t be believed.

I worked on reception at Casualty in between school and uni, and all the nurses talked about which doctors couldn’t be trusted. One who would insist on examining every female patient’s boobs no matter if they went in for a broken toe – they tried to make sure someone was always in there with him when he saw a female patient but he used to send them away.

Too many times to mention when I lived in a Hall of Residence at Uni, including an attempted rape when I went back to a guy’s room after a party. He was good looking and intelligent and if he’d taken his time I’d likely have been perfectly willing – at my own pace. But he unzipped my jeans, and I said no, and pulled the zip back up three times…. And he was strong and holding me down and started again, and I lost my temper. Kneed him in the balls and left him lying on the floor in agony as I ran to the room of a friend, a guy who I knew was gay just a few doors down. Patrick walked me back to my room and wanted me to report it, but I knew it was my fault because I’d been drinking and I shouldn’t have gone back to his room.

Another time, I was with a group of friends at Uni and everyone wanted Chinese. A friend of a fried who had a motorbike asked for volunteers to go collect the food. I was stupid enough to go with him. Coming back from the Chinese, stopped at the traffic lights, he turned round on the bike and said, “I could take the other turning now and take you out into the country and no one could stop me.” I was scared but I laughed at him. “Are you an idiot? They handed their money over and they’re waiting for their food.”

A friend’s father at a Christmas party – he was drunk, I believed that I’d somehow led him on, and how could I say anything that would hurt my friend and her mother?

Later a doctor, soon after I was married, when I wanted a prescription for the pill. He harangued me about why didn’t I want to have babies, and then insisted on examining me to see if I was pregnant. I was really scared and let him all the time knowing he was just exerting his power over me. Never went back, never told anyone about it. Not even Ryan. I was too ashamed that I’d let him.

I always assumed it was my fault, always felt somehow I had a responsibility to protect everyone else’s feelings…

I really don’t think there are many women who haven’t had this kind of experience at one time or another in their lives. Perhaps the tide is turning at last and being open about it will help to change things.

July 30, 2017

Top of the Lake : China Girl (No spoilers)  

When I saw that the BBC in their infinite wisdom had released all the episodes at once, I promised myself I would take it slowly. No more than one a day.

I make myself a lot of promises I know I’m not going to keep. Just as well I have low standards.

Friday, I was under orders to rest – slight post – operative temperature. And after last year’s experiences, a little fear. (Don’t worry. I won’t go into detail. Unless I get around to writing that medical thriller, in which case all bets are off.)

So I watched it all.  One episode after another. I let Ryan cook – which, as ever, meant beans on toast.

I loved the first series and had been looking forward to this immensely. It was, after all, Jane Campion’s film ‘In The Cut’ (generally quite unpopular) which inspired my novel ‘A Savage Art’

In a Guardian article last week, it was said that this was deeper and darker – and indeed it was. In places it was positively weird.

But it was every bit as brilliant as I had hoped, and I am feeling inspired again, indirectly, to follow my own weird tangent.

I’m not going to say anything about the characters or the story or anything, knowing many people are more sensible than me and are eking it out.

I wonder if I’ll believe Elisabeth Moss as Offred tonight? Isn’t she fabulous?


May 8, 2017

Into The Water, and why I loved it anyway.  

I’m trying to understand what it is I ‘ve loved about the follow up from Paula Hawkins to The Girl on the Train.  Without spoilers, as far as possible as I really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So there’s nothing about individual characters and plot points here – only generalities about theme and structure and genre.

Val McDermid has some reservations which she discussed here in her Guardian review.

There are eleven narrators for one – some in first person, and some in third. It’s a bit confusing and I did have to flick back and forth trying to work out whose point of view I was in, and at what point in the timeline. The voices are not particularly individualised.

There’s a lot of shenanigans that feel perilously close to cheating in the way information is with-held from the reader to maintain suspense and surprise. This definitely includes a few circumlocutions which dragged this reader right out of the story for moment.  However, some of them are maybe psychologically within the realms of possibility, so I wouldn’t dismiss them all as outright cheating.

I’m not sure about the setting – I agree with McDermid that it seemed randomly rural town. I don’t know the area concerned though, so it didn’t really trouble me.

So yes, I think Val McDermid’s review is perfectly fair. Of course it would be – who knows the genre of crime fiction better?

And yet, in spite of all that, I still loved the novel. And I’m trying to analyse why.

Perhaps it’s not really a psychological thriller. Not in the sense of  “transcending the genre” – a phrase so condescending to crime fiction lovers that it makes my teeth itch like a squeaky chalk on a blackboard.

It seems to me that it’s a deep novel about memory, and truth and lies. About miscommunication. And about how all those things are complicated by different points of view.

Those narrators are essential to the structure because the novelists is telling us about tragedies which have deeply affected several families, and a whole community. It’s almost a realistic way of telling the story, as clearly because of all those secrets and lies and miscommunications, no one knows the whole story, although it is gradually pieced together.

There’s one point in the story where a major character finally tells the truth about something which happened to her and you think hurray – but still, it ends up being misunderstood and complicating things even more. And I think there’s some real psychological insight here – we see people projecting things that have happened to them onto other people. Making assumptions based on their own personal experiences and prejudices. There’s a lot about mysogyny and difficult women – from the point of view of a whole range of people – young and old, male and female. There’s a reason why the novel starts with a shocking and graphic disposal of a witch being drowned – although it’s left an open question whether the modern day psychic is really talking to the dead, or if it’s all a psychological phenomenon. But it does all add to the gothic feel of the novel.

The misunderstandings are not always deliberate. Sometimes it’s a question of motivated reasoning – to avoid being confronted by one’s own complicity. Sometimes it’s naivety, and simple lack of experience, or a lack of imagination and empathy.

There’s an exploration of the idea that a good person might have at times acted badly,  or a bad person done some things for good reasons. None of the characters is wholly sympathetic – no matter what horrors they have been through. There was just one character I found deeply unpleasant and saw no redeeming features in – but only one. Other readers may have a different experience.

If anything, the novel is spoiled by shoehorning it into the necessary structure for a psychological thriller, because at that point it startes to lose nuance, and the twist I’ve been expecting isn’t really a surprise in spite of those avoidances and circumlocutions. So for me it wasn’t a particularly satisfying payoff.  It’s a bit strange to enjoy all of a psychological thriller apart from the last couple of chapters – so that’s what prompted me to spend a bit more time thinking about it.

Who dunnit has never really interested me as much as why, so perhaps my response is not so surprising. And suspense odoesn’t have to be about who to be a compelling read.

I always go back to this Hitchcock quotation –

 “One of the most essential things in a film is visual clarity. I think an audience should be given all the facts. For example if you take suspense – suspense can only be achieved by telling the audience as much as you can, I don’t deal in mystery – I never make whodunnits, because they’re intellectual exercises. You’re just wondering – you’re not emoting. My old analogy of the bomb. As an example, we couold be blown up this minute and the audience would get five seconds of shock. But if we tell them five minutes ahead of time there is a bomb that’s going to go off, that would get five minutes of suspense. and we didn’t have suspense before, because the audience were in ignorance, you see.”

I wonder, now, if all those with-holdings and circumlocutions were necessary for this novel to work. It might perhaps have been a better novel without them. Maybe a second reading, now that I know what was being held back, would make that clear.

Still, even though I wasn’t surprised by the twisty ending, I was certainly emoting like crazy. There were characters I cared about – some more than others, which with eleven narrators is pretty much bound to be the case. And there were a couple who I think might have been more developed.

I think Into The Water might actually be a far more interesting novel than Girl on a Train because it isn’t a standard psychological thriller. It’s trying, and in some ways succeeding, to do something more.

Neil Gaiman said a novel is a long piece of prose which has something wrong with it.

What is often missed, I think, when we criticise any novel is how easy it is to pick out those things which are wrong.

And yet what we might like about a novel are those things which are right about it, even while we can see the flaws.

Not unlike the way we can clearly see the imperfections in that special person and yet still love them.

Yes, that’s it. I loved this novel – warts and all.






Guardian : Val McDermid review

Hitchcock quotation on YouTube

March 17, 2017

Jack the Ripper, Patricia Cornwell, and Walter Sickert  

A fascinating interview in The Spectator (here) reveals more about Patricia Cornwell’s obsession with the identity of Jack The Ripper – including some interesting new evidence.

So here’s the smoking gun, here’s the forensic detail that would nail the killer were this actually a Scarpetta book: it’s the writing paper. Not only did Sickert use the same brand as Jack, it turns out, but an expert has now demonstrated that their paper came from the very same pad.

The Tate gallery suggested I use this paper expert, Peter Bower,’ Cornwell says. ‘I think they thought Peter would come in and show what nonsense this all was and they didn’t realise it was going to do the opposite. The paper stuff is just incredible. Peter examined three Sickert letters and two of the watermarked Ripper letters, and those five sheets of paper came from a batch run of only 24 that could have ever been made. And the thing that’s really creepy about it is the three Sickert letters were written on his mother’s stationery. So he was writing Ripper letters on his mother’s stationery. Now that’s a bit Freudian, isn’t it?’

Cornwell’s eyes are fired with conviction. I have a stab of doubt. What if Sickert wrote the Ripper letters but didn’t do the murders?

‘It’s a good question. I personally don’t think so,’ she says calmly. ‘But that’s where I have my 5 per cent rule. I think you have to hold out the 5 per cent doubt though I’m 95 per cent sure he did it. I mean Sickert never stopped talking about this his entire life.’

I think I agree with her about the 5% rule – only I’d say 5% that Sickert was the Ripper, and 95% chance that he was simply the author of the Ripper letters. We know, for example, that many people obsess over these cases, and that does not make them the guilty party. Cornwell’s obsession doesn’t make her the Ripper reborn, or any kind of serial killer, except in fiction. The writer of the Yorkshire Ripper letters was not the Yorkshire Ripper. Wearside Jack, as John Samuel Humble was nicknamed, sent three letters and left an audio message which derailed the investigation. False confessions to horrific crimes are not rare.

Why do we have so many theories about Jack the Ripper? It’s a question which still intrigues me, much more than question of his actual identity.

In any case, it looks like Cornwell’s new evidence about the letters derails the idea that journalist Francis Craig was the writer of the letters, and the killer – which I wrote about in my first post about Jack, here. It seems unlikely that Craig had access to Sickert’s mother’s stationery – although that would be twisty enough to find its way into a Scarpetta story.

It must surely be all bound up with why we love mystery stories so much. We (not just crime fiction readers and writers, but especially us, perhaps) don’t like not knowing not only who done it, but why.  That second part, the why of it all, is why we love the detail that Sickert was using his mother’s stationery. Not just a Freudian aha! moment – but who didn’t immediately think of Psycho? Perhaps it was just me whose mind immediately served up the rocking chair scene. Who and why are the questions that drive so many of the psychological thrillers we love.

As I put it in my second Ripper post,

So crime fiction – and true crime like Truman Capote, Janet Malcolm, Ann Rule and the Ripper books, even the addictive podcast Serial – are all ways of trying to get to the truth of human behaviour. It’s a survival mechanism. If our trust in other people is undermined in early life, understanding people becomes a driving necessity. From the earliest myths, through folk and fairy tales, epic poetry and gothic novels, revenge tragedies and morality plays, penny dreadfuls and religious tracts – perhaps that’s what all storytelling is about.

Of course, there aren’t many serial killers out there – the danger is really far closer to home. Every week two women in the UK are killed by partners and ex partners. Children are at more risk from their own families than from anyone else. These truths are hard to face.

No wonder Cornwell can’t stop hunting the Ripper.

I certainly think it’s one of the reasons I’m addicted to crime fiction.

What do you think?



Spectator interview

Wikipedia on Wearside Jack

My earliest post here on The Ripper

My second post on The Ripper

(No, really, I’m not obsessed).