Hazel McHaffie

Pandemic bonuses

I’m always on the lookout for new techniques, intriguing approaches, novel ways of hooking in readers. And a bonus of this time of pandemic is the wealth of virtual literary opportunities on offer. Sheer luxury!

This weekend saw another MyVLF (a free global literary festival connecting readers with authors), this time all about thrillers, and appropriately dubbed Shiverfest.

What a joy to listen to successful authors talking about inspiration and technique and the whole craft of writing. The buzz it gives me reminds me of how important to my personal mental well being all things related to writing and reading are … perhaps especially during this year when our normal activities have been so severely restricted and the future feels so tentative.

So what better extension of this experience than to turn to an undisputed leader of the thriller pack, queen of crime, Val McDermid, with an analytical eye, to see what nuggets are embedded in the novel that happens to be top of my tbr pile. It’s How the Dead Speak, and instantly I’m intrigued by the unusual technique she’s adopted. One of her most famous characters, Dr Tony Hill, clinical psychologist and erstwhile offender profiler, is by now in prison serving a four year sentence for murder. But he’s using the time to hammer out the first draft of a book about forensic psychology, called Reading Crimes. Progress is slow: he can only manage short bursts in the library of the prison on an ancient and battered laptop equipped with nothing more than the most basic software. What’s unusual is that McDermid inserts a brief extract from Tony’s manuscript at the beginning of each chapter – and there are 63 of them!

Each quote captures an aspect of forensic pathology or crime or profiling or psychological truths or mental illness or violence or the mind of a murderer or reading a crime scene or narcissism or … which is potentially significant in the plot of this particular book. Clever. It at once gives a sense of the dogged determination and pent up ongoing awareness of a psychologist surrounded by criminals with no official outlet for his skills, and reassures us that this author knows far more about her subject than we do. We’re in safe hands.

Tony’s closest professional associate was DCI Carol Jordan, who, in the wake of the murder that put him in prison, has resigned from the police force, and begun to address her PTSD and alcohol addiction. Here she is being tempted to dip a toe back into her former life. The plot line relates to the discovery of over 30 skeletons of young girls buried in the grounds of a defunct convent, evidence of multiple fractures raising suspicions of serious abuse. When a number of bodies of murdered young men are subsequently unearthed elsewhere in the same grounds, the race is on to find the opportunist serial killer responsible, and put right a grave miscarriage of justice.

From an analytical point of view I was intrigued by the potential of these short extracts from Tony’s manuscript; offering insights into both the theoretical underpinnings of crime, and who might have been responsible for so many deaths in or near a convent. In reality, however, for me, the effort of trying to understand the significance and relate it to the plot, in fact detracted from the pace and pull of the story. My analytical spectacles were obscuring the story. But a valuable lesson learned nonetheless. And a useful exercise in the art of writing.

, , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.