Sunday, March 07, 2021

Making the Most of Diverse Histories

By Fraser Massey
Most authors don’t start out as writers. They serve time in other careers first. But what’s the most useful professional background for a crime novelist? Could it be the law? Two of Britain’s most successful recent debutante crime novelists, both of whom are now making waves in the United States, too—Abigail Dean and Nadine Matheson—are London-based lawyers. They met last week before a virtual audience on Facebook. (You can enjoy the full video here.)

Dean has hit the New York Times bestsellers chart on one side of the Atlantic and the Sunday Times list on the other with her harrowing psychological thriller, Girl A (published by Viking [U.S.] and HarperCollins [UK]), about abuse and survival. But during her appearance as part of First Monday Crime, a regular British forum for fans of fiction with a bloodthirsty edge, she said that having made a substantial mark in one career was no help in giving her the self-confidence to expect she could do as well in another.

“I do remember … having a lot of self-doubt,” Dean confided to viewers during that hour-long Zoom presentation. “I needed a bit of a cheerleader. So I gave the first few chapters to my husband, who loves reading. … His first kind of comment was sort of a bit of like happy disbelief. ‘It’s like a real book that you would buy in a shop.’ I think that was the moment which, although it was a questionable compliment, looking back it was a much-needed boost.”

If the law had not helped Dean believe she could become a fiction writer, it at least gave her useful background when it came to creating Girl A’s central protagonist, New York lawyer Lex Gracie.

Matheson, whose serial-killer police procedural, The Jigsaw Man (published by Hanover Square Press in the States on March 16, and already available in the UK from HQ), has drawn more than its fair share of plaudits, took a different approach to Dean. “I didn’t want to write about a lawyer,” she said. “I do [lawyer stuff] every day.” Instead, she used her professional knowledge to write about crime from a police perspective. “I’m a solicitor. I specialize in crime, so I know how a police investigation works. I know what it’s like to deal with defendants and witnesses. … I have that background, so hopefully I’ve been able to put authenticity into the book.”

Her one regret was having a significant gap in her personal background of working with criminals. “I’ve never, to my knowledge,” she explained, “represented a serial killer, but—and this sounds really sick—I would have liked to. Just to experience it.”

Even so, critics have been impressed with how she’s pieced together her serial killer the Jigsaw Man. American crime-fictionist J.T. Ellison (All the Pretty Girls, Her Dark Lies), a major champion of Matheson’s novel, has described its author as “the heir apparent to Mo Hayder and Thomas Harris.” It’s a view echoed by critic Geoffrey Wansell in his critique of the novel for Britain’s Daily Mail, which described The Jigsaw Man as having “chilling echoes of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.”

“I’m still stunned by [the comparison],” said Matheson. “That’s like the pinnacle [of praise]. I read Silence of the Lambs when I was 14. I’ve read Mo Hayder. To have this book, that I didn’t think was that great when I wrote it, to have it compared to Harris and Hayder—that’s like the icing on the cake, I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”

Joining Dean and Matheson on this month’s First Monday Crime panel were two other first-time storytellers: Briton Tim Glister, and Femi Kayode, an exciting new name in Nigerian noir.

Glister’s novel, Red Corona (Point Blank UK), is a Cold War-era espionage thriller. These days he’s an advertising executive, but to make himself think like a writer, Glister drew on his previous participation in the publishing industry. “I worked [as a bookseller] in [the UK bookstore chain] Waterstones and I was a literary agent, briefly,” he recalled. “What that taught me was what readers want, [and] what shoppers want. … I had quite a good practical side of reading [my novel] as an author and a writer, and then thinking of it in a slightly more editorial way … with the mindset that you need to absolutely adore [what you’ve written], but so do other people.”

Kayode trained as a clinical psychologist, a profession shared by the protagonist in his atmospheric mystery, Lightseekers (Mulholland [U.S.], Raven [UK]). That new novel’s story is based on a horrific true-life incidence of mob violence in Nigeria back in 2012, during which residents of a provincial village murdered a group of students by hanging burning tires around their necks. “From the very first time I heard about the original crime …,” Kayode told listeners, “I thought about it as a novel. I always wanted to explore why. Why would people do this?” Kayode was finally able to pen his book in England, while he was studying creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

Watchers were led to believe, over the course of this First Monday discussion, that these four nascent novelists can look forward to promising futures. Dean’s Girl A is already slated to become a limited TV series in the States, directed and executive produced by Johan Renck, the Swedish, Emmy Award-winning director of 2019’s Chernobyl. Kayode and Matheson both confirmed during the session that their representatives had sold the screen rights to their novels as well, though they supplied no details.

Meanwhile, Glister joked that the name of his book, Red Corona—with its unintended pandemic allusions—might be putting off TV executives from bidding on its adaptation. In reality, of course, the corona of Glister’s title has nothing to do with the deadly coronavirus that has killed so many people worldwide over the last year; instead, it refers to a fictitious surveillance satellite project. “A year and a half ago [when I wrote the book],” he said, with a sigh, “[corona] was my new exciting word which no one knew. And then things changed.”

First Monday Crime, a monthly discussion series founded in April 2016 and originally held in London before a live audience, has been broadcast via Facebook ever since Great Britain went into pandemic lockdown early last year. It’s scheduled to return on April 12. That’s actually the second Monday of next month, as this year April 5 will be a public holiday—Easter Monday—in the UK.

1 comment:

R's Rue said...

This was interesting to read. Thank you.