Hazel McHaffie

thrillers

Time to read …

If you don’t have time to read you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that,’ says Stephen King.

So I felt totally vindicated taking a whole day off from writing and to lose myself in a gripping book. What a tonic! Just the inspiration I needed to help me sharpen up my own current scribblings.

It’s vintage Coben. All the trademark ingredients are there: clever dialogue, legal shenanigans, sinister happenings, flawed characters, convoluted plots, switchback thrills, a smattering of homespun psychology, and of course, a thought-provoking moral in the tale. Brilliant.

The book? Caught by Harlan Coben.

This one includes a missing teenager; discredited cops; an entrapment; vigilantes bent on revenge; scandals and sackings; broken marriages; tragic histories; conspiracies; trumped up charges and ruinous accusations. And it keeps you guessing till the very end. The usual vast cast includes a high percentage of damaged people with colourful back-stories and fascinating peccadilloes. Enough brilliance to make us lesser mortals decide to give up the unequal struggle!

And of course, Coben’s mastery of engaging dialogue and deft outlines make it a joy to read. Who else would capture the essence of characters, the feel of a moment, with such joyous economy, originality and humour?

How about this for a lawyer?

Flair Hickory, celebrity counsel for the defense … wore his customary gray suit with thick pink stripes, pink shirt, pink tie. He crossed the room in a way that might be modestly described as ‘theatrical,’ but it was more like something Liberace might have done if Liberace had the courage to be really flamboyant …
He strolled across the courtroom as though it were a catwalk in Milan …
His voice not only dripped sarcasm but seemed to have spent days marinated in it …
He took flamboyant and brought it to a whole new level. But now, on the other side of these questions, she could truly see how flamboyance could be close bedfellows with ruthlessness.

He’s only in the frame for a few pages but his larger than life presence lingers in the imagination, his peacock posturing, razor tongue, mocking innuendos and penetrating cross-questioning. We’re as much in awe of him as the cringing witness.

Or what about this for a teenager’s room?

Her room, like Ryan’s, looked as if someone had strategically placed a stick of dynamite in the drawers, blowing them open; some clothes sprawled dead on the floor, others lay wounded midway, clinging to the armoire like the fallen on a barricade before the French Revolution.

Resonates with us all, doesn’t it?

‘Uniquely portable magic,’ to quote Stephen King again. Enjoyed the more for coinciding with the advent of summer after a long hard winter – 5C to 21C almost overnight! I read half of Caught in the garden and felt doubly invigorated for that.

 

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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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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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Truth stranger than fiction

Normally I stay clear of religion and politics in my blog, but this week I just can’t ignore the craziness bombarding us. There comes a time when staying within the safe and respectable writerly world, simply won’t do.

We’re rather inured to improbable happenings on our screens in dramas, aren’t we? Professors of neurosurgery who beat the living daylights out of a colleague who taunts them, and then walk straight into theatre and perform some intricate ground-breaking surgery on a patient to widespread acclaim. High ranking detectives who get suspects into quiet corners and extract information by foul means. All without repercussions. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. And yet, reviewers are wont to criticise authors quite harshly if their characters don’t ring true; a person in that position in those circumstances just wouldn’t behave like this, wouldn’t say that.

Well, if I were to include in my novels some of the real-life activities in the news recently, I’d be accused of writing unbelievable fiction too. Or dubious hyperbole, at the very least. I ask you.

Mature (in years) men, MEPs, indeed, brawling … abroad  … when they are supposed to be representing their country …?

High ranking ministers promoting harsh discriminatory ideas completely opposed to views they themselves expressed as their deeply-held beliefs when they were lower down the food chain … ?

A last-lap US presidential nominee, bidding to lead the largest and most powerful free country in the world, who has already openly scorned many minority groups (eg muslims, immigrants), now admitting he has sexually abused women …, seeing them as the entitlement of any ‘alpha male’ … especially ‘a star’ …?

Hugely important questions about Brexit being decided by a tiny cabal with neither MPs or the people having a say …?

Large numbers of high-earning BBC employees being accused of dodging taxes …?

Hmmm. Looking at this list I note they’re all except one about politicians. Houses of ParliamentOK, I could develop that theme but it could get nasty, so instead I’ll share my thinking about the matter of credulity.

Decent civilised people living in decent civilised communities tend to assume the integrity and honesty of public and professional figures. We want to trust doctors, lawyers, policemen, teachers, clergy, royals, social workers … we want our children to be able to trust them. But coming on top of all the scandals exposed by the media in recent years, these current horrors challenge our credulity. Can this really be happening? How is it possible? The more I thought about this, though, the more I realised that this is the stuff of thrillers. When apparently trustworthy people step outside the boundaries of the acceptable and believable. Unreliable narrators, unscrupulous colleagues, immoral perpetrators.

Shutter IslandFor example, this week I watched the film Shutter Island, a disturbing glimpse inside the world of insanity. US marshal, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) is sent to Boston’s high security prison for the criminally insane, on a remote hurricane-blasted island, to investigate the disappearance of a female murderess. Daniels himself has a traumatic past having witnessed the aftermath of the atrocities at Dachau and lived through his wife’s murder. But on the island he is determined to gain access to the ward where the most dangerous patients are housed, a ward in a lighthouse to which the medical team are denying him entry. It’s a film that challenges received wisdom, professional facades, and the limits of humanity. What is believable? Can I trust what I’m seeing and hearing?

Nor is it just thrillers that do this. I’ve also been reading All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a beautifully written, haunting novel about a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and an orphan German boy, Werner, whose paths cross in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. It’s by no means a thriller, but inevitably there are troubling scenes that make us question just how far humans can sink and still retain their humanity. Happenings which Marie-Laure’s great uncle says ‘sound like something a sixth-former would make up.’ In other words, unbelievable. But of course we today know about the atrocities of that era, and much as we might inwardly recoil and think, Surely not, we know these things were real and do/did happen. They become utterly credible in a spine chilling kind of way.

Spine chilling. Now that’s what I’m pondering in my own writing at the moment. I’ve always worked consciously to make my characters believable. For each book I’ve asked a raft of experts as well as discerning readers, to check the manuscript for credibility before it goes for publication. But I’m starting to wonder if any of us can predict how low human beings can sink, or how unlikely any extreme behaviours really are. And now that I’m experimenting with thriller-writing, perhaps I can push the boundaries further in my writing about a young mother who exhibits pathological behaviour, without being condemned by the literary critics. Certainly I need to keep pushing that ‘What if’ button. See how far I can go.

 

 

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The plot thickens

Did you see the news a couple of weeks ago (11 April) about a three-year-old boy who has successfully survived a heart transplant after being kept alive artificially on a Berlin heart machine for 251 days – longer than any other child in Britain? Shortly after he was born, Joe Skerratt was diagnosed with cardiac myopathy – an enlarged and weakened heart. Initially he was treated with medication but when he deteriorated he needed the machine to take over the work of his failing heart. Amazing stuff.

These days my ears prick up as soon as I hear the words ‘transplant’ or ‘organ donation’. And as you know I’m ploughing through a stack of novels that include the subject in some guise or other. Time perhaps to bring you up to date with where I’m at with them, lest you start to suspect this blog is a smokescreen and I’m actually idling on some Caribbean beach. But first a caveat: some of the titles I’m going to mention I really really don’t recommend. I ploughed through them because I need to suss out the potential competition, but you can be more discriminating. (For a sense of my personal assessment shoot across to my Goodreads ratings and reviews.)

I’ve read all except four now and they seem to fall into three categories.

1. There are those that focus on families grappling with tragic circumstances and the impact of organ donation. (eg. Somewhere between Life and Death; One Perfect Day; In a Heartbeat; Stealing Kevin’s Heart; While my Sister Sleeps; Breath; The Household Guide to Dying.) Additional angles are used to provide a narrative thread – the recipients taking on the characteristics of the donor (cellular memory), or families searching for the donor’s identity for various reasons, or unexpected links between the two families. A number of these are geared towards young adults and tend to rather labour the importance of organ donation. And there’s a heavy religious agenda in some of the American ones.

2. Then there are the sci-fi novels, the futuristic and satirical takes on the issue. (eg. Never Let me Go; Heart Seizure; Little Boy Pig; The Samaritan; My Body, My Ashes.) The creation of ‘monsters’ comes into this group. The way-out and highly improbable. Unscrupulous scientists and doctors pushing the boundaries beyond what is ethical. Or mad chases against time and the odds.

3. And thirdly there are the mysteries and thrillers. (eg. Damaged; Blood Work; Coma; Dead Tomorrow; The Midwife’s Confession; Change of Heart.) Individuals and teams conspiring to obtain tissue or organs or indeed whole bodies for personal gain. Apparently this is a live issue in the USA.

I confess I got rather bored with so many books about a single subject. There isn’t much new to excite me in the facts and issues themselves. So the yawn-factor could well be distorting my perspective and judgement. However, analysing the stories is helping me to hone my own novel on this subject.

The first draft of (working title) Over my Dead Body consists of a plausible story centred around a relatively commonplace road traffic accident. But my reading has confirmed a hunch that it needs a second more compelling thread to keep the pages turning. So where do I go from here?

Introduce an element of sci-fi? Nope. Not my bag. Sci-fi can be technically fascinating, and I can admire the brains that project themselves into futuristic possibilities and challenge their readers to ask: Is this a world I would want to see or be part of? I too want to provoke thought and debate, but my personal preference is for the scenarios to be based more on today’s reality.

OK. A thriller then? Well, of all the books I’m most enjoying the medical thrillers with believable insights into the emotions and driving forces of those people caught up in the business of saving lives using transplanted organs. But I’m not sure I have what it takes to sustain this kind of pace, nor whether it would fit with my objectives.

Conclusion? I’m experimenting with an element of mystery and intrigue; weaving in a second more taut storyline of a dark secret that unravels gradually. I’m cautiously optimistic right at this moment but it could all change. It might not work. Or perhaps those last four books will revolutionise my thinking! Watch this space.

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