Mystery of the Month – Into the Night

A man is murdered on a movie set in Sarah Bailey’s latest novel, Into the Night; a story so rich in setting and character that while reading it, it’s easy to imagine it playing out on screen as an epic Australian film or mini-series.

Set two and a half years after the events of Bailey’s first novel, The Dark Lake, main character Detective Gemma Woodstock has left hometown Smithson and is establishing herself as a detective in Melbourne. She’s keen to make a good impression, particularly on Chief Inspector Toby Isaacs. While investigating the homicide of a homeless man, Gemma is assigned to her most high profile case yet – the murder of actor Sterling Wade, Australia’s golden boy, who has been stabbed through the heart on the set of his latest movie, a zombie flick. Isaacs pairs her with Detective Sergeant Nick Fleet, a cavalier and bearish partner with whom she develops an uneasy relationship.

The reader is transported into Gemma’s Melbourne from the opening description of the tunnel where the first murder victim is discovered and Gemma’s reflection on how crimes in Melbourne seem much more sinister than they did in Smithson.  Sarah Bailey dedicates Into the Night to the Victorian capital and it’s clear she knows the city well, imbuing it with so much personality that it becomes a character in the book. She also knows Gemma inside and out – she’s a main character who feels authentic and real as she narrates the story in first person. Still troubled following the events of The Dark Lake and the horrors she’s witnessed in her career, Gemma seeks refuge from memories of violence by engaging in a series of meaningless one night stands.  She desperately misses her son, Ben, who lives in Smithson with her ex-partner, Scott, but at the same time she appears grateful to have freedom, despite being unsure what to do with it. On the outside, Gemma seems to have an impenetrable shell but her softness is evident in her empathy towards others, particularly the victims of the crimes she investigates; she considers their families and imagines what their lives were like, seeing them as much more than dead bodies that need to be solved.

Sarah Bailey is a natural writer and storyteller, cleverly weaving together three murder mysteries, each with satisfying conclusions and with a suitably dramatic confrontation for the main murder of Sterling Wade. All of the possible suspects have traditional Christie-esque motives – amongst them a grieving fiancée, a secret boyfriend, a violent film director, a beautiful and tormented starlet, and a jealous brother. I always pride myself on being able to guess the killer and I did, but there were two other separate twists that surprised me.

The Dark Lake was one of my favourite novels of 2017 and it’s hard not to compare it with Into the Night, especially considering how much Gemma has grown as a character since the first book. It was a smart decision to put Gemma into an unfamiliar setting, forcing her out of her comfort zone to see if, and how, she rises to the challenges before her.

Sarah Bailey has a firm grasp of the crime fiction genre, and Into the Night is a strong police procedural that’s slick, solid and sophisticated; but the heart of the story is Gemma Woodstock, who proves to be an excellent detective as much as Bailey is an excellent author. With any luck, both are names we will continue to hear long into the future.

Into the Night by Sarah Bailey is published by Allen & Unwin.

Standout Simile

I smile back at him, pushing the ice in my glass with my finger so that it keeps bobbing back up. It’s like a tiny swimmer choking for air and I force it under again, holding it down for longer. 

 

 

 

 

What’s Blocking Your Writing Mojo?

Every writer inevitably finds themselves stuck in a writing rut. Sometimes the writing rut is particularly painful and prolonged and your journey to a finished work in progress resembles a family of raccoons excavating your backyard, digging their way to the inner core of the Earth.

What causes these ‘rutty’ moments? Here are a few examples that may sound familiar to you; those times when it all seems too hard and the lure of the couch and the latest Netflix fad seems much more appealing than replacing the thousands of usages of “was” in your manuscript, thinking of new ways to describe a beating heart, and re-re-reworking your chapter breakdown.

You Feel Like Crap

For more than the first three months of my pregnancy, I had no motivation or energy to do anything at all, whatsoever. Socialising? Forget it. Exercise? Don’t make me laugh. Working full time was a struggle. I was going to bed at 8.00pm every night, exhausted. My writing time normally starts at 8.00pm. But mentally, creatively and physically, I had nothing to give. Those three months were a write-off (not a write-on) where I achieved nothing. Thankfully, from Week 16 of my pregnancy I started to get some energy back.

Aside from the symptoms of pregnancy (which is a happy reason to feel sick and tired) writers (like anyone else) may be suffering from any number of conditions that cause them pain or to feel ill. From the common cold to much more serious illnesses such as chronic and/or mental illness, writers may struggle to function in their day-to-day lives let alone keep up a writing habit.

Health and wellbeing is important. We need to listen to our bodies. If our body is telling us to rest, we should listen and if necessary, seek professional medical assistance. Pushing yourself beyond what is reasonable will only result in further damage to your health and wellbeing. Sometimes, your writing does need to wait until you feel better.

You’re Too Busy

You work 40 hours a week, you have to take your daughter to taekwondo and pick up your son from a friend’s house, you promised to fix the broken tap at your grandfather’s house, you have to organise Bonnie’s baby shower, you have to go grocery shopping/vacuum/paint the skirting boards/walk the dog, you have to watch the Royal Wedding – whatever it may be – 24 hours a day just isn’t enough time to do everything you need to do. And by the time you have done everything you need to do, you’re too exhausted to consider doing anything for yourself. The plot hole that needs patching in Chapter 19 will have to wait another day.

But then you realise you’ve left it so long that you can’t remember the details of what happens in Chapters 1–18 so there’s no way you can devise any kind of solution to fix that plot hole, which has now become a plot sinkhole that threatens to devour your entire manuscript.

You’re busy. We get it. That’s why there is a lot of information available about time management and courses on making time to write, including this one from the Australian Writers’ Centre. It’s a lot to do with making sacrifices (usually other hobbies, socialising and your favourite TV shows), disconnecting the Internet, schedules, writing in short bursts (even 10 minutes) and asking someone to babysit for a few hours.

This is undoubtedly something I’m going to need to learn more about once the baby is born and my concept of “busy” takes on an entirely new meaning. See you in a few years, guys. (Kidding, hopefully).

You’re Full of Self-Doubt

I’ve entered several writing competitions with little to no success. The other day, I was wallowing in such a pit of self-doubt that I genuinely considered the possibility that my shortlisting for the Flash 500 Novel Opening & Synopsis Competition in 2016 was an admin error their part. After all, I haven’t had any success with my manuscript since. Perhaps there was another entry called The Princess Murders and they got them mixed up? They really meant to shortlist the other one?

“But what’s the point when everything I write is total crap?” I hear you moan. “Am I wasting hours, days, weeks, months, years, DECADES of my life on my writing pursuits? Will anyone ever care, other than me, whether or not my main character has a fulfilling character arc?”

It’s a self-indulgent whinge and we’re all entitled to a few of those every now and then. But then we need to snap out of it and get over it. You either want to be a writer or you don’t, yeah? Are you going to give up because your story wasn’t selected out of hundreds or thousands of other stories in some competition? No, you’re not. You’re going to keep going until you’ve made your story the best it can be. So get over yourself and go make that happen.

You know, once you’ve had a few Nurofen to manage that blistering back pain, caught up on Picnic at Hanging Rock and reorganised your underwear drawer. Then you’ll sort out Chapter 19 for good. Get to it!

What sucks your writing mojo? Let me know in the comments below.

Every writer inevitably finds themselves stuck in a writing rut. Sometimes the writing rut is particularly painful and prolonged and your journey to a finished work in progress resembles a family of raccoons excavating your backyard, digging their way to the inner core of the Earth.

What causes these ‘rutty’ moments? Here are a few examples that may sound familiar to you; those times when it all seems too hard and the lure of the couch and the latest Netflix fad seems much more appealing than replacing the thousands of usages of “was” in your manuscript, thinking of new ways to describe a beating heart, and re-re-reworking your chapter breakdown.

You Feel Like Crap

For more than the first three months of my pregnancy, I had no motivation or energy to do anything at all, whatsoever. Socialising? Forget it. Exercise? Don’t make me laugh. Working full time was a struggle. I was going to bed at 8.00pm every night, exhausted. My writing time normally starts at 8.00pm. But mentally, creatively and physically, I had nothing to give. Those three months were a write-off (not a write-on) where I achieved nothing. Thankfully, from Week 16 of my pregnancy I started to get some energy back.

Aside from the symptoms of pregnancy (which is a happy reason to feel sick and tired) writers (like anyone else) may be suffering from any number of conditions that cause them pain or to feel ill. From the common cold to much more serious illnesses such as chronic and/or mental illness, writers may struggle to function in their day-to-day lives let alone keep up a writing habit.

Health and wellbeing is important. We need to listen to our bodies. If our body is telling us to rest, we should listen and if necessary, seek professional medical assistance. Pushing yourself beyond what is reasonable will only result in further damage to your health and wellbeing. Sometimes, your writing does need to wait until you feel better.

You’re Too Busy

You work 40 hours a week, you have to take your daughter to taekwondo and pick up your son from a friend’s house, you promised to fix the broken tap at your grandfather’s house, Bonnie is relying on you to organise her baby shower, you have to go grocery shopping/vacuum/paint the skirting boards/walk the dog, the Royal Wedding is on – whatever it may be – 24 hours a day just isn’t enough time to do everything you need to do. And by the time you have done everything you need to do, you’re too exhausted to consider doing anything for yourself. The plot hole that needs patching in Chapter 19 will have to wait another day.

But then you realise you’ve left it so long that you can’t remember the details of what happens in Chapters 1–18 so there’s no way you can devise any kind of solution to fix that plot hole, which has now become a plot sinkhole that threatens to devour your entire manuscript.

You’re busy. We get it. That’s why there’s lots of information available about time management and courses on making time to write, including this one from the Australian Writers’ Centre. It’s a lot to do with making sacrifices (usually other hobbies, socialising and your favourite TV shows), disconnecting the Internet, scheduling, writing in short bursts (even 10 minutes) and asking someone to babysit for a few hours.

This is undoubtedly something I’m going to need to learn more about once the baby is born and my concept of “busy” takes on an entirely new meaning.

You’re Full of Self-Doubt

I’ve entered several writing competitions with little to no success. The other day, I was wallowing in such a pit of self-doubt that I genuinely considered the possibility that my shortlisting for the Flash 500 Novel Opening & Synopsis Competition in 2016 was an admin error on their part. After all, I haven’t had any success with my manuscript since. Perhaps there was another entry called The Princess Murders and they got them mixed up? They really meant to shortlist the other one?

“But what’s the point when everything I write is total crap?” I hear you moan. “Am I wasting hours, days, weeks, months, years, DECADES of my life on my writing pursuits? Will anyone ever care, other than me, whether or not my main character has a fulfilling character arc?”

It’s a self-indulgent whinge and we’re all entitled to a few of those every now and then. But then we need to snap out of it and get over it. You either want to be a writer or you don’t, yeah? Are you going to give up because your story wasn’t selected out of hundreds or thousands of other stories in some competition? No, you’re not. You’re going to keep going until you’ve made your story the best it can be. So get over yourself and go make that happen.

You know, once you’ve had a few Nurofen to manage that blistering back pain, caught up on Picnic at Hanging Rock and reorganised your underwear drawer. Then you’ll sort out Chapter 19 for good. Get to it!

What drains you of your motivation to write? Let me know in the comments below. 

Mystery of the Month – I, Witness

New fiction featuring a female private investigator? And the author’s surname is Mackay? What a fantastic surname for an author. I, Witness is the debut novel from English writer and journalist Niki Mackay, who skilfully weaves four point of view narratives into a compelling modern mystery of sordid family secrets and familial abuse.

Six years ago, beautiful and wealthy teenager Naomi Andrews was stabbed to death during a house party in Kingston-upon-Thames. Her best friend, Kate Reynolds was charged with voluntary manslaughter. At the time, Kate confessed. But upon her release from prison she visits Madison Attalee – the detective who was first on the scene the night of Naomi’s murder. Chain-smoking, recovering alcoholic Madison is no longer in the force; she’s now a private investigator. Kate, driven by a desire to truly be free, tells Madison she’s innocent and wants her to prove she didn’t kill Naomi.

The novel opens with a gruesome scene from the past – the apparent suicide of a woman, who tells us she is a terrible mother. We soon learn the woman is Ruth Reynolds, Kate’s mother. I, Witness is grounded in the exploration of the mother/daughter relationships of its four main characters; Madison’s alcoholic mother and her own daughter who she only gets to see for two hours each fortnight, Kate who wonders if her mother ever actually loved her, Claudia Reynolds, who would do anything to protect her 3-year old daughter, and Naomi’s mother, Anthea Andrews, who has been changed irrevocably, unable to cope with the loss of her beloved daughter.

The story alternates between these four women, told in first person point of view. At first I was concerned that with so many points of view, one or more of the characters would be less engaging that the main characters, Madison and Kate. Not the case. Niki Mackay has written all four women with distinct goals and meaningful story arcs, and as a reader, I was rooting for each of them. Claudia appears to be the perfect housewife, but is actually the victim of domestic violence. She develops a friendship with Kate which gives her the strength to do what she needs to. Anthea is furious that Kate has returned to town and is hell bent on getting revenge for Naomi’s death; stalking Kate and breaking into her house, and it’s this unpredictability that makes her very interesting.

Perhaps secondary to the stories of each of these women is the mystery of who really killed Naomi. There’s a good list of potential suspects – several of them members of the dysfunctional Reynolds family, none of whom ever visited Kate in prison. Her father, James, is suspiciously absent, and all of the children have been deeply affected by the loss of their mother – older brother Marcus is a violent and unfaithful husband, and sister, Martha has been confined by her family to a psychiatric ward dressed as a spa. Niki Mackay deftly crafts the story in a way that each and every character has a role to play in the events leading to Naomi’s murder and in the subsequent happenings resulting in Kate’s arrest and imprisonment. The confrontation scene where the identity of the murder is finally revealed is suitably disturbing and dramatic.

I, Witness is the first in a series of novels featuring protagonist Madison Attalee and I was pleased to see a few characters from this story will continue into the next instalment, including her reliable and trusty assistant, Emma and a surprise addition to the team.

I, Witness by Niki Mackay is published by Hachette in Australia.

Standout Simile

I feel a familiar stab, the pain that I can’t indulge or it takes over. I think of climbing my dad like a frame, of hugging him and thinking he must be a giant. I think of his face at the police station while they questioned me. How wretched he looked in court, pale and baffled. The last time I saw him.

What’s Your Point of View?

While I’ve been rewriting my novel, a mystery set in a rural Qld town, I’ve been pondering ways I can make the story better, and more interesting. Thoughts such as: “Wouldn’t it be cool if I changed the setting to the 80s?” and “Should someone get blown up?” have taken a back seat to a more pressing question – is my story written from the right point of view?

I recently read an article at the Professional Writing Academy, by Caroline Ambrose, the founder and organiser of The Bath Novel Award. One of her hot tips for getting your manuscript on the shortlist was using first person viewpoint. Apparently, twice as many first person as third person narratives have been shortlisted for the Award, suggesting that first person narratives have more success connecting the reader with the protagonist.

My novel, The Princess Murders, is currently written in third person narrative from the point of view of the main character, amateur private investigator Sylvie Gordon. Crap. Would it have been better if I’d written the story in first person narrative?

I thought about a few of my favourite novels I’ve read recently, and their choice of point of view narratives:

  • She Be Damned by M.J. Tjia – predominantly written in first person POV of the main character, Heloise Chancey, alternating with chapters written in first POV of Li Leen
  • The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey – predominantly written in first person POV of the main character, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock, alternating with third person POV chapters from minor characters
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – alternates between the first person narratives of Rachel, Megan and Anna
  • An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire – alternatives between the first person POV of the main character, barmaid Chris Rogers and the third person POV of a reporter, May Norman

From this sample, it appears that in my chosen genre of mystery/crime fiction, first person narrative is the preferred choice.

Last year, I accessed a mentorship through the Queensland Writers Centre and received feedback on my manuscript from writer Emily Maguire. At the time, I asked her the same question about point of view narratives. She said that changing the point of view from third person to first person would substantially change the voice of the book and require some deep thinking about Sylvie’s level of knowingness about herself, and about anything going on around her. Emily suggested I have a go changing the first scene into first person narrative to see how it feels. Here’s a sample of the first 200 words.

Third Person Narrative (current format)

Sylvie had seen the girl go into the house.

It was hours later and her eyes were still fixed on the weatherboard cottage. The sun glinted off the corrugated iron roof and a lazy breeze whispered through the long stems of wheat grass pervading the front yard. She dabbed at the sweat on her forehead with a napkin and discarded it amongst the empty plastic bottles and chip packets at her feet.

William Leeder emerged from the front door. The school teacher struggled with a large bundle wrapped in a garbage bag and his shirt was stained with something wet and dark. Sylvie’s shoulder blades prickled. Was it blood?

Leeder dropped the bundle off the raised veranda and jogged down the steps. He picked up one end of the bag and dragged it through the dirt towards the side of the house.

Feeling conspicuous in her bright red Hyundai, Sylvie wriggled down into the passenger seat. She’d parked haphazardly on the nature strip, far away enough to go unnoticed as long as she stayed in the cover of the Queensland blue gums guarding the front of the property. She fumbled for the zoom button on her outmoded camcorder, but Leeder disappeared behind a large shrub bearing clusters of bright yellow funnel-shaped flowers. She was too late.

First Person Narrative

I’d seen the girl go into the house.

It was hours later and I was still here, staring at the weatherboard cottage. The sun glinted off the corrugated iron roof and a lazy breeze whispered through the long stems of wheat grass pervading the front yard. I dabbed at the sweat on my forehead with a napkin and discarded it amongst the empty plastic bottles and chip packets at my feet.

William Leeder emerged from the front door. The school teacher struggled with a large bundle wrapped in a garbage bag and his shirt was stained with something wet and dark. My shoulder blades prickled. Was it blood?

Leeder dropped the bundle off the raised veranda and jogged down the steps. He picked up one end of the bag and dragged it through the dirt towards the side of the house.

I wriggled down into the passenger seat, feeling conspicuous in my bright red Hyundai. I’d parked haphazardly on the nature strip, far away enough to go unnoticed as long as I stayed in the cover of the Queensland blue gums guarding the front of the property. I fumbled for the zoom button on my camcorder, but Leeder disappeared behind a large shrub bearing clusters of bright yellow funnel-shaped flowers. Damn. I was too late.

Interestingly, rewriting the scene in first person narrative has highlighted some issues in the third person narrative I need to fix. Other than that, I’m still undecided about which point of view is best for the story. What do you think?

It will be a lot of work to edit my (currently) 100,000-word third person narrative into a first person narrative. I think that the benefits of rewriting the story as first person include the fact that the story is told entirely from Sylvie’s point of view anyway, so I won’t lose anything from the point of view of other characters. However, I’m worried her voice might not be interesting enough, or that being inside her head for a whole novel might make her annoying to readers. I also think that a first person narrative in the style I’m writing will appear more chick-lit/cosy mystery whereas a third person narrative is more classic cosy mystery.

Writer’s Digest has a list of questions to help determine which point of view is best for a short story (which can also be applied to longer stories), including first person, close third person and distant third person.

What do you think? First person narrative or third person narrative? What type of point of view narratives do you prefer to read, and what point of view is your story written? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – Bring Me Back

Layla is the love of Finn’s life. But on a trip to France, Layla vanishes at a truck stop and is never seen again. Twelve years later, Finn is engaged to Layla’s sister, Ellen. One day, Finn arrives home to find Ellen holding a painted Russian doll, which she says she found on the pavement outside their Simonsbridge home. Finn soon begins receiving more dolls – in the mail and sitting on the stone wall outside their house. The only people who could know the significance of these dolls are Finn and Ellen. It appears Layla is back. And she’s not happy about Finn and Ellen’s engagement.

Bring Me Back is the third page-turning thriller from author B.A. Paris, whose debut domestic malice novel Behind Closed Doors was met with rave reviews and has recently been commissioned for a film. Her second novel, The Breakdown (probably my favourite) was a murder mystery filled with mind games of a ‘gaslight’ variety.

This time, the narrator is investment banker Finn, who straight up tells the reader he hasn’t told the police the whole truth about Layla’s disappearance. He also has a tendency towards violent rages, but has so far managed to control himself. Or has he? Finn becomes concerned his ex-girlfriend Ruby, who works down the road at the local pub, is pretending to be Layla because she’s jealous of his engagement to Ellen. But that doesn’t explain why someone saw Layla at the cottage she shared with Finn in Devon or why Ellen is convinced she saw Layla in Cheltenham.

Part one is told solely from Finn’s point of view, alternating between the past, where he describes his relationship with Layla, and the present. But part two switches between Finn’s point of view and a new surprise point of view character – Layla. But is this really Layla? And if it is, why won’t she reveal herself to Finn and Ellen? And where has she been for the past twelve years? One thing is for sure, Layla, or whoever she is, is testing Finn.

I thought I had the solution by the midway point of the story but clever writing and a raft of twists and turns had me second and third guessing myself. In the end, it doesn’t matter if my theory was right or not, because it’s this ability to keep the reader guessing that’s the mark of a good suspense writer. The solution to the story is slowly revealed like one of Layla’s Russian dolls – each layer removed until the last doll shows us where she’s been hiding.

Some reviewers have suggested the final reveal is somewhat unbelievable but I tend to disagree. The world we live in can be a pretty crazy place, and bizarre things happen every day – so why can’t readers stretch their imaginations and enjoy the possibility of something crazy happening in an entertaining crime fiction story? The final pages where we find out what really happened to Layla are gripping and devastating with tragic consequences.

Anyone who picks up a B.A. Paris novel is guaranteed a good read and Bring Me Back is definitely one to file under “I have to know what happens!”

Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris is published in Australia by Harper Collins.

Standout Simile

Through the rain, my eyes pick out the inky waters of a loch to my left, black reeds jutting through its surface like a three-day growth and I reduce my speed, searching for a cattle grid. Seconds later, my wheels find it, jarring my concentration. I pull in on the other side of the grid. As I get out of the car, adrenalin courses through me.

When Your Subplot Takes Over

Steve Urkel has taken over my story.

Well, not actually. Allow me to explain.

Family Matters was a sitcom about the trials and tribulations of the Winslow family. One day, a supporting character in the form of nerdy neighbour Steve Urkel made his first appearance. He kept showing up. Then suddenly, he became the main character of the show. He wasn’t even a member of the Winslow family. But now he’s arguably the most memorable thing about Family Matters.

This is an example of a story where a supporting character outshone the main character (presumably family patriarch Carl Winslow), eventually taking over the story and becoming the star. The original premise of the TV show was no more; it was all about Urkel. And now I’m concerned that the supporting narrative, or subplot, or B story, in my work in progress, is at risk of being ‘Steve Urkeled’.

In my murder mystery, The Princess Murders, the main plotline follows the main character, Sylvie, a private investigator trying to solve the murder of her best friend, Bianca. Running parallel is a subplot involving Sylvie’s other investigation into the dodgy dealings of a local school teacher, Leeder. Although seemingly unrelated, these two plotlines come together at the climax to reveal they’ve been linked all along. The solution to the B story (Leeder) mystery is linked to the solution to the A story mystery (Bianca’s murder).

But as I wrote the first draft, quite freely and trying not to overthink things, Leeder kept showing up. Okay, I thought. He can stay there for now and I’ll just edit him out in my rewrites. But as I’m now working through, scene by scene, I don’t know what to cut. Is it because A and B are so intrinsically linked that I can’t separate them, or is it that Leeder is just like pesky Steve Urkel, and won’t leave the story alone?

The B story has to be apparent enough so the reader understand what’s going on, but it should be balanced throughout the story so that it adds to the A story without overwhelming it. Jordan McCollum has written a seven-part blog series on subplots that is well worth checking out.

Leeder is a sneaky character so it’s not surprising that he keeps trying to sneak into my story. But the main narrative is Sylvie trying to solve the murder of her best friend. Even though the B story is important to the A story, I know I’ve got to pare it back and focus on what The Princess Murders is really about. So, I’ve developed a checklist to help me determine which scenes need to be cut/edited/rewritten.

  • Does this scene involving the B story affect the main character? Could it be achieved another way?
  • Does this scene raise the stakes and increase tension and suspense? (Remembering this is a mystery novel, after all).
  • Do I need to include this much information or can I trust the reader to draw the right conclusions?
  • Will the main character go on to do things in the main plot without this B story scene?

The best advice comes from K.M. Weiland at Helping Writers Become Authors, who states:

“There are no subplots, just plots. As such, your goal is to integrate your subplot ideas into your main plot so seamlessly they’re inextricable. Although you will probably need to create certain scenes that revolve entirely around subplot ideas, it’s best if you can weave them into your main plotline’s concerns as much as possible.”

With enough thought, time and effort, I should be able to successfully de-Urkelise my story and re-focus on the main plotline (and definitely avoid any scenes where Leeder pops up and asks “Did I do that?”)

 

 

Mystery of the Month – The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

This is a whodunit like no other. It has all my most favourite things. Murder mystery? Check. Set in a dilapidated mansion? Check. Long list of suspects? Check. Twists and turns galore? Check. A sprinkle of sci-fi? Check.

Aiden Bishop is the main character, although you won’t find that out until later in the book. When we first meet him, he’s occupying the body of Sebastian Bell who is wandering through a forest, believing himself to have witnessed the murder of a woman named Anna. He can’t remember who he is, or where he is, but a mysterious voice whispers in his ear, hands him a compass and tells him to travel east. Bell finds a rundown old mansion – Blackheath – filled with people gathering for the birthday party of Evelyn Hardcastle. But tonight, Evelyn will be murdered.

Each day for eight days, Aiden awakens in the body of a different party guest. A man wearing a plague doctor costume explains Aiden must solve Evelyn’s murder in order to escape Blackheath forever, and he must do so before his rivals beat him to the solution, and before his hosts are picked off one by one by a creepy footman. It’s like a Cluedo version of Jumanji – Aidan has been sucked into a game where he doesn’t know the rules and with real life consequences. He’s trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle without having the picture on the front of the box, but he soon comes to the conclusion that whatever’s going on is linked to the death of Evelyn’s brother, Thomas Hardcastle, nineteen years earlier.

Stuart Turton is to be applauded for brilliantly pulling off such an intricate narrative, tying up all the loose ends and providing satisfying answers to all of the questions. The meticulous plotting and planning is truly admirable as Aiden switches back and forward between the hosts he inhabits each time one of them falls asleep (or is knocked out) and the story has more surprise reveals than any other book I can think of. But Seven Deaths is best read without too many spoilers so the reader can peel away the layers, page by page, without knowing what’s to come.

Seven Deaths is beautifully written, rich with vivid metaphors that bring the characters and the setting to life, including an early scene where a man verbally abuses a maid in a crowded drawing room and everyone is shocked into such silence that “even the piano bites its tongue”, but a “heroic clock” still “drums up its courage and ticks.” All of the hosts Aiden inhabits are distinct, well-rounded characters with specific strengths and weaknesses and even the more deplorable ones are given redeeming qualities. His relationship with “rival” Anna is the strongest of the story as it grows from uncertain beginnings into a solid bond of trust and kindness, and yet we still wonder whether she is his ally or his enemy.

I could wax lyrical about this book for hours, writing thousands of words about how much I enjoyed reading it. It’s spooky and sinister and it’ll give you a few chills, but it also reflects upon the futility of retribution, the notion of whether someone can transform themselves, and the importance of being kind and giving second chances, making for absorbing and spellbinding reading. It’s only March, but I think it will be difficult to find a book I love more than this for my ‘best of 2018’ list.

Stuart Turton is a travel journalist who spent three years writing The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, his debut novel. He also has one of the best author biographies. I’m very excited to read what he has in store next.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is published by Bloomsbury.

Standout Simile

He’s standing behind me, mostly obscured by trees and bushes. In the uncertain light of the brazier, the mask appears to float in the gloom like a soul trying to tug free of its body.