Hazel McHaffie

Killing Me Gently

A Room Swept White

When I was working on my latest novel, Killing Me Gently, I was affected quite profoundly by the emotions of two of my characters who were struggling mentally in different ways. The closer I got to knowing and understanding them, the more tense and edgy I felt.

Imagine that situation in a time of a pandemic such as now! Real and justified anxiety. Widespread uncertainty. Close confinement. A reduction in social contact and support. Distorted perspectives. Suspicion. Less resources for support services. It’s a tinderbox.

And thinking along these lines took me to a psychological thriller I read some weeks ago:  A Room Swept White by best-selling writer of crime fiction Sophie Hannah. A psychological thriller set in ‘my’ world, so it ticked all my boxes.

From the outset we’re plunged into a hugely disturbing story, set brilliantly by means of two scenarios: a police briefing in a murder case; and an interview between an investigative journalist cum documentary maker and a middle-class physiotherapist recently released from prison.

We know from the blurb on the back cover that three women have been wrongly accused of murdering children, that all three are subsequently freed, and that Dr Judith Duffy, a paediatric pathologist and prime expert witness in their cases, is under investigation for misconduct. Then one of the three women is found shot dead in her own home.

TV producer, Fliss Benson, is suddenly and unexpectedly promoted to work on a documentary about miscarriages of justice, and on the same day receives an anonymous card with sixteen numbers arranged in four rows of four figures. But she has her own private and personal reasons for not wanting to work in this area. The card has to be significant; of that she’s sure, even though her boss dismisses it out of hand. The murder victim had a card with sixteen numbers on it arranged in four rows of four, in her pocket. And one by one other significant women are singled out for similar cards all penned by the same hand, all on expensive paper.

Then CID strongly advises Fliss to cease all work on the cot-death murders documentary. She knows it’s what she ought to do; she also knows she can’t do it. It’s nothing to do with justice, it’s her only way of  fixing whatever it is that’s eating away at her and her self-identity.

So many factors in this story rang bells and gave me a strong sense of déjà vu. The pathological details in the cases of the babies who died – suffocation, smothering, shaking, salt poisoning … Professionals damned if they intervene, damned if they don’t …  One social worker driven to suicide because of his failure to safeguard a vulnerable child .. Munchausens-by-proxy … Witnesses changing their minds, swayed by so-called experts. Jurors confused by the conflicting convictions and arguments … Court testimony distorted, coloured, changing … everywhere doubt, suspicion. And it’s so skillfully written, I was kept in confusion and suspense to the very end.

So why did it ring so many bells? Not just because it explores similar ground to my Killing me Gently … ahhhh, yes, … of course … it’s there in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. Hannah took her inspiration from three real-life cases of women wrongly convicted, whose stories I followed closely at the time, and indeed mentioned in a post on this very blog – Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, Trupti Patel. Three human there-but-for-the-grace-of-God tragedies.

So, an excellent read, but perhaps not for vulnerable new mothers at this time of global tension and fear for the future.

Stay safe out there, everyone, and I hope you can find the space for reading those books you never normally seem to get round to!

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

The Couple Next Door

Did you know it’s World Book Day today – Thursday 5 March? Yep; a celebration of writing and reading. Hurrah!!

So which of the hundreds of books I have on my shelves shall I share with you on this auspicious day? Ahah. Time methinks to confess.

I am officially at odds with the establishment. That was confirmed when I read a highly acclaimed novel which I sent for on the grounds that a) it’s billed as a gripping thriller and b) it sounds very like my own latest novel, Killing me Gently. Indeed, the similarities were too striking to miss:
the genre: domestic thriller
a baby missing
a marriage in trouble
the mum struggling to cope
readers finding it unputdownable.

All comments applied to Shari Lapena‘s book, The Couple Next Door, which predates my (apparently) similar tale by three years, but which I’ve only just discovered. I had to check it out, then! A couple of train journeys this week gave me the perfect opportunity to savour it without too many distractions.

The basic storyline goes roughly like this. Anne Conti is struggling to cope with her new baby, Cora. She’s not going out to work so the confines of home and constant exposure to Cora’s fussing, grind her down. Her parents are fabulously wealthy. They disapproved of her marriage to impecunious Marco, but to allow their daughter to live in style, they initially gave him money to buy a beautiful house and start up his own business. Father and son-in-law frankly hate each other. Marco has recently suggested to Anne mortgaging their home to allow him to expand the enterprise.

Living next door is seductive Cynthia Stillwell and mousey husband Graham. They invite the Conti’s for a dinner party to celebrate Graham’s milestone birthday, but at the last minute the babysitter cancels. Cynthia is adamant: no babies at her parties. Anne says, OK, she won’t go then. But against her better judgement, Marco persuades her to leave Cora asleep in her own cot, taking a monitor with them so they can hear if she wakes, and taking it in turns to pop across every half an hour to check on her physically. Shortly after 1 o’clock they return together … to find the front door ajar, the security light unscrewed … and the baby missing.

Shades of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann way back in 2007 evoked, huh? Layers of guilt and reproach and suspicion.

As the facts of their lives unravel, it’s clear that Baby Cora, barely six months old, blonde hair, blue eyes, weighing about 16 pounds, is alone in being entirely above suspicion. Everyone else is harbouring murky secrets and hidden lives: Mum, Dad, Granny, Grandpa, the couple next door! Who can you trust? Nobody is telling the full truth here. Detective Rasbach has his work cut out. Fortunately he’s nobody’s fool.

There are plenty of glowing testimonials for The Couple Next Door from well respected writers and publications. It was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. It bears the sticker: The most talked-about thriller of the year. It has attracted over 6500 comments on Amazon. Wow! Success by anyone’s measure. However, in the safety of my personal blog, I have to confess to personal reservations … seriously big ones at that.

Fair enough, the slow release of information casting doubt on the honesty of everyone, is  a page-turning tactic. The intriguing technique of the unreliable narrator keeps the adrenaline flowing. The principal characters are not very likeable or sympathetic or three dimensional, but at least we’re rooting for that little baby … and the detective. However, for me the style of writing really did not appeal. It reminds me of the audio description that provides information in a television programme for the benefit of visually impaired people – wooden, staccato, clunky. Points of view shift and we’re told bluntly what characters are thinking. All markers for ‘telling’ instead of more subtle and intriguing ‘showing’. I’m frankly astonished it has achieved such status.

So, though I can envy the author her success, I don’t wish I’d written her book. And I’m relieved that Killing me Gently could certainly not be suspected of being a re-hash of The Couple Next Door. Phew!

But let’s hear it for good books everywhere on this special day.  Long may they bewitch and inform and console and nourish us.

 

 

, , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Harming children: Truth v fiction

Well, I must confess I had a real sense of deja vu this week.

Six months ago, my eleventh novel, Killing me Gently, was published. It centres on a young mum who struggles to care for her little girl and comes under suspicion of deliberately harming her. Health workers, social workers, the Child Protection team, the police, all get involved. And in spite of all the vigilance, all the protestations of innocence, the baby is still being harmed. Should the professionals take her away from her parents for her own safety? Or should they give her the benefit of the doubt? Either way there are huge risks.

Now here we are, in real time, in real life, listening to a mother from the west of Scotland who was falsely accused of harming her disabled daughter. She alleges she became suicidal and doesn’t want something as horrific as this to happen to another family, so she’s pursuing her grievances through the courts to highlight the issues.

I have no inside knowledge of this case, but the facts as I understand them from the media and an interview with the mum are:
PARENTS: Kirsteen and Craig Cooper.
CHILDREN: Three daughters.
YOUNGEST: Baillie, has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and is tube-fed.
HISTORY: Baillie was admitted to the Children’s Hospital in Glasgow in December 2016.
The child suffered repeated infections which raised concerns for her parents, and they registered a complaint related to poor hygiene in the hospital.
A member of staff suspected Kirsteen was deliberately inducing illness in her daughter.
PROFESSIONAL SUSPICIONS: The mother was causing infections; cutting feeding tube; stealing blood to induce anaemia. Suspected diagnosis? Fictitious or Induced Illness.
CHARGES: A charge of attempted murder was brought in July 2017. Kirsteen was put in a cell overnight.
CONSEQUENCES: Baillie had to go and live with her aunt and grandmother; Kirsteen was allowed only very limited access to the child, and that only under supervision.
OUTCOME: Charges were suddenly dropped after a few months.
CURRENTLY: Kirsteen is preparing a legal case against NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital of which the Children’s Hospital is a part, is currently the focus of a public inquiry over safety fears and patient deaths from infection. It’s under special measures.

It felt decidedly spooky listening to and reading details of a situation with significant echoes of the plot which preoccupied me for a couple of years. I have huge sympathy fpr any parent whose baby is taken away from them, but … yep, there’s sure to be a but! … I’m forcibly reminded that most of this account comes from one source, viz. the mum. The whole scenario can look very different according to where you stand, but professional and legal etiquette denies the healthcare professionals a voice. My heart goes out to all those in authority who are required to safeguard the interests of the children in their care. Damned if they act, damned if they don’t. I made myself walk in the shoes of the nurses, the doctors, the protection people, as well as the parents and grandparents when I wrote Killing me Gently. It was not comfortable walking in any of their footsteps.

From a purely selfish angle, I’m profoundly glad my book came out before this case hit the headlines! At least I can’t be accused of stealing their story.

, , , , , , ,

Comments

Out of left field

Well, this was a first, and it taught me a useful lesson.

I’m a great believer in thorough preparation. Whatever the occasion. Could be a sign of insecurity … or obsessive tendencies … or whatever, I don’t know. But I need to feel in command of the situation, in order to relax into the actual event. When it comes to speaking appointments, I do my homework, try to be totally to grips with my material, have a clear structure and aim in my head, blend humour into serious material, and make sure I’m respecting the parameters of the commission. Even so, mishaps do happen. I remember once, years ago, being unable to use my slides at a big conference because the feet on their carousel had melted! Ever after I carried my own. And another occasion where a lady in the audience became unconscious and caused a major incident.  But this week a very different unexpected event came out of left field.

As part of Book Week Scotland, I’d been invited to our local library to talk about my writing life and latest publication. Our local librarians are lovely enthusiastic people, so thank you, I should enjoy doing that. I love the fact that libraries use my work in their bookclubs. And it should be a breeze – if I hadn’t got that information at my fingertips, I was in the wrong job! Well, it should have been …

First hiccup – a streaming cold out of the blue two days before it. I went into overdrive with medicaments and positive thinking, snatched sleep and distraction therapies. I’d protect my throat by keeping silent most of the day beforehand. I’d take the car to the library instead of irritating my fragile chest with cold air. So, when I stood up to speak, no one would have suspected the battle I’d had to reach that point.

Next hiccup – a mere five minutes in, the fire alarms started up. Speaking above that level of decibels would strain the hardiest of vocal chords! But the librarian indicated to continue, it’d just be a false alarm, and went out to investigate … only to return with the instruction the building was to be evacuated, the fire brigade were on their way. Freezing temperatures outside, chatting in the icy air … I could feel my raw throat and chest palpably tightening. It took a further twenty minutes for the fire crew to arrive, pin down the problem, and let us back in. Twenty minutes to outwardly respond to conversation with all those hardy souls prepared to wait and not abandon ship (all of them!), whilst inwardly revising the structure and content of my talk. Mercifully it was completely without notes or slides so there was no need to do anything physical, and since no one else knew what I’d planned to cover, they were quite unaware of the mental gymnastics to accommodate the changed time frame.

A salutary lesson for me: you can never be totally prepared for all eventualities; accept vicissitudes with good grace. And useful reinforcement of a piece of advice given to me very early on in my speaking career: ‘if you’re feeling out of your depth, at least look the part!’

 

, , ,

Comments

Publication at last!

Wahey! It’s finally finally between covers and published and available. Phew! My eleventh novel.

As you know Killing Me Gently is something of a departure for me – a psychological thriller, and I have no idea if my regular readers will be pleased or nonplussed by the change. Several people have got in touch to say they’ve immediately ordered a copy because they ‘love thrillers’ … hmmm, but do they include this kind of thriller, I wonder? I’m hoping for lots of feedback – the honest variety, no holds barred, of course.

The story centres around a young career woman, Anya Morgan, who has it all – beauty, brains, dream home, handsome husband. And now to complete the picture, a new baby, Gypsy Lysette  … except Gypsy hasn’t read the textbooks; she doesn’t conform to Anya’s standards of perfection.

Leon Morgan is torn between supporting his paranoid wife and the demands of his job. Increasingly stressed, he starts to make mistakes, big mistakes, threatening the future of the family firm, jeopardising his marriage and his relationship with his brother.

Tiffany Corrigan to the rescue; qualified nurse, mother of three, a fount of practical wisdom. She’s a shoulder to lean on when the crises escalate … when Gypsy is admitted to hospital … when the fingers start pointing … when suspicion and jealousy widen the rift between Anya and Leon …

Then inexplicable things start to happen. Frightening things. Baby Gypsy’s life as well as Anya’s sanity are under threat. Who is responsible? The social workers and the protection team are caught on the horns of a dilemma, damned if they intervene, damned if they don’t. Will they act in time to save this family from devastating loss?

I’ve already had some lovely comments on Tom Bee’s super-special cover. That’s always a good start.

 

 

, , ,

Comments

Domestic psychological thrillers

Although I’ve read a large number of thrillers in an effort to understand the secrets and techniques that make for success, I’ve come across surprisingly few that fit more precisely into the family-based variety I’ve been trying to create myself; ‘domestic’, so-called ‘real-life’ fiction. So when I saw Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes in a supermarket second-hand charity corner at the weekend, I snapped it up. And I read it in two days.

I love the cover (her trademark style apparently), and the strap-line spoke to me: To create her family she will destroy yours. My kind of territory, huh?

And it got better and better the more I read about the book and its author. She’s dipped a toe in being a barmaid, a fruit picker, a private detective, a factory worker; she’s lived on a kibbutz, holidayed on Cornwall (my home county)… – a colourful life even before she took up crime writing. And in her novels she focuses on current issues, designed to challenge the reader to think, What if this happened to me or my family? Exactly what I try to do.

And indeed, Until You’re Mine bears some striking similarities to my own new novel, Killing me Gently, which becomes available for purchase this coming weekend*. Both are based around a young career woman, trying to adapt to being a mother; things clearly not being what they seem to be; threats hanging over families; marriages and relationships in peril.

In the case of Until You’re Mine, there are three principal women involved. Claudia Morgan-Brown has a history of numerous previous pregnancies all ending in miscarriages or still births – leaving her feeling ‘ an unworthy shell of a woman‘ and ‘a freak‘. Around perfect families with perfect babies ‘jealousy stuck in my craw like a bowlful of mud shoved down my throat.’ And yet her job – a job she loves – revolves around parents and children. As a social worker heading up a child protection team, she’s constantly dealing with dysfunctional, violent, abusive, disadvantaged families. Nor is she a stranger to the painful experience of removing children from their inadequate or unfit parents.

And it’s in the course of her work that she goes to check out the welfare of 2-month-old twin baby boys, Oscar and Noah Morgan, whose mother has just died of pancreatic cancer. They are being well cared for, but Claudia falls in love with their so-recently bereaved father, James, who reciprocates the emotion. ‘He was hurting. I was hurting. Together, we were mended.’ And now she’s heavily pregnant with James’ baby, but determined to keep working up till her due date and take the minimum of time off after the birth.

Husband, James, is a naval officer, a submariner, away for long stretches of time. And in reality Claudia knows very little of his past life. She does know, however, that he has inherited wealth from his first wife, enabling them to live in a huge and beautiful house, and that he has secrets about which she knows nothing. They decide to hire a live-in nanny to enable Claudia to keep doing what she’s good at.

Enter Zoe Harper, who comes with impeccable credentials, and is clearly really good with children. The twins adore her. We, however, know from the outset that Zoe isn’t what she appears to be. She lives in the ‘centre of an ever-changing lie’. We know she is preoccupied with pregnancy and babies. We know she’s recently left an intense relationship but still longs to make contact with her past. We also know she has her own agenda and is on a mission which somehow relates to counting down to the birth of Claudia’s child.

The third woman is Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher. She’s dealing with domestic crises at home – an errant husband and a rebellious teenage daughter determined to abandon her education and career prospects, leave home and marry her boyfriend. And on the work front Lorraine is dealing with two cases of pregnant women being sliced open and left for dead. Both the victims had troubled pasts and had been in the care of social services. Both had been wanting to terminate their pregnancies early on but for some reason had not gone through with it. Both babies and the first mother have died, but the second mother has survived, and somehow the survivor is the link between the social worker, nanny and detective.

Through the eyes of all three women we inch forward towards the critical date – the birth of Claudia’s baby girl. It’s tense, gripping stuff. But the three stories simply don’t hang together. Who is to be believed? Three women desperate to become mothers. Three women juggling competing demands. Three murders already. We’re counting down the days to deadlines with huge trepidation. The suspense keeps us glued to the pages. The killer twist in the tale, when it comes, is brilliantly executed. And the last sentence is perfection.

Phew! A serendipitous find but highly recommended. And I’ll certainly be hunting down more of Samantha Hayes’ books.

* Yep, at last! We’ve had a few glitches in the publishing process this time, hopefully now ironed out. More on this next week.

 

 

 

, , , , , , , ,

Comments

Allow me to introduce you …

Well, here it is, folks … the cover design for my forthcoming novel. Killing me Gently in the flesh!

This is the point at which it feels real.

Huge thanks to my faithful designer, Tom Bee. All I do is give him a synopsis of the book, a résumé of the atmosphere I want to create, and a few pointers to possible aspects of the story which we might capture, and up he comes with a selection of options. We go back and forth a little on refinements and it’s all signed and sealed. This is the sixth of my novels he’s illustrated and he’s an absolute joy to work with.

And just to give you a taster, here’s the official blurb about the story-line.

Anya Morgan has it all – beauty, brains, dream home, handsome husband, and now to complete the picture, a new baby. But Gypsy Lysette doesn’t conform to Anya’s criteria for perfection. Sleep deprived and insecure, she searches for solace and reassurance.

Leon Morgan is torn between supporting his paranoid wife and the demands of his job. Increasingly stressed he starts to make mistakes, big mistakes, threatening the future of the family firm, jeopardising their marriage.

Tiffany Corrigan to the rescue; qualified nurse, mother of three, a fount of practical wisdom. She’s a shoulder to lean on when the crises escalate … when Gypsy is admitted to hospital … when the fingers start pointing … when suspicion and jealousy widen the rift between Anya and Leon.

Then inexplicable things start to happen. Frightening things. Baby Gypsy’s life as well as Anya’s sanity are under threat. Who is responsible? And will the professionals act in time to save this family from devastating loss?

I’ll let you know when it’s ready for purchase – not long now!

, , ,

Comments

Inhabiting characters

Fragile: approach with care!

I remember going to an event years ago, where the audience walked past several actors in various poses. We were advised not to speak to them as they were already ‘in character’. And we were subsequently treated to a masterclass in how they achieved this level of identification and immersion in order to project the final images which had us mesmerised. Fascinating insights.

And I’m sure we can all appreciate how thoroughly good actors can inhabit their characters when we see the same person in completely different roles. Just think Meryl Streep – literally Oscar winning!: Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady,  Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. She is these women for us! How does she do it? ‘Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there,’ she says. But the end result is utterly convincing on our end of the process.

Even in films where a well-known person of our time is being represented – King George VI, the Queen, Winston Churchill, Ghandi – a good actor can make us suspend disbelief by somehow capturing the essence of the character; a style of speech or dress, a gait, a look, an idiosyncratic habit. And to do that, they delve into archives, study mannerisms, learn speech patterns and dialects, anything that will increase empathy and understanding of who exactly such persons were/are. Just watch something like The Crown, The King’s Speech, The Queen, and you can see the little foibles and eccentricities that help the identification process in a huge cast of well known faces.

To an extent an author too, needs to get inside the skin of their characters, in order to make them believable and relatable. Unless we care, we don’t want to read on. In my case, I want to make them real enough for the reader also to feel their pain, empathise with their situation, identify with their challenges and choices. To ask themselves: What would I have done? With my current book, this has meant immersing myself in the psychological depths of a new mother struggling to cope; an ambitious businessman torn by divided loyalties; health care professionals grapplling with the threat of making a wrong call; a clever manipulative mind … no wonder it’s exhausting and depressing and stressful at times! Even now, when I’m reading and re-reading and reading again to make sure every dot and nuance is as good as I can make it before Killing me Gently is published. Perhaps authors too should have mentors and support networks built in to their job descriptions. And a label: Fragile: approach with care.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Calling all would-be crime writers

Anything that advocates books and reading gets my vote. And we writers are trained to look out for those anniversaries and special commemorative dates which might be useful hooks. Unsurprisingly, then, certain days this past week jumped out at me.

World Book Day was on 7 March, the day before International Women’s Day. Plenty of people and publications and organisations jumped on the bandwagon, with the usual plethora of articles and events. Quite rightly so. Universal appeal. Books open the mind … and transport … and educate … and improve the ability to empathise … and … but you know all that.

Did you know, though, how often The Big Issue extols the benefits of reading? Impressively often, actually. Over the years, as part of their mission to ‘dismantle poverty through creating opportunity‘, they’ve championed many causes: better literacy, keeping libraries open, tax freedoms for independent bookshops, reading lists, more book reviews, reading for pleasure for children, taking books into prisons … to name but a few. So, again unsurprisingly, this special edition devotes a large part of its pages to literary matters as its nod in the direction of the official World Book Day.

What’s more, this week they also launch a competition to find a new crime writer. Ambitious, huh? And no lightweight tokenism, either; there’s a two-book deal with HarperCollins for the winner – not to be sniffed at. They’re looking for ‘heart-stopping writing and nail-shredding suspense’. Any takers? Hats off to The Big Issue, I say. Most of us probably buy it to support their  efforts to drive social change, but it’s worth much more than a toss straight into the recycling box. As well as the competition details, for example, there’s a fascinating interview with Tim Waterstone who founded the biggest high street bookchain we know so well today. Now there’s a man who totally loves books! Even though he grew up in a 3-book household. Given his empire today he can afford to be generous, but nontheless, I like his healthy approach to the issue of bricks-and-mortar-shop versus online: ‘If you know what you want, you’re going to go to Amazon. I do it myself numerous times a year! But we all know online can’t replicate the same feeling of pleasure you get in a great bookshop.’ Well said, that man. And let’s support the independent bookstores in particular who don’t have all Waterstone’s advantages.

As for my own writing, well, I’m at the last-revisions-before proof-reading stage with Killing me Gently – when I’m not hurtling up and down the country, that is. Crazy month, chez nous. Must crack on …

, , , , , , , ,

Comments

Parallels

A long time ago – 12 April last year, to be precise – I showed you the beginnings of a new project to create a fair-isle jacket using authentic Shetland Island techniques and wool. Progress has been slow because it could only be knitted with full concentration on the task; not the kind of easy creativity to accompany reading or watching TV.

Well, it’s now finished.

And I’m very conscious that, as at the beginning, it has continued to be a kind of allegory for my writing. All the colours (in this case 15 different shades) have to be in the right place at the right time, just as plot threads do.

Any loose ends must be tucked in neatly so there are no stray strands anywhere – that task alone took weeks of painstaking work.

The patterns must align and form a cohesive whole. No one must be able to see the workings.

And the end result stands or falls on the overall effect.

Interestingly the book has taken rather longer than the knitting, and certainly far more hours, but, whilst I’m confident the jacket will attract lots of comments about the time, effort, skill involved, I’m equally sure that few, if any, will appreciate the same aspects behind Killing me Gently! And yet … I’m simply following instructions for the jacket; the novel is entirely my own design and creation. But, hey, nobody ever told us life would be fair!

I’m pleased to report that the fifth draft of Killing me Gently is shorter, tighter and more tense than version four. Both the beginning and ending have been completely re-written. All the helpful comments from my raft of critics and experts have been taken seriously and have paid dividends. The book is now within a whisker of being ready for the last (I hope!) round of critical comments, inching inexorably towards that day when I say it’s mature enough to leave the nest for good. Maybe the day for wearing that Shetland jacket, huh?!

, , , ,

Comments

Previous Posts