Author Interview | Claire Kendal on I Spy

Category: Interview

I Spy cleverly mixes elements of the psychological thriller with elements of the spy novel. What made you want to join those two genres together, and how difficult was it?

The novel’s shout line is You don’t see me, but I see you. I think this really plays up the natural affinities between domestic noir and the spy thriller. These days, we all have the capacity to be spies, and we are all spied upon. There are so many levels of spying. Domestic, national, international. These levels are more fluid than we imagine. We are more involved in these processes and exchanges than we realise.

Where did the story come from?

So many things go into making a novel. But one of the key things that caught my attention happened while I was working on my previous book, The Second Sister. I became very interested in the male undercover detectives who became ‘deep swimmers’. That’s the term for people who go so profoundly undercover they stay for long periods in their fake lives to spy on people. These men infiltrated activist groups, some of them forming long-term relationships with female members and even having children with them.

I wondered what the story would look like if the agent were a woman, and if it were the agent herself who became pregnant, rather than the target. And I kept replaying that question would-be spies are always asked. How far would you go to save your country, to save someone you love, to save your own life? Holly, my heroine, is faced with this question.

 

How much of I Spy is grounded in reality?

First off, with I Spy I wanted to explore that very intimate kind of spying. Most of us can easily get hold of the tools of a spy. We walk around with phones, with location sharing, with portable devices that can photograph and record. So there is this very domestic, very personal spying that lovers have the capability of doing to each other (and parents to their children – or the reverse!).

I Spy also deals with coercive control, a very domestic problem, and there seems to me to be a confluence between coercive control and spying. Holly is increasingly certain her partner, Zac, is spying on her. His response is to gaslight her, to tell her she is imagining it. Plus, there is an additional element that increases her vulnerability – pregnancy. This intensifies the situation she is in, her susceptibility to having her sanity questioned. Zac exploits that cliché about how it must be your hormones making you crazy. There are so many ways that being pregnant makes everything more dangerous for Holly.

Second, there is the more general sense in which all of us are spied on, given the explosion of intrusive technologies that monitor millions of people and can be used not just by government agencies but by private companies. So far, these technologies are not adequately regulated and safeguarded, and the balance between public protection and privacy has not been properly debated. CCTV is everywhere, and we now have facial recognition too. Every phone call we make is logged. Every document we download, every ‘Buy Now’ button we hit, every email we send – all of these are scanned for key words, so that our movements can be tracked in real time, without our permission. Think Edward Snowden. Think WikiLeaks. Many of our employers are at it too.

Third and finally, there is the real espionage sanctioned by our governments and enacted by our intelligence services.

I Spy weaves these different levels of surveillance together, so that they all become extra-potent. Out of this blend came an ending that I hope readers will find powerful and thought-provoking. I think it may be the best one I’ve ever done in a novel. In any case, it’s a twist that punched me in the stomach when I realised it had to happen.

Did you do a lot of research in order to write this novel, particularly for the spy elements?

MI5 and GCHQ tend to be a little shy of sharing their secrets! In all seriousness, though, you just have to make stuff up, which thankfully is what novelists are supposed to do. But you try everything you can to research what information is available, read first-hand accounts by agents, watch documentaries about the history of the intelligences services, read spy novels, sit in the public gallery of criminal trials, engage with the testimonies of victims, talk to professionals, visit the locations you are writing about…

One of my favourite research tools was the quizzes you can find on our intelligence services’ websites. I took them all, and some American ones too. To my astonishment, I discovered that I am ‘MI5-Ready’. Of course, I was super-proud, so I told my husband and he said, ‘That’s the result everybody gets when they take those tests’. He is MI5-ready too, so perhaps he is right. Here are some of their quizzes, so go ahead and see for yourself… https://www.mi5.gov.uk/careers/quizzes

In some ways, though, my job was made easier because my real interest was in what an ordinary person might do if they were approached to act as an agent, or what the Americans call a ‘human asset’. In Holly’s case, she is asked to spy on her partner. It’s not an unheard-of event. What tools and strategies would a civilian use to do this? I think that is the consistent thing in my novels – the idea of someone like you or me in an extraordinary situation, and in extremity. Holly isn’t in a James Bond film with an endless supply of bespoke gadgets.

And, as I said, she is pregnant. I spent a lot of time thinking about what that would look like, because I haven’t come across many pregnant spies in novels. I did a lot of research into some of the medical conditions that affect her. As a novelist, I try very seriously to be accurate about all the physical, social and psychological factors that shape my characters. I went to a symposium at the Royal College of Medicine that was informative, moving and inspiring. Because Holly works in a hospital as a ward clerk, I needed also to find out lots of details about that job.

I Spy has two timelines that gradually converge. How difficult was it to keep all of the timings straight when you were writing?

During the early drafts, I made elaborate notes. I had to know Holly’s age, to the day, in every chapter, as well as the ages of the other characters. I needed to be mindful of the seasons, the kind of clothes characters would be wearing, the weather, what flowers were growing, what birds were around, the political and social and cultural events that were current at any given moment. In the ‘Then’ timeline Holly is pregnant, so I was thinking all the time about exactly how many weeks into the pregnancy she was, and what would be happening to her body.

Working on these two timelines, ‘Then’ and ‘Now’, was exciting and hugely involving. I wanted each plotline to accelerate, gaining intensity as it went forward. My hope was that twisting them together would give them still more force. One thing I had to do was edit the ‘Then’ timeline completely in sequence, then do the same with ‘Now’. I needed to double check the coherence and escalation of each on its own to ensure they worked in unison. It’s a complex and gripping thing to do as a novelist.

Over the course of your novels you have created many memorable characters – do you have a favourite among them?

The truth is that I love them all. Except Rafe in The Book of You. I don’t love him.

I wonder if I should confess something about my first heroine, Clarissa? I feel protective of her, because some readers have been enraged that she isn’t stronger. A few went so far as to say they wanted to slap her. Clarissa is in no way equipped to deal with the man who stalks her. Few of us would be. She isn’t a superhero and that is why she is special to me. I feel defiant about Clarissa’s sense of helplessness, because I was determined in the novel to be as true as I could to the reality of what happens to victims of stalking. The victim-blaming that is central to the book’s plot has been replicated in some responses from readers. Even now, this upsets and disturbs me.

But perhaps it’s true to say that your most recent heroine is always your favourite. So right now I’m all about Holly and I Spy. I seriously adore her.

 

In all of your novels, has there ever been a scene that you found particularly difficult to write, and if so, why?

Yes, but I can’t say exactly what the scene was in I Spy without providing a huge spoiler. Readers will probably guess when they come to it. I was sobbing as I wrote that scene. My husband came into my study as I was typing. Some serious ugly-crying.  He was aghast, thinking that something terrible had happened in real life.

It’s odd, because I dealt with some incendiary material in The Book of You, but I had this strange detachment while writing it – the distress and shock at what I’d done didn’t come until after I finished. The Second Sister made me weep, but those tears were gentle. Nothing has ever hit me like I Spy. You might ask, Then why do it? The answer is that the events of a novel have an inevitable force and trajectory. You can’t evade them. You can’t run away from what you are doing, or distort it to make things easier. Novels are not literally ‘true’ but they have their own truth, I hope.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Writing a novel is like falling in love. When I’m immersed in one, it’s all I can think about, the only place I want to be, the only thing I want to be doing, and anything that tears me away from it is hard. Plus, it’s a kind of superpower. You’re making a world. You get to name the characters, to decide everything.

When you are not writing, how do you like to switch off and relax?

Not surprisingly, I read a lot. I sew when I have time, which these days is not often. I like country walks. I love Spain and the Spanish language, so I’m working to get to a level where I can properly speak and read and write it fluently. This is my current passion. I have a long way to go before I’m anywhere near doing these things, but I find the language endlessly fascinating and beautiful. It’s also an expression of my love for Europe, and my sense of my own European identity.

If you were being exiled to a desert island and could only take three books, what would they be?

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, one of the longest novels in the English language and still my favourite. Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems, the fantasy edition we need that contains everything and with no transcription errors. His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (I think it is fair to count them as one – because the volumes together tell the full story, but I will put them back if Desert Island Discs tells me to).

I Spy is out now in paperback. 

Author Post | Liam McIlvanney on The Quaker

Category: Uncategorized

To someone growing up in the West of Scotland in the 1970s and 80s, the words ‘Bible John’ had a special resonance. You might overhear your parents saying the name in guarded voices, or bigger kids in the playground discussing the murders, how three women got killed in the big bad city on the other side of the Fenwick Moor.

The Bible John murders took place in Glasgow in 1968 and 1969. There were three killings. In each case, the victim was picked up at the Barrowland Ballroom in the East End of the city, and then raped, strangled and dumped within a few hundred yards of her home. The three victims lived in different parts of the city: Battlefield on the South Side; out east in Bridgeton; Scotstoun in the West End.

There was no direct connection between the victims, though they did have much in common. They shared a physical type – petite and dark-haired. They all had young children. Two of them were separated or divorced from their husbands, and the third had a husband with the services in Germany. There was a queasy Presbyterian moralism in some of the commentary around these killings: what were these women doing out gallivanting when they had kiddies at home? As if there was some grim Calvinist karma at work in their deaths.

The killer was never caught, though the police knew a great deal about him, since the sister of the third victim spent an evening in his company. Bible John was tall, with fair or reddish hair worn unfashionably short. Well-spoken, he dressed in a brown, three-button suit with a chalkstripe and incongruous suede boots. He was scrupulously polite. He wore a regimental tie, a wristwatch with a thick leather strap. He had overlapping teeth. He ranted about ‘dens of iniquity’ and ‘women taken in adultery’. His cousin had recently scored a hole in one at golf.

The police blitzed these clues in the biggest investigation in the history of Scottish policing. They got nowhere. The man they sought had vanished, though he lived on as a legend, a bogey man, a ghost. I remember how the pictures of Bible John would surface from time to time in the Daily Record, like the sulky, blonde mugshot of Myra Hindley.

There was the identikit picture of a smart, half-smiling young man with thin lips and nice short hair, like a face on a Panini football sticker. And there was the quarter-profile artist’s impression of a man with kindly eyes and clean-shaven jaw, who looked like one of Mormons who sometimes came to our door in pairs.

Why was the Bible John case so resonant? Partly it was the fact that he was never caught. But it was also the idea that almost anyone could be Bible John. The guy standing next to you at the bar could be Bible John, the man who came to read your meter. This was also the period of large-scale redevelopment in Glasgow, when the slum tenements were coming down and people were being decanted to peripheral estates. In the tenements everyone knew everyone else. In the new schemes you had an indoor toilet and a washing machine but you didn’t know who your neighbor was. Your neighbour could be anyone. Your neighbour could be Bible John.

All this was part of the Bible John mythos, but what I remember most is just the name, how those two innocuous words chimed through my childhood. I was haunted by the name. How could a man with such a name be so bad? How could a name so blandly innocent carry such a charge of darkness?

When I got older and started writing crime novels I always knew I would come back to Bible John. Other people had written books that touched on the murders – notably Andrew O’Hagan in The Missing and Ian Rankin in Black and Blue – but I wanted to write a proper true-crime novel in the style of Gordon Burn or Eoin McNamee or David Peace.

I was conscious, however, that the children of the victims were still alive, and I felt uneasy about using their families’ suffering for a crime novel. My breakthrough came when I was pondering the trio of murders and realized that I could invent a fictional fourth killing and focus my story on that. In this way, I could draw on the cultural resonance of the first three murders without dwelling too pruriently on the details.

Then I thought: why stop there? Why not go further? Why not change the names of the victims, and even that of the killer? And so, Bible John became the Quaker. Anyone familiar with the history would recognise that the novel was based on the Bible John case, but I would be free to invent my own version of the story and solve the case in my own way. So that’s what I did. I also invented a cop, DI Duncan McCormack, whose own background – Highland, Catholic, gay – sets him at a tangent to many of his colleagues.

But there was one other ethical dilemma that confronted me. In my previous two novels, the murder victims were male. In this one, I had the familiar, problematical crime fiction scenario in which the passive, violated female body is avenged by the active agency of the male detective.

To some extent, this was enforced by the nature of the real-life material, but it still made me uncomfortable. So I did what Alice Sebold does in The Lovely Bones, Rosetta Allan in Purgatory, and Scott Blackwood in See How Small: I introduced the perspective of the murdered women. Each of the Quaker’s victims narrates a chapter of the novel.

The Quaker is the story I’ve wanted to write since I was a boy growing up in Ayrshire; I hope you enjoy reading it.

-Liam McIlvanney

 

The Quaker is out now in paperback. 

Extract | Don’t Turn Around by Amanda Brooke

Category: Extract

 

To celebrate the publication of Amanda Brooke’s page-turning thriller, Don’t Turn Around, here is an exclusive sneak peek at the opening chapter!

 

Prologue

The Confession

The rhythmic slap of my ballet shoes against the linoleum-covered steps echoes down the stairwell. As my pace slows, my head droops and my gaze falls onto the worn and familiar treads that lead to the seventh floor and home. I know each and every scuff mark, every chip of paint, and even the crumpled tissues and sweet wrappers discarded by my thoughtless neighbours are familiar to me. Unlike my apartment block’s gleaming city-centre exterior, its spine has an air of abandonment. The stairwell is rarely used and less frequently cleaned, and there have been times when I’ve taken it upon myself to return with rubber gloves and a bin bag, but no more. Believe me, I’ve tried, but nothing I do ever makes a difference.

My legs are trembling by the time I reach my floor and I take a moment to catch my breath. Drawn to the window with its view of the Liverpool waterfront, I follow the line of docks until they’re rudely interrupted by the modern edifice of a thirteen-storey office block that sits awkwardly between Canning Dock and the Pier Head. This is Mann Island, and although it hasn’t been an island for centuries, the place where I work certainly looks stranded next to the iconic outlines of the Port of Liverpool, Cunard and Liver Buildings. The Three Graces had been basking in the afterglow of a crisp autumn day when I’d set off on the short trek home along the Strand, but the world has darkened since, and the Graces have been reduced to silhouettes, pockmarked with yellow, fluorescent lights. As I step back from the window, my eyes refocus and I catch my reflection.

The apparition floating beyond the sheet of glass is weighed down by the heavy houndstooth woollen jacket hanging off her shoulders. Her round face is framed by straggly mouse-brown hair and a severe fringe that’s become frayed from her exertions. Her complexion is pale against the starless night and there’s no spark in her eyes. The fight has left her.

I don’t recognise this woman captured by the failing light, or perhaps I do. There’s something about her that reminds me of Meg. My cousin’s hair was a similar shade although you would describe hers as golden, and she never hid behind a fringe. Meg was bold, and yet the hopelessness in the face that stares back at me immediately brings her to mind.

I retreat to the exit door only to stop when I hear a noise. The soft squeak of a rubber sole on linoleum came from the floor above, or I think it did. The world falls silent again and I’m about to dismiss the crawling sensation that I’m being watched when—

‘Hello, Jen.’

Instinctively, I grab the safety bar but I don’t open the door because I’ve already recognised the deep voice that sent a jolt of terror down my spine. The fact that he’s here shouldn’t surprise me, and I know it won’t matter if I run away, or stand and fight. He’s already won.

I turn my head slowly but he stops me.

‘Don’t turn around.’

Keeping my head to the side, I stare at the window with its mirror image of the landing behind me. No figure appears from the shadows, no hand reaches out to wrap around my neck.

‘What is this? Don’t you have the guts to face me?’ I ask, my voice surprisingly calm.

There’s a pause and when he replies, he sounds closer. ‘If I thought it was going to be easy, we would have had this conversation ten years ago.’

‘This conversation?’ I ask. ‘If it’s a confession you’re planning, I’m not the one you should be talking to. It’s Meg’s parents who deserve answers.’

‘Ruth and Geoff don’t need to hear what I have to say.’

‘I suppose you’re going to tell me you’ve been protecting them all these years.’

‘Not only them.’

My laugh catches in my dry throat. ‘Oh, I see. You’ve been protecting me too.’

‘If Meg had wanted you to know everything, she’d have told you everything.’

‘Maybe she tried,’ I reply as I picture a torn scrap of yellow lined paper. Meg’s suicide note, or at least a remnant of it.

‘No, she didn’t,’ he says with finality. ‘Christ, Jen, didn’t you know her at all?’

‘She was my best friend. Of course I knew her!’ I tell him, raising my voice to camouflage the doubt.

‘Not like I did,’ he says in a whisper.

A door swings open three flights down and shrieks of laughter ricochet off the walls as a group of raucous, and possibly drunken friends race to the ground floor. Their giddiness reminds me of times lost, but I can’t trust my memories. How many of Meg’s smiles were a disguise for unfathomable pain?

When another door slams shut and stillness returns, I hear the whisper of stealthy footfalls. I scan the reflection of the empty landing and glimpse movement on the small section of the stairs that are visible to me. I spy a pair of black boots and legs clad in dark jeans. I twist my body towards him.

‘I said, don’t turn around.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I can’t . . .’ He curses under his breath. ‘I won’t do this if you’re looking at me.’

 

Don’t Turn Around is out now in paperback! Continue reading here