Hazel McHaffie

Killing Me Gently

Nothing new under the sun

Big sigh!

Publishing anything – a letter/article in a newspaper, a research paper, a novel – is always subject to time. Will someone else pip me to the post? Will I appear to be a plagiarist rather than an original thinker? Two incidents have stirred that old anxiety for me recently.

It’s a while since I read a novel which explores an ethical issue in my own sphere of interest, so I was intrigued by Susan Lewis’ 2017 book, Hiding in Plain Sight, especially when I kept reading and found her story overlaps with no less than three of my own novels.

* One of her principal characters is Penny Lawrence who led a disturbed childhood before running away aged 14. In Over my Dead Body (2013), I tried to get inside the mind of a child who struggles to relate to her family, and a mother who agonises over her own response to her child.
* Penny Lawrence gets involved in the world of selling babies to infertile couples. I asked a lot of what-if questions about surrogate pregnancy in Double Trouble (2005).
* When Penny Lawrence meets up with her mother and sister almost thirty years later, all three are forced to face the fractures in their family lives foursquare. In my current novel, Killing me Gently, I’m delving into the effect parents’ and children’s behaviour and emotions can have on family cohesion and integrity.

And curiously one of the titles I considered for my book was Killing in Plain Sight.

But there the similarities end. Susan Lewis’ take on these issues, her writing style, her whole approach, are completely different from mine. Character and plot tend to be far darker, the psyche more tortured, the secret lives more sinister. She’s quick to reassure us that her books are not intended to leave us feeling frightened or miserable but they do dabble in disturbing and sensitive subjects – in this case family tragedy and mental illness. I too deal with sensitive and troubling issues, I have even been known to end on a sad note, but I do aim to have redeeming features in my characters, and to leave lots of breathing space for the reader to form his/her own opinion on the rights and wrongs of what happens.

There’s ample room for both of us to be writing on these issues, I think.

So hopefully this same maxim will apply in the case of the new Sunday evening drama, The Cry, which started this week on BBC1. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the trailers started just after I finished my latest edit of Killing me Gently. Difficult to predict the degree of overlap at the moment but there are uncanny similarities.

I’ve never seen so many flash-backs and flash-forwards before, but we know this is about a young mum (played by Jenna Coleman aka Queen Victoria!) struggling with a fractious baby who vanishes mysteriously, and now the mum’s on trial for something baby-related. The series will be finished before my book comes out, so if push comes to shove I can always tweak my own plot if necessary, but of course, I devoutly hope it won’t be. Months, if not years, of blood, sweat and tears have gone into creating and realising this psychological thriller, getting it balanced, making the point.

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To act or not to act

Remember last week I mentioned the cases of child abuse or mistreatment that go to court? That got me thinking.

I’ve been creeping uncomfortably close to this area in my current novel, Killing me Gently – the delicate relationship being built up in the early weeks and months following the birth of a new baby and mysterious things happening which perplex the professionals responsible for ensuring everyone’s safety. We know that some children can be very difficult to love; some appear to reject overtures of maternal affection; some parents struggle to bond with their child for assorted reasons; some parents actually harm and even kill their children. Cruelty and rejection can come in many guises (as I’ve had brought home to me recently in the experiences foster carer Cathy Glass recounts), but so sensitive and nuanced is this whole topic that primary care teams and social services can be unsure of how best to support such families, when to intervene, when indeed to remove the child from the biological family.

Perhaps it was this preoccupation in my writing life that reminded me of a recent news report that I filed away for reference purposes. At the beginning of August a serious case review found that professionals had missed a series of opportunities to save the life of a little girl, Elsie Scully-Hicks, in Cardiff. Pause for a moment and just look at that gorgeous little smiling face … And then take in the fact that this precious life was snuffed out before she even saw her second birthday.

Elsie had been placed with fitness instructor, Matthew Scully-Hicks, and his husband, Craig, at the age of 10 months, and following due process, formally adopted by them just two weeks before her death aged 18 months. The couple were described as well educated and articulate, and highly regarded by each of the involved agencies as good positive parents. They’d already successfully adopted an older child. Indeed, such was their standing that a catalogue of significant bruises and fractures were dismissed as normal childhood accidents (as Elsie’s adopted father alleged). There was indeed a conspicuous lack of professional curiosity about each of her many injuries.

In reality the stay-at-home dad was struggling with her care – he described her as ‘Satan in a babygro’. And when she was just 18 months old, he shook her so violently before throwing her to the floor, that he killed her. Last year he was jailed for life after being convicted of murder at Cardiff Crown Court.

The agencies concerned have promised to learn lessons from this review, but of course, nothing can bring little Elsie back. No one involved in this case will ever forget her. I rather suspect some professionals will never forgive themselves. I shudder to think what it’s like to live with these weighty responsibilities; just getting inside the skin of health visitors and social workers grappling with such judgements in my fictional world is more than enough for me – and I know the outcome! Pause for a moment and think of all those courageous people engaged in making these momentous decisions every day. And living with the consequences. I salute them.

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Bingo!

It’s some time since I could give you concrete evidence of progress with the current novel: Killing Me Gently, but this week marks a major MAJOR milestone.

4.15am on Saturday morning
I’m up and onto the computer.

Peace reigns; the brain is whirling, the fingers flying.

———————____————–_————

————__———————__-__________________———–

 

10am on Saturday morning
The last 3500 words are written … culminating in THE END.

First draft ………. COMPLETED! Wahey!

Phew!! And …breathe! More so with this one – a thriller – than most. It has all come together. Characters have dragged me off piste; events have taken me down unexpected paths; but we have all come through to a finale.

Of course, there are weeks and weeks of work still ahead, refining, editing, slashing, tightening. Increasing the pace, sharpening the dialogue, quirkifying the people, authenticating the detail. But that first draft is like a kiddie’s sandcastle. All the sand has been dug up, piled in one place, roughly in shape. It looks like a castle but the turrets and crests aren’t defined, the drawbridge is wont to collapse, the flag’s at half-mast. Now the real artistry can begin, but hopefully there’ll be no more scavenging, no more turning stones to see what’s underneath.

Another task still to come is to make contact with professionals – social workers, health visitors, GPs, paediatricians, psychiatrists. To present scenarios from the book to them; seeking their expertise as to plausibility and accuracy. If X does this and this, what are the implications for M and R and P? What would happen next in real life? Is my scenario possible? That’s a very exciting stage. Discussing the characters with other people makes them even more real.

And the title …? I’m veering towards Killing me Kindly … or perhaps …?? Everything’s up in the air. But I feel liberated. I have space to breathe. Space to stroll on the real sand, maybe even dig in it with grandchildren!

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State of Wonder

It’s hard to catalogue my progress with writing Killing me Gently without betraying its secrets, but safe to say it’s almost writing itself these days. I’m poised on a knife edge, living the tension, peering over the cliff edge, fearing the worst. In a perpetual state of wonder at the way the brain works, unravelling a stream of words and ideas that other brains will understand and react to, each in their own idiosyncratic way.

Ann Patchett‘s State of Wonder has inspired me to constantly revisit my own prose and try to make it sing like hers. The story is remarkable enough – reading rather like a PhD student expanding her research into fertility and malaria in the Brazilian jungle to inform a novel – but the way it’s written is the most striking thing for me. Enviably beautiful.

Dr Annick Swenson is an eccentric scientist who, for decades, has been studying one of the remotest tribes in the rain-forest. The pharmaceutical company who sponsor her are naturally keen to get progress reports on the drug she’s meant to be developing, but she not only keeps her work shrouded in mystery, she sets up an elaborate ring of protection against being found herself. A mild-mannered lab researcher, Dr Anders Eckman is sent out to investigate but all that returns is a curt letter from Dr Swenson saying that he has died of a fever, his body taken into the jungle by the Lakashi people and given a Christian burial. And no, she didn’t witness this herself.

Dr Marina Singh – Anders’ colleague and Dr Swenson’s former student – is sent out to retrace his steps and bring back more details for his grieving widow and three young sons. It’s a heart stopping journey into the dark heart of an unknown place, all her possessions being lost on the way, and no assurance of any answers. But what she finds is so much more terrifying than anything she anticipated: naturally occurring drugs that blow her mind, a tribe whose female fertility reaches into the seventies (the mind boggles!), a people immune to malaria, a scientist whose dedication to knowledge takes her way beyond the accepted limits of ethical practice, ancient rituals and old hostilities, and a completely different version of events surrounding her friend and colleague Anders. She is challenged beyond her worst nightmares … battling with a giant anaconda strangling a small deaf boy; resurrecting old medical skills; choosing between one human friend’s wellbeing and that of another; weighing up her chances of happiness against a new set of values; setting humanity against science; deciding just how much of the truth can ever be told.

And Patchett weaves a devilishy intriguing scientific plot (which alone must have taken months of painstaking research), through a maze of profound philosophical notions and disturbing ethical arguments, without missing a beat in the hearts of a cast of fabulously colourful characters, and maintaining a wonderfully fluid linguistic style that carries something of the rhythms of the jungle. At first you feel the steady pulsing of masterly prose, your feet firmly on the ground. You stand uncertainly for a short hiatus listening for the tom-toms, wondering where she will take you, if the story will indeed take you anywhere. Then the drumbeat changes, gathering a momentum and power that builds up tension, twists and turns like a mighty river sweeping through tangled undergrowth in uncharted territory. It winds itself around you feverishly, like the lethal coils of a snake, thrashing this way and that, constricting your breathing, until you reach the unexpected and emotional crescendo of the final scene.

A fascinating book. I’m not surprised it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

 

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Metaphors and parallels and flying needles

Wow! One in the eye for the sniffy literary snobs who look down their noses at crime fiction and psychological thrillers, eh?! In the main BBC news just yesterday morning, it was reported that such novels are more popular than any other genre for the first time. Why? Apparently TV dramatic adaptations have had a major influence, but some commentators say that crime stories ‘humanise’ stressful situations, the kind of issues that trouble people in today’s perplexing and turbulent climate. They’re looking for ‘truth, justice and redemption’, and books help to provide all three. Hopefully my own current novel will contribute to this reservoir of wisdom and understanding.

The novel itself? Well, it’s positively galloping along, and I think it’s the stronger for not preoccupying every waking moment – a deliberate strategy. I’m balancing the writing with various other activities, and I want to use this blog to tell you about just one of these pursuits because it’s not only a great stress-reducer, but it’s also curiously similar to the thriller-writing process.

Almost twenty years ago I had to go to the Shetland Islands to carry out interviews with bereaved parents as part of a major research study I was undertaking. In my free time I had the amazing experience of visiting a building that housed a huge array of exquisite fair isle garments made by a group of local knitters using natural wools and dyes from the islands. Fabulous. It was like an Aladdin’s Cave to a lifelong knitter like me. I was so impressed by their work that I commissioned a couple of articles to be made to my specific requirements. They remain prized possessions, and as good as the day they were purchased.

In a moment of ambitious zeal, I also bought a couple of books of patterns and the Shetland wool to make two garments myself. One I made soon after that trip. It took me months and months to complete!

The other one I’ve just started this week; using fifteen soft colours (with glorious evocative names like bracken and sphagnum and osprey and crowberry and mauve mist), in 2ply 100% Shetland wool.

Shetland knitting is different from any other kind. You knit in a complete circle, continuously, always working from the right side, to ensure tension is perfectly even and you can check the complicated patterns as you go. This creates a tube, which you then cut up through (half way between eight stitches which form a special edge called the steek) to make the holes which allow you to add sleeves, neckbands, button borders, etc. It’s nerve wracking putting scissors to the finished work that you’ve slaved over for months, let me tell you! I had nightmares the first time, fully expecting my entire garment to unravel instantly.

So why am I telling you this? Because creating this cardigan is remarkably like the process of writing my thriller. First I needed a pattern for the finished product, carefully worked out and charted – in the case of the jacket, 70 lines long, divided into five different bands; for the novel, something like 60 sections long, divided into chapters, three different points of view.

On the outside what you see is the smooth finish, the clear pattern, logical and lovely to behold. The colours/narrative threads must complement each other, be perfectly balanced, light and shade, working harmoniously together to form a single whole entity. The finished product must be satisfying and pleasing to the senses.

But behind the scenes are the workings; all the threads must be kept taut and separate, no tangling, no confusion, no nasty knots or uneven breaks. Invisible to other people but the hallmarks of a sound piece of work.

No one else will ever know the hours and hours of painstaking work that went into the making of the final product, the anxious moments, the corrections, the endless checking. Both cardigan and book will hopefully look professional and effortless, desirable commodities.

And joy of joys I’ve been able to let my brain work on the two stories I’m currently writing while my fingers worked on the knitting. Efficient or what? The ideas and pattern for Killing me Gently are entirely my own; I’m grateful to the multi-talented Alice Starmore for the inspiration behind my Shetland cardigan.

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Breathing space

I’m a firm believer in the idea that readers are active collaborators in the creative process started by the author. But when a literary agent first told me my early manuscript didn’t provide enough breathing space for the said readers, I confess I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. I’ve a rather better idea of the concept now (I think!) but it’s an element in the writing process I constantly grapple with, never more so than now with my tenth novel.

Medical ethical dilemmas are by their very nature, triggers for debate. There are very few black-and-whites. My aim in using fiction to explore them, is to invite readers in, leave them to ask the questions, supply their own answers. What I – the author – think about the issues is irrelevant; my job is to allow them – the readers – to see the difficulties for themselves, feel the conflicts, become aware of perspectives and opinions they’ve maybe never considered before. If the characters are truly authentic and believable, they will speak for themselves, and as long as there is enough breathing space, the reader can get in there amongst them, watch, listen and feel for him/herself.

With this current domestic thriller, Killing Me Gently, I want to create suspense, even maybe terror, in the minds of readers. How is that done? By cataloguing horror or spectacle? Absolutely not. No, I have to somehow open the door to tap into their unconscious fears, give them elbow room/space to let their imaginations do the work.

And it’s meticulous work. Plotting, planning, connecting, surprising, tweaking, revising. I go over and over the threads and links. Determination … persistence … stubbornness … sheer bloody-mindedness? Call it what you will, I need it in spades this time around.

So I take comfort from Doris Lessing:
What I did have, which others perhaps didn’t, was a capacity for sticking at it, which really is the point, not the talent at all. You have to stick at it.

Or Michelangelo:
If people knew how hard I work to get my mastery it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.

And there you have it. In my case, not being a genius, 95% perspiration, 5% inspiration!

 

 

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Therapeutic boundaries

OK, you know already that my current novel, Killing Me Gently, is about pathological parent-child relationships. But it also includes contacts between professionals and families; clients and therapists. This past five years I’ve spent a more-than-usual amount of time on the receiving end of medical care (often unclothed – physically and mentally – and boy, you feel the disadvantage! Especially if you have the kind of body image issues I have!!) It’s a whole different feeling from being on the clothed healthy giving end as I was for decades. So I’ve given this subject some thought.

Boundaries (usually set by the professional) should protect all concerned, but what when those demarcations are eroded? What if emotions blur the parameters?

Healing Flynn by Juliette Mead is an example of what can happen. Madeline is a therapist dealing with clients traumatised by terrible experiences. Flynn is a photo-journalist documenting harrowing subjects such as poverty and the effects of war, in dangerous places like Freetown, West Africa. They meet when they’re both caught up in the immediate aftermath of an explosion on a North Sea oil rig, Astra Four. Madeline has been flown in to give immediate aid to the survivors and their families. Flynn, posing as an official with the oil company, uses her deceitfully to gain entry onto the rig to take photos of the aftermath. Not a good start for any relationship you might think. But three months later, his marriage in tatters and, suffering post traumatic stress disorder himself, Flynn seeks Madeline out for therapy. In spite of his provocative manner and hard exterior Madeline finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. The tension and attraction between them threaten the boundaries of what’s acceptable in clinical practice.

In fact Madeline herself is also already traumatised. Ten years before, something terrible happened to her, something she has never forgiven herself for, something that very nearly ruined her, and still torments her. And though now Flynn is the client, she the therapist, he is forcing her to recall the agony, the ache, the terrible suffocating pain. Three quarters of the way through the book we find out what happened.

There are codes for good practice. Of course there are. Therapists need to be supervised themselves, and offload their own issues. I’ve had to build in such mentoring in my former life when I was sharing deeply traumatic experiences with respondents in my research. But Madeline’s supervisor, Jillian, has herself had an inappropriate relationship with a client. Whoops ….

It’s a very slow moving book but I found it useful in analysing what could happen deep inside a therapeutic encounter. And it’s all grist to my mill at the moment while the parameters of my own current writing are still quite fluid and flexible.

Oh, and I must just share with you one lovely sentence about Flynn’s wife and daughter – well, you know how addicted I am to clever/beautiful writing:  Georgia smiled at the mirror reflection of her physical past; as Beth glared at her physical future.

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Location, location, location

It’s difficult to share much of where I am with the writing at the moment, though I can say things have taken a giant leap forward. The character profiles are fully developed; the whole plot is sketched out in sections; the menace haunting a troubled young mother is seeping out onto the page. It’s all so clear in my mind that the players are even invading my dreams as well as monopolising my days!

From the outset I’ve had a vivid mental picture of the setting for this medical thriller since I used to drive through this small Scottish town often. But this week I was actually back there, tramping the icy cold streets, imagining the happenings in Killing Me Gently, notebook and pencil in hand. Standing rooted to the spot, feeling the threat stalking through my fictional world; making it so much easier to identify key details which would authenticate the events and bring the setting alive. Sending a real shiver down my spine in the process! (OK, yes, it was hovering around zero degrees!!)

Most of this is all very much internalised and non-transferable, so I thought I’d give you a glimpse of the background canvas against which the tale is set. Hopefully that will wet your appetite without jinxing anything!

Picture, then, steeply pitched roofs with ornate decoration …

grand and beautiful old stone houses …

imposing nineteenth century churches …

names of streets and dwellings etched into the walls …

even a Victorian postbox set in the stonework on a significant corner …

But at this point the curtain closes. Thus far and no further. Some things can only be revealed on publication day!

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Autobiography of abuse

It’s not often I review an autobiography on this blog but I’ve just finished reading one which forms part of my research for novel number 11 (working title Killing me Gently).

Since Altar Boy was published in 2003 the world has moved on, we know so much more now about child abuse, cover-ups, and human psychology. Who hasn’t heard of Jimmy Savile’s crimes now? Or the widespread abuse of children at the hands of priests, foster parents, sportsmen, politicians, celebrities? Indeed major inquiries are currently ongoing into these issues and regularly crop up in the news; police forces are stretched beyond capacity dealing with cases of sexual abuse alone. But I found it useful to nudge a little closer to the mind and heart of a child at the centre of such activities, a child subjected to the unwelcome attentions of a trusted or revered adult.

Altar Boy tells the story of Andrew Madden, an Irish lad whose burning ambition is to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. As an altar boy he has behind-the-scenes access to the life of a religious, and he’s thrilled when his favourite priest, Father Ivan Payne, takes a particular interest in him, singling him out for special responsibilities and privileges. But, when Andrew is 11/12 years old (his uncertainty), that support turns into sexual abuse, molestations occurring weekly and continuing over a period of three years.

For those who have never suffered in this way, it’s hard to understand why Andrew tolerated the situation for so long. Why didn’t he simply stay out of harm’s way? How could he continue to idolise his abuser? Why didn’t he tell someone? His explanation is at once disturbing and sad:

Unless you have been abused it may seem odd that I could not stop Father Payne for three years, but I just couldn’t. True, he was never violent and never threatened me but control comes in many forms. I was an altar boy and in my little world the Church was everything. Priests were the most important, respected and powerful people I knew. I was also sexually naive and totally innocent. All I could understand, especially in the early stages, was that what was going on was wrong and that despite myself I was in the middle of it. It took until I was almost doing my Inter before I could eventually get away.
And for most of those three years I spent a lot of time telling myself that nothing was really going on. Even on those Saturday afternoons I just concentrated on the television. I was so determined to keep the abuse from myself that there was no way I would have been capable of telling anyone else.
Being a paedophile, Father Payne would have known that. He would have known that my silence was not based on consent but on fear and shame. He would have known that I couldn’t tell anyone what he was doing. I wasn’t a child he’d abducted from the playground; I was part of his world. He gave me lifts in his car. He visited my home and had tea with my mother. He had me serving him on the altar as he said Mass for my family and neighbours. He knew he was safe. That is the nature of the child abuser.

The impact of what had happened goes on and on long after Father Payne has moved elsewhere. Andrew’s long-cherished dream to join the priesthood is thwarted. He loses direction, his life spiralling out of control. He seeks consolation in drink and casual relationships. He loses the capacity to have loving sex or to trust partners. He’s wracked by self-doubt, insecurity and a sense of worthlessness that several times drives him close to suicide.

At a time when my whole personality, my emotional, intellectual and sexual self, was developing, he made me think that sexual activity and sexual abuse are one and the same thing. As an adult it has been very difficult to undo that.

It takes an enormous effort and many false starts to finally win through. Years later Andrew finally finds the courage to confide in others the extent of his hurt and betrayal, to name his abuser, to challenge the Church. He becomes the first Irish victim of child abuse at the hands of a priest to go public. The texts of several significant letters written to and by various bishops and politicians are included in the appendix.

Candid, bleak, challenging, as his story is, Andrew’s own account is a triumph of hope and humanity emerging out of tragedy. This troubled and damaged young man demonstrates that victims don’t have to remain victims.

I’ve done something about it. I’ve turned it around.

Altar Boy is no literary masterpiece. Neither is it a text on the psychology of abuse. Nor even the most insightful of autobiographies. But it did remind me that adult wisdom and knowledge and hindsight can cloud our understanding of a child’s perspective. Even perhaps doubt and diminish the horror. A useful angle for my own current writing. It’s not comfortable creeping inside the skin of a character in such circumstances, but it’s what I need to do if I’m to capture the real essence of him and write with truth and authenticity.

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Another thriller masterclass

With this week’s news that certain people are to be banned from entering America on the grounds of their race/faith, coming on top of the ongoing shocking stories we keep hearing about the plight of Syrian refugees, it seemed somehow appropriate this week to read a book about illegal immigrants, whilst simultaneously knitting garments for refugees – doing both together helps me concentrate for longer.

Swedish author and political scientist, Kristina Ohlsson‘s novel, Silenced, is a police procedural thriller which has people-smuggling at its heart, and asks what price is worth paying for freedom.

Cleric Jakob Ahlbin sums up the challenge: ‘I don’t think we need worry that there are vast numbers of people in the world wishing they lived on a sink estate in Stockholm with no work or permanent housing. What we really must think about, on the other hand, is this: is there anything a father will not do to make secure provision for his children’s future? Is there any act a human being will not commit to create a better life for him- or herself?’

Sobering questions. And a tough call for any fiction writer.

Ohlsson knows exactly how to build tension. She begins fifteen years ago, with an innocent young country girl being brutally raped in a flower meadow behind her parents’ Swedish home; the crime goes unreported, the victim silenced. Fast forward to the present (2008) and we have a series of sinister situations … the vicar mentioned above, known for his passionate campaigning on the migrant question, discovered dead beside a hunting pistol, a murdered wife and a suicide note … an illegal Iraqi immigrant being imported into Sweden to carry out a crime, found dead in a lake … an unknown man driven over deliberately outside the university, also dead … a young woman whose life is spinning out of control in Bangkok … mysterious unnamed individuals caught up in some highly secret project …

Numerous dark strands but somehow all connected. A motley band of police officers, each grappling with their own demons, painstakingly assembling the jigsaw.

Sounding complicated and confusing? It is. But not so unfathomable as to make it impossible to follow, or even to guess a few solutions before they’re revealed. The pages keep turning, the brain keeps whirling.

This is the kind of tension and narrative pull I want for my eleventh novel (working title Killing me Gently); something that grips the attention and doesn’t let go till the last page. So I’ve been trying to be very analytical as I read. And after Ohlsson’s little masterclass, I can now go back into my own writing with renewed energy and focus.

Having said that, there are things about her writing I wouldn’t wish to emulate. Literary irritations – probably blips in the conversion into English – and some dead ends and threads that were rather unconvincing. But there are also occasional gems not lost in translation:

The hospital smell – ‘as if death itself crept into the ventilation system and was breathing on everybody in turn’.

A first-time father of almost sixty – ‘very likely not to be the stuff of which nests were built’.

Worthy and dubious alike, all part of the challenge, and most useful to me as I continue to learn the art and craft of thriller writing.

 

 

 

 

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