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. 

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

Extract | The Good Teacher by Rachel Sargeant

Category: Extract

 

From the Top Ten Kindle bestselling author of The Perfect Neighbours, comes this riveting thriller about a murdered school teacher. The Good Teacher is out now in ebook! Here’s an exclusive peek at Chapter One…

 

***

Her back aches like hell. She tries for the hundredth time to read her watch but can’t see her wrist, no matter how far she cranes her neck. The hot metal handcuffs cut into her arm and send pain searing up to her shoulder. It might be broken, but fractures are worse than this; she knows that. Her body has taken a pummelling but the bruises will heal.

She shifts her buttocks, peeling the thick pyjama trousers from her clammy thighs. She’s in the lounge on a kitchen chair, old with paint splatters, the remnants of previous decorating forays. White speckles from several ceilings, large splodges of powder-blue bathroom sheen, and buttercup, pink and cherry from the nursery project. Happy days long gone. She’s never had to sit for so long in this chair. She usually perches on its hard edge long enough to force down a couple of cream crackers and a cup of camomile tea. Even the leisurely Sunday breakfasts are a thing of the past.

Reg Kenny weaves across the lane, taking care not to stray off the tarmac. Not that it would matter much – although the thick grass verge is soaked in dew, the ground below is rock hard. As he pedals, he feels sweat on his forehead. It’s going to be another scorcher. Doreen doesn’t know what she’s missing and he isn’t going to tell her. His early morning cycle rides are his only escape from the infernal woman. And besides he has his little detour ahead of him. He pedals faster at the thought of what lies ahead and breathes harder, taking in the country freshness.

The chance to freewheel downhill fuels his good humour. The riotous hedgerows rushing by, the morning birds in full voice, the warm air on his face. And the sun glinting through the trees that line the road – his road – through Martle Top, the one little bit of countryside between Penbury and the motorway. The car parked in the lay-by annoyed him earlier. The thoughtlessness of some people: radio blaring, passenger door wide open, driver probably stopped for a pee in the ditch. Just as well Reg didn’t see him. He’d have given him a piece of his mind. Still, he’s nearly there now. His stomach flutters and there’s a delicious prickle through his shoulders. He’s like this every time. The first few days he thought it was guilt, but he knows now it’s the thrill of anticipation.

Raging thirst replaces the hunger pangs. Her forehead throbs and it’s hard to swallow. She tries not to panic.

If only the curtains were open a crack, the postman might have spotted her through the window and called the police. After the sharp thwack of the letterbox, she heard his “This Is Me” whistling fade away down the gravel path. She tried to call out but, with the tape over her mouth, she only managed a pathetic humming sound that had no hope of reaching the man chirping off into the warm June morning. She hates those curtains now, garish with the broad daylight behind them. Their peach colour makes the room loud and stuffy, hurting her eyes and aggravating her headache. A clashing backdrop for the vase of dark red roses on the table, their pungent perfume tainting what precious clean air she has left. A familiar wave of nausea threatens, but she fights it off.

Reg chains his bike to the railings and walks briskly into the Little Chef. Why should he feel guilty?

Doreen’s fault. She shouldn’t have withdrawn her services. A grown man has his needs.

The chain digs into her ribcage whenever she arches her back, forcing her to slump into the seat. The carriage clock ticks behind her. Oh for a clock that chimes. At least she’d be able to count off the hours. She daren’t rock round to face the mantelpiece. If she topples over, she’ll bang her already-raw face into the hard floor. And it isn’t just herself to think about. She has to keep pain to a minimum; she might have to wait all day.

To deaden the ache in her neck, she rests her heavy arms on the chair and moves her knees apart, easing the pressure on the handcuffs around her ankles. But now it’s even harder to hold her bladder, so she squeezes her legs together again. If she wants to avoid wetting herself, she’ll have to accept the intermittent burning sensation up her calves.

Reg swings his leg over the saddle and sets off home replete. He deserved his cooked breakfast. That puny porridge Doreen serves up since he retired wouldn’t keep a toddler fed.

He gets off his bike again. The hill’s getting steeper. He used to be able to cycle up it. Better not tell Doreen. She’ll say he’s past it. Men of his age can’t expect to do so much. Stupid woman.

It’s just gone five past eight on Mids FM and on the line now is Carole in Briggham. Hi, Carole,” a radio shouts, polluting Reg’s country air. That bloody car in the lay-by is still there. No driver or passenger about. What on earth are they playing at? A crude thought creeps into Reg’s mind and he smiles. He pushes the bike across the road, quickening his pace.

He peers through the open passenger door. Well, there’s no one at it on the back seat. Hardly surprising. That shrieking radio would put anyone off. Reg lays his bike in the long grass. They must be in the ditch or the field beyond. You’ve got to admire their stamina. They’ve been down there longer than it’s taken him to ravish his Olympic Breakfast with extra mushrooms. With the stealth of a marine commando, he moves towards the ditch. Perhaps he’ll share this one with Doreen. It might put her in the mood for some how’s your fath—

“Father God in Heaven,” he gasps and stands stock-still, the taste of bile mounting in his mouth. His eyes fix on the glint of metal and the shiny patch of red seeping through the grass. In the next instant, stomach heaving, he’s back on his bike, tackling the rest of the hill from the saddle.

The milkman came at about 6.30 a.m. – at least she assumes it was 6.30 a.m. because that’s when he always comes. His chinking of bottles is often the first sound she hears on waking. This morning, frozen by the enormity of her situation, she didn’t think to call out to him until she heard the clanking, whirring sounds of his aged milk float dying away as it left. Hers is the only house in the street that still has milk delivered.

The final spin of the washing machine behind the closed kitchen door filled the silence after that. Then time became vast and empty until the whistling postman. The mail usually arrives before 8 a.m. despite changes at the Post Office, so that must make it about 9 a.m. now.

There’s a distant crunching outside. More steps follow and grow louder as they trip their way up the gravel. It must be Linda. Of course, it’s nine o’clock. Linda and Dean will have dropped the children off at school and then come to pick her up, as arranged. She pictures Linda teetering up the path, her broad feet forced into tiny sandals.

In the background a car engine rumbles. She’s amazed that she can hear it above her hammering heart. Dean will be waiting in the car. She hears a light tapping on the front door glass. Linda’s false fingernails. She forms the words “Linda, help” at the back of her mouth, trying to force them through the heavy adhesive that clamps her jaws together.

“Gaby, are you in there?” Linda’s voice invades the house through the opened letterbox. “Are you going to let me in?”

With all her might, she gulps out one more “Help”. The sound reverberates in her ears and, for a moment, she thinks it’s reached the front door. The letterbox snaps shut and footsteps move around the house towards the lounge window. She rocks against the chains, causing two of the chair legs to lift and then slam down with a muffled thud on the carpet.

“Dean, she must have forgotten.” Linda’s voice is directed away from the house. “I’ve put their milk in the bushes otherwise it’ll be honking in this heat.” Linda’s jerky steps return past the front door and recede down the path, the sound of gravel scattering in their wake.

Gaby struggles to catch her breath as a car door closes and the car speeds away. Tears prick her eyes. Her best hope of rescue will be joining the Penbury ring road without her. Crying makes her head throb, but she weeps on. The fight flowing out of her.

Reg – ice-numb now despite the heat – tries to lean his bike against the potting shed but it slips, clattering to the ground. The noise brings Doreen to the back door.

“Where the heck have you been all this time?” She squints at him. “You look peaky, a bit like your porridge looked before I chucked it. I suppose you want me to get you something else now?”

“Whisky,” Reg gasps.

What time is it now? Exhaustion giving way to panic again. How long can she survive without a drink? It’s been hours and her lips feel like crumbling plaster. Gaby makes another effort to calm down by breathing in through her nose and letting the air slowly reach her lungs. She clutches at any passing thought to occupy her aching mind. The letters on the doormat. She likes getting letters, even if most are mailshots. Her thoughts wander to the postman. She blinks back tears again, regretting that she’s never really looked at him before and wondering whether there’ll ever be another chance.

A car pulls up outside the gate. The engine stops and a door slams. Heavy shoes trudge along the gravel accompanied by faint crackling voices like a radio. She breathes in sharply, preparing to hum out as before, but this time ready for disappointment.

“Yes, sarge. If there’s no reply, we’ll force entry,” a calm voice says on the other side of the front door.

Gaby’s breathing quickens and she can hardly believe her ears. She’s in some other world, unable to move. Seized by terror, suddenly afraid to end her familiar incarceration after so many hours. But then her survival instinct takes hold and she presses against the chains, rocking back and forth, willing herself closer to the window. After hearing three sharp knocks at the door, she crashes to the carpet. Shattering pain spreads across the side of her face. Everything numbs and darkness comes.

The Good Teacher is available on Kindle now for just 99p!